Édouard Glissant and the Archipelago of the World

Born in Sainte-Marie, Martinique on September 21, 1928, Édouard Glissant, was part of a pivotal generation in the development of French Caribbean thought in the XX century a generation that included Franz Fanon, that overlapped with that of Aimé César and that set the scene for the emergence of contemporary figures, such as Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant.


One of the most prominent exponents of a shared Caribbean specificity across the archipelago, Glissant’s postulates have played an important role in the formulation of a pan-Caribbean identity. His prolific output includes books of poetry and fiction, drama and, most significantly, non-fiction essays on subjects ranging from literary criticism to racial issues. His first collection of poems, Un Champ d’iles, was published in 1953, followed two years later by La Terre inquiete, (Galimard), which was accompanied by illustrations by the Cuban artist, Wilfredo Lam. Glissant’s first incursion in the world of narrative fiction came in 1958, with Le Lézard (The Ripening), an experimental novel set in Martinique towards the end of the war, in which the island, the atmosphere and the internal condition of the protagonists all play fundamental roles. Notoriously hard to penetrate, Le Lézarde constitutes an early attempt by Glissant to provide a sketch of the worldview that dictates the way in which people from Martinique experience life. Despite the challenges posed by a subjective style that shifts from character to character and that at times blends different time frames, Le Lézard earned Glissant (to some controversy) the prestigious Renaudot Prize in 1958.


Just like Césaire and Fanon, Glissant was a pupil at the Lycée Schoelcher, reputedly the best school in Martinique. Indeed, both Fanon and Glissant were in school when WWII broke out in Europe, bringing far more direct consequences to the French territories than to many of the other islands in the region 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: the Franco-German armistice stipulated full neutrality in the overseas territories, but increased pressure from both German and Anglo-American diplomats put the High Commissioner of the French Caribbean, Admiral Georges Robert, in a precarious position. Initially, accords were struck between Admiral Robert and the US envoy, Rear Admiral Greenslade, to liberate a portion of the funds arrived from France to purchase essentials for the island, in exchange for the right to station a naval observer in Martinique to patrol the area daily and vouchsafe for the island’s neutrality. 



Aircraft carrier Béarn in Martinique, 1941


Nevertheless, the fragile balance provided by the Robert-Greenslade accords was severely tested during most of 1942 and finally came to be disrupted in early 1943, when the island was blockaded. Additionally, vast numbers of dissidents had left the colony towards the British Caribbean or the United States, depleting the island’s population and, crucially, its workforce. Starved of provisions, unable to produce sugar to anything near the industry’s full potential and burdened with the presence of hundreds of soldiers stationed – stranded, rather – on the island with no particular purpose, Martinique was mired in a tense impasse that deeply influenced the thought of Césaire (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 are influenced by the notion of négritude, developed primarily by Césaire and the Sengalese poet, Leopold Senghor, which exalts the virtues and the primacy of African heritage in Afro-Caribbean societies above the colonialist traditions imported and adopted only by the ruling elite. Glissant’s fight, however, was not so much for the vindication of African heritage, as it was for the recognition of a defining ‘something’ among the peoples of the Caribbean. In this quest, Glissant formulated pretty much on his own the notion of antillanité, whereby he maintained 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 region to each other. In this sense, the narrative style of Le Lézard turns the island itself into the central character of the novel, highlighting the contrast between the city and the countryside and making special emphasis on the particular way in which time and reality are perceived by the various characters.


Thus, the often confusing dimension in which his Martinican characters live in Le Lézard constitutes a sample of the sort of unique traits Glissant attributed to Caribbean reality. A similar development can be found in his only piece for the theatre, the play Monsieur Toussaint, which portrays the Haitian war hero in prison in the Jura mountains, yet sheds light into the developments of the War of Independence through constant episodes of interaction with ‘the dead’. Read in a Western context, Toussaint L’Ouverture in Monsieur Toussaint would have to be considered a delirious, schizophrenic and/or paranoid character; nevertheless, read in the specific Caribbean context in which Glissant unmistakably immersed the play, Toussaint’s interaction with major Voodoo deities, with ‘his’ dead and with heroic characters in Haiti’s history simply puts in evidence the different dimensions in which reality is and can be lived in Caribbean societies.


In the 1970s Glissant took his theory one step further and, using the postulates put forward by Felix Guattari and Giles Deleuze in their theory of ‘rhizomes’, he devised a system of non-hierarchical relations 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. In many ways, Édouard Glissant made the same point as Kamau Brathwaite and, indeed, the Martinican often borrowed a famous image from the Bajan poet, alluding to an underground connection or affinity linking the entire Caribbean basin. As a matter of fact, Glissant used a liberal interpretation of the word ‘Caribbean’ and included in the region everything from the northern coast of Brazil through to Central America, the southern coast of the United States (especially Louisiana) and, of course, the atoll. Despite this tremendous extension, Glissant says, Caribbean people make a distinction from country to country, from island to island, from rock to rock. There is no generalisation in the Caribbean, no simplistic way of looking at it. Therefore, he claims, traditional ways of analysis will not suffice to comprehend the region: something else is needed – something along the lines of intuition.


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. 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. Not that Glissant would likely have had any trouble with this, because in the end, through his concept of the ‘total-world’ (tout-monde) Glissant seemed to think that in the future relations would be maintained by a large number of specific (and therefore differentiated) small entities all interconnected with each other in a horizontal frame. 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 to nurture the full diversity of mankind. 




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