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On Ancestral Ground: Heroic Figuring in Aimé Césaire Clarisse Zimra Qui et quels nous sommes? Admirable question. I T IS HARDLY AN EXAGGERATION to say that contemporary Caribbean writers are obsessed with the past, an obsession made manifest by a recurring textual figure, that of the Ancestor. Both proponents and opponents of the tenets of Negritude, from Senghor to Soyinka, have tended to see the figure as heroic. In the Caribbean text, the ancestral trope plunges into an imaginary past predicated on collec­ tive history in order to gain access to a common future. Edouard Glissant calls it “ a prophetic reading of the past” (preface to Monsieur Toussaint). But, as he also cautions in Le Discours antillais, this textual strategy may well elide an alienating present and prolong a self denying cultural stasis that renders political action impossible.1 The sociological approach still predominates, whether among critics (I. F. Case’s damning Césaire’s inability to write about contemporary Martinique) or writers (Daniel Maximin condemning Glissant’s unwill­ ingness to do likewise as “ evasiveness”).2It would appear that the Carib­ bean corpus, a literature initially triggered by specific historical condi­ tions, must always return to its ideological origins. This may account in no small part for the uneasy dance between myth and history in the Caribbean corpus, a feature particularly prominent in the Cesairean topos of the ancestral quest. The question of the Ancestor remains a constant of Caribbean litera­ ture after Césaire as well. It took Maryse Condé a considerable African detour before she could trust herself to face her own “mangrove swamp.” Her first novel stages this alienation with maximum impact when the child asks, “ what were we before” and the Caribbean father refuses to entertain the notion that there may have been a past “ before.” Whether plaintive (in Condé’s Hérémakhônon), wistful (in Léon Damas’s Hoquef. “ Désastre / parlez-moi du désastre / parlez-m’en”), or defiant (in Maximin’s L ’Isolé soleil: “ II nous faut drageonner nos pères”), the child’s insistent question is the textual sign of a never-ending 16 Sp r in g 1992 ZlMRA tug of war between the mythical and the historical dimension. From Derek Walcott’s sobering words on selective amnesia in “ The Muse of History,” 3 to Glissant’s gradual evisceration of his once admirable “ Negator,” the question triggers an imaginery projection backward that must locate its object in an immemorial past before any move forward. Cahier d ’un retour au pays natal is exemplary in this. Admirable Question In the wake of the Cahier, the poet had taken his stand. Fresh from the shock of his Haitian tour, Césaire delineated in the 1945 “ Poésie et con­ naissance” his poetics of Caribbean authenticity as the weaving of the private, obsessional, self with the collective, ancestral, unconscious. But, as the whole Tropiques adventure made clear, it was a genetic un­ conscious nonetheless radically grounded in a specific moment: Ce qui émerge, c’est le fonds individuel. Les conflits intimes, les obsessions . . . Tous les chiffres du message personnel. . . Ce qui émerge aussi, c’est le vieux fonds ancestral. Images héréditaires, que seules peut remettre à jour, aux fins de déchiffrement, l’atmosphère poétique. . . (Tropiques XII, Jan. 1945, 162) The poet starts with the retrieving of long forgotten selves buried deep within the collective memory. However, the very conditions of such a plunge are historically determined, as the Cahier finds time and again.4 At the time this was written, diving into the unconscious and recovering the African past seemed feasible, if not identical, projects. Thus, Suzanne Césaire in “ Léo Frobénius et le problème des civilisations” : “ . . . l’Afrique ne signifie pas seulement pour nous un élargissement vers l’ailleurs, mais approfondissement de nous mêmes” (Tropiques 1, avril 1941, 32). The young rebels of Martinique, looking at Price-Mars’s example on the next island, had every reason to be optimistic. The final movement of the Cahier, going downward and inward in order to expand outward and upward (“ ailleurs” ), attempts to answer the challenge it poses somewhat ironically for itself: “ Qui et...


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