- IntroductionAimé Césaire and World Literature
Comparative Literature Studies is pleased to mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Martinican writer and political leader Aimé Césaire with the three articles on Aimé Césaire in this issue, which were commissioned and edited by associate editor Thomas Hale. Born on June 26, 1913, Césaire died in 2008 after an extraordinary life in literature and politics. His path from a small Caribbean island to the global stage was traced in a variety of genres—poems, plays, essays, prefaces, speeches, interviews, declarations, manifestoes, letters, telegrams, translations, a film review, and a historical study.
One theme appears throughout his oeuvre: the liberation of peoples from all forms of exploitation. Images of exploitation and liberation permeate his long poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land), which appeared in 1939. They also figure prominently in his plays: Et les chiens se taisaient (1946) (And the Dogs were Silent), La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963) (The Tragedy of King Christophe), Une saison au Congo (1966) (A Season in the Congo), and Une tempête (1969), an anticolonial interpretation of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. His passion for freedom erupts most violently in his polemic Discours sur le colonialisme (1948, 1950, 1955) (Discourse on Colonialism). The definition he coined in this powerful essay is now included in French dictionaries: “colonialisme=chosification” (“colonialism=reification”). His remarkable speeches in the French Parliament, where he served as a representative of Martinique from 1945 to 1993, convey the same messages that one finds in his other writings.
His contributions to world literature take many forms. For example, his works have been translated into many languages, a number of which appear in the voluminous anthologies prepared for students in university courses. He introduced to the language of liberation the word “negritude,” which conveys the awareness of one’s own roots in Africa and of the need [End Page 413] to spread this awareness to other peoples in the African diaspora. Negritude served as a banner for those African and Caribbean writers in the 1930s who rejected French cultural assimilation and who wanted to focus instead on their own heritage. The term entered French dictionaries in 1948 after the publication of Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie africaine et malgache de langue française, edited by the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor and prefaced by Jean-Paul Sartre with “Orphée noir.” The French philosopher placed great emphasis on negritude as a literary movement, devoting particular attention to the poetry of Césaire.
When Césaire died in 2008, the president of France and many members of the government, past and present, flew to Martinique to attend the funeral. Although there was a movement in France to have Césaire’s ashes buried in the Pantheon, his family insisted that he be buried in Fort-de-France, the city he served as mayor of from 1945 to 2001. For Martinicans, his “pays natal” was where he belonged. For readers around the world, he lives on in the many works he wrote.
Our celebration of Césaire’s hundredth birthday and of his contributions to world literature is only one of many events planned for 2013. UNESCO has declared 2013 a year for honoring Rabindrânâth Tagore, Pablo Neruda, and Aimé Césaire as exemplars of a “reconciled universal.” Institutions and scholars in Africa, North America, and Europe have prepared colloquia and special issues of journals. The Agence universitaire de la francophonie has sponsored the publication of a volume of the major works of Césaire. Finally, two of the authors of articles in this issue, Kora Véron and Thomas A. Hale, have just published Les écrits d’Aimé Césaire: Biobibliographie commentée, a volume containing excerpts and commentary on a thousand published texts by Césaire.
We hope that articles on Aimé Césaire’s work and legacy will continue to appear in the pages of CLS in the years to come. [End Page 414]