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Glissant’s Contact Vernacular

by Rose Rejouis, Literary Studies, Eugene Lang College/The New School

My response is shaped by the fact that the session began with Agnès B.’s documentary about Edouard Glissant , Utopia Station (2003), and was followed by J. Michael Dash’s remarks on the arc of Glissant’s work.

First of all, let me say that, in respectively interpreting the work of Edouard Glissant and of Patrick Chamoiseau, Michael Dash and I are both readers of contemporary writers.  In “The Translator’s Task,”[1923] Walter Benjamin cautions against such readings when he writes that “the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin.”  What Benjamin means is that readers of contemporary works do not have the benefit of a work’s literary history.  It is to the literary history of Glissant’s Poétique de la Relation [Poetics of Relation] I wish to turn here.  I wish to examine whether the passing of time, 20 years, has allowed for a kind of historicization of Glissant’s work, not present in the first reading.

Glissant’s Poétique de La Relation was published in 1990 and translated by Betsy Wing in 1997.  Michael Dash’s monograph on Glissant, Edouard Glissant, appeared in 1995, two years before the translation.  In this first book in English devoted to Glissant, Dash argues the following:  “most importantly, the thrust of [Glissant’s] ideas is the conceptualizing of a Caribbean identity within the Americas.” (3)  At first glance, this statement does not seem controversial.  Afterall, Glissant put the idea of a regional cultural identity for the Caribbean on the map with his 1981 signature work, Le Discours Antillais [Caribbean Discourse].  And yet, in his book, Absolutely Postcolonial [2001], Peter Hallward argues that there is not one, but two Glissants, an early one and a later one.  Hallward explains: “In short, if Glissant’s early texts narrate the constitution of the nation, the later texts generally revel in its dissolution […] and a newly global post-national reconciliation.”(119)  This is a compelling reading because it describes Glissant’s crisp theorization of creolization as a process, not a content – and as such, as a departure from the project of an inventory of Caribbean-ness.   Most recently, attempting to synthesize an early and a later Glissant, Chris Bongie declares, in Friends and Enemies [2008], that Glissant returns to the nation when he imagines Martinique reinventing itself as a green, “organic island” that would attract eco-tourism.  The virtue of Hallward’s and Bongie’s readings is that they make us see variations in Glissant’s work.

Their readings are a reminder that we have yet to answer the following question:  Under what pressures does the New World intellectual labor?  David Scott puts this concern about diaspora thought in a different way.  In the first issue of Small Axe, Scott describes the black diaspora as “virtually obliged to provide the counter evidence, the historical and ethnography evidence, to demonstrate that as a people your cultural sources were not (or not only) European ones” (24).  How does the pressure of recovering non-European cultural sources limit Glissant’s ability to move from narrating the nation to narrating a global reconciliation?

As time goes by, it is not easy to return to key texts, to do one’s own reading, after so many  scholarly readings.  Turning to Poetics of Relation, I found that the text itself was written by a poet able to draw on lyricism, interdisciplinary thinking, and parables.  I was struck, for example, by Glissant’s image of a “black beach,” in Martinique.  Speaking before I did, Michael Dash remarked that “the black beach is in all of [Glissant’s] books,” adding that for Glissant, the “black beach” was a model that emerged from the Caribbean.  The, “black beach,” an icon in Glissant’s work, makes me think about the black sand in New Zealand, from which I have just returned.  In New Zealand, however, the black sand is sifted for iron, not for metaphor.  This, of course, made me think of another source of pressure for Glissant, Martinique’s economic dependence.  Fanon had always pressured himself to find a viable economic model for Martinique and one finds that the poetic and the practical compete in Glissant’s image of Martinique as an “organic island.”

In closing, I would like to say a few words about how Glissant reads his own work.  Utopia Station, Agnès B’s documentary about Glissant, gives us a hint.  In it, Glissant describes his thought as “la pensée du tremblement,” a term I had never heard him use before.  He explained that this trembling is not happening because of fear or indecision.  In typical poetic fashion, he does not finish this thought, but I think the “tremblement” is happening because he is a poet.  Glissant’s writing ultimately embodies the process of creolization he painstakingly attempted to describe; and this project, relating something that was supposed to be constantly changing, was itself a poetic one.  His “pensée du tremblement” is, as the documentary shows so well, a kind of “contact vernacular” – a language (re)invented on the occasion of a literary production and, of course, (re)invented by the literary occasion.

Works Cited

Agnès B, Utopia Station , 2003.

Bongie, Chris.  Friends and Enemies:  The Scribal Politics of Post/Colonial Literature. Liverpool:  Liverpool University Press.  2008.

Dash, J. Michael.  Edouard Glissant. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1995

Hallward, Peter.  Absolutely Postcolonial. Manchester:  University of Manchester Press, 2001.

Glissant, Edouard.  Trans. Betsy Wing.  Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor:  U of Michigan Press, 1997.

Scott, David. “Introducing Small Axe.”  Small Axe 1 (1997): 1-3.