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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 38-50

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Sine and Seine:
The Quest for Synthesis in Senghor's Life and Poetry

Mildred Mortimer

As a member of the group of American students, scholars, and teachers discovering Senegal during the 1970s, the first decade following independence, I came to know a country led by a poet-president Léopold Sédar Senghor. In 1969, the year I arrived, President Senghor was elected to the French Academy of Moral Sciences, filling a chair vacated by the late Konrad Adenauer. In addition, the World Festival of Negro Arts, a highly successful conference that had brought thousands of visitors and hundreds of performing artists and writers to the Senegalese capital three years before had become a treasured memory. Highly esteemed abroad, Senghor was nevertheless facing increased criticism at home as economic problems grew more acute. With public dissatisfaction mounting, it is not surprising that university students took to the streets in 1972 and 1973. They were demanding better scholarships and an end to corruption and neocolonialism, i.e., Senegal's strong dependence upon France in the economic and political sectors. In this vein, Interior Minister Jean Collin, a French national who had taken Senegalese citizenship—and married into the Senghor family—was resented by many Senegalese. With increasing pressure to introduce reforms, the president reinstated the post of Prime Minister, naming Abdou Diouf, Senegal's subsequent president, to the position.

Looking back on that era, I remember a public meeting in the streets of Dakar with President Senghor arriving to address the crowd. I have forgotten the substance of his speech, but recall being surprised that the man who mastered the French language far better than most native French, spoke it with a distinctly African accent. Despite years spent in Paris, he did not sound like a Parisian. Why should he? Senghor was a francophone African, not a Frenchman. He was, as many critics have noted, representative of synthesis. Symbolically, he combined Sine with Seine, the rivers of Africa and Europe, knowledge of the culture and traditions of his native Senegal with that of his adopted French heritage.

Two of Senghor's biographers, Jacques Louis Hymans and Janet G. Vaillant, chart the poet-president's quest for synthesis. Hymans, in 1971, begins his text by stating:

Among African leaders today, Léopold Sédar Senghor stands unique. He is the living symbol of the possible synthesis of what appears irreconcilable: he is as African as he is European, as much a poet as a politician, as influenced by rationalism as by irrationalism, as much a revolutionary as a traditionalist. (xi)

Writing two decades later, Vaillant concludes her text upon the same note:

Just as he refused to choose between his talents as poet and politician, sensing that each added depth to the other, so too, he [End Page 38] refused to choose between his two homelands, France and Africa. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, their darkness and their light, and he loved them both. (344)

It is the quest for synthesis and its subsequent realization that is a remarkable factor in Senghor's life. Unlike Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Samba Diallo, the protagonist of Ambiguous Adventure, Senghor found his way through the quagmire of cultural conflict to a harmonious balance of African and Western values. One may argue that Senghor, a Catholic Serer who could worship in Europe's churches and cathedrals upon his arrival in Paris in 1928, faced less cultural conflict than Kane's tragic hero, Samba Diallo, a devout Muslim. Indeed, African Muslims were rare in the capital at that time. Christianity was an important cultural bridge into French culture for Senghor as well as a crucial spiritual support (Vaillant 261-62). Yet it is clear from his writings, beginning with "In Memoriam," the opening poem of Chants d'ombre [Shadow Songs], Senghor's earliest collection of poems, that he felt the weight of exile as an African in France.

How then was Senghor able to achieve the synthesis that Hymans terms irreconcilable...


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