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The tragedy of Aimé Césaire: building a future from the ruins of antiquity

Adam Edward Lecznar

The revival of two thousand year old texts is not an obvious part of a future-oriented political agenda; nevertheless, this paper explores how the Martiniquan writer, intellectual and politician Aimé Césaire’s (1913-2008) reception of Greek tragedy became bound up in just such a project. As well as capitalising on what Emily Greenwood has termed the ‘fragile connections’ between Greek epic poetry and twentieth-century postcolonial concerns in his 1939 poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, Césaire was also a founder of négritude, a prominent movement of black cultural nationalism that was developed amongst students from French colonies during the early stages of the twentieth century. This paper argues that Césaire’s later dramatic works, and their exploitation of the genre of tragedy, marked a rupture with the past while also providing a conceptual vocabulary derived from ancient Greece that allowed him to express his thoughts about the future of black identity.

The paper begins by exploring how Césaire offered a prelapsarian reading of postcolonial black history in the early stages of his artistic career. Here, the references to Graeco-Roman antiquity that scholars have traced, mainly to Homeric epic, are allusive and exist as part of a strategy to reconstruct black history out of the blank slate that had resulted from colonialism’s ravages. But this changed in 1956 when Césaire resigned from the French Communist Party citing the following reason:

The singularity of our history, constructed out of terrible misfortunes that belong to no one else. […] What else can be the result of this but that our paths toward the future - all our paths, political as well as cultural - are not yet charted? That they are yet to be discovered, and that the responsibility for this discovery belongs to no one but us?

The historical orientation of Césaire’s project changed significantly at this stage: he chose to emphasize the necessity of building a bridge between a historicized black past and a developing black future in a way that jarred with his previous insistence on a static black present. It was at this stage of his career that Césaire started to write drama, regularly employing tragic rhetoric to describe his four plays. I focus on his second play, La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963), which dramatizes the rise and fall of the monarchy initiated by the former slave Henri Christophe in the northern section of Haiti from 1811-20. Haiti was a privileged space for négritude, since it was here that Toussaint Louverture had assumed the role of ‘Black Spartacus’ to lead a slave rebellion against French colonial forces in 1791, an historical event that Césaire discussed elsewhere as being the moment when black consciousness entered history.

Though this theatrical piece relates to a specific moment of black history and contains no references to the ancient sources of the genre, I proceed to show that the play contains a nuanced engagement with Greek tragedy and its later theorisations. Césaire stated in a 1964 interview, describing his reading habits in the late 1930s, that ‘J’ai été … vivement impressionné par le livre de Nietzsche sur la tragédie grecque’; Césaire’s encounter with Nietzsche’s Greeks, and specifically those of The Birth of Tragedy (1872), is integral to the historical point that the playwright wanted to make with his chosen genre. While Césaire anchored his tragic vision in Nietzsche’s conceptual binary of Apollo and Dionysus, he did so in a way that reversed the Nietzschean tragic imperative to peer under Apolline civilization and rediscover primal Dionysiac powers; Césaire rather seeks to explore the possibility of Apolline construction over the Dionysiac void. Tragedy becomes Césaire’s chosen artistic medium for salvaging the past and engineering the future of the black race; but that this move depends on the mobilisation of a European philosophical legacy betrays the ironic rejections that lay at the heart of his dramatic project.

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Rejecting the Classics: Rupture and Revolution

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