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Gender, Genre and Geography in Aime Cesaire's Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal
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Gender, Genre and Geography in Aime Cesaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal

Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal is one of the acknowledged masterpieces of francophone Caribbean literature. A great work seems to require a great man, a hero who can act and speak for an entire people, and indeed the period Cahier inhabits in Caribbean literary history has been referred to as an era of “Heroic Negritude” (Arnold 133–68). There is scarcely any scholarship on the long poem which does not refer to it as “epic” and “heroic.” What I would like to argue, however, is that these terms are inappropriate, for two reasons. 1 First, they function to smooth out the disruptive quality of the poem by couching it in comfortably traditional categories of genre. And second, since the epic hero is always male and the trajectory of his journey has traditionally been gendered as masculine 2 these generic labels also serve to thwart discussion of the poem’s figuration of gender by suppressing the role the feminine plays and reading the poem’s figuration of masculinity as “natural.” This ends up lending false coherence to the lyrical subject, suggesting an easily identifiable, active narrator moving through time and space, a notion Cahier d’un retour defies.

When one examines the way that the poem’s complex imagery is gendered, one arrives at a point of reversal of terms, where what was once masculine (the sun) becomes feminine (the moon) and vice versa. This reversal is eventually overturned, yet a fundamental ambiguity remains and is never fully resolved. The poem’s ending is both an attempt to rewrite the binary oppositions of masculine and feminine, vertical and horizontal, sun and moon, and a call to transcend a debilitating collective history. By unsettling this symbolic structure—what amounts to a “colonial Imaginary,” in Althusserian terms—the poem unsettles the ideology which strove to justify the wrenching history of the African diaspora.

Once the poem undermines its own binary imagery and starts to sketch in a third term, one can see that what has been viewed as a sort of phallic negritude, where “negritude as phallus . . . revalorizes the black man” (Scharfman 61), is nothing of the sort. The imposition of such Lacanian terms on the text leads to a reading of colonization and decolonization where the former is figured as emasculating and the latter as “rephallicizing.” What I would like to do is to provide a reading which both illuminates the construction of gender in the poem, and shows how attempts to fit the poem into traditional generic concepts (hero and epic) and Lacanian structures (by way of Althusser and Fanon) unintentionally serve to preclude any possibility for female decolonization and to oversimplify the poem’s obscurities. By drawing out the [End Page 492] ambiguities of the poem’s conclusion I hope to show just how ambitious the poem’s decolonizing impulse is, and how difficult its project.

1. Heroic Negritude

A. James Arnold has called Aimé Césaire’s Cahier “the epic of negritude,” referring to Ezra Pound’s definition of an epic as “a long poem with history in it” (Arnold 168). This definition is indeed a terse one, as Arnold writes, yet no matter how minimalist Pound’s definition may be, it cannot denude the epic of its heroic proportions. This view is certainly not Arnold’s alone. Aliko Songolo (in Aimé Césaire: Une Poétique de la Découverte) also calls the speaker of the poem “le poète-héros,” not only upholding the notion of heroism but also eliding the distinction between the poet and the speaker of the poem. Indeed, this is one of the temptations Cahier poses. Césaire himself is such an extraordinary figure that his biography occasionally casts a shadow over interpretations of the poem. Yet this urge to read a hero into the work, in light of the textual evidence, is difficult to accept, particularly when one considers Ronnie Scharfman’s convincing point that Césaire’s poetry “is permeated not only with a sense of the arbitrariness of language but also with doubts as to...