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  • Toward a Creole Myth of Origin:Narrative, Foundations and Eschatology in Patrick Chamoiseau's L'esclave Vieil Homme et le Molosse
  • Doris L. Garraway (bio)

To speak of Patrick Chamoiseau's novel L'esclave vieil homme et le molosse as a "Creole myth of origin" may at first appear to be a contradiction in terms. According to Mircea Eliade, a myth is a sacred story that tells how, "grâce aux exploits des Êtres surnaturels, une réalité est venue à l'existence, que ce soit la réalité totale, le Cosmos, ou seulement un fragment: une île, une espèce végétale, une institution" (16–17). The value of the myth of origin lies in its power to justify the presence of a people in its natural environment, and to ground its sense of collective identity. For colonial societies marked by a history of forced deterritorialization, slavery, symbolic loss and cultural heterogeneity, however, the conditions of possibility for an origin myth would appear to be entirely absent. As Jack Corzani has argued, "Creole oral literature lost all its sacred dimension, and . . . the important mythic stories, legends, and epic stories disappeared completely with deportation, with the dissolving of continuity which it created, removing from the individuals their sense of the past, of lineage, and of History, as well as the mythic and legendary origins of their people or their race" (132).1 For Édouard Glissant, this irreparable loss has contributed to the condition that he calls "nonhistory," meaning the sense of cultural discontinuity and dislocation in both time and space brought on by slavery and its erasure of collective memory. Because of their origins in colonial displacement and prolonged captivity, Glissant argues, Caribbean people have not been able to situate themselves through a "mythical chronology" of their land, and have been instead forced to interpret their past through the imposed chronology of French colonial history (Caribbean Discourse 62–63).Whereas one might have expected to find in the rich tradition of Creole folktales an imaginary reconstruction of historical experience or a mythical claim to the land, Glissant maintains that even these stories fail to reinscribe the people in time and space: "The Caribbean tale outlines a landscape that is not possessed: it is anti-History" (85).2

If the idea of a myth of origin seems, then, antithetical to the very history, social reality and oral traditions of Creole cultures, its applicability to Chamoiseau's novel in question is further problematized by Chamoiseau's own critical assessment of origin myths in so far as they serve to establish a people's claim to belonging in a given "territory." Such claims, he argues, perpetuate an ethos of "unicity" and negate the diversity that is the true origin of human communities. Against the concept of territory, Chamoiseau posits the "problematic of place," of which the Antilles constitutes [End Page 151] a prime exemplar: "Lorsqu'on voit la constitution des Antilles, on s'aperçoit qu'il n'y a pas de genèse, puisque tout le monde est arrivé avec sa genèse; il n'y a pas de mythe fondateur, puisque tout le monde est arrivé avec ses mythes fondateurs" (McCusker 725).3 While Chamoiseau's assessment of the potential of cultural myths to survive the process of migration contrasts sharply with that of other critics mentioned here, his critique of territorialist foundation myths strongly echoes Glissant's theory of creolization as the repudiation of claims to unique origins (what Glissant calls "reversion"4 ), as well as of the racialist, genealogical thinking that myths of genesis encourage. "Composite peoples," Glissant writes, "that is, those who could not deny or mask their hybrid composition, nor sublimate it in the notion of a mythical pedigree, do not 'need' the idea of Genesis, because they do not need the myth of pure lineage" (141). In so forcefully rejecting the kinds of foundationalist, essentialist logics that have historically undergirded colonial hierarchies and repressive racial ideologies, Glissant, Chamoiseau and other theorists of Caribbean creolization rejoin the postcolonial and poststructuralist mantra against the Enlightenment search for origins or the modernist nostalgia for lost origins, both of which are seen to instantiate a desire to legitimate ethnocentric, culturally...


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