By Ardain Isma
Language, one of the most powerful emblems of social behavior, has always been the best instrument to demonstrate cognitive strength. In this era of global economy, information technology, and the tough competition facing those who are struggling to succeed in the job market, being bilingual or multilingual may very well give someone an edge, as the more languages a person can master, the better his chances at succeeding in an ever increasing diverse world. In the field of Sociolinguistics, experts agree that very often people are judged by the kind of language they speak and how they speak it. It is not surprising, even astonishing, to find out that someone’s “background, character, and intentions are based simply upon the person’s language, dialect, or, in some instances, even the choice of a single word.” (Linguistic Society of America)
“The relationship between language and society affects a wide range of encounters,” explains Walt Wolfram, distinguished professor of North Carolina State University. To him, these encounters can be defined within the framework of a tacit understanding of “broadly based international relations,” and even “narrowly defined interpersonal relationships.” If we agree that language holds the key to social, academic and financial success of an individual, we must also admit that developed languages in advanced societies certainly hold the key to that success—not the “indigenous or native” vernaculars, struggling to take their seats amongst what many sociolinguists call, “the most important language groups.” (Slavic, Germanic, and Latin)
In the literary world, the struggle is more obvious; and being Creole while trying to expose to the world the aesthetic that lies beneath the surface of this awesome language can be a daunting task. For years, the issue has been the subject of heated debates among the most brilliant thinkers in the Caribbean Creolophone. But from Haiti to French Guiana, it is easy to pinpoint limited success in this struggle. Félix Morisseau Leroy and Frank Etienne are some of the few who had the courage and the talent to succeed at achieving great successes by publishing in Creole. But the vast majority of Creole thinkers never really contributed to the advancement of their mother tongue. Jacques Roumain and Jacques Stephen Alexis, the best of the best, had left no important manuscripts that we know of in Creole. Gouverneur De La Rosée (The Master of the Dew) and Compère Général Soleil (General Sun, My Brother), the two most famous published novels by Haitians writers, Roumain and Alexis respectively, were never translated in Creole, despite their great successes in many academic venues of the world.
Thus comes the case of Edouard Glissant. In his literary movement called “Creolization,” Edouard Glissant, a native of Martinique, has written extensively about the Creole dilemma. Glissant, playwright, essayist, novelist and poet attempts to provide a solution that he believes would bring comfort to his Creole colleagues, successful as himself, but always carry a feeling of great discomfort or a feeling of guilt each time the Creole issue is raised. In his theory of “Creolization,” Glissant departs from a very different angle as opposed to the etymological understanding of the word, far from its variances of African cultures and languages.
Glissant, surprisingly, adopts the old concept of colonial interpretation of “Creolization,” meaning everything that was born in the French Caribbean colonies. “When I speak of “Creolization,” explains Glissant, “it is by no means in the reference of the Creole language. It is rather in reference to events that have [helped] structure the different variances of the Creole language.” Glissant goes on to clarify. “The world is in itself being creolized, which means that many cultures of the world have been put in contact, whether from terrifying manners or from peaceful and acceptable ones, are today being changed, exchanged and blended to create not only irreparable harm, war without mercy, but also to bring advances of conscience and hope.”
Further in his theory, Glissant defines his own language in this term. “My language,” he continues, “I move it and mix it, not in syntheses, but in linguistic overtures that allow me to conceive relationships [and nuances] that exist amongst languages of the world today—relations of domination, absorption, erosion, oppression etc…”Global dominance, resulting from “linguistic overtures” that Glissant extensively writes about, underscores a bitter symbiosis: colonization and its impact on colonized societies. Glissant, in this regard, puts Identity-Relation at the height of his theory and, “even dreams of wonderful meta-cultural ideas, with the ambition of changing cultural alienation created by the colonial reality.” (Tanbou 2202) But Edouard Glissant, “magician of poetical metaphors” fails, whether purposely or unknowingly, (it is hard to imagine that Glissant could overlook such obvious fact of great significance.) to include all the composing factors that constitute the “true genesis” of the peoples of the Caribbean.
Narrowing the scope of his “Creolazition,” Glissant presents two aspects that, according to him, constitute the true genesis of the Caribbean societies: the horrible plight of captured Africans sold to the new world on the one hand, and their dehumanizing conditions in the plantations on the other. While such facts are quintessential to understanding the shape-up of the peoples of the Caribbean, their history and their dilemmas, one cannot ignore the extirpation of the entire indigenous population of the region—their subjugation, their alienation and ultimately the genocide perpetuated against them as a result of colonial conquests. In 1492, the Indian population of Hispaniola was estimated at one million. In 1625, the number was substantially dwindled to a little more than one hundred thousand. (Madiou in History of Haiti, Volume I)
From Outright Manicheanism to a Subdued Pragmatism
Edouard Glissant is, without a doubt, one of the most brilliant thinkers of our time, though not well known in the Anglophone world. His theory of Creolization is warmly embraced by younger generations of Caribbean writers. The main essence presented in Eloge De La Créolité, (High Praise for the Creolization) by Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Constant was drawn from Glissant’s thoughts. In one of his latest works, Writing as Mangrove, Glissant admits that by choosing this theme, he was attempting to tie all literary genres (poetry, novels, essays, plays) into an imaginary mangrove, the tropical plant well-known in Martinique as well as here in Florida for its die-hard resistance against all forms of natural disasters.
The plant that throws “its shoots offshore, into the shallows, with an illusory fragility and precariousness” will soon multiply to morph into an island, an archipelago where “only the surface of the sea under the crushing tropical humidity existed.” This metaphorical symbiosis, created by Glissant, is, to him, the perfect fictional example of his theme of Creolization. In her book, Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory, sociolinguist Celia Britton, professor of French literature at Carnegie University of Scotland, centers on language and subjectivity to vacillate between Glissant theoretical work and extensive readings and analyses of his novels to bring to light a volume of pertinent and related issues—the re-appropriation of history, mainstream languages and dialects, the problem of identity, and the colonial shape-up of what Glissant calls, “the Other,” meaning the African slaves without names.
However, if Glissant is so acclaimed for his polished pragmatism and his ability to mix myth and reality, the imaginary and the real, his refusal to go beyond his logic (Europe-Africa) hinders his ability to break new frontiers. But Glissant wasn’t always that pragmatic. A review of his earlier works reveals that he was no different than his other Caribbean counterparts (Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Jacques Stephen Alexis, René Depestre, etc…) who wrote with a fury of sentimentalism and revolutionary romanticism, and who saw the world with all of its nightmarish elements through the prism of devastating effects created by colonialism and neocolonialism.In, Le Discours Antillais, (Speeches of the Antilles) published in 1981, speaking of the Euro-centric model imposed on the Caribbean peoples by the colonial regime, Glissant was adamant in his criticisms of what he calls “the campaign of mystification, cultural reorientation” through the monopoly of technology, the monopoly of production and most importantly through the campaign to marginalize his beloved mother tongue that he speaks at home. “The mother tongue is indispensable in all forms of progress of a community: psychological and intellectual balance of its members. If we continue to force the child, Martiniquais, to subject to a lifestyle in French at school and a Creole one at home, we will reinforce the process of collective irresponsibility plaguing the Martinique community,” Glissant says. A bit further, he goes on to say, “a people who is reduced to practice his language only at home is condemned to face the death of his culture, of which this will only be the mirror reflection of an otherwise real agony.”
Well aware of the danger, the great dilemma facing his Creole language, Glissant launches an appeal to resist. He attacks Aimé Césaire for his admission to an altruism about the Creole dilemma. “At home, all conversations are done through deep reflections. It is a conceptual oeuvre, so it must be done in French. You see, Creole is the language of the instinct, a folkloric language, the language of feelings and of intensity,” admitted Césaire. This sounds gross, but Césaire, at least, has the courage to reveal something that had been for years nothing but an unspoken consensus among the Creole intelligentsia: Creole is not the language of the intellect. “A language in which its people cannot produce is an agonizing language,” points Glissant as he rebukes Césaire’s assertion, and reaffirms, once again, his profound and uncompromising commitment to working tirelessly until his mother tongue ceases to be a “bastard” language.But Glissant, like most thinkers of his generation, never reaches the final frontier of his revolutionary ideas. His “Manichean” ideas fade as he ages and matures.
This fact is confirmed in the, Introduction A Une Poétique Du Divers (Introduction To A Poetical Pluralism), published 14 years later in 1995. Glissant seems to be taking a more “circumscribed” view, far different from his earlier position, far from his “otherwise real agony” to tell us that “the French domination over the Creole language is a domination to the second, even to the third degree in the world tragedy of languages.”Thus comes his new concept of multilingualism while blaming audiovisual technology, young researchers, authors and the “literary establishment, plunging in comfortable indifference of institutional elitism.” Glissant has come around, back on earth, like the rest of his colleagues, well aware that French domination is here to stay. Henceforth, accommodation or pragmatic conformism must take place to give birth to his literary pluralism that he reveals in, Writing as Mangrove. This is a reborn Glissant, far different from the 1947 revolutionary, who contributed greatly to the shape-up of, Présence Africaince, who, along with Paul Niger in the early1950s, founded Front Antillo Guyanais, fighting for the decolonization of all French overseas departments. The group itself was dissolved by Charles De Gaulle in 1961; Glissant himself was kept under virtual house arrest and forbidden to return to Martinique until 1965.
Having said that, Glissant, without a doubt, remains one of the most influential philosophers of postcolonial era whose name is frequently mentioned for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now, at his zenith of his intellectual achievements, Glissant, in a sense, has spoken for the Other, those slaves without names that he and his colleagues embody to multiply in abundance, to create a “luxuriant, virtuoso canopy of foliage.” Those names clearly existed, “not swollen in the memory of these hundred and fifty years fallen into the chasm, but, as if engendered by the slope, or perhaps secreted in the hole of the world’s silent eye, or springing from the bottomless well where cannonballs turned into pearls in the entrails of the drowned.”Like his former mentor, Frantz Fanon, Glissant believes he is no prisoner of history, and “I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny. I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introduction invention into existence.” (Fanon in Black Skin, White Mask) Perhaps, this might best explain Glissant’s ever-shifting pattern, in search of his true self, like Alejo Carpentier in his marvelous realism. One can only hope this is the case.
The Nonchalance of René Depestre
In all intellectual probity, no one should criticize a writer for the choice of language he uses to present his works. In literature, in all literary work, regardless of its genre and its means of communication, language cannot be used as the basis to judge the work of an artist. If this was the case, more than two-third of all work of art would have been disqualified and, by extension, their authors, myself included. In my critique on the role the contemporary novel, I blissfully described the emblem, the aesthetic and the authenticity that embody great works by writers from the developing world who, by pure necessity, are forced to produce in the language of their former oppressors.
Authors from newly liberated countries or from oppressed societies not only suffer from political, cultural, and literature influences of their former colonial masters, but also feel, most of the time, compelled to produce anything they deem worthy and acceptable to the “mainstream world” in a language that may not be that of their native vernacular. In that regard, one can hold nothing against Glissant or Depestre.If we hold the logic that writing in “mainstream languages” shrinks the authenticity or legitimacy of a work of art, we must also admit that just writing in a native tongue is by no means the holy criterion to accept, ratify, and glorify a piece of work—its originality, its creativity and, perhaps, its revolutionary authenticity. Let’s be reminded that most of our Caribbean best never produced in Creole. Great novelistic prose or flawless and immortal theoretical works by Roumain, Alexis, Césaire, Glissant, Jean Brierre etc… are enshrined in our minds and preserved in the deepest fiber of our souls.
Yet, these dazzling masterpieces are all in French. Their works, which go beyond the boundaries of the Caribbean and which transcend culture, race and ethnicity, will forever remain part of the global literature—a cultural patrimony for all those who believe in social justice. By contrast, in Haiti, Duvalirierism used “noirism” (a kind of racism, vulgar antiracism) and Creole as its main pillars to camouflage its true diabolical face, its fascism and its “inversed gobinism” as Depestre himself calls it. (Gobinism is from ultra-racist Athur de Gobineau who wrote in 1853 The Inequality of Human Races to justify White supremacy over all non-Whites) Further back into the Haitian history, French commissioner, Sontonax, during the revolutionary war, used Creole as one of his main tools to seduce revolted slaves back into France’s fold. In that particular sense, nothing should be held against Depestre. But in the rightful debate over our Creole dilemma, the quintessential factor, here, is not to condemn those who are not writing in Creole, but rather to question, demystify, and expose how they attempt to justify their choice of writing in languages other than Creole.
In Glissant and others, one senses a kind of uneasiness that often catapults into self-contrition whenever they are confronted to face this uncomfortable reality. In Depestre, however, no such uneasiness could be found. His arrogance and his nonchalance in expressing his thought and feeling over the Creole issue leave no doubt that he carries no dubious positions. “For every French word I use, Creole plays the role of an intimate support,” he declared during a televised interview in 1997 with Ghila Sroka. “Between my original Senegalese roots and the words of Marianne, there is a kind of secret relationship which creates a fecund modus vivendi between the words [used] at home (Creole) and the ones [used] outside of home (French),” he continued.
René Depestre, a brilliant intellectual with an acute way of expressing his thoughts, was forced to resort to folklore to explain his true feeling over the Creole dilemma. Like Glissant, master of poetical metaphor, Depestre, in a blur or an acrobatic detour, seemed to take his interviewer into a dazzling journey over the Indian Ocean, landing on the islands of Mauritius and Reunion, to explore the existential abnormality of an exotic tree named Banian, which conceives, besides its main subterranean roots, aerial roots that will later fall onto the ground to create other trees. To him, the Banian symbolizes not only the sentimental bond “between heaven and hearth,” but also his real identity—a Banian identity. That was a shrewd and evasive move to deviate the direct question being posed to him.
To make sure the Creole question was put on the back burner during the interview, he went on to solidify his folkloric expression. “Through [my] many experiences [in life], I have instilled in myself diverse cultures, without losing my Haitian roots. My roots are very diverse. [Many] people believe they can reveal the identity of a person through only one of its roots. It is a lure. More and more, the identity of the whole humanity is becoming very diverse.”Depestre moved to lecture his interviewer, who did not seem to want to fall into that metaphorical logic, and remained aloof and serene. There was an altruism that our poet and estranged revolutionary, purposely, one must say, avoided in his lecture: both Mauritius and Reunion are Creole islands, speaking the same Creole that we speak in Haiti, with their own flavor. And further away, in the same neighborhood, the Seychelles had already made Creole an official language, long before Haiti.“So living in exile is no misfortune, is it?” Ghila then asked. Depestre’s answer was blunt. “No. My country lives in me. I never lost sight of the reality. To the contrary, living in exile has empowered me [with knowledge], has also healed my narrow nationalism, clotted in a unique direction of life.” It is nice to embrace diversity or multiculturalism, for it is the main tool in the fight to bridge barriers between cultures. But using this fact to justify his moving away from Creole, and to call all patriotic or nationalistic feeling “narrow,” is not only gross, but also trivial.
In Métier a Metisser (Weaving Loom to Crossbreed), published in 1998, the author could not be clearer in his quest to recluse himself from any responsibility over the Creole dilemma. Here, he explains: “My task as a poet is to give witness to, and to propagate the spirit of, cultural crossbreeding.” In other words, Métier a Metisser is nothing more than a framework for crossbreeding, using self-descriptive passages like “Tzhec in Prague, Italian in Milan, Brazilian in Sao Paolo, Cuban in Havana” to pullulate significantly in what Miller calls “this hotchpotch of a volume.” It is perfectly normal that crossbreeding, mixed, interracial, or even interethnic relationships are valued and promoted; but it should not be, in anyway shape or form, a substitute to nationalism or synonym to internationalism. Nor should it be used as an “intellectual” excuse to justify one’s betrayal or his turning-back on his nationalist/revolutionary responsibilities.
Journalist Lucienne Serrano questioned the poet in that regard. “Why are you writing in French?” she asked. Depestre delivered a more direct response. “I don’t know. Here, I have to face my Haitian reality. We do not have a national audience, knowing the fact that 85% of the population is analphabet. [So] I write in French, and even if I were writing in Creole, I would not have touched a Haitian audience.”And that is why he had to get off his horse, “wipe out his sweat” after a long galloping “for nothing in the Haitian desert.” To him, Haiti has failed politically as a state, and for that he grows every day pessimistically optimistic that a turnaround could be found any time soon.
Depestre, however, admits that he still hopes for a “miracle”; but he also concedes that his pessimism on the issue grows stronger as his optimism fades. Quoting Gramsci to clarify what he possesses, and that he has to defeat in his daily existential debate is “the pessimism of reason” in order to strengthen his “optimism of desire.” This token concession is far from being a self-contrition. With “Haiti in all [his] dreams,” his native land has been reduced to little more than a sleeping beauty, snoring like La belle au bras dormant within himself. He no longer needs the physical state of Haiti, for Depestre seems to have found paradise in his new adapted country, displaying an awesome pride to be the French man, born in Haiti “with Belgian forebears.” His new polished accent used to express himself in French, to show his gratitude to his new country, could not be “more seductive and moving.” His profound expression of “love for an insignificant French country town” is the direct “proof of his intellectual freedom.” Tanbou (2003) A resident of Lezignan-Corbières, France, since 1986, where he was finally able to unbox his 7,000-book library, Depestre became a French citizen in 1991, the same country in 1950 that declared him persona non grata for his anti-colonization activities, and ordered him to vacate Paris in 24 hours. Most of the same countries are still being colonized under the code name of French Overseas Departments.
It is all right for an artist to choose whatever means that he or she deems necessary to publish his works, as I indicated earlier. However, trying to use clumsy formulas to explain one’s choice of language is demeaning for an author as prestigious as Depestre. Here, I must say, I find, just like Tanbou (2003) his “off-handedness intolerable and his baseness” quite humiliating expedient, if not revolutionary repugnant.
From Revolutionary Romanticism to Reactionary Vulgarism
Since his spectacular entry to the Haitian political stage in 1946, along with legendary revolutionaries like Alexis and Bloncourt, Depestre held the revolutionary bar head-on until his shocking volte-face in 1971. Born in Jacmel in 1926, Depestre was only 19 when he gained fame for his contribution in forcing the dictatorship of Elie Lescot from power in 1946. Then he vanished from the scene to reappear a few years later in the streets of Paris where he was later expelled for his revolutionary activities. Depestre never practiced a proactive militancy in Haiti since 1946; but as a world acclaimed author and poet “in rage,” Haiti was never far from his heart, describing it and all that exist dans l’imaginaire haitien in almost all of his works. His literary life could be summarized in two folds, not counting his current state of being.
First, there is the synthesis between the negritude (Jacques Roumain’s version) and Marxism. Second, there is the profound affiliation with Marvelous Realism of Alejo Carpentier. Flamboyant leader of the Five Glorious, as they called the “revolution” of 1946, Depestre explained to Frantz Leconte the it was he and Theodore Baker who took the initiative to create the newspaper La Ruche (The Hive), implicitly recognizing that it was neither Alexis nor Bloncourt. But in Le Regard Engagé (The Profound Gaze), Bloncourt’s autobiography published last year, a different account of the historical movement was given. According to Bloncourt, it was he and Alexis who decided to meet Depestre after the release of his first publication in 1945 Etincelles (Spikes) with “its violent revolutionary accent, electrified the [entire] young generation of students.” Bloncourt continues, “The same night, I recruited him. Then, he was part of a small group of classmates—Theodore Baker, Kesler Clermont, Marcel Boni, Gerard Chenet, Georges Beaufils, René Lafontant—who called themselves ‘La Clique,’ gathering daily in the proximity of the Champs De Mars,” not far from the presidential palace. Long before he met Depestre, he had already befriended Alexis. It was under the advice of Alexis that Bloncourt went on to recruit Depestre. “After several meets…, I judged that the time was right to present him to Jacques [Alexis],” Bloncourt continues. “At first, he refused to meet the son of Stephen Alexis whom he called a bourgeois politician. I made him understand that neither Marx nor Lenin nor Jacques Roumain was a proletarian. [To these words], he finally agreed to meet him. The meeting took place the next day at the residence of Edris Saint-Amand in the presence of Roger Mercier, Max Menard, the cousin Edouard and myself.”
The idea of La Ruche came out of a need to create a newspaper that Alexis wanted to be “the vanguard and the main propaganda machine for their cause.” Because the repression was unbearable and the secret police were everywhere, they wanted to do something that would be above all suspicions. They chose Depestre to be the Director, since he was already a well-known figure, for Etincelles was published in the government press. As expected, Depestre declined. He judged the post of chief editor would suit him best, for he had already earned respect in the eyes of the intelligentsia. And when he was offered the latter post, he accepted, with glee, in a heartbeat, according to Bloncourt. Today, if he finds it flattering to praise Baker for their “initiative” to create La ruche is because he has ideologically reconciled with him—a man he called “traitor” for abandoning his comrades in the middle of a struggle shortly after Lescot left the country.
Years later, in the early seventies, came his turn to say goodbye to all of these. A direct attack against Cuba marked the beginning of his newfound “freedom” after a “long crossing du désert communiste.” Desert? It is hard to imagine that Depestre’s life “in the other side” could be described as “desert.”A crossing that started with a humble meet with Roumain in 1944 while hitchhiking in northern Port-au-Prince where Roumain picked him up, took him to his home and gleefully gave him access to his lavish library from the then wealthy suburb of Bois Verna. Something that could only bring awe to his heart, telling his awesome story to Frantz Leconte in October of 1995 in New York, at the same time admitting his meeting with Ho Chi Minh, his heated debate with Alione Diop in Présence Africaine, his collaboration with Pablo Neruda, his meetings with Che Guevara, and his diplomatic missions on behalf of the Cuban Revolution. This does not sound like an empty life; but rather one that is full of actions and accomplishments.
Depestre, today, remains a sad figure in the long and difficult march toward Haitian socialism; and his failure to move away from his petit-bourgeois aspirations, like many of his colleagues, remains the fundamental root cause for the historical weakness of the Haitian left. Since his direct hit against Cuba, however, the poet seems to have plunged into the insignificance. No one can be the hero of two diametrically opposed camps. Comandante Zero, who gained fame for his daring attacks against the Somoza regime during the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, turned against the same revolution shortly after the grand victory in 1979 to become the leader of the counterrevolution. This has led him to dive from Hero to Zero. Joaquin Villalobos of El Salvador, the flamboyant Salvadoran guerilla leader with a boyish face, who swore to eradicate fascism from his homeland, could not resist when he was guaranteed parliamentary immunity for trading his green-olive uniform for lavish blue suits from Bloomindales.
These are prime examples of what could happen to petit-bourgeois, who refuse to reject their social aspirations. “Political treachery has never been the effective domain of the protagonists of the reaction. No one holds the monopoly of the revolution, no matter what he or she has already contributed to the cause,” said J.L. James in The Black Jacobins. But Depestre has already chosen his new camp and appeared to be very excited about it, wishing good luck to Haiti and hoping that the “Americans will help constitute a true State” in Haiti.
So his choice to write in French with a “Creole flavor” seems to be all that the poet can offer as his contribution to this pertinent debate over the Creole dilemma. His daily struggle with his own inner self and his existential itinerary leave him no room to move beyond the step of Creolization, an anti-Creole formula, an antithesis that is nothing but an implicit rejection to the struggle to restore the mother tongue.
Glissant, however, remains an important figure in this current debate; but an offer of “accommodation to the cultural order,” artificially imposed by colonial dictates, is clearly unacceptable, for the end-result will be the creation of a “bastard writing falsely qualified as Creolization.” Depestre joins Glissant in this journey because it bears him no effort, no sacrifice, for he already embodies the crossbreeding that Creolazition represents. Finally, it leaves me no other choice, but to accuse Depestre as a traitor, to “condemn him for high treason, and for abandonment of endangered people.” I believe that the dream of a vibrant and healthy Creole can only be realized through the genuine praxis of all educated children of the Caribbean Creolophone. Writers, educators, intellectuals, scientists, respectable political militants, and others must play a proactive role through their works, in Creole, in order to bring the mother tongue to the same elevation as other “mainstreamed” languages. “La belle amour humaine would not come to cultures that lie on the roast,” acknowledged, once upon a time, Depestre.
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