In an Island there Is the World: RIP É. Glissant

Édouard Glissant, one of the most prominent and prolific exponents of a shared Caribbean specificity across the archipelago, passed away on Thursday, February 3, 2011 in Paris, at the age of 82. His literary production spanned over 45 years and included close to thirty titles of poetry, fiction and essays, among which stand out his first novel The Ripening, which earned him the prestigious Renaudot Prize in 1958 and the collection of essays The Caribbean Discourse (1981, trans. 1989), where he formulates in full flesh the complexities of his concept of antillanité.

Born in Sainte-Marie, Martinique on September 21, 1928, Glissant attended the best school on the island, Lycée Schoelcher, where fellow countryman Aimé Cesaire had previously studied and would later teach, and where Glissant’s contemporary, Frantz Fanon, would also be educated. The break of WWII affected Martinique far more directly than many of the other islands, because of the German invasion of France. By 1940, Martinique was part of the collaborationist Vichy regime and it became a hotbed of intrigues between the Governments of the US, Germany and France, which repeatedly led to the island being starved of provisions through naval blockades. This situation, added to the less-than amicable relations between the locals and the French soldiers stranded on the island, provoked an uneasy tension that deeply influenced the thought of Cesaire (back in Martinique since 1939), of Fanon (who escaped to join the Free French Forces résistance in 1943) and of the earliest Glissant, who only in 1946 left for Paris, where he studied History and Philosophy at the Sorbonne University. 

Glissant’s earliest works partake of Cesaire’s and Fanon’s reactionary attitude in the formulation of the concept of négritude, a notion that sought to vindicate the African ancestry and ultimately the utter “blackness” of Afro-Caribbean societies. The Ripening recreates the violent atmosphere that reigned in Martinique through WWII and the period immediately after it, where revolutionary thoughts prevailed and traitors had to be executed. While his second novel, The Fourth Century (1964, trans. 2001), could be considered a sequel to The Ripening, Glissant’s thought had matured by then to transcend the extremist conclusions of Cesaire’s négritude, proposing, instead, a more self-aware doctrine which came to be known as antillanité. 

Much like Kamau Brathwaite in the English-speaking Caribbean, Glissant maintained through his antillanité that the characteristics that shape Caribbean societies are very much specific to the region – that they pertain to this location in particular, consequently differentiating the Caribbean from any other region and linking each of the elements within the Caribbean to each other. And these, in Glissant’s view, are many, because he includes, as well as the atoll, everything from the northern coast of Brazil, through the Guayanas, Venezuela and Colombia, to the southern coast of the United States (most notably Louisiana) and, of course, all of the Central American coast, in the Caribbean.

Through the 1970s Glissant’s thought was again influenced, this time by the singular philosophical duet of Felix Guattari and Giles Deleuze, whose often cryptic enunciations finally led to the popular notion of rhizome connections. Plainly speaking, the rhizome theory allows for relations that work on a “horizontal” level (rather than “vertical”), which are then devoid of hierarchies (none is “higher” that the other, as it were), are not static and present infinite possibilities of relation. Glissant found this to suit the multiplicity of Caribbean heritage perfectly, helping him to put forward a notion that would consider all of the elements present in the development of a regional identity (indigenous, African, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, Irish influences, and so on), without giving primacy to any of them. 

Glissant’s “rhizomatic” notion of antillanité goes a long way to create a palpable image of what it is that people from the Caribbean have in common (think about it – there’s obviously a je ne se quoi shared by people from Curacao and Cumaná (Venezuela), from Martinique and Montserrat, but what is it? If you can pin point it, email me!). Nevertheless, at the same time it leaves itself open to the opposite extreme, whereby that which Caribbean people have in common is not only common to them, but to everyone else, too. In this sense, one could say that people from Martinique and Montserrat share one human nature.

As a matter of fact, Glissant might have been quite comfortable with this notion, which roughly illustrates his final philosophical conclusion, that relations in the world would lead to a “total-world” (tout-monde in French) where the order of things would follow a large number of specific (and therefore differentiated) small entities all interconnected with each other in horizontal relations. In other words, Édouard Glissant, the ultimate islander, saw a future world where continents, nations, states might break up into small “islands” that would depend on each other to exist: one enveloping, universal archipelago.

A perennial candidate to the Nobel Prize in Literature, Glissant stood at the heart of the rich literary tradition of Martinique, acting as the bridge, both generational and intellectual, that would link the reactionary postulations of the older Aimé Cesaire and the violent activism of Frantz Fanon (his contemporary), with the more conciliatory views of modern giants, such as Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant. Édouard Glissant was fundamental in the development of French Creole theories and he will remain instrumental in the furthering of a pan-Caribbean project that might in the future identify and exploit the ties that evidently exist in the region, without jeopardizing the autonomy and the individuality of any of its elements. And that is worth more than any prize any Academy could ever give.




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