By Ardain Isma
Poetry can shake souls, and turning timid souls into revolutionary fighting machines was precisely what a group of revolutionary charged young intellectuals intended to do in Haiti in the fall of 1945 when they spearheaded René Depestre, then 19, to lead the charge against the dictatorship of Elie Lescot. Holding the bar, they did. And using poetry as their double-edged weapon, they successfully lead the push that ultimately brought to bear the end of the Lescot regime. Young and fearless, Depestre quickly captured the hearts and minds of many around the world for his gut wrenching ways of saying-it-all, especially when it came to leading the fight for social justice. Although he was one of the most flamboyant figures of the Cinq Glorieuse, as the came to call their 1946 movement, Depestre was not alone. Indeed, he was buffered by people who later became some of the best and brightest in the Negritude movement—the Jacques Roumain version—and, by extension, the revolutionary movement in Haiti during the 1960s.
However, fame alone can be a dangerous precedent for those who live in the shadow of a revolution. It can also usher a dangerous twist if the materialist dialectic—the driving force behind all revolutionary conviction—is misunderstood. In third world countries like Haiti where the disparity between rich and poor is forever widened—the petite bourgeoisie usually constitutes the core vanguard of all movements for change, for it always has the opportunity to master the intellectual might as well as the political savvy to lead. Leading revolutionary movements to successful conclusions, many of them did, and they did it against insurmountable odds. But those who lead through the prism of revolutionary dogmatism crafted by an utter of discipline that only a genuine organizational structure can provide are habitually those who have already given up their petit bourgeois aspirations with all the consequences it might imply. To put it bluntly, as Lenin said, “They must cease to be petit-bourgeois to become revolutionaries.”
René Depestre, whose literary fame has transcended immense barriers, never had a successful career as a politician let alone as a revolutionary in action. But his brilliance has helped camouflage his revolutionary deficiency. For over two decades, Depestre stole the hearts of scores of Haitian intellectuals who longed for an ideal socialism in their motherland, and despite his reported practical tension with Jacques Stephen Alexis and a quasi inexistence or absence during the most brutal period of the Papa Doc regime, Depestre commanded unfettered prestige. But his vulgar egocentrism nestled beneath an outright Manichaeism led Depestre to a devastating grinding revolutionary halt. An ideologue who never seriously considered ideology as the cornerstone of his actions, Depestre wanted to walk the thin blue line between literary success and commercial success—a success that he could not have conceived through his long “traversé de son désert communiste,”as he himself admitted in his essay “Bonjour et adieu à la négritude” published in 1978 as an act of contrition necessary—so he believed—to secure his spectacular reentry dans son occident chrétien.
His Marxist “barren landscape” sandwiched between greed, vulgar opportunism and an elusive financial success he desperately sought had to be scolded, despised and ultimately spun off, for it could not offer our once-upon-a-time poet-in-rage the financial security he so desired for a sustainable petit bourgeois life style, which he finally secured at his post at the UNESCO. Enigmatic in his glory, Depestre is the quintessential opportunist bent on creating any scenario, including changing his revolutionary color like a chameleon—a true conformist—to gain personal fame. However, his desert communist that he shamelessly recounted in his essay did not look so desert after all. It included prestigious position at the Cultural Ministry in Cuba, Ministry for Foreign Relations, National Publishing, National Council of Culture, Radio Havana-Cuba, Las Casas de las Américas, The Committee for the Preparation of the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1967. Let’s not forget his collaboration with Pablo Neruda and Jorge Amado in the Continental Congress of Culture project in Chile. Depestre took part in many official activities in the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam to name a few. Depestre was present in the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers in 1969, where he met the Congolese writer Henri Lopes, with whom he would work later, at UNESCO.
A clumsy reconciliation
Depestre also took part in the first Pan-African congress organized by Présence Africaine in September of 1956 in Paris. He himself published several articles in Présence Africaine and befriended its founder, Senegalese Alioune Diop. It is hard to believe that René Depestre—now estranged revolutionary—could have mastered such prestige if it were not for what he represented: an authentic revolutionary using his intellectual existentialism to fight for social justice. Of course, no one holds the key to the revolution, and beyond his own inner self, nadie can claim to be the master of others’ destiny. As revolutionaries, the job is to accompany the masses in their final journey to freedom, not to use them as stepped stones to fulfill petit bourgeois aspirations. This logic, although well understood in the corridors of all revolutionary compounds, an exception was made for Depestre precisely for what he represented and for what he has become over the years: a favorite son gone astray. His chocking volte face and his later vexing contrition continue to hunt the Haitian left to these days. Of course, revolutionaries are also cocoonish, and it is not a crime if La gauche haitienne never recovered from the loss of Depestre (his humiliating remarks) and many other tragic losses within the Haitian revolutionary movement. Even as Depestre is now plunged into the irrelevance, his early works cannot be ignored. He knows it. And as an opportunist bon teint whose revolutionary conviction was only skin-deep, he tried clumsily to reconcile his revolutionary romanticism and his reactionary opportunism. Revolution and reaction are diametrically at odds with each other. No one can have both without being self-destructed.
However, in 2006 during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Pan-African congress, Rene Depestre seized the spotlight, appearing on France 2, France national T.V. to claim his right as the sole paternal heir to the Pan African congress. “It was the first gathering of its kind in the French-speaking world. Présence Africaine, the journal and the publishing house founded in Paris by Diop, Senghor, Césaire, were the pioneers that swept my generation into the movement. …At the same time it showed the world a black intelligentsia existed. Beyond that the Congress produced a creative effervescence that found expression in historiography, anthropology, literature and poetry,” he declared on French T.V. flanked by distinguished Martinique writer Edouard Glissant.
But as a note of reassurance to la droite française to which he owes a great deal of his newfound fame, he quickly seized on the issue of decolonization to attack the disenfranchised black youths around the Parisian suburbs. “Yet there is a more subtle colonization that we should have achieved: it is the decolonization of semantics, at the level of words, starting with “black”, “white”, “yellow”. This means that 50 years after the Congress, young people, particularly in the suburbs, hang on to myths supposedly related to identity, based on skin color. They form “black” associations. This phenomenon is a regression in relation to the progress made by the generation of Senghor and Césaire, mine and the one that followed,” he told journalist Jasmina Sopova.
This assault on black youths totally marginalized, who are forever condemned by the French society to live in the fringe, was one of the clearest expression of intellectual capitulation from a man who in 1946 swore to denounce injustices wherever it may be and who in 1967 was declared persona non grata for his positions against French colonies in Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. But unless the Haitian left finally find the way forward, the way to move beyond its historical weakness, the scars left by Depestre and others will be impossible to heal.