- Memories of Reading Les Indes for the First Time
I first met Édouard Glissant late on in life. When we were both teaching in the United States. On his arrival in New York from Louisiana, I invited him to Columbia University where I had just set up the Center for Francophone Studies. I gave a paper on his “vision of the landscape” at the conference that CUNY (City University of New York) held in honor of his seventieth birthday. Had he not shown up the limits of my imagination by causing me to reflect on things that I had never thought about?
“Because it is huddled up in itself,” he had written in Le Discours antillais, “and spaced out in intelligible dimensions. All of a piece, the opening of heat striped with rain; further back, those breaks that come into view when the earth opens up” (20).
When I retired in 2005, at my farewell conference he presented one of those masterly and, at first sight, mysterious texts of which only he was capable. We were never on familiar terms, even though the judges of his Prix Carbet of the Caribbean awarded the prize to my novel Desirada in 1997. I must confess that he intimidated and disconcerted me because of the extreme mobility of his thought, always open-ended, never closed off or dogmatic, transforming everything which nourished its perfection. Just when I thought I had grasped it, it ran away from me, already exploring elsewhere. I could say a great deal about the effect that certain chapters of Le Discours antillais had on my students, and above all on me, since one of my tasks was to untangle the various aspects of our reality. As well as the writings on landscape from which I have quoted above, there are those so complex but so luminous pages on the return and the detour, on history and literature, on verbal delirium … But let’s stop there. I have just realized that I would need to quote all of it. And anyway, that’s not what I mean to do here. Nor to embark upon a re-reading of Poétique de la Relation, which made such a strong impression on all our minds, or an interpretation of the concept of the “Tout-monde.” I am not claiming to attempt an analysis of Glissant’s thought. There are plenty of others who can play that (dangerous) game more skillfully than I can.
I just want to go back to my first reactions on reading that fabulous poem “Les Indes” in 1955. I was twenty years old. I had hardly yet discovered Negritude, and there I was naively approaching this Édouard Glissant, like Aimé Césaire a Martinican writer, none of whose work I had read. I bought my collection of poems at the bookshop “La Hune,” and sat down to read it on a bench by the church of Saint Germain des Prés. I was not expecting to be confronted by a work so different from the one I knew, [Césaire’s] Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, in which, despite the proliferation of imagery in the text, the didactic—one could even say pedagogical—intention remains obvious. These lines turned my ideas upside down, led me into unfamiliar and uncertain paths. We were The Indies. [End Page 865] We, the Caribbean, where the Great Discoverer Christopher Columbus had ended up as a result of his brilliant miscalculation. To prevent myself from sinking without trace in the unexpectedness of what I was reading, I clung onto its historical framework. Six parts, which one could more or less call six “chapters,” made up the text: The Call, The Voyage, The Conquest, The Trade, The Heroes, The Relation.1 In them I found, reassuringly, characters whom I already knew, although they were strangely transplanted into this new context: Father Labat, Toussaint Louverture, Cortez, Delgrès, Dessalines. I managed not to get completely lost in the rising tide of these “chapters” and made my way as best I could through the flood of unusual images, which I was already used to from my...