In the early hours of Thursday, February 3rd, Edouard Glissant passed away in Paris, aged 82. Born September 21st 1928, in the French Caribbean island Martinique, this great poet has left an incomparable opus behind him, the poetics of which are resolutely political.
Driven by the goal of decolonisation, in which struggle he was amilitant activist, he imagined a real emancipation, of a kind that would not perpetuate the old patterns of domination. Homage to the champion, the eulogist of the notions of ‘All-World' and of ‘Relation'. A kindred spirit.
"An neg sé en sièc", ("anegro is a century"). Edouard Glissant included this creole proverb from Martinique as an epigraph to his Caribbean Discourse (Discours Antillais, 1981). It refers to the infinitely long history borne on the shoulders of those who hail from the Caribbean melting pot, the laboratory of the world's ‘creolization'– the mixing of cultures and their adaptation to one another, notably through language.
Just above this quote, he inscribed another, attributed to Charles de Gaulle while on a trip to Martinique: "Between Europe and America, I seeonly dust". One can imagine the twinkle in the poet's eye before this ironic juxtaposition. The powerful only appear strong, while they are weak because blind; they are unable to imagine fragility becoming strength, these islands imagining themselves universes, this dustre inventing the whole world.
It is in this island arc that our European West inaugurated the vast project of slavery and colonisation that it was to impose all over the world. But it is there too that the oppressed rose from the dust and led the way to freedom, shaking off the shackles of thought systems that forge oppression and impose submission. There, on the scenes of such suffering and resistance, where the violence of the slave trade was matched by the courage of revolt and the invention of freedom, is where Edouard Glissant took on the role of indefatigable guide, blazing a trailwith the acuity of a visionary and the generosity of a storyteller.
His century began as our empires were crumbling, midway through the 20th century. Born at Bezaudin in the commune of St Marie on the ocean-facing flank of the volcanic Montagne Pelée (Bare Mountain), Edouard Glissant left his homeland to become a student in post-war Paris.
This is when he published his first writings: worksfrom the outset mature, including The Indies (Les Indes, 1956), which has since become a classic; and The Ripening (La Lézarde, 1958), a novel about emancipation, awarded the Prix Renaudot. Preceding these there had been A Field of Islands (Un champ d'îles, 1952), The Anxious Land (La Terre inquiète, 1954), Sun of Consciousness (Soleil de la conscience, 1956). The essential insights of the poet are already present in these first brilliant works.
"I conjecture that perhaps there will no longer be culture without all cultures, no civilization that is the metropolis of others, no poet who can ignore the movement of History", he writes in Sun of Consciousness, the first of his essays in which he invented a style echoing poetry and fiction, and which he favoured particularly towards the end of his life.
As a Martinican in Paris, he said at the time that he was "committed to a French solution." This formula sums up his stubborn rejection of closed identities that are shut off from others, blind to the unexpected, rejecting unforeseeable encounters, sticking to the beaten path. One has to know how to cultivate, he said, "a son's viewpoint, the vision of a foreigner."
Instead he advocated being at once within and without, here and there, sitting on the frontier and accompanying people across it. This, from the very start, was the originality and the power of Glissant's vision. It was his appeal and his strength, the strength of his appeal.