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  • Early GlissantFrom the Destitution of the Political to Antillean Ultra-Leftism
  • Nick Nesbitt (bio)

Like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, Édouard Glissant combined a passionate commitment to the politics of decolonization with a concern to analyze the modes and structures of French colonialism, from its origins to its singular perpetuation in the form it has taken since 1946 as the so-called “Departmentalization” of the former “colony” of Martinique (as well as Guadeloupe and French Guiana). In this article, I wish to focus on a number of Glissant’s earlier, more overtly “political” texts, in the sense of openly calling for the decolonization or autonomy of a Martinican “nation.” These include his 1958 first novel La Lézarde, which tells the story of a group of young Martinican anticolonial militants circa 1946, the little-known 1961 Les Antilles et la Guyane à l’heure de la decolonisation, which constitutes by some stretch Glissant’s most radically and affirmatively anticolonial and Fanonian text, and his masterpiece of Caribbean critical theory, the 1981 Le Discours antillais.

La Lézarde, Glissant’s first novel, established the young author as a prominent voice in Antillean letters when it won the French Prix Renaudot in 1958. Though frequently seen as a militantly anticolonial text, the novel in fact describes not so much the awakening of a Martinican national consciousness that would lead teleologically from alienation and exploitation to the birth of a decolonized nation, as the aporetic critique of such political triumphalism in the face of the eternal, inevitable resurgence of the mythic violence of the colonial order and plantation slavery itself. La Lézarde describes the decision of a group of young Martinican militants in the fictional city of Lambrianne to assassinate a political operative of the colonialist opposition. A sort of Antillean version of Sartre’s Les mains sales, the novel is set in the time of the momentous 1945 elections that brought Aimé Césaire to power as the Communist mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy to the French Assembly, and turns around the debates over the demands and ethics of left-wing political militancy in the postwar period. Though the young peasant, Thaël, whom they engage in their plot, ultimately “succeeds” in his assassination attempt, the novel stages this political violence as not so much the triumph of Martinican national consciousness as the resurgence of the atavistic, mythic violence of colonialism and plantation slavery itself.

Against a more prominent triumphalist reading of the novel, H. Adlai Murdoch has argued in his study Creole Identity in the French Caribbean Novel that La Lézarde might be read as register of the antagonistic contradictions undermining any possible deployment of an Antillean general will. La Lézarde is for Murdoch not an ode to postcolonial progress so much as a narration of regression, one that “will eventually doom” its protagonists “to an ending that is anything but a point of resolution” (25).1 Murdoch’s reading of Glissant is decidedly dystopian; furthermore, read within the arc of Glissant’s trajectory, it shows [End Page 932] to quite original effect how Glissant’s later rejection of a radical Fanonian politics of the Martinican nation is already inscribed in this, his earliest work. Glissant, in this reading, is already in 1958, at the height of the decolonization movement and Césaire’s and Fanon’s calls for national independence, pessimistic about the viability of this triumphalist vision, and committed instead to a postcolonial aestheticism that values “certainty and beauty” rather than the emancipation and justice at the heart of Fanon’s struggle (25). La Lézarde substitutes in 1958, at the height of the Algerian war and the drive toward the African independences, a universalist poétique for militant politics, a line of argument that will, however, only become over-determinant in his thought after the publication in 1990 of Poétique de la Relation (La Lézarde 76).

In contrast to Fanon’s assertion of the “absolute” necessity of violence in Algeria, the novel’s adolescent activists (Glissant’s protagonists range in age, the narrator tells us, from eighteen to twenty-one) turn to violence as much through their search for self...