Poetics of the Antilles

Poetry, History and Philosophy in the Writings of Perse, Césaire, Fanon and Glissant

by Jean Khalfa (Author)
Monographs XIV, 374 Pages
Series: Modern French Identities, Volume 124


The essays collected in this volume study the poetry and thought of four major Francophone Caribbean writers: Saint-John Perse, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant. In a context where identity was a question, an original conception of subjectivity appeared, as the end point rather than the origin of a process which was inseparably poetic and political. It entailed an aesthetics of dispersion or errance, rather than belonging. This volume thus questions the traditional teleological narrative of negritude as ‘renaissance’ or ‘awakening’. A careful look at the birth of different negritude movements shows the complexity of this history and explains Fanon’s philosophical and political critique of the notion. These writers’ astonishingly rich production rests on original aesthetic ideas and philosophical reflections which the vagaries of history and displacement, and their comparison with major metropolitan literary movements, had masked. Fanon’s thought is at the heart of the book, but this volume also traces the important debates these authors had with the major French thinkers of their time, notably Bergson, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on Translations and References
  • Aimé Césaire
  • Frantz Fanon
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Poetry, History, Philosophy of the Antilles
  • Part I: Poetry and Subjectivity
  • Chapter 1: The Plane and the Discrete: Virtual Communities in French Caribbean Poetry. From Mallarmé and Perse to Césaire and Glissant
  • Prose du tout-monde and fragmentation of history
  • I Perse: Heteroclite, heraclitean and erotic
  • II Mallarmé: Chalice/Calyx
  • III Césaire: Verrition, Ptyx, Armadillo …
  • IV Black salt
  • Chapter 2: Pustules, Spirals, Volcanoes: Images and Moods in Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal
  • Chapter 3: Ontology and Subjectivity: On Césaire’s Late Poetry
  • Appendices
  • A A Commentary on Négritude in Cahier d’un retour au pays natal
  • Paris nègre
  • Composition of the Cahier
  • Négritude and the prophetic stance
  • B Deux néologismes de Césaire
  • C Obituary: Aimé Césaire (1913–2008)
  • Part II: History: Negritude, Alienation and Freedom
  • Chapter 4: The Heart of the Black Race: Parisian Negritudes in the 1920s
  • Populations
  • Political transformations and individual destinies
  • The word ‘nègre’
  • Chapter 5: Corps Perdu: A Note on Fanon’s Cogito
  • Chapter 6: Alienation and Freedom: Fanon on Psychiatry and Revolution
  • Importance of the doctorate of 1951 on ‘mental alterations’
  • Organogenesis and psychogenesis
  • Value and limits of neuropsychiatric treatments
  • Socialtherapy and culture: The experience of Blida
  • Beyond the institution
  • Chapter 7: L’Afrique de Fanon
  • Part III: Philosophy: Chance, Event and Consciousness
  • Chapter 8: The Idea of an Impersonal Consciousness: Deleuze and Sartre
  • Thought as event
  • An impersonal consciousness
  • A short history of immanence
  • The plane of immanence as a field of impersonal consciousness
  • An expressive but non-representational subjectivity
  • The unconscious: Desiring machine and not theatre of representation
  • Body without organs and faciality
  • Chapter 9: Poétique de l’identité vécue comme hasard (Perse, Michaux, Deleuze, Glissant)
  • Dispersion
  • Turbulences
  • Problème du problème
  • Prose du tout-monde
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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Many friends, former students and colleagues have helped me in reading early drafts of these texts, in pointing out some correlations or in giving me access to crucial documents. Among these, I thank in particular Fiona Abercromby, James Arnold, Mark Chinca, Amélie Blanckaert, Olesya Dmitracova, Jérôme Game, Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France, Olivier Fanon, François Gèze, Neil Hopkinson, Mike Iraske, David Midgley, Numa Murard, Carol O’Sullivan, Andrew Rothwell, Libby Saxton and Robert Young. Trinity College, Cambridge, made most of this research possible, and the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust supported my work on Fanon through the award of a Senior Research Fellowship. Among all those who helped, I am exceptionally grateful to Joshua Heath for his meticulous work and constantly judicious questions and remarks throughout the long process of reformatting and rewriting these essays into a book.

Jean Khalfa

Cambridge 2016

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Note on Translations and References

All quotations in foreign languages are given with an English translation in the form of a footnote following the original quotation. I have endeavoured wherever possible to use published English translations of the works cited, although I have occasionally modified these translations. References to both the original and the translation (if published) are given following the English translation. For the sake of economy, where the source of the translation is obvious, I have given only the title of the work in French, followed by both page references, separated by an oblique. Where no reference is given, it can be assumed that translations are either my own or by Joshua Heath.

Aimé Césaire

The publication and translation history of the work of Aimé Césaire requires particular attention. All references to the work of Césaire in the original are to Aimé Césaire, Poésie, Théâtre, Essais et Discours, ed. Albert James Arnold (Paris: CNRS Éditions / Éditions Présence Africaine, 2014). In the case of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, this collection has the particular advantage of containing all the various published editions of this work.

A significant number of translations of Aimé Césaire’s work has been produced, and particularly of the Cahier. This highly populated landscape is complicated further by the numerous editions of the Cahier, with English translations not all working from the same edition. For this volume, I have chosen to use the translations produced by Clayton Eshleman, in collaboration with either A. James Arnold or Annette Smith.

For translations of quotations from Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, I have referred first to Arnold and Eshleman’s The Original 1939 Notebook of ← ix | x → a Return to the Native Land, bilingual edition (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013). Unless indicated otherwise, I have used this translation, the most accomplished in its rendering of the original text, throughout this book. Where I have cited passages from editions of the Cahier subsequent to the original 1939 publication, I have used the translation given in Eshleman and Smith’s Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

For translations from Césaire’s lyric poetry, the most complete translation of this body of work is Eshleman and Smith’s The Collected Poetry, and I have used this where possible. This collection does not, however, contain a translation of Césaire’s collection moi, laminaire. For this collection, I have used Eshleman and Smith’s Lyric and Dramatic Poetry: 1946–82 (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia, 1990). Nor does it include a translation of the posthumous collection Comme un malentendu de salut, compiled by Daniel Maximin and Gilles Carpentier for the 1994 Seuil edition of Césaire’s poetry.

For translations of quotations from Comme un malentendu de salut, and for modifications of all the translations listed above, I am grateful to A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman for sharing with me the translations from their forthcoming edition of The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire, due to be published in 2017 by Wesleyan University Press.

Frantz Fanon

All references to the work of Fanon are to his collected writings, published by La Découverte. The first volume, Œuvres (Paris: La Découverte, 2011), contains Peau noire, masques blancs, L’An V de la révolution algérienne, Les Damnés de la terre and Pour la révolution africaine. The second volume, Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté, ed. Jean Khalfa and Robert Young (Paris: La Découverte, 2015), collects his theatrical and psychiatric writing, together with some of his political writings, all of which were either unpublished or inaccessible before. For the sake of clarity, I have given the original titles of the works collected in the Œuvres in references. ← x | xi →

I have used the following translations of Fanon’s work, all published by The Grove Press, for Les Damnés, Richard Philcox’s The Wretched of the Earth (2004); for Peau noire, Philcox’s Black Skin, White Masks (2008); for L’An V, Haakon Chevalier’s A Dying Colonialism (1994); for Pour la révolution, Chevalier’s Toward the African Revolution (1994).

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Introduction: Poetry, History, Philosophy of the Antilles

The contribution of writing from the Caribbean to poetry in French in the twentieth century was recognised early: Saint-John Perse published Anabase in 1924, Walter Benjamin and Bernard Groethuysen translated it into German in 1929, and T. S. Eliot into English in 1930. Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal was first published in Paris in 1939. André Breton read it in 1941 and in 1944 declared it ‘no less than the greatest lyrical monument of this time’. In his preface to the translation into Spanish published by Lydia Cabrera in Cuba, in 1943, Benjamin Péret wrote: ‘J’ai l’honneur de saluer ici un grand poète, le seul grand poète de langue française qui soit apparu depuis vingt ans’.1 It is certainly one of the most translated poems in French in the century.2 As for Édouard Glissant, he published his first collections of poetry in the 1950s and 1960s, first with Le Seuil and then with Gallimard, and continued writing poetry all his life, conceptualising both his prose and his philosophical thought as a poetics of the diverse and of relation.3 One could argue that in effect poetry inhabited all of his writing, and occasionally that of other writers to whom he was close: ← 1 | 2 → Patrick Chamoiseau’s remarkable novel depicting the flight, errance and self-construction of an old slave hunted by his aging master and an ancient dog, L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse, is composed of chapters that are responses to poems by Glissant.4 In the meantime, Césaire, who had turned to theatre, history, and political action in the post-war period, nevertheless continued to write very significant poetry until the late 1980s and in retrospect, this later work sheds a new light on his early poetry.

In ‘Orphée noir’, his preface to Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, Sartre called the poetry of negritude the ‘sole great revolutionary poetry of this time’ and saw in it a necessary step in the specific process of inner liberation from colonialism.

En un mot, je m’adresse ici aux blancs et je voudrais leur expliquer ce que les noirs savent déjà : pourquoi c’est nécessairement à travers une expérience poétique que le noir, dans sa situation présente, doit d’abord prendre conscience de lui-même et, inversement, pourquoi la poésie noire de langue française est, de nos jours, la seule grande poésie révolutionnaire.5

The essays gathered in the first part of the present volume tackle the question raised by Sartre of the constitution through writing of a form of consciousness, a ‘subjectivity’, in francophone poetry and thought, focusing on the Antilles. Here is a series of responses to a very particular historical situation, resulting from deportation, erasure of culture and métissage – in other words, a context where identity was permanently in question: no longer an inheritance but not (yet) assumed as a pure construction. At first sight, there are few shared themes or formal features among the writers I consider, although Glissant has repeatedly acknowledged the considerable ← 2 | 3 → importance of Perse, and both Fanon’s theatre6 and some of his theoretical writings bear the influence of Césaire’s poetry and early theatre. But, looking more closely at Perse, Césaire, Fanon and Glissant, it was clear to me that they all pursued in their own way an attempt to reflect on, and produce, subjectivity as ‘becoming’, as process rather than identity (with fixed identity being a notion that Fanon, for his part, most violently rejected). In other words, although in a sense all of these writers could be (and were) read as epic poets, their poetics was not one of origins, of foundational myths. Origins were only valued through their loss, and this lyricism was that of a subject that can only be found at the end of a process of erring or detour, a psyche which does not preexist the voice supposed to ‘express’ it. These were all dit d’errance, to use Césaire’s phrase, in Corps perdu.7

Such a poetics entailed the invention of original forms of representation of time and space. Thus Perse insisted that the ‘keys’ to his poetry were not to be found in his own life but in the rhéisme of some of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who described reality, natural and historical, as a ‘flow’ of events. Several formal features of his writing aimed at producing an experience corresponding to this ontology. Poetry for Perse focuses on the active, institutive dimension of language (natura naturans, rather than natura naturata); it is praxis rather than mimesis. Its content may originate in personal memory, but this it uses exclusively as material for the institution of an a-personal subjectivity. Such a conception of poetry is indebted to that of Mallarmé, which is why, in order to explain Perse’s poetics, I propose in the first essay, ‘The Plane and the Discrete’, a rereading of Mallarmé’s reflection on the relationship that language could entertain with the pre-conceptual in poetry. In spite of obvious differences with Perse, Césaire shared this preoccupation. A formal analysis of the Cahier, also in the first chapter, shows in it a variety of modes of representing the experience of space and time, but, in spite of and perhaps due to the appearance of the ← 3 | 4 → notion of négritude, never in terms of historical foundations or origins. It is striking in this regard that Césaire too referred to Mallarmé and was particularly interested in neologism. Poetic writing in exceptional circumstances is essentially neologism, institutive language, and this for him related to the creation of a new, dis-alienated consciousness. I pursued this line of enquiry in detail in two separate studies of the poetry of Césaire: ‘Pustules, Spirals, Volcanoes’ (Chapter 2) is an analysis of the structure and images of the Cahier, and ‘Ontology and Subjectivity’ (Chapter 3) focuses on his last published collection, moi, laminaire … (1982). Although this collection of late poetry could be compared to the ‘metaphysical’ poetry that seemed to dominate the French scene in the decades following World War II, say, since Char, Bonnefoy, du Bouchet and Dupin displaced Surrealism, it in fact continued and revealed some of the principles that guided Césaire’s poetics half a century earlier in the Cahier. Three appendices complement this part, the first two focusing on specific examples in Césaire’s Cahier, the appearance and meaning of négritude and the purpose of neologisms, with particular reference to the final word of the poem, verrition. The third one is an obituary of Césaire that reflects in particular on his historical role in forcing the left to face the colonial issue, and serves as a transition to the second, historical part of this volume.


However much subjectivity and history were questioned in their metaphysical dimensions (can a subject be instituted, does it still make sense to speak of a unified historical time), politics was always present. In ‘Orphée Noir’, Sartre linked the invention of the notion of négritude to this poetic endeavour: ‘Ainsi reparaît la subjectivité, rapport de soi-même avec soi, source de toute poésie […]’.8 Poetic writing and reading, as individual modes of ‘subjectivation’, were related to a historical-political situation. It is not surprising that most of the writers considered here had a historical role: Perse, as general secretary of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was ← 4 | 5 → instrumental in negotiating the Locarno Treaties; Césaire (the longest serving parliamentarian in the Fourth and Fifth Republics), who had advocated the transformation of Martinique into a French département because of its dire economic situation, became a major theoretician of anticolonialism and dramatised the pitfalls of decolonisation. His early descriptions of the rift between the French Communist Party and anticolonial movements, which peaked during the Algerian War, are among his most lucid political texts. As for Fanon, whose first published book, Peau noire, masques blancs (1952) [Black Skin, White Masks] was an essay on the ‘désaliénation du Noir’, but who had already written tragedies on identity, subjectivity and political freedom, he became the greatest theoretician of the emancipation of the ‘third-world’, a world that seemed at the margins of the two dominant historical narratives of the time and yet made up the majority of the world’s populations. As for Glissant, his narrations and analyses of métissage and Tout-Monde are an early attempt at a theory of the differing integrations of minorities within the modern self and a precursor of altermondialisme. The poetics of ‘relation’ defines the conditions of possibility of communities that would refer neither to inherited identities, identités ataviques [atavistic identities] nor to an abstract universalism, both now perceived as forms of alienation, yet without falling into a culturalist bric-à-brac. Glissant read Perse’s poetry as portraying the paradoxical relativity of universalism, and Fanon had showed him that a local culture only truly exists as a living culture when it invents the present, negating by its own means its heritage.

I look at the development of this relationship of subjectivity, history and politics in relation to two moments of rupture. The first one, historically, was the creation of the notion of négritude. It is sometimes portrayed as reflecting a step in a natural movement towards Pan-Africanism and the great anti-colonial struggle of the 1950s. In ‘The Heart of the Black Race: Parisian Negritudes in the 1920s’ (Chapter 4), I argue that such a teleology is a retrospective illusion, and that in the decade that followed World War I a range of possibilities was available. Political assimilation was initially an important aim for French colonial subjects, a desire the French state actively resisted from the end of the nineteenth century (the Colonial Exhibition of 1931 in effect confirms its rejection). The first claims ← 5 | 6 → of négritude, the construction of an ‘authentic’ subjectivity in relation to a cultural or mythical Africa, was in fact a reaction to this resistance as well as a result of the incapacity (or reluctance) of the French left, in particular the French Communist Party, to fully embrace the anti-colonialist movements developing in France in between the two World Wars. This thesis developed from the study of journals that are sometimes mentioned but are rarely the object of critical attention (for instance La Voix des Nègres, Le Cri des Nègres and La Dépêche Africaine). This chapter thus draws a genealogy of the redemption of the word nègre and focuses on the interactions between African, Caribbean and African American writers in this transition period, and on some rather forgotten historical figures such as Blaise Diagne, Lamine Senghor and René Maran, to sketch a historical genealogy of négritude no longer indebted to the narrative of the renaissance of a forgotten consciousness.

The second moment of rupture is that of Frantz Fanon who, following Sartre’s statement that négritude was a negative (if necessary) moment in a dialectical process of liberation, started by drawing a phenomenology of the different stages through which a consciousness alienated by racism must pass. This is the object of ‘Corps Perdu: A Note on Fanon’s Cogito’ (Chapter 5). This text considers Fanon from two points of view: first, the phenomenological perspective – and I demonstrate here the extent to which Fanon used concepts acquired from Merleau-Ponty and Sartre – and secondly, the point of view of psychopathology. Working on Fanon’s archives whilst preparing the publication of Fanon’s theatre as well as his psychiatric texts, I could see the link between this phenomenological description of alienation and his attempts at developing a clinic for the psychopathologies caused by colonialism. The crucial notion here is that of schéma corporel [body schema] which unifies, for Fanon, the two perspectives. Thus it is essential to his analysis of the consciousness of race as well as his explanation of the role of the veil in Algeria, and of violence both in the asylum and in colonial society. The psychiatric question of the reconstruction of the body (or postural) schema is gradually linked by Fanon to the idea of a national struggle. This incidentally shows how wrong it is to separate his early work on identity from his later work on liberation struggles and violence, as has often been done, and to privilege one of these two dimensions. ← 6 | 7 → A close study of Fanon’s psychiatric texts as well as his political reflections on the notion of identity in the decolonisation process in ‘Alienation and Freedom’ (Chapter 6) confirms this homology of his psychopathological and political thought, strikingly underlined in his famous letter of resignation of 1956.9 From this perspective, his later work, Les Damnés de la terre [The Wretched of the Earth] as well as the texts gathered in Pour la révolution africaine [Towards the African Revolution], could be read not just as anticolonial texts but also as warnings on the risks faced in the decolonisation process, a reading I argue for in ‘L’Afrique de Fanon’ (Chapter 7).


Francophone writing is often remarkably attuned to the intellectual movements that dominate in the métropole at a given time and particularly to philosophy, but as the laboratory where new dimensions of this thought are invented. It was the case of Perse’s relationship with Bergson’s philosophy of duration, and his corresponding attempt at reflecting on alternative experiences of historical time (ultimately theorised by Glissant); Césaire gave political and historical weight to Surrealism and in turn raised Sartre’s attention to the historical dimension of alienation in colonialism; Fanon found in Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, Lhermitte and Ey, the instruments to conceptualise the inscription of the body in history; Glissant turned Deleuze’s theories of becoming and minor literature into the foundation of his theory of Antillanité and Tout-Monde. The notions often used in the first two parts of this volume, in particular chance, event and consciousness are studied for themselves and in their interrelationships in a final part, composed of two texts: in Chapter 8, I study the idea of a conscience impersonnelle as the main object of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy. He encountered it in Bergson, Proust and Sartre and ceaselessly worked on it, from one of his first philosophical studies, Empirisme et Subjectivité (1953), to his final texts. This idea of an impersonal consciousness, elaborated in Deleuze’s philosophical work, is the foundation of the ideas of becoming, multiplicity and minority at the heart of Glissant’s appropriation of the analogy of the ← 7 | 8 → rhizome. The ninth and final chapter, ‘Poétique de l’identité vécue comme hasard’ focuses on Perse, Michaux, Deleuze and Glissant. The theme of the ‘encounter’ is crucial in the thought of these writers, in that they all portray subjectivity as a continuously variable effect rather than a condition of encounters. In their texts, Perse and Michaux stage a consciousness that constantly reflects on the conditions under which it constitutes an objective world from the infinite diversity of sensations. Deleuze tries to portray authentic philosophical thought not just as the specific response that a preexisting individual consciousness, a cogito, would give to a problem inherited or found by chance, but rather as a specific actualisation of a problem, like a throw of the dice actualises a possible configuration of differential elements within the ensemble of all possibilities, each configuration constituting a consciousness. This immanentist conception of subjectivity became, for Glissant, a tool to understand the new forms of diversity within the self, as well as the resistance to it that is produced by our current historical situation.

This volume is born of a number of self-contained essays written over a decade. They have been reviewed and in some cases updated, but some repetitions were unavoidable or useful, as the material is envisaged from different angles. Most chapters have been published in both English and French, and French versions are easily available. So, rather than producing an unwieldy bilingual volume, I decided to keep in each part of the book a paper in French, summarising for the French reader the main points of that particular part, but from an angle or on a theme not studied in the chapters in English, so that they too could be of interest to the English-speaking reader who reads French.

1 [I consider it an honour to hail here a great poet, the only new great poet the French language has seen over the past two decades.] Aimé Césaire, Retorno al pais natal, trans. Lydia Cabrera, pref. Benjamin Péret, illustrations Wifredo Lam (Havana: Molina, 1943).

2 In English, see in particular: Cahier d’un retour au pays natal: Memorandum on My Martinique, French and English edition, trans. Lionel Abel and Ivan Goll, pref. André Breton (New York: Brentano’s, 1947); Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry, ed. and trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Notebook of a Return to My Native Land/Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, trans. Mireille Rosello with Annie Pritchard, Bloodaxe Contemporary French Poets, 4 (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1995).

3 Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la relation (Paris: Gallimard, 1990); Introduction à une poétique du divers (Paris: Gallimard, 1996).


XIV, 374
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
negritude Caribbean poetry impersonal consciousness Saint-John Perse Aimé Césaire Frantz Fanon Édouard Glissant colonial psychiatry decolonisation Algerian war Martinique Antilles
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XIV, 374 pp.

Biographical notes

Jean Khalfa (Author)

Jean Khalfa is a Fellow and Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Trinity College Cambridge. He specialises in the history of philosophy, modern literature (in particular contemporary poetry and writing in French from North Africa and the Caribbean), aesthetics and anthropology. His research on Fanon contained in this book was facilitated by the award of a Senior Research Fellowship from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust.


Title: Poetics of the Antilles