René Maran’s «Batouala»


by Susan Allen (Author)
©2015 Thesis XLII, 343 Pages


The polemic excited by Batouala’s controversial Preface has conditioned an enduring, near-universal acceptance of a disjunction of Preface and novel. This is the first book to challenge that premise. The fallacious underpinnings of the origin persistence of this view are shown to lie in Western, dichotomously structured thinking. Through offshoots of the civilised-versus-savage dichotomy, namely oral-versus-written, form-versus-content and music-versus-narrative, Batouala’s Signifyin(g) discourse spills beyond the novel’s borders to reveal the sterility of dichotomy as a conceptualising structure. Dichotomy’s anachronism is thrust upon it through the work’s faithful representation of African ontology, whose water-inspired philosophy precludes it. Batouala’s structural basis is compared with that of jazz, which similarly bridges European and African civilisations, and whose African philosophical stance also acts as a provocation to the dichotomous thinking model. As Batouala «Fixed» transmutes to Batouala «Free», the pejorative implications of its widely touted ambiguity evaporate to expose a novel that is both lucid and coherent when viewed as jazz-text and jazz performance.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations and Key Terms
  • Introduction
  • About Jazz-Text
  • Part One Batouala ‘Fixed’ Figé dans le temps, l’otage de sa Préface controversée
  • 1. As if the Novel were Almost Irrelevant Batouala’s Reception
  • 2. The ‘Absence’ of Africa’s Story Batouala’s Historical Context
  • 3. Véritable roman nègre Batouala’s Literary Context
  • Part Two Batouala ‘Free’ Son jazz performance
  • 4. Vous avez dit ambigüité ?
  • 5. Let the Jazz Performance Begin Batouala’s Preface
  • 6. Idées préconçues s’abstenir Welcome to Africa
  • 7. Civilised Time, Savage Time
  • 8. Telling Your Story
  • 9. Life-Fire, Death-Fire Life-Water, Death-Water
  • Afterword
  • Bibliography

← x | xi →Abbreviations and Key Terms

1.The novel Batouala (Preface and novel proper), is italicised, while Chief Batouala, the novel’s central character, appears in plain text (Batouala). Modifications have been made (to the title of journal articles, for example), in order that the distinction is at all times clear.

2.Batouala’s Preface is indicated by a capital ‘P’ throughout, with a lower case ‘p’ used for the generic term. The term, “novel”, is used for the novel proper as well as for the work as a whole: the surrounding context will determine which meaning the term carries. “The work” is another term applied to Batouala’s Preface and novel proper.

3.Chapters in Batouala are written as Chapter One, Chapter Two and so on, while the chapters of this book are written as chapter 1, chapter 2. Chapters of other publications are written with a capital ‘C’ and a numeric sign (Chapter 7, for example).

4.The text referred to is the 1938 edition, unless otherwise specified, and is noted as (B, p.). Reference to the original edition is noted as (B [1921], p.) and to the most recent English translation as (B [1972], p.). Page numbers throughout correspond with the most recent French edition of Batouala (Paris: Albin Michel, 2001).

5.All text is written in Australian English, with the exception of quoted material where American English spelling is preserved (although “z” has been altered to “s” in words such as organisation, civilisation and so on). Dates are noted as day/month/year.

← xi | xii →The inconsistency of terms associated with African and African-American civilisations, peoples and cultures, (including those of the African diaspora), reflects the multiplicity of areas this book examines, the breadth and depth of inquiry it undertakes within those areas and the evolution of terms and their connotations over the near hundred-year time span since Batouala’s original publication. Research in the areas of literature, music, history, culture and philosophy has been necessary in order to extricate the novel from the current constraints of colonial and post-colonial thinking and stimulate discussion of the work as a jazz-text expression of African ontology. Since the terms and terminology used cover two or three recognised disciplinary areas, they are occasionally approximate and sometimes overlap.

A forensic dissection of terms is not only inappropriate, but counterproductive to the exposition of this book’s principal arguments. Such an emphasis would arguably distract from their overall thrust and momentum, as well as being contrary to the spirit of a jazz-text reading contesting arbitrary subdivisions. It would also tend to reinforce the dichotomous divisions which have for so long impeded dispassionate assessment of the universality of Batouala’s themes and countersigned the capitulation of its critical appreciation to a hierarchy of the-specific-over-the-general.

General statements sometimes unavoidably crop up and reference to Batouala’s text on those occasions is encouraged. Like Batouala, this book will benefit from the reader’s engagement and participation. In works that privilege invisible, sensory and rhythmic phenomena there are, of necessity, certain ‘intangibles’, ‘invisible pulses’ and other subtleties which must be felt. No verbal analysis can adequately quantify or fully explain such sensibilities in terms of the emphasis and de-emphasis of linguistic signs. This is the case for the present jazz-text reading of Batouala, but the following is a general guide.

‘Black’ and ‘White’

The terms “black”, “Black”, “Negro”, “Nègre”, “African” and “African-American”, which appear throughout, occur in the reference literature and its quoted material without disclaimer or definition. They are used as dictated by, and as appropriate to context. They have at all times been preserved in quoted material.

← xii | xiii →“Black” is a volatile and vexed term, marred by cross-contamination and employed with a notable degree of inconsistency. The thrust of this book is philosophical. For our purposes to “be black” is primarily a manner of thinking and attitude, which then finds its expression in art and life.1 Indeed, René Maran embodies the problem of defining “blackness”:

René Maran epitomises the controversy and confusion, the complications and contradictions posed by blackness, not only as a color (sic) […] but as a state of mind, and as a way of life.2

Since “state of mind and way of life” lie beyond race and embrace cultural diversity, the term “black” denotes those who share an understanding of African ontology and Negro ‘attitude’, and whose lives and artistic expression reflect that philosophy. The terms “white”, “West/Western” and “Europe/European”, perforce, denote those with a European cultural attitude and world-view who live according to accepted Western cultural norms. Both terms – “black” and “white” – thus indicate a manner of processing the world and a way of being in the world. Nonetheless, it should not be forgotten that they represent arbitrary subdivisions of humanity which nourish the civilised-versus-savage dichotomy that Batouala demonstrates to be sterile.

Black music

The term, “black music”, embraces the unity and diversity of African and African-derived music. Like the term “black”, it is the expression of a cultural attitude flowing from a certain philosophy of life. This philosophy embraces “the why of Negro music”, and obliges Europeans to “reorganise [their] thinking” for its understanding.3 Wynton Marsalis emphasises its ambiguous nature: “I don’t believe you can use a term like black music – the definition of black in America is one drop of Negro blood, so that’s a lot of white people”. The basis of jazz, he insists, is in “the experience […] of the United States negro (sic) culture […] which includes all Americans ← xiii | xiv →[…] white is a part of negro (sic)”.4 Marsalis refutes the arbitrary subdivisions arising from a dichotomous and adversarial approach, as does Batouala, as does this book.

African music

The term, “African music”, respects the parameters established by Joseph Nketia in The Music of Africa. It embraces sub-Saharan African music, as distinct from other forms on the African continent and elsewhere. It excludes the music of northern Africa – the Arab and Arabised communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, northern Mauretania and the northern part of Sudan, parts of the Maghreb and the east African coast – which belongs to the Oriental family of modal music. “Its classical, folk and popular idioms are so distinct from those of the rest of Africa”, writes Nketia, “that it cannot, on stylistic grounds, be included in the family of indigenous African music”.5 The term also excludes varieties of music cultivated in southern Africa – South Africa, Southwest Africa (Namibia), Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Malawi – by European settlers and Africans of Western orientation.

Black discourse, Signifyin(g)

The African-American term ‘Signifyin(g)’ adopts Henry Louis Gates’s spelling of a capital ‘S’, with the final ‘g’ in brackets, in order to distinguish it from the Standard English word, ‘signifying’.6


1 H. Rap Brown, Die Nigger Die! (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 2002 [1969]), p. 13.

2 Femi Ojo-Ade, René Maran: The Black Frenchman, A Biocritical Study (Washington D.C.: Three Continents, 1984), p. 8.

3 Leroi Jones, Black Music (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 16. His emphasis.

4 Wynton Marsalis, James Lincoln Collier, Andre Craddock-Willis, “Jazz People”, Transition, 65 (1995), pp. 140–178 (pp. 169–170).

5 Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia, The Music of Africa (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), p. 3.

6 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

← xiv | xv →Introduction

René Maran’s Batouala, Jazz-Text reappraises René Maran’s Batouala from a literary point of view, having regard for its historical, political and social dimensions only insofar as they coincide with the examination of the work’s literary merits. It posits that the polemic debate excited by the novel’s controversial Preface, which has conditioned an enduring, near-universal acceptance of a disjunction of Preface and novel, is symptomatic of dichotomously-based Western thinking. A jazz-text reading reveals that Batouala’s challenge to the overarching civilised-versus-savage dichotomy is enacted through the prism of its offshoots, namely written-versus-oral, form-versus-content and music-versus-narrative, thereby issuing a challenge to the nature of dichotomy itself. The analogy is drawn with jazz music, another integration of music-narrative which bridges European and African civilisations. Conceived in terms of rhythmic call-and-response rather than separation and confrontation, it, too, is a provocation to the civilised-versus-savage dichotomy upon which European civilisation’s self-definition rests.

Maran studies to date have primarily focused on Batouala’s historical, political, racial and social significance. There has also been a tendency, if I may use a well-known sporting analogy (since Maran was a rugby champion), to play the man rather than the ball. Disproportionate attention to René Maran’s ‘blackness’ and/or ‘whiteness’ has diverted attention from his exceptional literary talent and categorised him as an enigma, rather than a respected literary figure. His refusal to recognise the Eurocentric-Afrocentric divide sounds a dissonant note in the well-ordered literary academic universe, and his ambiguous presence remains an ongoing source of discomfort for many critics and scholars.

This book is driven by imperatives that lie outside the current framework of Maran studies. I am persuaded that René Maran was not understood at the time of Batouala’s publication(s),7 and nor is he understood now. I submit that the basis of that misunderstanding lies in the differing ← xv | xvi →communication frameworks of European and African civilisations, and the roles and importance assigned to their constituting elements, signs and systems.

The following debate about jazz demonstrates the potential for miscommunication between African and European cultures and exposes many issues with resonance for Batouala and for this book. It highlights differences in the communication priorities and imperatives of oral-based cultures, such as the African culture and its offshoot, the African-American culture, and written-based cultures such as the European. In doing so, it confirms the impediment to constructive dialogue and profitable exchange posed by the tendency of the West’s “argument culture”8 to approach discussion and debate in terms of winning and losing.

On August 7th 1994, Wynton Marsalis, venerated jazz performer and Artistic Director of the Jazz at the Lincoln Center programme, and James Lincoln Collier, eminently successful author and jazz critic, engaged in an historic debate. In his introductory notes, Andre Craddock-Willis stresses the enormous cultural resonance of this exchange of views between these two emblematic figures. At issue, he declares, is “the history, future and color (sic) of jazz, the place of race in the creation of an American music and the politics of patronage, as well as the integrity of jazz criticism”.9

A highly favourable review of Collier’s Jazz: The American Theme Song in The New York Times Book Review in December 1993 spurred Marsalis, a long-time disparager of Collier’s jazz criticism, to launch a stinging riposte in which he spared no invective. Dismissing Collier’s musical assessments as “remarkably shallow”, and naming him a “poseur”, a “pompous social scientist” and “a viper in the bosom of blues and swing”, he called on him to debate the musical and cultural analyses contained in his works on jazz.10 Collier, who had criticised both musicians and scholars of the jazz establishment for cheapening the discourse about jazz through their lax standards of scholarship and argumentation, found himself in the position of defending his own record in the matter.

← xvi | xvii →Their respective approaches to jazz are highly revealing of the broader philosophical and cultural imperatives of European and African civilisations. Over seventy years earlier, René Maran’s Batouala, through a similar ‘debate’, attempted to communicate African oral-based cultural sensibilities, philosophy and ontology to those steeped in written-based European culture. Through the prism of jazz and American culture, the Marsalis-Collier debate illustrates the tenacity of the preconceived ideas rooted in the civilised-versus-savage dichotomy so graphically on display in Batouala’s French colonial Africa in the early twentieth century.

Although jazz music depends primarily on auditory sensibility, whilst Batouala is a written work, the two are united by their shared understanding of the inseparability and dynamic inter-changeability of music and narrative in African communication and culture. That European culture regards these as fundamentally separate may seem a trivial difference, but it is central to issues of communication, understanding and meaning between the two cultures. The judgements attached to their relative importance have far-reaching implications and ramifications. Difficulties arise when the ‘fixed’ European hierarchal framework of written-over-oral and narrative-over-music is considered, if not the only way to interpret and comprehend their communicative significance, then the superior way.

The contamination of debates about jazz with issues of race, and the confusion of race with culture, means that potentially constructive and productive discussion is vulnerable to being hijacked by preconceived ideas surrounding the civilised-versus-savage dichotomy. Marsalis stresses that “the basis of jazz music is in the American negro (sic) culture […] In the culture, not in the race […] Race is physiology. This is a matter of culture” (p. 164). Race suits the dichotomous framework of opposition and hierarchy, whereas discussions about culture allow for a more democratic exchange among equals. Transposing the discussion from cultural-musical to race sows confusion and provides a refuge for those lacking the musical and other sensory-based expertise of oral cultures, thereby neutralising any disadvantage in debating those matters. Indeed, after fifteen minutes of discussion about musical specificities and on the pretext of getting onto “some broader issues” (p. 152), Collier accuses Marsalis of racial bias on the basis that most musicians Marsalis employs are black-skinned (p. 161). A statistical breakdown proves that the bias – an understandable cultural one – is slight.

← xvii | xviii →Since Marsalis is able to talk in musical specifics rather than generalities, he demonstrates Collier’s mistaken chord progression in Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” at the piano. He further disputes Collier’s claim that it was an unusual chord progression, citing its use by Jelly Roll Morton decades earlier and in the minor blues of that time. Collier counters by declaring that “in [his] listening” this is not the case, and makes the surprising and revealing admission that even when two musicians told him he was wrong, he “stuck by [his] guns on that” (p. 148). Thus, when the subject under discussion is music, which relies on the auditory sense, the presumed superiority of European written-based culture is invoked to disparage Marsalis’s auditory and musical abilities and propose Collier’s as better, and more reliable than those of musicians. Collier, furthermore, regards his musical mistakes as “few and insignificant”. Marsalis, on the other hand, rates Collier’s large number of musical errors as “very significant” (p. 147), just as those imbued with written-based cultural norms would find misspelled or wrong words highly significant.

Collier displays a similar level of confidence in matters of rhythm when his “imprecise understanding of a meter (sic)” is challenged. He continues to defend his version, subtly rephrasing his explanation to agree with Marsalis and proposing that the latter misunderstood “what he meant”. Collier’s tendency to “separate things” is noted by Marsalis (p. 166), but it is equally true that when Collier should separate, he does not. What Collier hears and describes as a rhythmically “complex mix” is identified by Marsalis as “call and response” (p. 150), the structural basis of African music and a major structural feature of jazz.

Not only will Collier not concede Marsalis’s auditory acumen and precision, but he cannot conceive of his choosing to employ that sense when visual scores are available. He defends his errors on the basis that transcripts of Ellington’s music were unavailable at the time he wrote his book, and claims that Marsalis had “the advantage of working from scores”. Marsalis replies: “No, I heard them [the chord changes]” (p. 152). By flouting the hierarchy of the written and the oral, Marsalis proves Collier’s belief in its ‘non-reversibility’. In contrast to the West, where the visual sense is privileged to the detriment of the auditory and the (increasingly) gross neglect of other senses, African culture and communication accords importance to the full range of sensory information.

To Marsalis, who understands and values African-based oral means of learning and documenting information, the aural sense is superior to, ← xviii | xix →and more complete and reliable than written jazz music scores – and vision generally – in musical matters. Collier’s proposition that a musician such as Ellington would look at his fingers to be inspired about harmony, to him, is absurd: “[y]ou hear harmony, you don’t look at it”. “I can only guess” replies Collier, “I was not in Duke Ellington’s head” (p. 147). Marsalis, however, is in a position to understand Ellington’s thinking on this matter because their shared experience of Negro culture recognises that black music, such as jazz, is the expression of a certain way of thinking.11

The role in jazz’s creation played by creoles and white audiences – who “wanted a certain kind of music and not another kind of music” (p. 172) – is amplified to such a degree as to create the impression that, without them, it would not exist. By 1917, Collier argues, it was an American phenomenon and “we cannot think of it as simply growing out of black culture”. The hasty publication of ‘true’ African novels, giving a sympathetic view of the European contribution to Africa, likewise, attempted to diminish the impact and influence of Batouala’s African perspective.

Collier’s concern “to improve jazz studies so that people are doing their homework” (p. 175) betrays an underlying belief that jazz will benefit from ‘improvement’. Similar arguments for improvement were advanced to justify the ‘civilising’ of Batouala’s ‘savage’ Banda people. Improvement in the area of jazz, it is strongly implied, will come about through reading and consulting written sources. Marsalis, however, refuses to concede that his substantial oral knowledge is less valid than Collier’s scholastic written-based knowledge: “[W]hen I was over at the piano, which I was prepared to sit at for four hours, you said I was niggling over little facts” (p. 175). The scholastic bias towards the written is revealed when “documented sources” are proposed as more valid than “oral histories” since, as Marsalis points out, recordings are documented sources (p. 158).

By asserting that written information is the best barometer of intelligence and intellectual capacity, Collier draws a correlation between intelligence, intellectualism and musical sophistication to imply that ‘intellectuals’ can understand the music of less ‘intelligent’ people. According to Collier, Ellington’s failure to “comment on […] the Harlem Renaissance or the spirit it engendered”, and his lack of “several thousand volumes” in his personal library (p. 156), renders his “intellectual ← xix | xx →sophistication” suspect (p. 155). Dismissive of sensory intelligence in favour of the intellectual, loaded terms like “sophistication” and “simple” (Marsalis notes (p. 160) Collier’s extensive use of the word, “simple”), are used to persuasive ends, such that associations of simple music and unsophisticated people remain firmly in place. As in Paris’s Jazz Age, the inbuilt insulting premise of the civilised-versus-savage dichotomy and the presumptions that flow from that sabotage any professed admiration and respect for the oral and sensory talents of jazz performers.

Music’s location outside academia and on the cultural periphery in Western society contrasts strongly with its central role, not only in African communication, but as the key to the African understanding of life. The West’s perception of music and literature as discrete entities and its belief in the superiority of the written over the oral are neither shared, nor recognised by Africans. European preconditioned ideas proscribe an understanding of music-narrative language as practised in African culture and hinder constructive dialogue. Collier and Marsalis cannot ‘talk’ to each other. Collier does not ‘hear’ Marsalis: “You have not addressed the question” (Collier); “I am addressing the question” (Marsalis); “I think you’ve got to respond to that” (Collier); “I’m responding to it. I responded. Perhaps you didn’t hear it” (Marsalis) (pp. 164–165). Ben Sidran’s Black Talk cites an experiment in which a cat’s attention to a metronome is switched off in the face of the visual stimulus of a mouse. The dominance of aural or visual stimuli is shown to be subject to a selection process which is “centrally-controlled but sets in at the periphery”. Literate man’s ability to turn a “deaf ear” (deaf brain) to stimuli that do not fit into his category of relevance has clear implications for the miscommunication potential between African and European civilisations.12

Although Marsalis and Collier draw from the same verbal pool, the non-verbal meaning invested in those signs is quite unequal. They are thus speaking, and not speaking the same language. Collier’s seemingly unshakeable confidence in his assumptions concerning European culture and communication arguably warps his ability to step outside that framework and concede that his imperatives and priorities may not be absolutes, but options, among others.


XLII, 343
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
Maran Batouala francophone African jazz-text African-American
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XLIII, 343 pp.

Biographical notes

Susan Allen (Author)

Susan Allen is a Conjoint Fellow of the University of Newcastle, Australia, a jazz musician (boogie/blues/New Orleans piano), and a senior teacher of F. M. Alexander’s work.


Title: René Maran’s «Batouala»
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387 pages