- In Memory of Edouard Glissant
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September 21, 1928—February 3, 2011 [End Page 667]
With the death of Edouard Glissant in February of this year, the Caribbean has lost one of its greatest writers and one of its most significant thinkers. He has left us a monumental corpus of writing, the importance of which extends far beyond the Caribbean to the world as a whole. From Un Champ d’îles (A Field of Islands) in 1953 to Philosophie de la Relation (Philosophy of Relation) in 2009, Glissant published nine collections of poetry, eight novels, a play, and fifteen volumes of essays. Many of these were translated—into English, Spanish, Italian, Creole, German, Japanese, even Bulgarian and Vietnamese—and in the course of his life he was awarded literary prizes and honorary doctorates from France (four), the United States, Canada, Italy, and Trinidad; he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.
Glissant was initially best known for his novels, and when these started coming out he was soon categorized as a “difficult” writer. He was not displeased with this label. Indeed, when I once complained that Une nouvelle région du monde [A New Region of the World] was extremely complicated, he merely raised his eyebrows quizzically and said, “Have you ever known me to write an easy book?” The originality and the density of his writing certainly demands the reader’s full commitment. But none of his texts, including the essays, are purely intellectual constructions; they are all charged with profound emotions, ranging from anger at the oppression and alienation of the Martinican people, to the grief of slavery and its aftermath, to an almost reverential celebration of the landscape, and the affectionate humor in the depiction of everyday Caribbean life. He creates memorable characters, drawn with subtlety and poignancy, many of whom evolve from novel to novel. They always retain an element of opacity: they are never completely explained. What gives the novels their extraordinary depth and complexity is Glissant’s refusal of what he termed “realism”—in the rather reductive sense of a superficial naturalism based on “the logical and rational attitude toward the visible world” (“The Novel of the Americas”)—as being in principle inadequate to express a cultural reality whose historical roots lie in the darkness of transportation and slavery. There is therefore, he claims, a common “language” used by writers from all societies based on plantation slavery—whether they are writing in English, Creole, French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Dutch—a language influenced by the old folktales of the plantations and marked by opacity, ruse, detour, indirect expression, images rather than concepts, repetition with slight but significant variation rather than linear progression. Thus he links his own writing less with other French authors than with the works of the Columbian Marquez, the St. Lucian Walcott, the Cuban Carpentier, the Haitian Frankétienne, and Americans Toni Morrison and—controversially—Faulkner. This idea that the Caribbean shares a common history and culture with the United States South, Central America, Columbia, Venezuela, and northern Brazil becomes increasingly [End Page 668] important to Glissant, as does our recognition of these relations; in Mémoires des esclavages [Memories of slavery] he argues that the slaves’ descendants can overcome the trauma of their collective repressed memory of slavery only by discovering the “transversal histories” that connect them across the barriers of nation states and languages.
From the French Caribbean island of Martinique, Glissant went to study philosophy and ethnography in Paris, became involved in anticolonial movements and as a result was banned by De Gaulle from returning to the Caribbean until 1965, when, back in Martinique, he founded and taught at the Institut Martiniquais d’Etudes (designed to counteract the official French education system in force on the island), but then returned to Paris to work as editor of UNESCO’s multilingual magazine, Le Courrier de l’UNESCO, from 1980 to 1989. He then taught at the University of Baton Rouge for six years, and from 1995 was Distinguished Professor of French at the City University of New York, while also creating, in 2007...