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  • Édouard Glissant: Creolization and the Event
  • Lincoln Z. Shlensky (bio)

L’être est repos, une violence qui s’arrête, dans un procès dont l’étant est le seul événement.

Édouard Glissant

Introduction: Creolization and the Event

The writings of the Martiniquan novelist, theorist, poet, and playwright Édouard Glissant (1928–2011) frequently privilege place and landscape as central to a concept of Caribbean poetics, and recently critics have tended to place greater emphasis on his use of geographical tropes.1 Glissant’s earliest published collection of essays, Soleil de la conscience (1956), gives some indication of the importance he thereafter was to place on the imagery of land (and, almost equally, of sea). In a memorable passage in that book, for instance, he remarks on the sense of displacement that the European terrain, newly encountered first-hand as he begins his university studies, inspires in him: “Mon paysage est encore emportement; la symmétrie du planté me gêne. Mon temps n’est pas une succession d’espérances saisonnières, il est encore de jaillissements et de trouées d’arbres” ‘My countryside is still an enthusiasm; the symmetry of planted fields disturbs me. My time is not a succession of seasonal hopes, there are upsurgings and breaks in the trees’ (25). Glissant’s first novels, La Lézarde (1958) and Le quatrième siècle (1964), actively assert a homology between the Martinican landscape and a sense of collective destiny. Marronnage, the historical phenomenon of maroon slaves transformed by him into a geo-social principle of resistance and reclamation of the island hinterlands, would continue to fascinate Glissant throughout his career. Soleil de la conscience also introduces the phrase lieux communs (“common places”) in a reversal of the typically negative valence of the term “commonplace,” a topological pun which functions equally well in English and French. Much later, in his novel Tout-monde (1993), Glissant would construct a narrative that corresponds to the geographically “chaotic” dimensions of the Deleuzian concept of the rhizome. Glissant at the time was becoming interested in ecological activism as a means of creating a conceptual bridge between his poetics and his politics. His idiosyncratic elaboration of concepts indicative of transit, such as errance, or errantry, also demonstrates the prominence of spatial metaphors in his later thinking, even when (and, often, especially when) such terms convey a deterritorializing tendency.2 Glissant’s exploration of the fiction of William Faulkner, the only anglophone author who attracted his sustained attention and the only writer to whom he devoted an entire monograph, likewise announces its critical cartographical approach in the title of his book, Faulkner, Mississippi (1999). The centrality [End Page 353] of such place-based analysis in Glissant’s oeuvre reaches a conceptual apotheosis, it now appears, with the introduction of the term la pensée archipélique (“archipelagic thinking”) as a prominent theoretical direction in his writings in the new millenium (Glissant, La cohée du Lamentin 231; Traité du tout-monde 31).3

A critical focus on Glissant’s approach to landscape, despite its manifest significance to his writing, nevertheless threatens to obscure our understanding of a different aspect of his analysis of Caribbean culture: his complex and relatively little studied stance toward historical chronology and, in particular, toward the phenomenology of historical events. While it is true that, as Mary Gallagher points out, “a more balanced, less schismatic approach to the relation between space and time” (Soundings 5) must inform any perceptive critical discourse on Caribbean identity, such balance will remain elusive in discussions of Glissant’s contribution, I maintain, until there is a great deal more attention paid to his conception of history, historical narratives, and historical events. In what follows, I aim to unpack Glissant’s understanding of historical events as an element of his larger analysis of history because I believe that the cautious, indeed ambivalent, attitudes he expresses towards events, especially in his earlier writings, reveal much about the difficulty he perceives in integrating traumatic and often unwritten narratives of history into any ethical representation of Caribbean identity. Glissant is obviously aware of the ways in which those with little political power typically lack access to communications...