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  • Édouard Glissant’s Legacy:Transmitting without Universals?
  • François Noudelmann (bio)
    Translated by Celia Britton (bio)

Ideas, as Montaigne remarked, belong to no one, and as soon as someone incorporates them into their thought they become theirs. Universal and shared, they circulate because human beings digest them and embody them in the sites of their own experience. But philosophy comes up against the paradox that it produces concepts which, while certainly anonymous, are nevertheless identified with their author. Édouard Glissant, known as a poet and novelist, was also engaged in a life-long philosophical reflection, which started with his studies at university and continued via the development of his personal ideas in his many theoretical writings. One of his last works, Philosophie de la Relation, offers a synthesis—both poetic and pedagogical—of these ideas, as though the author had wanted to define the scope of his conceptual innovations and preempt any future simplifications of them. Digenesis, traces, creolization, archipelago, trembling, tout-monde are terms which outline the contours of a body of thought that has been built and tested through reading and travelling. Their use today implies a reference to Glissant who has left them for us to inherit, but without presenting them as a bible for faithful or not so faithful disciples.

The poetic formulation of these figures of thought, however, sets them apart from the classic concepts of philosophy. Glissant was not a poet and a philosopher but a philosopher because he was a poet: therefore, the transmission after his death of his theoretical innovations calls for a different reading. The contradictory definition of the universal, in its poetic usage, presupposes a complex fine-tuning of the ideas and their expression in the various sites of the Tout-monde. In the recurrent debate opposing the promotion of difference to universalism—which has become the obsessive antithesis of French republican culture—Glissant the poet has opened up a particular and original angle. A philosophical rather than a culturalist approach to his ideas enables us to appreciate their originality.

Glissant’s theoretical legacy does not form a rationally constructed block but follows routes and byways that convey figures constantly reworked over half a century, from Soleil de la conscience right through to the final essays, from 1956 to 2011. The writing of the essays is intertwined with that of the collections of poetry and the novels, in accordance with particular moments of inspiration that produce and articulate several different modes of writing. “I write in bursts,” Glissant would say, describing these moments of coalition between literary and speculative genres. The evolution of the figures, and the abandoning of some of them, does not follow the strict rational development of a thought; they come from the places he has known, the political situations and literary transformations. Glissant brought these metamorphoses together under the heading—almost impossible to translate—of imaginaire: the perpetually changing representation of a world structured [End Page 869] by unpredictable encounters. The continuity between Le Discours antillais (1981) and L’Intraitable beauté du monde (2009) may seem obvious, but it is enriched by the multiple theoretical revolutions provided by the treatises on poetics, aesthetics, and philosophy.

Does this kind of thought, created in a poetic relation to the world, count as a philosophy, in the sense in which European history has defined the term? Poetry has inspired numerous philosophical meditations in so far as it has been interpreted by others, who have conferred a speculative depth on the poetic tropes; however, those poets who have themselves proposed a reflection on the meaning of being have remained as a marginal, unidentified fringe. From Lucretius to Nietzsche, they invented ways of writing/thinking which broke with the narrowly instrumental language of rational thought.

Glissant studied the philosophers of the Western tradition and refers to them regularly, notably to Hegel and Heidegger; but he nonetheless offers a radical rereading of this intellectual history. That is, he notes that the philosophy which has become dominant is based on a desire for synthesis and stability. Taking up Nietzsche’s critique, he emphasizes the extent to which its principal concepts work to repress multiplicity and movement. Sensuous diversity and the profusion of the...