Activism and Tales of Initiation
Activism and Tales of Initiation
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter begins with an account of Chamoiseau’s activist concerns. It then presents readings of the tales of initiation and alternative paths to enlightenment as represented in Un dimanche au cachot and Les neuf consciences du Malfini. Chamoiseau’s professional experience working with delinquent children shapes the narrative of Un dimanche au cachot, which focuses on his efforts as educator. Malfini, another of Chamoiseau’s conversion narratives, which is part fable and part treatise, extends his longstanding interest in birds as metaphors for the liberation of the imaginary.
Chamoiseau’s role as an educator, investigative writer, and activist has come to shape not only his political writings but also, in a more diffuse way, his approach to narrative. Chamoiseau’s contributions to Quand les murs tombent: L’identité nationale hors-la-loi? (When the Walls Fall: National Identity Outside the Law?) (2007), L’Intraitable beauté du monde: Adresse à Barack Obama (The Unrelenting Beauty of the World: Address to Barack Obama) (2009), and Manifeste pour les “produits” de haute nécessité (Manifesto on “Products” of High Necessity)1 (2009) offer clearly articulated perspectives on migration, globalization, food production, and the relevance of relational thinking in a changing world order. These literary manifestos belong to a long tradition in French letters, whether we think of the politically oriented writings of the Enlightenment philosophers or the twentieth-century tradition of manifestos so characteristic of literary modernism, particularly of surrealism and existentialism, and, in a Martinican context, the work of Césaire and Fanon.2 Chamoiseau’s manifestos are reflective of a desire to extend the nascent postcolonial work of earlier generations; they are part of the writer’s effort to revive and renew the anticolonial moment of solidarity in a contemporary context, such as already found in Biblique. The aforementioned treatises to which Chamoiseau has contributed tend to extend Glissantian philosophical concepts to the public domain of social action while his narratives can be seen as offering a more abstract incarnation of his poetico-political concerns about the environment and the world. This chapter begins with an account of the author’s activist concerns and then turns to readings of the tales of initiation and alternative paths to enlightenment as represented in Un dimanche and Malfini. (p.213)
The Activist as Collaborator: Chamoiseau and Glissant
Chamoiseau and Glissant wrote “Quand les murs tombent: L’Identité nationale hors-la-loi?” (2007) in response to the formation of the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Co-development in France (2007). The authors argue against governmental policies concerning assimilation and the increased policing of migration. Instead, the authors promote a new kind of imagined community that recognizes the human condition as fluid, migratory, and relational. Their argument is directed against certain Enlightenment principles, such as the idea of rational progress; instead, they propose a model of stuttering progress, which involves regressions (such as the sense of a loss of self) and pathologies (a sentiment of exasperation concerning collective feelings of superiority) in order to move forward or beyond outmoded principles of identity (QM, 1). They argue for a psychological and embodied feeling of communal development as a way of being-in-the-world. This phenomenological approach to a theory of relation and human rights sees identity as operating according to a principle of risk:
C’est que l’identité est d’abord un être-dans-le-monde, ainsi que dissent les philosophes, un risqué avant tout, qu’il faut courir, et qu’elle fournit ainsi au rapport avec l’autre et avec ce monde, en même temps qu’elle résulte de ce rapport. Une telle ambivalence nourrit à la fois la liberté d’entreprendre et, plus d’avant, l’audace de changer. (QM, 1–2)
(Identity is first of all a way of being in the world, according to what philosophers say; a risk above all that one needs to undertake, which produces a rapport with the other and the world at the same time that it is the result of this rapport. Such ambivalence nourishes at the same time freedom of enterprise as well as, more than ever, the audacity to change.)
At the same time, Chamoiseau and Glissant argue against the imperialistic tendencies underpinning the nation-state, which entails exalting, defending, and (when possible) exporting communal values (QM, 2). In their view, this desire for a single rooted identity is evident in colonization and has resulted in disasters throughout the world. Against this concept of community and nation, they offer the example of post-apartheid South Africa, which they see as embracing a theory of the mixed society (p.214) that goes beyond the silo-like effect of multiculturalism where multiple ethnicities and cultures are merely juxtaposed (QM, 4).
Their protest against the French government’s treatment of illegal immigrants leads them to rework many French concepts about rights and democracy via poetic-philosophical concepts. For example, the democratic space is presented as a field of antagonistic and virulent forces, the least evil of all systems, which demands a constant warrior-like vigilance (QM, 6). The “vigilance de guerrier” (“warrior’s vigilance”) fits with Chamoiseau’s need for the Warrior of the Imaginary in the modern world where economic forces afford opportunities but also introduce potential threats (QM, 6). Regression and advance are allied as is evident in a world where the divide between the rich and poor is intensifying (QM, 7). Yet, at the same time, there is an opportunity to recognize not only the migratory human condition but also the collapse of walled-off concepts of identity. Increasingly, the world is interdependent and interlinked. Invoking a domestic metaphor, they liken the world to a home or household in which a sense of balance depends of the symbiotic equilibrium of all (QM, 7). Juxtaposing the poetics of relation against the concept of walled identities, they see American hegemony in the world, standardization, neocolonial economic imperatives, and the Occidental tradition of domination as sources of danger.
In terms of globalization, Chamoiseau and Glissant see the opportunity to embrace a relational concept of identity and places. Both are seen as open and sustained through relations to the world. This does not imply a sense of rootless existence but of roots that are connected in the shared earth (QM, 18). Just as there were nation states, they declare that there will be nations in relation to one another (QM, 18). Just as there were territories that separated and differentiated, there will be territories that differentiate and join and only differentiate in order to relate and link (QM, 19). Their augury relies on a redefinition of barbarism and civilization in an age when the desire to dominate, dictate laws, build an empire, take pride in superior strength, take pride that one holds the truth will be seen as the surest signs of barbarism in the history of humanities (QM, 19). Instead, they argue for a principle of change through exchange, which diminishes neither the individual nor the nation (QM, 19). Rather than a strict adherence to policies of intermixture or authenticity, they argue for a more flexible, adaptive approach, which recognizes the concept that identity is a mystery we live: “que l’identité serait un mystère à vivre, à vivre au plus large, à vivre au mieux ouvert, et que c’est de vivrece (p.215) mystère qui ferait que l’on vit, et qu’on se sent exister” (QM, 21) (“that identity would be a mystery to live, to live to the full extent, to live at best openly, and that by living this mystery one would live and feel a sense of existing”).
While they recognize that many of their suggestions for better global government sound utopian, they still believe that principles of economic redistribution, ecological good governance, and other global policies for reform should be encouraged by agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (QM, 21–22). Their call for a Poetics of Relation is intimately connected with an activist impulse: “La relation à l’autre (à tout l’autre, dans ses présences animales, végétales, et culturelles, et par conséquent humaines) nous indique la part la plus haute, la plus honorable, la plus enrichissante de nous-mêmes” (QM, 25) (“Relation to others [to all others, in their animal, vegetable, and cultural presences, and consequently human presences] reveals the highest, most honorable and most enriching part of ourselves”). The treatise ends with a special plea for protest against walled-in ways of thinking that tempt us to accommodate ourselves to the worst, to habituate ourselves little by little to the insupportable and which lead us to live in silence and even to risk complicity with the inadmissible (QM, 26). All of this, Chamoiseau and Glissant argue, goes against beauty.
L’Intraitable beauté du monde: Adresse à Barack Obama picks up the theme of aesthetics following the election of Barack Obama. This work takes the long history of the New World, beginning with the Middle Passage, as the basis for a discussion of the shared spaces and concerns of the Americas. Their conception of Obama begins with a utopian description of the many hopes and debates concerning his potential as a leader capable of improving conditions for blacks and other minorities, fighting poverty, ending war, and bridging racial and ethnic divisions (IB, 3). In the authors’ view, Obama embodies the modern world’s capacity for creolization and is one who has heard the cri du monde (“cry of the world”), which Glissant has defined in Traité du Tout-Monde as a capacity to acknowledge the interrelatedness of traumatic events, local struggles, and creolizing processes at work in the world.3 Celia Britton notes that Glissant’s “cry of the world” attests to the ways in which “the globalization of mass media has meant that local struggles are no longer carried out without the knowledge of the rest of the world.”4 In the authors’ view, Obama’s upbringing in a Hawaiian mosaic (IB, 5) culture and the histories of migration that led to his birth make him a compelling figure: Obama (p.216) embodies the possibilities for transcontinental fusions of identity. The symbolic potential of Obama’s identity also serves as a point of a departure for a diatribe on the conception of race in America (the one-drop rule) and the politics of segregation, particularly as they underpin prevailing conceptions of multiculturalism in America (IB, 7, 11). Their revisionary aesthetics celebrates the Glissantian notion of the relational and rejects solitudes, fundamentalisms, ethnic purification, the expulsion of migrants, the cult of consumerism, and the malign aspects of capitalism (IB, 28–29). Instead, they call for the recognition of beauty in every place in the world (IB, 29). This entails new aesthetic forms and practices. Politically, they call for specific initiatives, such as the cancellation of debt in Africa and other structural adjustments to alleviate disequilibrium on the continent, the establishment of an international tribunal to address economic crimes, and the redistribution of food to needy countries and regions through an international relief agency (IB, 31). These political actions are seen as part of a wider aesthetic that recognizes the emergence of new forms of communication, such as sms/chat (IB, 47), worldwide creolizing processes, diagenetic models of plurality (IB, 51), and the redefinition of power based on a relational approach rather than through the use of force (IB, 56, 39). While none of these principles of beauty marks a departure from Glissantian perspectives already articulated, the text is noteworthy in that a number of these principles, as will be seen, inform the aesthetics of Un dimanche and Malfini. Moreover, this treatise can be usefully read in dialogue with Écrire and Biblique as indicative of the author’s approach to relations among the local and the global, the uses of media and technology, and the abstraction of aesthetic principles derived from the landscape.
Chamoiseau and Glissant have contributed to (other authors include Ernest Breleur, Serge Domi, Gérard Delver, Guillame Pigeard de Gurbert, Olivier Portecop, Olivier Pulvar, and Jean-Claude William) Manifeste pour les “produits” de haute nécessité, which reflects the authors’ shared concerns about self-sufficiency, the environment, and the exploitive tendencies of global capitalism. The prefatory quotations from Gilles Deleuze’s L’Image-temps and Césaire’s letter to Maurice Thorez in which he announced his resignation from the French Communist Party (known as a the PCF or Parti communiste français) in 1956 following the suppression of the Hungarian revolution are indicative of the focus on a sense of community based on the needs of the people. While the quotation from (p.217) Deleuze refers to the emergence of a sense of the people in slums, camps, and ghettos in conditions of struggle and the consequent need for a political form of art, the citation from Césaire refers to the need for a new direction in politics following the collapse of hopes in a Marxist state. While the former is indicative of the locally derived aesthetic, the latter indicates an awareness of relations to the global politics of emancipation through relations to other places of struggle. The authors of the treatise build on both approaches through their Marxist-oriented critique of global capitalism, which takes particular aim at the culture of consumerism (MPHN, 3) and the economic definition of certain products as “necessary.” They introduce the term “haute nécessité” (“high necessity”) in order to refer to the poetic and imaginary values of products in terms of a vision of self-sufficiency within the Caribbean: “C’est tout ce qui constitue le coeur de notre souffrant désir de faire peuple et nation, d’entrer en dignité sur la grande-scène du monde” (MPHN, 4) (“It’s all that’s at the heart of our intense suffering desire to be a people and a nation, to enter with dignity into the great scene of the world”). In this utopian treatise, the authors state their opposition to capitalism and call for a reinstatement of work in the sphere of the poetic or as a means of self-fulfillment, social invention, and self-creation (MPHN, 9). Specifically, they suggest that the oil companies will sink into oblivion if people give up driving cars and adopt other means of transport (MPHN, 8); they argue that there is a need for full employment balanced by creative consumption (MPHN, 8–10); and they call for free, open access to the Internet, books, tales, theater, music, and so forth (MPHN, 10). None of these initiatives is backed up by an indication of how such objectives might be achieved in practical terms (MPHN, 10). Instead, they appeal for politics to be elevated into an art that values the individual and relations among individuals; while they challenge the exploitative tendencies of the market-based approach to the world economy, they commit themselves to a global ecological relation to the world’s environmental balances (MPHN, 11–12). This eco-poetical perspective on global politics can be seen as a manifestation of planetary thinking, which evokes the idea of the world as an interdependent ecosystem. While the opposition to the consumption of French goods and products can be situated in terms of the alienating effects of colonial and neocolonial economic production in the overseas departments of France, the desire for a locally based sense of necessity can be seen in terms of the commodification of culture through global capitalism. (p.218)
Un dimanche au cachot
Chamoiseau’s professional experience working with delinquent children shapes the narrative of Un dimanche au cachot, which focuses on the author’s efforts as educator. One Sunday morning, the author receives a call from Sylvain who runs La Sainte Famille (“Holy Family”), a home for orphaned, abused, neglected, and runaway youths. A young girl named Caroline has absconded to a dungeon (the “cachot” mentioned in the title of the work) and refuses to exit or communicate with anyone; Sylvain would like Chamoiseau to convince her to exit from the dungeon. The author agrees to assist; he enters the dungeon where Caroline and Chamoiseau are witnesses to events in the slave past, which focus particularly on the life of a young girl named L’Oubliée (The Forgotten One) who at one time was imprisoned in a plantation dungeon. Like Caroline, L’Oubliée has not received sufficient love and care; both are victims of sexual abuse. In this respect, the account of the relations between the two young girls suggests that the intertwining of histories of trauma can serve to work through both the long histories of suffering in Martinique, both personally and collectively. While the events of the past prove to be proleptic, in looking forward to a post-abolition world that emerges from within the colonial condition, the narrative of the present incorporates analepses as part of its restorative progression. During this narrative, which takes place on a single day, the rhythms of the day from dusk to darkness provide a backdrop for this cycle from “incommencements” (“false starts”) to “recommencements” (“fresh starts”) through the entanglement of histories past and present. The tensions between fluid and interrupted temporalities drive the narrative and take the form of the contrast between Chamoiseau’s prose reverie and the constant punctuation of mobile phone calls that startle the narrator and bring him out of meandering thoughts to the immediate concerns of the helping Caroline in the present. The opening of the narrative sets the stage for the importance of the call to action as the narrator observes, “Quand la corne de lambi sonne c’est déjà l’heure. Ou moins. Ou plus” (UDC, 17) (“When the conch shell calls it is already time. Or more. Or less”). The idea of urgency combined with indeterminacy is a fitting beginning for this plot, which returns to the slave past and mediates its disruptive presence. Just as the conch shell sounded the alarm in the past, the mobile phone sounds the alarm in the present: the ringing phone serves as a source of disruption, interrupting the seemingly isolated account of the historical past. (p.219) Moreover, through its association with the conch shell, the mobile phone has the potential to signal something new on the horizon: not merely an interruption, the ringing phone might also serve both literally and figuratively as a call to action, which creates a line of communication between inner and outer worlds of experience.
Sunday, typically a day of rest, meditation, and worship, proves to be a time of multiple possibilities and potentialities. For children in this institutional facility, Sunday’s are particularly difficult because they remind children of the absence of a family home. A rainy Sunday, like the one on which Sylvain calls, is worse because the children are confined indoors, which has the effect of increasing their feeling of loneliness. Chamoiseau considers the role of Sunday as a day of rest, which brings with it the potential for creativity and melancholia. As a creative writer, he welcomes the uneasy sense of an identity in flux, but the sociologist in him protests against the contemporary world with its hectic workweek, leisure-time diversions, which are promoted in the media, and other forms of escape, such as drugs (i.e., Prozac) that promise a beatific existence (UDC, 20). In a combative opening to his tale, he refuses the identity of “outré-mer” and claims that he is ultramarine and ultraperipheral: the anesthetized product of a postcolonial technocracy (UDC, 21). He laments the social ills associated with a consumer-oriented culture, tourism, failures to protect the environment, and the rise of bureaucracy (UDC, 21). As in Écrire, Chamoiseau depicts a community that continues to suffer the ill effects of domination: “Pour tout peuple livré aux dépendances, le dimanche est un metteur en scène qui ne donnent rien à jouer, ni en dedans ni en dehors” (UDC, 22) (“For all people who are in a state of dependence, Sunday is [comparable to] a director who does not offer a[n actor a] role to play, neither from within nor from without”). For the oppressed, Sunday represents a day of foreclosed opportunities, but through the narrative process of working through the traumatic past, the day is also shown to be one that has restorative potential. The eventual exit from the dungeon serves as a symbolic rebirth, which echoes the Christian theme of resurrection. Rather than turning to the Messianic promise of a saviour, Chamoiseau figures Caribbean peoples as a community who acts as the agent of its own reclamation and renewal of life.
Chamoiseau adopts a number of masks and discusses the role of disguise as a strategy for survival and self-determination. In a footnote to the text, he provides a possible speculative fiction that he might have written about an exiled hero who loses connection to his gods, genesis, (p.220) and founding myths (UDC, 29). In order to combat European colonization, he dons a tribal mask in order to do battle against the oppressors, but this mask becomes a dungeon: “Mais ce masque se transforme en cachot” (UDC, 29) (“But this mask transforms itself into a dungeon”). He becomes caught up in an increasingly desperate struggle of violence and counterviolence. On a certain Sunday, he gets a glimpse of his forgotten face beneath the mask: a face that the hero no longer recognizes, but which remains much the same underneath. The hero no longer knows what to do. Keep the mask and continue to fight to the death in an unending war? Recover what remains of his face and be massacred? Or remain in this uncertain condition and die in the struggle between his mask and his face? Chamoiseau, the narrator, observes that because he is a tragic hero, he attempts to tear off the mask, but in doing so he almost rips out his eyes. He tries to leave the mask in place, but his face (now revived) will no longer accept the mask. In a state of tension, he begins to wander in a manner comparable to Don Quixote on his quest, but he is looking for a way to be present in the world. This “idiotic” fiction, as the author describes it, shows the author’s ongoing interest in the role of masquerade (mimicry) and unmasking as central to the quest for decolonization. The violence associated with masquerade suggests that it is far from liberating, but that the act of unmasking is equally futile and potentially suicidal. Thus, the quest for identity requires an ability to negotiate a sense of one’s place in the world between acts of masquerade and unmasking.
Multiple masked identities surface in the related worlds of the story. Oubliée (the forgotten girl) serves as a double for Caroline. Both suffer from abandonment and neglect; both undergo a process of transformation; both (we eventually learn) share the name Caroline. Moreover, the dungeon-like space of the slave system provides a metaphorical womb for the transformation of consciousness (UDC, 313). This “echoing world” structure is not exactly like the Glissantian concept of “les échos-monde,” but Chamoiseau seems to be inspired by the idea that these stories past and present enter into a mutually illuminating dialogue in which one story calls forth aspects of the other. The doubling of the conch shell and the mobile phone reinforces this notion of the stories in a call-response form of echoing stories and personages. In this respect, Oubliée is a relational figure who can be linked not only to Caroline but also to Man l’Oubliée in Biblique as well as to the old slave who flees because she too encounters the criss-crossed rock. Oubliée represents the forgotten in history, but she is also paradoxically the character through whom the forgotten is (p.221) recalled and reconnected. She is mother to marginal women whose knowledge and wisdom are attested to in the fictions of Chamoiseau because they play a role in his memory, enabling him to name and construct the forgotten (UDC, 315). The multiple narrative trajectories of the novel encourage a sense that interpretive certainties about the past can never be wholly recovered so that the question is rather one of sensing the relatedness and chain of relations among historical moments (UDC, 317). Rather than excavating certain knowledge about the past, Chamoiseau calls for an excavation of uncertainties; this novel then is closer to the realm of fantasy and speculative fiction where equally probable (or improbable) explanations of the world are brought into dialogue. In this sense, his fiction seeks to uncover places, objects, and artifacts that elicit the world that might have been and a culture that might exist. Much like the imagined artifacts of Jorge Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” he does not seek to recover the original truth but the mysterious doubles or tangible (ir)realities of the imagined past. The spaces and places of this world belong to the shared fictions of Glissant, William Faulkner, Perse, and others who have created fictions in response to these resonant locales. Such excavations involve not only actual objects and artifacts in the world but also entail investigations into symbolic spaces and times (UDC, 315).
By combining the sacred, meditative time of Sunday (a time associated with a glimpse of freedom for the slave) with the taboo space of the dungeon, Chamoiseau evokes a disquieting state of meditative tensions. In colonial times, the dungeon was a space of torture and folly; its stones formed a metaphorical stomach that engulfs and consumes the slave (UDC, 39). Caroline and Chamoiseau are twins in a dungeon described as a cocoon of reverie and a “utérus fétide” (fetid uterus) (UDC, 40), suggesting that this is a space of transformation and nascence for this pair who are diluted and reborn into a “gémellité mortifière” or a “mortified twinning” (UDC, 41). This ambivalent, even repellent, description of the mordant space of women’s reproductive organs fuses together destructive and creative possibilities. In this respect, the dungeon resembles the “cale” or lower decks of the ship during the Middle Passage as a deathly tomb and a space of horrific rebirth. Like the lower deck, this dungeon swallows the two (UDC, 42). Yet, through Chamoiseau’s presence as a kind of midwife to history, he helps to transform this into a vital space where Caroline may come to ready herself for a rebirth in the world, moving beyond the malevolent legacies of the past to a more vital relation to the space-time of the present. (p.222)
The related themes of abortion, spiritual rebirth, and resistance resurface in this narrative as a persistent reminder of Chamoiseau’s fascination with the idea of a murderous maternal love that would rather kill the child than see it born into slavery. The ambivalence of maternal love and the ill effects on the child, the subject of Chamoiseau’s “Solitude la mulâtresse,” resurfaces here in the past-present juxtaposition of Oubliée-Caroline: both abused, given harmful drugs, abandoned, and left enclosed in the dungeon where they adopt the same postures and utter cries. Oubliée plays a maternal role in the life of La Belle (“The Beauty”), easing the suffering she feels because she cares for others in pain (UDC, 49). La Belle is aligned with the bête-longue (the Bothrops lanceolatus) and “sauvemort” (a saving death or abortion) as both represent mortal forces of resistance. The image of swallowing and pregnancy are once again associated when La Belle tells Oubliée not to carry her child to full term because this is a way of feeding the plantation system (UDC, 52) or argues that slavery is a form of being without life and should not be perpetuated (UDC, 54). Abortion is seen in relation to other strategies of resistance, such as in the opacity of language. La Belle speaks in an African language, which the Oubliée barely comprehends, yet the two are reborn into a common language of mutual understanding. The Creole interface becomes a kind of womb-like space of resistance to the master’s language and discourses of power (UDC, 52–53). Similarly, the role of plants for healing and poisoning discloses the ways in which solidarity and resistance go hand-in-hand. The old slave who flees shows Oubliée a datura, a poisonous plant sometimes used by shamans for ritual purposes, and warns her that it can “eat the spirit” (UDC, 55). Indeed, Oubliée has memories of her mother smoking the plant and the effects of inhaling this soporific when the béké’s father gives it to her to smoke and rapes her while the mother gazes at the mango trees, unaware of what is happening. In her drugged condition, she barely recalls or comprehends what has happened. While she recalls the smoking of the datura as a happy event, which produced “tant de bonheur” (so much happiness) on a conscious level (UDC, 55), she also yearns for the old man to take on the role of fathering her child, which indicates an intuitive understanding of the trauma that accompanied the poison and a recognition of the good will of the old slave man.
On the whole, the narrative functions as an ambivalent form of resistance, which is articulated through the condition of an uncertain, meditative form of knowing and unknowing. Chamoiseau describes the psychological function of reverie in the life of the abused child as follows: (p.223)
La rêverie est un des boucliers de l’enfance brisée. La maltraitance arrête le cheminement de ces petites consciences qui se retrouvent bloquées audevant d’un abîme: fixes dans le paysage d’une souffrance impracticable. La rêverie devient un baume, un ange bienveillant, mais qui peut se transformer en diable: emporter l’enfant dans une absence définitive. (UDC, 40)
(Reverie is one of the shields of the broken childhood. Maltreatment stops the course of these small consciousnesses, which find themselves stuck in front of an abyss: fixed in a landscape of unbearable suffering. Reverie becomes a balm, a kind angel, but it can also transform into a devil: carrying the child into an inescapable absence.)
To disrupt Caroline’s diabolic form of reverie, Chamoiseau tells the story of Oubliée, enabling her to confront trauma indirectly through a positive form of reverie. The discourse as a whole reverberates from this narrative kernel, which takes the form of a collective reverie about the maltreatment of Martinican subjects. The rejuvenation of consciousness through the life of the child past-present serves as an allegorical way of talking about the collective unconsciousness that continues to suffer the post-traumatic effects of slavery and violence.
As a literary mode, reverie serves as a meditation on the pathological condition of inner flight and the destabilizing effects of the drug experience: a reflective engagement with these processes serves as the basis for a process of enlightenment through the revival of the marooned consciousness. Chamoiseau invokes a readerly memory of L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse as an event in time. In dialogue with the proleptic ending of the novella, Un dimanche au cachot follows the figure of the marooned slave and the effect of his flight on those who know him: the rippling of one consciousness to another produces a surging counter-discourse. Oubliée experiences the old man’s flight as a form of abandonment, resulting in the feeling of a swarming absence (UDC, 60). When the molosse returns, she experiences his changed appearance as a confusion of senses, which is associated with the destabilizing effects of datura (UDC, 60). For his part, the molosse wants to vomit and starts to regard the plantation as something beyond rather than as a space or system in which he participates (UDC, 61). The master returns and is somehow broken inside (UDC, 62), and this sense of displacement is further confounded by the arrival of the porcelain vendor who is an abolitionist. Like the escaping slave, the porcelain vendor has a destabilizing effect on those (p.224) around him, but he too is shaken and transformed by his encounters on the plantation because he is open to the desire to listen and remake himself through relations with others. Chamoiseau the narrator describes him as understanding that each age has its own infamies and that these are often unrecognized during the time for they appear masked by the prevalent ideologies of the age (UDC, 67). The porcelain vendor confronts La Belle, who is imprisoned in the dungeon, and recognizes that she embodies the power of the African presence in the Caribbean (UDC, 69). His interchange with Sechou prompts the slave to see himself beyond his current dehumanized state, which prompts an inner dialogue with the escaped slave. He begins to cry, an event the porcelain vendor records in his notebook (UDC, 70). For the porcelain vendor, the planter is the only one to have a global view of the plantation, and this reinforces his power over the slaves.
In opposition to this system of domination, Chamoiseau introduces a relational, clairvoyant poetics. In Quand les murs tombent, Glissant and Chamoiseau argue for a “poétique clairvoyante du Tout-Monde” or poetic clairvoyance of the Tout-Monde (QM, 15), and this principle plays a structuring principle in Un dimanche au cachot where Chamoiseau forwards a speculative account of relational identity as already nascent during the colonial period. Specifically, the hiccups in the narrative embody a pivotal moment when the body and the body politic are seized by a force that disrupts a monolithic sense of identity (QM, 8). The hiccup is symptomatic of loss and disruptive forces of change. The immobilizing side-effects of the hiccup, however transitory, are a call to presence, an inescapable awareness of the interruptions and transitions taking place in politico bodily processes. The hiccup represents an embodied form of knowledge and a call to action that is both as revolutionary as the conch shell and as mundane as the ring of a mobile phone. Through a narrative chain of action and reaction, consisting of obscure moments of clairvoyance and response, Chamoiseau depicts another kind of fragmentary power, which is grounded in intuition, imaginative affiliations, and surges of consciousness. Oubliée senses that the porcelain vendor perceives the plantation in a way that is similar to and mixes with her own: “Elle croyait voir et entendre avec lui” (UDC, 71) (“She believed she saw and understood with him”). The porcelain vendor sees the enslaved persons as solitary and ejected from any form of collective. At the same time, the fact that they are lost together means that they are linked and related (UDC, 72). This idea of a chain of consciousness (an alternative to the chains of slavery) is (p.225) evident in the narrative style, which explores connections among isolated individuals. Oubliée’s inner marooning of consciousness is one such example (UDC, 72). In this context, the drug experience also has a positive after-effect because it teaches her to know more fully her connections to the ant, herb, water, earth, anoli, and rock (UDC, 73). For Oubliée, this form of planetary awareness functions like “une pôglô” (UDC, 73), a word of Ethiopian origins that means “a taste of water.” The stonemason also participates in this tale of conscience as the one who knows about various rocks as well as the most mysterious rock that reveals the “Pierre Monde” or vision of the world as a composite, creolizing intersection of many voices through time. Like Esternome, the mason knows how to make the mortar that joins fragments together. Unlike Esternome, who helps to build the postcolonial vision and structures of a new form of community in Texaco, the mason is both a participant in building colonial structures and a witness to the need to dismantle colonial ways of thought.
In opposition to the imperial desire for a monumental history, Chamoiseau presents an embodied historical narrative of intersections, interruptions, delays, glitches, and relations. William Faulkner’s bouts of hiccups are interpreted symptomatically; he is linked to other figures in (post)colonial history who suffer from hiccups during the course of the narrative, including Oubliée, the porcelain vendor, Sechou, and Caroline. Consequently, the motif of the hiccups along the way toward the abolition of slavery is related to processes of self-liberation for the young girl locked in her psychic prison. Like the motif of the hiccup, the multifunctional mobile phone plays an important role in this appellative fiction because it enables several concepts about communication and writing to come together. As a device that supports speech, listening, recording, and writing, the mobile telephone is well equipped for oraliture in a modern age. Moreover, it offers a source of dim light, thus calling attention to communication as a method of illumination. As in his other texts, where quotes from authors (Écrire) or archival documents (Texaco) disrupt the narrative and signal shifting fictional modalities, the mobile phone introduces a similar shifting effect, but in this case it is the construct of Chamoiseau who is disrupted as he is recalled from the space of reverie and narration to the idea of the self as an educator with a specific mission. These call-response mechanisms (the hiccup and the mobile phone) produce a relational history.
The unmasking of the writer and the activity of writing resurfaces as Chamoiseau declares that he invents a world as a speculative fiction (p.226) about the shadows of the real (UDC, 102). He envisions the fiction as a “sidération” that elicits a sidereal time and place (UDC, 102). The description of writing is figural, active, and experiential in that it functions as a form of scribbling or a retracing of the world as “un impossible cheminement… dans l’impossible” (UDC, 102) (“an impossible wandering … through the impossible”). The masking and unmasking of multiple selves generates a multiplicity of uncertainties about identity and history. The improbable doubling of L’Oubliée and Caroline is a strategy for forcing the reader to doubt the veracity of the text and to see it as a certain kind of speculative process or experience: a fire that the author builds and lights to enflame the imagination (UDC, 247). Moreover, the discourse reinforces the notion of elective affinities, whether through literary alliances, sympathetic connections, or new forms of kinship relations. In this respect, the story of Victor Schoelcher, the ethnographic double for Chamoiseau, serves to show that emancipation can have its origins in the desire to discover more about the world and the experiences of others. The ability to become a good reader of people, situations, texts, and the world, symbolized by the “roche écrite” as the Pierre-Monde, is evoked through the improbable marvel of converging narratives, voices, and inscriptions.
Chamoiseau calls attention to the textual relations among his various works on the initiation of consciousness through the use of textual echoes, which resonate in ways comparable to the ringing of the mobile phone, the hiccup and sound of the conch. Un dimanche au cachot opens with the question, “Le monde a-t-il une intention?” (“The world, does it have an intention?”), which echoes both Écrire en pays dominé and L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse (both of these works pose the same question). Through textual reverberations, Chamoiseau foregrounds the continuities among these discourses about the necessity of confronting the past in order to negotiate a viable present. All of these narratives stage imagined encounters with history and focus on the initiation of a new imaginary; they also posit diagenetic “-scapes” of history, which are fused together in a new cultural topography. With its criss-crossings of narrative trajectories and intertexts, the work can be read as another example of Chamoiseau’s émerveille. Notably, Un dimanche traverses the same imaginative terrain as L’Esclave through its return to the story of the slave who flees the plantation, the tale of the molosse, and the encounter with the inscribed rock. While L’Esclave ended with a premonition of abolition and the decolonization of the imaginary, Un dimanche au cachot picks up the story and traces the effects of the slave’s flight on others (p.227) he knew. The theme of emancipation comes to the foreground with the presence of Victor Schoelcher, who appears initially as the unnamed son of a porcelain manufacturer. Recording thoughts in his notebook, this anonymous figure at first plays the familiar role of the ethnographer in Chamoiseau’s fiction. When Schoelcher’s identity is eventually disclosed, the effect is to show how the work of the imaginary plays a transformative role in history through its resonating presence. This sonorous history dramatizes the ways in which the waves of consciousness and the relational chain of transformations within a community can function as a kind of auditorium, which resonates within the self and world to produce what Glissant refers to as “a prophetic vision of the past” where histories of forgotten peoples, accounts of suffering, and intuitions of emancipation are projected onto new planes of existence.5
Les neuf consciences du Malfini
Throughout his oeuvre Chamoiseau challenges Western forms of Enlightenment attained through reason and presents alternatives to the violence often associated with rationalization, whether in the case of sanitizing the markets (Chronique), police methods (Solibo), or urban development policies (Texaco). At the same time, he offers a counter-perspective on social development through poetics, such as through the use of language to encourage new forms of associative thought and the manipulation of generic forms and conventions in order to call attention to the mobilization of consciousness. Les neuf consciences du Malfini is another of Chamoiseau’s conversion narratives, which is part fable and part treatise. This time he turns to the literary tradition of the bird as spokesperson for wisdom, such as found in Aristophane’s The Birds, the Persian poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, entitled “The Conference of the Birds,” and the legend of the figure of the Simurgh, an immortal bird that rests in the Tree of Knowledge, which has fascinated Jorge Borges, Hector Bianciotti, and Mohammed Dib. Similar to L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse, where Chamoiseau represents dog’s change of consciousness, this story concerns the enlightenment of a malfini (the Buteo platypterus, also known as Mangé poulé or chicken hawk) or a hawk when confronted by a colibri (the generic name for hummingbird, often referred to as a “oiseau-mouche”) and foufou (an Antillean crested hummingbird: the colibri huppé or Orthorhynchus Cristatus). Through a dialogue with the hawk, whom he discovers in his garden following a cyclone, Chamoiseau claims that he enters (p.228) into a kind of impossible condition where he believes to have perceived what the bird said. The author attributes his ability to understand the hawk’s story to his reading of Alice in Wonderland and Kafka. Thus, Chamoiseau signals that the narrative belongs to his generic rewriting of the tradition of the marvel, but he also hints at the biocultural or biopolitical aspects of his reading. As in Kafka, a transformation occurs through Chamoiseau’s relation to the bird; the relation to the bird takes the form of a marvelous encounter, comparable to Alice’s relation to the rabbit and other animals in Wonderland. In the world of the marvel, the division between human and animal dissolves as Chamoiseau responds to the bird within himself.6 As in Cachot, the narrator Chamoiseau highlights the speculative nature of this fiction, which he has heard or imagined what the bird could not say (M, 17). The facility to marvel is thus posited as a necessary entry into the conversion narrative for the author as represented in the narrative. This fable concerns the hawk’s adventures and initiation of consciousness, particularly through his encounter with a hummingbird named Foufou. The narrative is divided into four main parts, entitled “La chose” (“The Thing”), “Le cri du monde” (“The Cry of the World”), “L’Océan de lumière” (“The Ocean of Light”), and “Récitation sur le vivant” (“Recitation on the Living”), followed by text containing words of wisdom. Thus, the fable becomes the source for a series of sacred meditations passed on to the reader.
Malfini extends Chamoiseau’s longstanding interest in birds as metaphors for the liberation of the imaginary.7 As in Biblique and other narratives featuring the Warrior of the Imaginary, the process of enlightenment is presented as a relational chain of radiating effects, emanating, in this instance, through the life of the hummingbird and the flower in the biosphere to the hawk and Chamoiseau as narrator. In this instance, the hawk takes the form of a warrior who learns to questions his solipsistic and imperialistic assumptions about the world. Through his exploration of the hawk’s perspective, Chamoiseau addresses issues such as territory, predatory behavior, and violence. The narrator signals that a conversion narrative is about to take place: “Pourtant, il y avait ce trouble … ce désir peut-être d’une autre perspective … un indicible appel … C’est alors qu’un hoquet s’empara de ma vie” (25) (“However, there was this trouble … this desire maybe for another perspective … an unspeakable call … It’s like a hiccup seized my life”). The hawk is thus affiliated with the slave who responds to the call to flight in L’Esclave and the young girl in Un dimanche au cachot whose narrative is interrupted by hiccups and telephone (p.229) calls. The titular reference to nine states of consciousness is significant because it corresponds to the Buddhist path to Enlightenment. The title of the work, The Nine Consciousnesses of the Malfini, and the inclusion of the words “alaya”8 and “amala”9 make reference to key concepts in Buddhist teachings. Buddhism derives from the Sanskrit root “budh,” commonly translated as “to enlighten” or “recover consciousness.”10 The Yogacara school of Buddhism refers to eight types of consciousness, which include the seven aspects of individual consciousness (pravrtti-vijnana) and the alaya. Synthesis takes place through the “alaya,” a term that refers to “the indissoluble” (from “a” meaning “not” and “laya” meaning “to dissolve”). The alaya is the storehouse consciousness, which acts as the receptacle where the impressions of past experience and karmic actions are stored.11 At the moment of enlightenment, the alaya is transformed into the Mirror-like Awareness or perfect discrimination of a Buddha. Chamoiseau’s reference to the ninth consciousness might be seen as a reference to the moment of enlightenment (“awakening”). Indeed, the work as a whole can be seen as concerned with the eight-fold path to enlightenment, which consists of attaining the (1) Right View, (2) Right Resolve, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and (8) Right Meditation.12 The appendix to the narrative can be seen as an effort to enable the reader to fulfill his or her own quest for enlightenment. That Chamoiseau has the Buddhist notion of the “amala” in mind is evident in the final part of the third section of the narrative, entitled “L’AMALA,” through references to the term in the context of the Malfini’s recognition of a world that goes beyond mere appearances as well as violent struggles and come to apprehend and practice enlightenment in an intuitive fashion (M, 213).
Indeed, the Malfini can be seen as attaining consciousness of the Four Noble Truths through what might be interpreted as a diagnostic process: that life means suffering (diagnosis), the origin of suffering is attachment (identification of causes), the cessation of suffering is attainable (curability), and the discovery of a path to the cessation of suffering (method of treatment). In the course of the narrative, the hawk is transformed from one who brings about suffering to one who helps to ease the suffering of the world as well as contributes to its well-being in a holistic fashion. The hawk’s initial state is described as one of “barbarous splendour” (“ma splendeur barbare”) (M, 18), characterized by the desire for conquest as well as feelings of hate, jealousy, bitterness, and doubt (M, 18). Initially discovery is associated with the colonial encounter whereby (p.230) the Martinican rain forest of Rabuchon is perceived as “Un inépuisable paradis pour la chasse!” (“An inexhaustible paradise for the hunt”) (M, 19). The hawk perceives himself as one among many predatory creatures, include eagles, buzzards, and humans (known as “Nocifs” or “Harmful Ones”) (M, 20). In this state of malediction (the subtitle of a section of the narrative), the cry is associated with the war-like desire to claim and possess territory (M, 20). The hawk observes: “J’aime tuer. J’aime frapper les chair chaudes et me repaître de la saveur du sang” (“I like killing. I like striking warm flesh and revel in the taste of blood”) (M, 21). When the hawk receives the call to awakening, his alaya undergoes a transformation, particularly when the predatory bird encounters hummingbirds and realizes that there are planes of existence that have been hitherto invisible to him (M, 27). Recognition of suffering in the world comes in many forms, such as witnessing the death and destruction of others as well as ecological disaster. In a Buddhist, sense the Malfini begins to recognize that suffering stems from a desire for attachment and conquest of the earth. Through the presence of Foufou, he comes to realize that there is another way of being in the world, which is to partake in its ceaseless becoming. The cessation of suffering comes about through the cultivation of a sense of dispassion, which entails the dissolution of cravings and attachments to desires and ideas. The discovery of a path to the cessation of suffering is one of self-improvement, which leads to rebirth. For the Malfini, this state of awakening is characterized by a profound sense of connection to all living beings and a turning away from his predatory identity. In the section of the narrative entitled “RENAISSANCE” (“REBIRTH”), the revival of the ecologically devastated Rabuchon, under the influence of the “magician” (Foufou), prompts the hawk to come to terms with his place in the environment, which leads him to encounter the world as a place without territories (“SANS TERRITOIRES”) (M, 157). As in other narratives featuring the Warrior of the Imaginary, this tale focuses on an adversarial figure (the hawk) who discovers a pacific view of his or her organic place in the world and comes to inhabit the world (rather than desire to conquer it). This transformation is brought about through the recognition of Foufou as a master who is both a dispassionate figure in the Buddhist sense and a Warrior of the Imaginary:
- Toute la sérénité du monde était en moi.
- Je le regardais de loin avec une immense gratitude.
- J’avais enfin compris … (p.231)
- Il n’avait pas besoin de disciple. Il n’avait pas besoin d’élève. Il n’avait pas besoin d’honneur. Il faisait juste ce qu’il avait à faire de sa vie, et du mieux qu’il le pouvait. Il n’imposait rien à personne sinon à lui-même et aux batailles qu’il s’ètait choisies. C’était un bien étrange guerrier. (M, 181)
- (All the serenity of the world was in me.
- I looked at him from afar with an immense [sense of] gratitude.
- I had finally understood.
- He did not need disciples. He did not need students. He did not need honor. He did just what he had to do with his life, as best as he could. He did not impose anything on anyone except on himself and the battles that he chose for himself. He was a very strange warrior.)
This new sense of the world and the role of the warrior is put to the test when a predatory bird, named “Le Féroce” or “The Ferocious One,” attacks the hummingbirds and kills Colibri in a wanton act of violence: the hawk enters into battle out of a desire to protect, responding to what he refers to as “the space of self” rather out of a desire for conquest (M, 195), but is wounded. Foufou manages to outwit and defeat The Ferocious One, but does so without seeking to harm or destroy the other bird. After the battle, The Ferocious One retreats from the region and lives out his days talking about a hummingbird-dragon (M, 202). For his part, the hawk begins to live like Foufou, his master, helping to pollinate plants; in Buddhist terms, this ecological work can be seen as contributing to a sense of the boundlessness of life. Tending plants, the Malfini becomes a gardener, adopting a role comparable to Balthazar in Biblique. This transformation of the world into a garden to be tended and inhabited rather than dominated can be seen as a counter-response to the conquest of the Caribbean and the transformation of it into an infernal new Eden of slavery and exploitation. The Malfini’s growing awareness of the world as an ecosystem, where the echoes of the cries of the world resound (M, 148), stands in contrast to the human emphasis on ecological disaster in the narrow context of economic concerns about banana crops (M, 147). Thus, the Malfini’s path to enlightenment, which recognizes a world beyond territorial concerns and conquest, via eco-poetics can be read as an allegorical accompaniment to Chamoiseau’s views (expressed in treatises and manifestos) on the need for a poetico-political imaginary, which runs counter to the exploitative tendencies of empire and global capitalism in the modern era. (p.232)
This tale of initiation has resonating effects. Through his encounter with the Malfini, Chamoiseau recognizes that the bird’s body (much like the marvelous rock in L’Esclave) has become the site of a singing/speaking relation to the world as an indissoluble whole:
Son corps fut alors empli d’un roucoulement qui se déployait en scansions étranges. Cela me laissa très vite le sentiment d’une liturgie dans laquelle il parlait en chantant, et chantait en parlant. Moi qui avais bien longtemps écouté les oiseaux, je crus reconnaître des modulations de merles, de colibris, de pigeons, de tourterelles, de ramiers … Comme si tous les oiseaux du monde avaient chanté en lui. Et pas seulement les oiseaux, mais tout ce qui vivait ici ou ailleurs, capable ou pas d’harmoniser des cris. (M, 225)
(His body was thus filled with a cooing that unfurled in strange scansions. Very quickly this gave me the feeling of a liturgy in which he spoke in singing, and sung in speaking. I who have for a long time listened to the birds, thought I recognized the modulations of blackbirds, hummingbirds, pigeons, turtledoves, woodpigeons … As if all the birds of the world had sung in him. And not only birds, but all that lived here or elsewhere, capable or not of harmonizing their cries.)
Through references to the liturgical and singing speech, which might take the form of a kind of chanting, Chamoiseau elicits the sense of a sacred choir of birds, which potentially extends to the entire world of living entities.
Textual and living landscapes converge in the narrative. For instance, the presence of the hummingbirds and their affiliations can be understood in terms of Césaire’s influence on revelations in language and nature as well as Glissant’s interest in a living landscape. Les neuf consciences begins with two epigraphs:
- Rien n’est vrai, tout est vivant.
- Édouard Glissant
- Je me suis toujours étonné qu’un corps si frêle puisse supporter, sans éclater, le pas de charge d’un coeur qui bat.
- Aimé Césaire (À propos du colibri) (p.233)
- (Nothing is true, everything is living.
- Édouard Glissant
- I have always been surprised that a body that fragile could withstand, without exploding, the double-time march of a beating heart.
- Aimé Césaire [On the subject of the hummingbird])
While the citation of Glissant calls attention to the mutable, unfolding of existence through the world as a living text, Césaire’s description of the hummingbird resembles the haiku in its poetic compression of vital and violent energies, evoked through the images of the beating heart, the explosive potential of a body at war, and the surge of the body’s very being as a war against the seemingly insurmountable opposing forces in a war against death. Chamoiseau develops these poetic trajectories through his description of the birds and the ways in which they too come to play a role in vital struggles in the Martinican landscape. Notably, the quotation from Glissant is repeated throughout the text as well as in the “Tableau, Répetitions et Gloses du Nocif” (“Scene, Rehearsals and Gloss of the Noxious”), suggesting that the word has a diffuse and pervasive influence throughout the textual landscape as if its presence has proliferated in much the same way as pollination processes are carried out through the hummingbird’s travels from flower to flower. The reference to the tableau of scene, rehearsals, and gloss is noteworthy for it suggests that the text might be understood as a sacred drama that is in need of hermeneutic interpretation. In textual terms, this slippage of identities is mediated by the opening sentence to the narrative: “EXORDE—Frère, vivant … ô Nocif … Je suis l’alarme. Je suis la toute-puissance. Je suis la peur et le danger” (M, 17) (“EXORDIUM—Brother, living one … O Harmful One … I am the alarm. I am the all-powerful. I am fear and danger”). These introductory sentences gesture toward the Western rhetorical tradition of beginning with an introduction that prepares the audience for the oration to come, a tradition that was employed in early sermon traditions also, as well as to the poetry of decadence, specifically the closing lines to Charles Baudelaire’s “Au Lecteur” (“To the Reader”), “Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!,” which refer to the audience as a dissembling double for the author. These opening sentences, apparently those of the narrator addressed to the reader, are a double for the (p.234) hawk’s call to Chamoiseau. Thus, the narrative foregrounds its duplicities from the start and also calls the reader’s attention to the potential perils embodied by the narrative, the reader and the author in the fictional/ real world. This slippage between textual and natural, real and imagined, landscapes also elicits the allegorical dimensions of the narrative, which can be taken as both grounded in time and place as well as a free-floating, abstract narration.
Patterns of flight and motion play a particularly strong role in enabling the play between material, textual, linguistic, and symbolic facets of meaning. Initially, the Malfini is unable to grasp what kind of creatures hummingbirds are; he describes a certain “froufrou des ailes” or “rustling of wings” (M, 26). He snatches and devours a first hummingbird, but a second escapes him. Soon the predatory pursuit of these creatures turns to wonder as he considers their movements, habits, and relation to their environment. The encounter with the hummingbirds calls attention to what was formerly an invisible aspect of the world (M, 27–28). The hawk must learn not simply to take, but also to be overtaken by surprise (M, 28). In the hawk’s opinion, these birds expend the energy of a volcano for an existence that does not change anything in the order of things (M, 29), but eventually he comes to understand that they play a vital role in sustaining the biosphere through their relation to flowers and role in enabling pollination. Two birds in particular catch the Malfini’s attention: a hummingbird named Coulibri (which is the generic name for this species) and another whom he calls “Froufrou” (the colibri huppé or Orthorhynchus Cristatus) and then “Foufou” (the local name for the bird). The slippage from “Froufrou” (“frou-frou” means “to rustle”) to the Creole name for the bird “Foufou” calls the reader’s attention to the common practice of dropping the “r” when words shift from French to Creole. Thus, the bird reenacts creolizing processes as it comes into contact with the other bird. From the hawk’s perspective, the hummingbird’s motion, with its darting and spirals, seems to embody folly itself:
Leurs ailes tournoyaient sur elles-mêmes, en effectuant une spirale verticale, cela sans cesse et sans à-coups, dans une constance qui ne pouvait que confondre l’entendement. Et cette activité démente se déployait avec un tel mystère d’aisance et d’énergie, que ces choses pouvaient, dans une série d’instantanés, fondre à l’horizontale, surgir à la verticale, tournoyer à différents degrés et, pour clore l’insoutenable, se mettre soudain à voler en arrière. (M, 30–31)
(p.235) (Their wings turned on themselves, taking the form of a vertical spiral, without ceasing and without jolting, in a constancy that could only confound understanding. And this demented activity was carried out with such a mystery of ease and energy that these things could in a series of instants melt into the horizontal, spring up in the vertical, turn in different degrees, and to finish off the impossible, go suddenly in flight backward.)
Yet, eventually, this spiraling motion is suggestive of an open relation to the world as the hawk’s flight pattern comes to signify a salutary gesture rather than predatory circling (M, 204). While engaged in this open spiraling motion, the hawk decides that he will do his part to support Foufou’s relational way of being in the world. For Glissant and Frankétienne, the circle represents the creative errance of the postcolonial world.13 In the world of the criss-crossing marvel, it is not surprising that the flight patterns of Chamoiseau’s hummingbird and hawk should embody this natural, intertextual, and scribal form.
From a textual perspective, the hawk’s tutelage with Foufou, who serves as a master in the Buddhist sense rather than the colonial one, the narrative might be seen as an allegory of Chamoiseau’s relationship to Glissant. In particular, the Traité du Tout-Monde (Treatise on the Tout-Monde) and Poétique de la Relation (Poetics of Relation) can be seen to inspire the philosophical perspectives presented in the narrative, the representation of spatiality and the Buddhist motif. The Afro-Caribbean emphasis on genealogy is displaced through the Buddhist notion of lineage, which consists of a group of teachings and/or practices handed down from teachers to students; the latter eventually become teachers and sages in their own right. In this respect, we can see the inclusion of textual references from Glissant’s work as a correlative to the spatial and organic relations of the hummingbird. The hawk serves as a mask or guise for Chamoiseau; indeed, the voice of the hawk and the narrator are inseparable. In “Expanse and Filiation,” Glissant observes that Buddhism offers a model for the dissolution of self in the world:
Buddhist mythologies, to offer an almost commonplace comparison, are based on temporal cycles and consider first of all, and uniquely, the individual (himself impermanent or almost so), whose “stories” are of self-perfection through dissolution into the All.14
(p.236) The tendency toward dissolution rather than annihilation or sacrifice is of particular relevance to the Caribbean quest for a postcolonial condition that exceeds perpetual martyrdom, such as is the case with Che Guevara and other “saints” of anticolonial struggle. Ontologically, this way of being in the world supplants the old master-slave paradigm and introduces a collective impetus toward enlightenment. In spatial terms, this Buddhist path is defined by Glissant as follows:
BUDDHA.—Through a primordial movement of circularity the individual strives in search of perfection towards a dissolution with the All. His successive lives are the cycles (“the histories”) of this perfection and do not constitute a linearity. At the end of the process he is reincarnated: he is the same and yet other.15
The Buddhist gyre or spiral of motion is of course reproduced by the movement of the hummingbird whose course is so often described as a kind of spiral.16 In this respect, the Hawk’s attentiveness to the pathways and processes of the hummingbird marks a turn from a spectral, predatory perspective to a singular, ruminative, and relational view. The movement toward an expansive or immanent view of one’s place in the organic system is brought about through the observation of the hummingbird’s participation in the processes of pollination, which are life-giving and reproductive. The master (hummingbird) does not seek to master the cosmic but to dwell within it as an agent who renders service: in biopolitical and spiritual terms, his nourishment is intrinsically related to service. Indeed, the state of awakening itself entails a Glissantian recognition of the chaos of archipelagos in movement (M, 85) and mantra-like repetitions and variations on the phrase “Rien n’est vrai, tout est vivant” (“Nothing is true, all is living”) (M, 230). Malcolm David Eckel notes that in the Buddhist tradition “spaces become sacred by their association with the Buddha or with other sacred persons.”17 In this respect, we can see that the presence of Foufou/Glissant initiates a chain reaction that can be traced through the responses of Malfini/Chamoiseau. Through narrative, Chamoiseau extends the sacred space of the text and the world to the reader.
Malfini is unique in Chamoiseau’s oeuvre because it does not entail a strong narrative connection to the slave past or focus on the need to reclaim history. However, this philosophical tale confronts issues of domination and deals with concerns about the Other, which are central to (p.237) postcolonial criticism. Foufou’s deterritorialized relation to plants and role as a sage and warrior offer a model for a nonhierarchical, immanent sense of one’s place in the world. Through his dialogue with the Malfini, Chamoiseau becomes bird-like; the author’s emphasis on the motions of birds and attentiveness to the environmental as a political model can be seen as an attempt to write with (rather than merely about) nature. In maintaining a stance that is “[n]either identification nor distance, neither proximity nor remoteness,” with regard to the Malfini, Chamoiseau is able to “speak with, write with” the minority without silencing it.18 Inspired by Kafka, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari claim that “becomingminoritarian” (which is characterized by the ability to speak with the minority without silencing it) “is a political affair and necessitates a labor of power, an active micropolitics”19 that subverts the “binary machines” such as “question-answer, masculine-feminine, man-animal, etc.”20 The process of “becoming-animal” binds the writer and the animal with each other; consequently, its political efficacy lies “in the unthinking or undoing of the conventionally human.”21 In this respect, Chamoiseau’s Warrior of the Imaginary enters into a quest that is post-human in scope; this figure moves beyond prevailing conceptions of selfhood, language, and being in the world to embrace a relational way of being and becoming in the world. In the context of a post-abolition world, where the slave’s body is emancipated from its former commoditized status, the construct of post-human identity is not only appealing but fundamental to the reconstruction of identity for it incorporates both human and nonhuman elements as well as elicits a sense of newness. Thus, Chamoiseau’s philosophical reorientation of identity as a quest for being in the world through assemblage and relation can be seen as a way out of the impasse of masking/unmasking as described in Un dimanche au cachot where these activities are associated with conquest, the legacies of empire, mimicry, and a sense of alienation. In taking up masquerade as a relational mode of becoming, Chamoiseau the narrator participates in an art of living, which finds expression in a creative relationship to the diversity of the world.22 As an activist, thinker, and creative writer, Chamoiseau remains steadfastly committed to the politics of place and connection, seeking to establish the beautiful in the world and his work. (p.238)
(1) . This manifesto has been translated into English as A Plea for “Products of High Necessity” by Isabelle Metral for L’Humanité in English. See Thursday March 5, 2009: http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/spip.php?article1163.
(2) . Examples of literary treatises include Aimé Césaire’s “En guise de manifeste littéraire” (1942) and Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism) (1955), Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) (1952) and Jacques Stephen Alexis’s “Lettre aux Hommes Vieux” (1946).
(3) . Glissant, Traité du Tout-Monde, 17–18.
(4) . Celia Britton, Édouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory: Strategies of Language and Resistance (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 179.
(5) . Glissant, “The Known, the Uncertain,” Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays,
(6) . One might refer to Jacques Derrida and David Wills, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 369– 418. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s discussion of assemblages and “becominganimal” is also relevant here as Chamoiseau’s state of consciousness slips into that of nature and the bird so that he is no longer positioned as merely human but also as a participant in an organic wholeness. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 260. The Deleuzo-Guattarian wasp-orchid assemblage offers an exemplar of mutual deterritorialization, which is also evident in Chamoiseau’s relation of the hummingbird to the flower. Chamoiseau’s clairvoyant relationship to the Malfini might be seen as an example of an assemblage.
(7) . Chamoiseau’s interest in birds can be traced back to the many puns on his name, which contains the word “oiseau” or bird within it. Notably, the nickname oiseau de Cham or “bird of Cham.” This biblical reference to the story of Noah’s son, Cham, and the curse the father placed on Cham’s descendants, has been interpreted as the curse of slavery. “Chamoiseau” takes this lexical play further as (p.258) composition of his name (consisting of “bird,” suggesting flight, and “Ham,” suggesting enslavement) defies the binaries of freedom and slavery. Texaco contains a relevant episode in which Marie-Sophie’s grandfather is imprisoned for his presumed resistance to slavery. Both the slave owner and his fellow slaves are suspicious of his incantory references to birds, assuming some form of curse is being carried out, but the narrator informs us that the jailed man is merely expressing his lifelong fascination with the birds in flight (T, 52–53). Perhaps the most pertinent example is the account of the hummingbird myth of origins in Chronique des sept misères where the hummingbird is described as a vengeful entity reduced to minuscule size by his enemy who has magical powers (CSM, 106–7). The hummingbird cultivates a sharp pointed beak over the centuries in order to take vengeance, but over time forgets his rage and spends his time becoming drunk on the nectar of flowers. Eventually, his heart gives out and he explodes, dissipating into the world of flowers. The theme of dissolution in the world resurfaces in Malfini.
(8) . The term “alaya” is defined as follows: [a]laya (Skt.). 1. Basis, substratum; sometimes used simply as an abbreviation for the Yogcra concept of the ‘storehouse consciousness’ ([a]laya-vijñna) but also found in Tibetan Buddhist usage as a distinct concept in the sense of the ‘ground of being’. These two aspects of the term thus distinguish the ontological and epistemological aspects of the [a] lya-vijñna. 2. The term also occurs in a nonphilosophical sense as a synonym of trsn[a], meaning attachment, clinging, or desire. See A Dictionary of Buddhism, ed. Damien Keown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press, Brunel University. Referenced on April 29, 2010: http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t108.e73.
(9) . The “amala” or “amala-vijñna” refers to the “‘unsullied consciousness’, a term used in Param<a>rtha’s system of Yogcra and equivalent in many respects to Buddha-nature or the tathgata-garbha.” See A Dictionary of Buddhism.
(10) . According to A Dictionary of Buddhism, the term “Buddha” is defined as “an epithet of those who have achieved enlightenment (bodhi), the goal of the Buddhist religious life” and “the Buddhas are those who have awakened to the true nature of things as taught in the Four Noble Truths.”
(11) . A Dictionary of Buddhism.
(12) . A Dictionary of Buddhism.
(13) . A. James Arnold, “The Essay And/In History,” A History of Literature in the Caribbean: Hispanic and Francophone Regions, Volume I, ed. Albert James Arnold, Julio Rodríguez-Luis, and J. Michael Dash (Philadelphia and Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1994), 563.
(14) . Glissant, “Expanse and Filiation,” 48.
(16) . Glissant, “Expanse and Filiation,” 48–49.
(17) . Malcolm David Eckel, Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Place (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 65.
(18) . Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 52, original emphasis.
(19) . Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 292.
(20) . Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, 2.
(21) . Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), 104.