restricted access Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939)
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 3 NOTEBOOK OF A RETURN TO THE NATIVE LAND1 In August 1939, Paris readers of the avant-garde literary magazine Volontés opened issue 20 to find a long poem by a student who had just left the École Normale Supérieure to return to Martinique. Aimé Césaire’s “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” (“Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”) was laid out in 109 stanzas in four sequences of mixed prose and verse. The rhythms of the stanzas recalled the long lines Paul Claudel had pioneered in his Cinq grandes odes (Five Great Odes) at the beginning of the last century. Claudel had laid claim to a physiological grounding of his rhythms in the diastolic/systolic rhythm of the human heart. The linking devices between the stanzas suggest Charles Péguy’s insistent use of repetition, anaphora, and paratactic construction in poems much longer than Césaire’s that were highly praised between the two world wars. Passages in the later sequences of the 1939 “Notebook” indicate that Césaire had taken to heart Rimbaud’s goal of visionary poetry. In denouncing the effects of colonialism on his Caribbean island home, Césaire demonstrated that he had also understood the corrosive poetics of Lautréamont. Césaire postponed identifying his speaker in order to foreground the collective suffering of colonial society. The first twenty-four stanzas are a panoramic presentation of the island—poor, diseased, lacking a real identity—in which personification allows the hills (mornes), the shacks, and the unsanitary conditions of the little towns that grew up around the sugar plantations to express the physical degradation and the moral ugliness resulting from three centuries of colonial neglect. The population is present in the aggregate, an undifferentiated “one” or “you” that is then disarticulated into body parts—mouths, hands, feet, buttocks, genitals—in the Christmas festivity 1  An ampersand in the text of the Notebook. . . refers the reader to the Notes document rather than the Glossary. 4  Notebook of a return to the native land section. Punctuation is typical of parataxis: commas, semicolons, colons, which serve to pile up effects until they overwhelm the reader’s senses. The “I” emerges only in stanza 20, where Césaire focuses on a foul-smelling shack as a synecdoche of colonial society. Introduction of the speaker’s family at this point stresses the mother’s sacrifice for her children and the father’s moods alternating between “melancholy tenderness” and “towering flames of anger.” The transition from the first to the second sequence involves a shift of focus away from the sickness of colonial society to the speaker’s own delusions. He alludes in stanza 29 to “betrayed trusts” and “uncertain evasive duty.” He imagines his own heroic return to the island: “I would arrive sleek and young in this land of mine and I would say to this land. . . .” In the course of the second sequence, the speaker comes very gradually to a realization of his own alienation as a consequence of colonial education. Moral prostration and a diminished sense of self are related directly to the colonial process and its cultural institutions. The same stanza includes the long narrative segment devoted to the old black man on the streetcar. Césaire multiplies signifiers of blackness that clearly denote both his physical and moral self. Centuries of dehumanization have produced a “masterpiece of caricature.” The third sequence introduces a series of interrogations about the meaning of blackness or negritude in the context of the speaker’s alienation from those values he will posit as African. From this point on, the speaker adopts a prayerful attitude that is signalled formally by ritual language. Stanzas 64 through 67 afford a positive response to the negative characteristics of colonized peoples expressed in stanza 61. In this new sequence, Césaire evokes the “Ethiopian” peoples of Africa, whose fundamental difference from Hamitic peoples he learned from Leo Frobenius’s book on African civilization. Suzanne Césaire described these traits in Tropiques: “Ethiopian civilization is tied to the plant, to the vegetative cycle. // It is dreamlike, mystical and turned inward. The Ethiopian does not seek to understand phenomena, to seize and dominate exterior reality. It gives itself over to living a life identical to that of the plant, confident in life’s continuity: germinate, grow, flower, fruit, and the cycle begins again” (GCD).1 The third sequence sets up a contrapuntal structure in which the Ethiopian characteristics of sub-Saharan Africans...


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