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  • The Sea as Archive:Impressions of Qui Se Souvient De La Mer
  • Donna Honarpisheh (bio)

The sea has many voices,Many gods and many voices.

—T. S. Eliot (2014, 36)

Navigating the green splendor of the sea—whether in melancholic transatlantic crossings or glorious regattas or traditional races of yoles and gommiers—still brings to mind, coming to light like seaweed, these lowest depths, these deeps, with their punctuation of scarcely corroded balls and chains. In actual fact the abyss is a tautology: the entire ocean, the entire sea gently collapsing in the end into the pleasures of sand, make one vast beginning, but a beginning whose time is marked by these balls and chains gone green.

—Édouard Glissant (2009)

In the postface to his 1962 novel, Qui Se Souvient De La Mer (Who Remembers The Sea), Mohammad Dib discusses the formal structure through which he decides to narrate the experience of the Algerian war. In these pages, Dib emphasizes the significance of formal innovation in the rendering of the violence that surrounded him, so much so that he gravitated towards a poetics that reflected a marked departure from his typical realist style of writing. Without prescribing an alternative literary form prior to the act of writing, Dib knew that the linearity and clearly delineated structures of the realist form could not adequately give life to the sensory and atmospheric excesses that permeated the air of the time. Reflecting on the phantasmagoric style of his text, Dib recounts a sudden consciousness of the "caractère illimité" ("limitless character") of horror in his experience of the war. He describes a horror that felt "unimaginable" even as he knew it would erode into the banality that dissolves the experience of crisis into chronicle. The disorienting terror would quickly fall flat in both collective and state memory to become little more than a tale of the expected violences of war, independence struggle, and the formation of national sovereignty. Dib avoids telling this story in a way that explicitly manifests the supposed origins of misery via [End Page 91] the binary language of colonizer and colonized and its subsequent iteration within the linear formation of national histories. Rather than falling into the trap of setting aside the past as the past, covering over traces of pain, and further eroding the psychic residues of this violence, Dib's poetic gesture attends to the nameless and forgotten elements of History, the residual, the marks, and the cries. The non-categorical formal expression of the characters and events invites a reading practice that strays from overdetermination to instead stay with and attend to the persevering elemental forces that shape experience. The novel's happenings are rendered through elemental forces, with the sea serving as a central, but fading character. The atmospheric presence of the sea is abstracted from concrete geographic locality and yet still serves as an idea, memory, possibility, and material force whose movements permeate the occurences of the land. The novel's formal abstraction ruptures the violence of colonization and the transition to independence from their historical particularity without compromising the experience of violence that exists within these paralleled temporal and imagined constructions of the world. Dib's abstraction does not evade the political but suggests that attuning our reading of historical violence to the forgotten gestures, and further, to the atmospheric power of the sea and the sediments permits a reading of violence that exposes its continuity, psychic and material. Thus, Dib suggests, the form of our remembrance1 ("our" signifying the always fractured collective unconscious of the colonized psyche), particularly our attunement to the residual temporality of the unconscious, is integral to the prospect of historical consciousness and futurity.

Dib worried this species of horror, repeated, was defining the 20th century, as "cette immense nuée démoniaque qui plane au-dessus du monde depuis tant d'années" ("that great demonic cloud that has for so many years been floating above the world") and that threatened to be absorbed into "l'enfer de banalité dont l'horreur a su s'entourer en nous entourer?" ("that hell of banality2 with which the horror has managed to surround itself and to surround us...