Cesaire, Aimé 1913–

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Cesaire, Aimé 1913–

(Aimé Fernand Cesaire)

PERSONAL: Born June 25, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Martinique; son of Fernand (a comptroller with the revenue service) and Marie (Hermine) Cesaire; married Suzanne Roussi (a teacher), July 10, 1937; children: Jacques, Jean-Paul, Francis, Ina, Marc, Michelle. Education: Attended Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris; Sor-bonne, University of Paris, licencie es lettres.

ADDRESSES: Offyce—Assemblee Nationale, 75007 Paris, France; La Mairie, 97200 Fort-de-France, Martinique, West Indies.

CAREER: Lycee of Fort-de-France, Martinique, teacher, 1940–45; member of the two French constituent assemblies, 1945–46; mayor of Fort-de-France, 1945–; deputy for Martinique in French National Assembly, 1946. Conseiller general for fourth canton (district) of Fort-de-France; president of the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais.

MEMBER: Society of African Culture (Paris, France; president).

AWARDS, HONORS: Aimé Cesaire: The Collected Poetry was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, 1984; commander, Order of Merit of Côte d'Ivoire, 2002.


(With Gaston Monnerville and Leopold Sedar-Senghor) Commemoration du centenaire de l'abolition de l'esclavage: Discours pronounces a la Sorbonne le 27 avril 1948 (title means "Commemoration of the Centenary of the Abolition of Slavery: Speeches Given at the Sorbonne on April 27, 1948"), Presses Universitaires de France, 1948.

Discours sur le colonialisme, Reclame, 1950, 5th edition, Presence Africaine (Paris, France), 1970, translation by Joan Pinkham published as Discourse on Colonialism, Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Lettre a Maurice Thorez, 3rd edition, Presence Afric-aine, 1956, translation published as Letter to Maurice Thorez, 1957.

Toussaint L'Ouverture: La revolution franôaise et le probleme coloniale (title means "The French Revolution and the Colonial Problem"), Club Fran?ais du Livre, 1960, revised edition, Presence Africaine, 1962.

Ouvres completes (title means "Complete Works"), three volumes, Editions Desormeaux, 1976.

(Contributor) Studies in French, William Marsh Rice University, 1977.

Culture and Colonization, University of Yaounde, 1978.

La Poesie, (collection), edited by Daniel Maximin and Gilles Carpentier, Seuil (Paris, France), 1994.

Aimee Cesaire: Pour Aujourdhui et Pour Demain, edited by Guy Ossiro Midiohovan, Sepia, 1995.

Anthologie poetique, edited by Roger Toumson, Impr. Nationale Editions, 1996.

Also author of Textes, edited by R. Mercier and M. Battestini, French and European Publications.


Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, published in the Paris, France, periodical Volontes, 1939, published by Presence Africaine, 1956, 2nd edition, 1960, translation by Emil Snyders published as Return to My Native Land, Presence Africaine, 1968, translation by John Berger and Anna Bostock published under same title, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1969, translation by Mireille Rosello and Annie Pritchard published as Notebook of a Return to My Native Land = Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1995, translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith as Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

Les armes miraculeuses (title means "The Miracle Weapons;" also see below), Gallimard, 1946, reprinted, 1970.

Soleil cou-coupe (title means "Solar Throat Slashed"), K (Paris, France), 1948, reprinted (bound with Antilles a main armee by Charles Calixte under title Poems from Martinique), Kraus, 1970.

Corps perdu, illustrations by Pablo Picasso, 1949, translation by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith published as Lost Body, Braziller, 1986.

Ferrements (title means "Shackles;" also see below), Editions du Seuil (Paris, France), 1960.

Cadastre (also see below), Editions du Seuil (Paris, France), 1961, translation by Gregson Davis published as Cadastre, Third Press, 1972, translation by Emil Snyders and Sanford Upson published under same title, Third Press, 1973.

State of the Union, translation by Clayton Eshleman and Dennis Kelly of selections from Les armes miraculeuses, Ferrements, and Cadastre, [Blooming-ton, IL], 1966.

Moi, Laminaire (title means "I, Laminarian"), first published in 1982, published by French & European Publications, 1991.

Aimé Cesaire: The Collected Poetry, translation and with an introduction by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, University of California Press, 1983.

Non-Vicious Circle: Twenty Poems, translation by Greg-son Davis, Stanford University Press, 1985.

Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, 1946–82 (includes English translations of Et les Chiens se taisaient and Moi, laminaire), translation by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, University Press of Virginia, 1990.


Et les chiens se taisaient: tragedie (title means "And the Dogs Were Silent: A Tragedy"), Presence Africaine, 1956.

La tragedie du roi Christophe, Presence Africaine, 1963, revised edition, 1973, translation by Ralph Manheim published as The Tragedy of King Christophe, Grove (New York, NY), 1970.

Une saison au Congo, Editions du Seuil (Paris, France), 1966, translation by Ralph Manheim published as A Season in the Congo (produced in New York at the Paperback Studio Theatre, July, 1970), Grove (New York, NY), 1969.

Une tempete: d'apres "le tempete" de Shakespeare. Adaptation pour un theatre negre, Editions du Seuil (Paris, France), 1969, translation by Richard Miller published as A Tempest, Ubu Repertory, 1986.


Editor of Tropiques, 1941–45, and of L'Afrique.

SIDELIGHTS: Because of his role in creating and promoting negritude, a cultural movement which calls for black people to renounce Western society and adopt the traditional values of black civilization, Aimé Cesaire is a prominent figure among blacks in the Third World. A native of the Caribbean island of Martinique, where he has served as mayor of the city of Fort-de-France since 1945, Cesaire also enjoys an international literary reputation for his poems and plays. His 1,000-line poem Return to My Native Land, a powerful piece written in extravagant, surreal language and dealing with the reawakening of black racial awareness, is a major work in contemporary French-language literature. Cesaire is, Serge Gavronsky stated in the New York Times Book Review, "one of the most powerful French poets" of the twentieth century.

At the age of eighteen, Cesaire left his native Martinique, at that time a colony of France, to attend school in Paris. The city was the center for a number of political and cultural movements during the 1930s, several of which especially influenced the young Cesaire and his fellow black students. Marxism gave them a revolutionary perspective, while surrealism provided them with a modernist esthetic by which to express themselves. Together with Leon-Goutran Damas and Leopold Sedar Senghor, who later became president of Senegal, Cesaire founded the magazine L'Etudiant Noir, in which the ideology of negritude was first developed and explained. "Negritude … proclaimed a pride in black culture and, in turning their contemporaries' gaze away from the notion of things French, these young students began a revolution in attitudes which was to make a profound impact after the war," Clive Wake explained in the Times Literary Supplement. The influence of the movement on black writers in Africa and the Caribbean was so pervasive that the term negritude has come to refer to "large areas of black African and Caribbean literature in French, roughly from the 1930s to the 1960s," Christopher Miller wrote in the Washington Post Book World.

The first use of the word negritude occurs in Cesaire's poem Return to My Native Land (Cahier d'un retour au pays natal), first published in the magazine Volontes in 1939. In this poem, Cesaire combines an exuberant wordplay, an encyclopedic vocabulary, and daring surreal metaphors with bits of African and Caribbean black history to create an "exorcism … of the poet's 'civilized' instincts, his lingering shame at belonging to a country and a race so abject, servile, petty and repressed as is his," Marjorie Perloff wrote in the American Poetry Review. Gavronsky explained that the poem "is a concerted effort to affirm [Cesaire's] stature in French letters by a sort of poetic one-upmanship but also a determination to create a new language capable of expressing his African heritage." Return to My Native Land, Perloff maintained, is "a paratactic catalogue poem that piles up phrase upon phrase, image upon image, in a complex network of repetitions, its thrust is to define the threshold between sleep and waking—the sleep of oppression, the blind acceptance of the status quo, that gives way to rebirth, to a new awareness of what is and may be."

Written as Cesaire himself was leaving Paris to return to Martinique, Return to My Native Land reverberates with both personal and racial significance. The poet's definition of his own negritude comes to symbolize the growing self-awareness of all blacks of their cultural heritage. Judith Gleason, writing in the Negro Digest, believed that Cesaire's poetry is "grounded in the historical sufferings of a chosen people" and so "his is an angry, authentic vision of the promised land." Jean Paul Sartre, in an article for The Black American Writer: Po-etry and Drama, wrote that "Cesaire's words do not describe negritude, they do not designate it, they do not copy it from the outside like a painter with a model: they create it; they compose it under our very eyes."

Several critics see Cesaire as a writer who embodies the larger struggles of his people in all of his poetry. Hilary Okam of Yale French Studies, for example, argued that "Cesaire's poetic idiosyncracies, especially his search for and use of uncommon vocabulary, are symptomatic of his own mental agony in the search for an exact definition of himself and, by extension, of his people and their common situation and destiny." Okam concluded that "it is clear from [Cesaire's] use of symbols and imagery, that despite years of alienation and acculturation he has continued to live in the concrete reality of his Negro-subjectivity." Writing in the CLA Journal, Ruth J.S. Simmons noted that although Cesaire's poetry is personal, he speaks from a perspective shared by many other blacks. "Poetry has been for him," Simmons explaind, "an important vehicle of personal growth and self-revelation, [but] it has also been an important expression of the will and personality of a people…. [It is] impossible to consider the work of Cesaire outside of the context of the poet's personal vision and definition of his art. He defines his past as African, his present as Antillean and his condition as one of having been exploited…. To remove Cesaire from this context is to ignore what he was and still is as a man and as a poet."

The concerns found in Return to My Native Land ultimately transcend the personal or racial, addressing liberation and self-awareness in universal terms. Gleason called Return to My Native Land "a masterpiece of cultural relevance, every bit as 'important' as The Wasteland, its remarkable virtuosity will ensure its eloquence long after the struggle for human dignity has ceased to be viewed in racial terms." Andre Breton, in What Is Surrealism?: Selected Writings, also sees larger issues at stake in the poem. "What, in my eyes, renders this protest invaluable," Breton stated, "is that it continually transcends the anguish which for a black man is inseparable from the lot of blacks in modern society, and unites with the protest of every poet, artist and thinker worthy of the name … to embrace the entire intolerable though amendable condition created for man by this society."

Cesaire's poetic language was strongly influenced by the French surrealists of the 1930s, but he uses familiar surrealist poetic techniques in a distinctive manner. Breton claimed that Cesaire "is a black man who handles the French language as no white man can handle it today." Alfred Cismaru stated in Renascence that Ce-saire's "separation from Europe makes it possible for him to break with clarity and description, and to become intimate with the fundamental essence of things. Under his powerful, poetic eye, perception knows no limits and pierces appearances without pity. Words emerge and explode like firecrackers, catching the eye and the imagination of the reader. He makes use of the entire dictionary, of artificial and vulgar words, of elegant and forgotten ones, of technical and invented vocabulary, marrying it to Antillean and African syllables, and allowing it to play freely in a sort of flaming folly that is both a challenge and a tenacious attempt at mystification." Poetic language is seen by some critics as a form of literary violence, with the jarring images and forceful rhythms of the poetry assaulting the reader. Perloff found that Cesaire's "is a language so violently charged with meaning that each word falls on the ear (or hits the eye) with resounding force." Gleason explained this violence as the expression of an entire race, not just of one man: "Cesaire's is the turbulent poetry of the spiritually dislocated, of the damned. His images strike through the net…. Cesaire's is the Black Power of the imagination."

This violent energy is what first drew Cesaire to surrealism. The surrealist artists and writers of the 1930s saw themselves as rebels against a stale and outmoded culture. Their works were meant to revive and express unconscious, suppressed, and forbidden desires. Politically, they aligned themselves with the revolutionary left. As Gavronsky explained, "Cesaire's efforts to forge a verbal medium that would identify him with the opposition to existing political conditions and literary conventions [led him to] the same camp as the Surrealists, who had combined a new poetics that liberated the image from classical restraints with revolutionary politics influenced by Marx and his followers." Cesaire was to remain a surrealist for many years, but he eventually decided that his political concerns would best be served by more realistic forms of writing. "For decades," Karl Keller noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "[Cesaire] found the surreal aesthetically revolutionary, but in the face of the torture and the suffering, he has pretty well abandoned it as a luxury."

In the late 1950s Cesaire began to write realistic plays for the theatre, hoping in this way to attract a larger audience to his work. These plays are more explicitly political than his poetry and focus on historical black nationalist leaders of the Third World. The Tragedy of King Christophe is a biographical drama about King Henri Christophe of Haiti, a black leader of that island ation in the early nineteenth century. After fighting in a successful revolution against the French colonists, Christophe assumed power and made himself king. But his cruelty and arbitrary use of power led to a rebellion in turn against his own rule, and Christophe committed suicide. Writing in Studies in Black Literature, Henry Cohen called The Tragedy of King Christophe "one of French America's finest literary expressions." A Season in the Congo follows the political career of Patrice Lumumba, first president of the Republic of the Congo in Africa. Lumumba's career was also tragic. With the independence of the Congo in 1960, Lumumba became president of the new nation. But the resulting power struggles among black leaders led in 1961 to Lumumba's assassination by his political opponents. The reviewer for Prairie Schooner called A Season in the Congo "a passionate and poetic drama." Wake remarks that Cesaire's plays have "greatly widened [his] audience and perhaps tempted them to read the poetry." Gavronsky claims that "in the [1960s, Cesaire] was … the leading black dramatist writing in French."

Despite the international acclaim he has received for his poetry and plays, Cesaire remains well known on Martinique for his political career. After 1945 he served as mayor of Fort-de-France and as a member of the French National Assembly. For the first decade of his career, Cesaire was affiliated with the Communist bloc of the assembly, then moved to the Parti du Regroupement Africain et des Federalistes for a short time, and then became president of the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais, a leftist political organization. Cesaire's often revolutionary rhetoric is in sharp contrast to his usually moderate political actions. He opposes independence for Martinique, for example, and was instrumental in having the island declared an oversea department of France—a status similar to that of Puerto Rico to the United States. And as a chief proponent of negritude, which calls for blacks to reject Western culture, Cesaire nonetheless writes his works in French, not in his native black language of creole.

But what may seem contradictory in Cesaire's life and work is usually seen by critics as the essential tension that makes his voice uniquely important. A. James Arnold, in his Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Cesaire, examined and accepted the tension between Cesaire's European literary sources and his black subject matter and between his modernist sensibility and his black nationalist concerns. Miller explained that "Arnold poses the riddle of Cesaire with admirable clarity" and "effectively defuses … either a wholly African or a wholly European Cesaire." This uniting of the European and African is also noted by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith in their introduction to Aimé Cesaire: The Collected Poetry. They describe Cesaire as "a bridge between the twain that, in principle, should never meet, Europe and Africa…. It was by borrowing European techniques that he succeeded in expressing his Africanism in its purest form." Similarly, Sartre argued that "in Cesaire, the great surrealist tradition is realized, it takes on its definitive meaning and is destroyed: surrealism—that European movement—is taken from the Europeans by a Black man who turns it against them and gives it vigorously defined function."

It is because of his poetry that Cesaire is primarily known worldwide, while in the Third World he is usually seen as an important black nationalist theoretician. Speaking of his poetry, Gavronsky explained that Cesaire is "among the major French poets" of his generation. Cismaru believed that Cesaire "is a poet's poet when he stays clear of political questions, a tenacious and violent propagandist when the theme requires it. His place in contemporary French letters … is assured in spite of the fact that not many agree with his views on Whites in general, nor with his opinions on Europe, in particular." Return to My Native Land has been his most influential work, particularly in the Third World where, Wake notes, "by the 1960s it was widely known and quoted because of its ideological and political significance." To European and American critics, Return to My Native Land is seen as a masterpiece of surrealist literature. Cesaire's coining of the term negritude and his continued promotion of a distinctly black culture separate from Western culture has made him especially respected in the emerging black nations. Eshleman and Smith reported that "although Cesaire was by no means the sole exponent of negritude, the word is now inseparable from his name, and largely responsible for his prominent position in the Third World."



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