Author Archives: Amândio Reis

A Letter from the Jolly Corner

Amândio Reis
Universidade de Lisboa

Etching by Peter Milton, in The Jolly Corner, Aquarius Press, 1971.

Henry James’s final ghost story features a very important—but pointedly lost and irretrievable—epistolary text. James’s expatriate protagonist, Spencer Brydon, is dogged in his pursuit of a projected, All-American Doppelgänger, and haunted by the memory of an unopened letter. This letter is mentioned only once in the story, but its significance for the protagonist, as it fills his obsessive conjectures, is remarkable: 

the worry of it, the small rage of curiosity never to be satisfied, brings back what I remember to have felt, once or twice, after judging best, for reasons, to burn some important letter unopened. I’ve been sorry, I’ve hated it—I’ve never known what was in the letter (Complete Stories, Library of America, 1996, vol. V: 706). 

At the level of Spencer’s psychology, the burned letter may be understood as a parallel to his double, a figure of the unknown and the what-could-have-been, shrouding the character’s mind in his obsession with an impossible form of past futurity. At the level of literary form, the cloud of fire and smoke surrounding the letter, its undisclosed emissary, its lost contents, and Spencer’s unconfessed “reasons” to destroy it, turn it into the symbol of an epistemic gap that is central to the Jamesian ghostly. 

In a process of gradual unveiling that ultimately resists our conventions regarding narrative closure, the action of “The Jolly Corner” fundamentally consists of a quest for knowledge of something hidden. Spencer is literally in search of his inexistent self: an irresistibly mysterious figure that, soon after his return from Europe, he speculates may be conjured up from the latent memories and projections brooding in the rooms and surfaces of his cherished, and now significantly empty, childhood home in New York. After a prolonged game of hide and seek, Spencer at last encounters the object of his tireless search, but what he finds is violently different from what he expected:

The face, that face, Spencer Brydon’s?—he searched it still, but looking away from it in dismay and denial, falling straight from his height of sublimity. It was unknown, inconceivable, awful, disconnected from any possibility!—He had been “sold,” he inwardly moaned, stalking such game as this: the presence before him was a presence, the horror within him a horror, but the waste of his nights had been only grotesque and the success of his adventure an irony. Such an identity fitted his at no point, made its alternative monstrous. A thousand times yes, as it came upon him nearer now, the face was the face of a stranger. (725)

The way Spencer’s double, defying his deepest hopes, escapes elucidation—“It was unknown, inconceivable, awful, disconnected from any possibility!”—is after all not far removed from the hero’s own initial statement, in which he admits to be irremediably shut upon himself:

“Everyone asks me what I ‘think’ of everything,” said Spencer Brydon; “and I make answer as I can—begging or dodging the question, putting them off with any nonsense. It wouldn’t matter to any of them really,” he went on, “for, even were it possible to meet in that stand-and-deliver way so silly a demand on so big a subject, my ‘thoughts’ would still be almost altogether about something that concerns only myself.” (697)

Therefore, the inner Spencer, the one who inhabits the dark chambers of thought, desire, and infinite possibility, remains to the end disjointed—“Such an identity fitted his at no point”—strange, and ungraspable, even to, and in spite of, himself. This complete lack of identification between Spencer and his alternative self may be evidence of the futility of his quest (as he initially believes), or it may be exactly the “point” of it, as is finally suggested by Alice Staverton—Spencer’s only friend in America and his hypothetical lover—, when she lucidly asks him: “‘Isn’t the whole point that you’d have been different?’” (730). 

In any case, Spencer’s hope of clarification as to the shape of his life not-lived seems to have been erased or moved back into the dark chamber from where it never really left, pointing to a state of things that had earlier been inferred by Spencer in a moment of adumbration:

He found all things come back to the question of what he personally might have been, how he might have led his life and “turned out,” if he had not so, at the outset, given it up. (…) “What would it have made of me, what would it have made of me? I keep forever wondering, all idiotically; as if I could possibly know! I see what it has made of dozens of others, those I meet, and it positively aches within me, to the point of exasperation, that it would have made something of me as well. Only I can’t make out what, and the worry of it, the small rage of curiosity never to be satisfied, brings back what I remember to have felt, once or twice, after judging best, for reasons, to burn some important letter unopened. I’ve been sorry, I’ve hated it—I’ve never known what was in the letter. (706)

With this turn, the narrator invites us to see the burned letter as an adequate simile, conceived by Spencer, of his own frustrated meditation. On a deeper level of repressed signification, it is a central figure, if not the central figure of the story: its dark kernel. Just as Spencer figures as a detective of unreadable texts, his shadowy double becomes associated with forfeited experience and lost epistemology. In “The Jolly Corner,” the double is an epistemic element; not “real,” as creatures of fantasy become real in that genre, but “real” as an apparition of the hero’s consciousness. James makes the double an allegorical image of the story itself, wherein fictionality is rendered visible.

If Spencer’s double literalizes the metaphorical dimension of narrative and literary language, Spencer himself is inextricable from the aesthetic theory implicit in “The Jolly Corner.” From the moment Spencer sets foot on the American scene, and well before he meets his sought-after apparition, he is a figure of duplicity. As both investigator and object of the unknown, the reader now understands Spencer’s self-inventory as an unreadable text.

Ultimately, Spencer’s dubious constitution, partly materialized in his role as an interpreter and partly expressed in his role as an object of interpretation, is bound to remind the reader of their own peering over the ghostly threshold of the story. They can only take an inquisitive look at the unfathomable depths of its protagonist, and, perhaps like Alice—picking up the scarce but cogent enough clues—envision with Spencer, not a clear image, but the spoils of a story and the shape of its hero’s own disfiguration.

Summary in Portuguese

A última história de fantasmas de Henry James contém um texto epistolar importante, mas enfaticamente perdido e irrecuperável. O expatriado que protagoniza a história, Spencer Brydon, está determinado na busca pela projecção do seu Doppelgänger essencialmente americano, assim como é assombrado pela memória de uma carta queimada antes de aberta. Esta carta é mencionada uma única vez ao longo da história, mas a sua relevância para o protagonista, na medida em que preenche as suas obsessivas conjecturas, é notória. Ao nível da psicologia de Spencer, a carta queimada pode ser entendida como um paralelo do seu duplo, uma figura do desconhecido e do que poderia ter sido, encobrindo a mente da personagem na sua obsessão com uma forma impossível de futuridade pretérita. Ao nível da forma literária, a nuvem de fogo e fumo que envolve a carta, o seu emissário não identificado, o seu conteúdo perdido, e as “razões” de Spencer para a destruir, inconfessas, transformam-na no símbolo de uma lacuna epistémica que é central na concepção Jamesiana do fantasmagórico.

Isak Dinesen’s Script

Brian Gingrich

Babette's Feast,' With Dinner, At Atheneum - Baltimore Sun
Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud, 1987), dir. Gabriel Axel. Reproduced here for educational purposes only.

There is a moment in “Babette’s Feast,” one of the best-known stories by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), when a character named General Lorens Loewenhielm stands up, slightly drunk at the end of a lavish dinner, and gives a speech to the other guests, all elderly members of a pious religious sect. The reader may not have noticed, but hardly one instance of actual dialogue has taken place in the story’s first thirty pages. And here too the speech is one-sided. The General delivers a monologue:

“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together,” said the General. “Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

He spoke in a clear voice which had been trained in drill grounds and had echoed sweetly in royal halls, and yet he was speaking in a manner so new to himself and so strangely moving that after his first sentence he had to make a pause. For he was in the habit of forming his speeches with care, conscious of his purpose, but here, in the midst of the Dean’s simple congregation, it was as if the whole figure of General Loewenhielm, his breast covered with decorations, were but a mouthpiece for a message which meant to be brought forth.

“Man, my friends,” said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble . . .” Never till now had the General stated that he trembled; he was genuinely surprised and even shocked at hearing his own voice proclaim the fact. “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. [. . .] (Anecdotes 52)

The speech goes on a bit longer, but it does not become more coherent. It is brilliant, in fact, in its hollowness; cliché and cryptic. One’s eyes glaze over, yet it seems to contain something important. The response of the other guests at the dinner suggests that the author is aware of the effect and intends it: “The Brothers and Sisters had not altogether understood the General’s speech”—and yet, “his collected and inspired face and the sound of well-known and cherished words had seized and move all of their hearts” (53).

It is difficult to characterize this effect among other speech acts and presentations of thought in literature. It is not soliloquy, parody, travesty, free association . . . It may bear a likeness to something in drama (the speech of the madman or fool) or something in epic (the rhapsodist inspired by Muses), but the genre and occasion are different. The General speaks, his voice is clearly his own, and yet the words and his manner of speaking are unfamiliar to him. He is possessed, we might say—his speech is possessed, he himself remains conscious—but that only raises more questions. How? certainly comes to mind; but still more: By whom? and From where?

In fact, small hints in the story suggest that the words come from the “Dean,” the now-deceased founder of the sect to which the Brothers and Sisters belong, who earlier in the story spoke a similar phrase: “Mercy and Truth, dear brethren, have met together. Righteousness and Bliss have kissed one another” (23–24). The suggestion is that the General, enraptured by the feast and in the Dean’s pious circle, becomes a fervent “mouthpiece” for a “message” sent forth by the Dean himself. Loewenhielm can only look on with surprise as the dead man’s words now flow out of him.

But it can’t be that simple. For one thing, the Dean is not mentioned here, not by the General and not by the narrator. His influence is far from explicit. The repetition of his phrase suggests not so much that he is its source as that a common source stands behind both him and the General. Both men would seem to be mouthpieces for a divine message. And the General is not even simply a mouthpiece. The more he speaks and reflects on the message, the more he seems to interfere with it. He talks at such length and in such a searching manner that the words fall together in a confusion that is evidently his own. His very utterance of the word “grace,” a word that would seem to stand for the message meant to flow through him, becomes, as he utters it, an object for his own befuddled regard. And then, one must reckon with the fact that the General is, thanks to Babette, pretty well intoxicated. His ecstasy is both grave-immortal and comical-worldly. The audience of his speech cannot not know which parts are the divine message and which are his wine-drunk distortions.

Technically, the problem here is a matter of written speech attribution. A matter of quotation marks. Say that there is an inverse correlation between, on the one hand, the number of inverted commas surrounding a speech and, on the other, the degree of distortion and the extent to which the speaker “owns” the words in it. Quotation marks promise minimal distortion, minimal claim to ownership by the speaker. If one were to take seriously the suggestion that the presentation of Loewenhielm’s speech is a quotation (of the General) of a quotation (of the Dean) of a quotation (of some greater divine message), one would transcribe it as not “Mercy and truth . . .” but “‘“Mercy and truth . . .”’” The words are marked as borrowed property transmitted verbatim, displaced but not appropriated or distorted. The General would be an active agent consciously quoting someone else. Yet in the story itself the General is charmingly clueless. No extra layers of inverted commas demarcate his speech; no degree of ownership, agency, or distortion is specified. We just know that he is speaking strangely—in abstractions that, because they do not suit his character, do not cohere—and we know that he knows it. Meanwhile, the source of the message remains hidden, and we can still do little better than call his speech possessed.

This effect of possession defines, to some extent, nearly everything spoken by characters in Dinesen’s stories. To a great extent, it defines speeches like those in “The Immortal Story,” where humans performing a fictional tale speak dialogue that the reader cannot identify as the tale’s or their own; or speeches in “Tempests,” where a young actress finds that she can communicate best with her mentor by speaking to him in the role of Ariel—both the Ariel of The Tempest (whose words she speaks in italics) and Ariel from the book of Isaiah (whose voice she seems to assume). To a broader extent, possession defines the many stories-within-stories that Dinesen narrates in the manner of the Arabian Nights, introducing tellers offering tales whose contents are repeated indiscriminately, with or without quotation marks, later on. Still more broadly, however, this effect is to be seen in Dinesen’s very concept of a character in a story. Her characters remain at a distance, not quite on our level, not quite human. They open their mouths to utter words that seem only partly their own. They speak as if they were, to an unknowable degree, possessed by another discourse—as if they were reciting fragments from a foreign, sacred, or ancient script.

Dinesen herself seems uncertain where this script lies. She voices her uncertainty through her characters. At the end of “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” the person to whom the cardinal has been speaking, listing the virtues of stories as opposed to novels; the person who has heard the cardinal proclaim that it is only the story which can answer the cry in all of our hearts—“Who am I?”—; this person asks the cardinal how he knows whom he, as a storyteller, actually serves; the cardinal has no clear answer. And then, the end of “The Immortal Story”: a clerk picks up a large seashell and lifts it to his ear; he hears a low and deep surge—something, one may say, without origin, carried by the ocean between ships and sailors, fluid and timeless or immortal—; the clerk realizes that he has heard the sound before, long ago, and he asks, “But where?”

Where? Who? To ask this of a piece of writing seems, for Dinesen, to confer upon it the proper status of story. Her script is one that, invisibly, possesses, but one that, elusively, is never wholly recited, performed, or possessed.

Works Cited
Dinesen, Isak (Karen Blixen). Anecdotes of Destiny. 1958. New York: Vintage, 1993.
—Last Tales. 1957. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Summary in Portuguese

Há um momento em “Babette’s Feast”, um dos contos mais conhecidos de Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), em que o personagem do General Lorens Loewenhielm se levanta, um pouco embriagado no fim do sumptuoso jantar, e oferece um discurso aos restantes convidados, todos eles membros idosos de uma seita religiosa. O leitor pode não ter reparado, mas não houve quase nenhum diálogo efectivo nas primeiras trinta páginas da história. E também neste caso o discurso é unidireccional. […] É difícil caracterizar este efeito entre outros actos de fala e representações do pensamento em literatura. Não se trata de solilóquio, paródia, disfarce, associação livre… Pode aparentar algum traço do drama (o discurso do louco ou do idiota) ou da épica (o rapsodo inspirado pelas musas), mas o género e a ocasião são diferentes. O General fala, a voz é claramente a sua, e, no entanto, as palavras e a sua maneira de falar não lhe são familiares. Ele está possuído, podíamos dizer — o seu discurso está possuído, enquanto ele permanece consciente —, mas isso só levantaria mais questões. Como? é a pergunta que nos ocorre, certamente; mas também, ainda mais: Por quem? e De onde?

Mirror and Dialogue, Techniques of Selfhood

Bernardo Diniz Ferreira

Bringing together Machado de Assis’ “The Mirror” and Clarice Lispector’s “If I Were Me” begs a comparison between two techniques of selfhood: the mirror and the dialogue. Both are timeless engenderers of alternate selves, houses of reflection. Machado’s tale unfolds their difference; Lispector’s provides an interesting answer and counterpoint to Machado’s handling of selfhood as a tragedy of mistakes.

We might think of self with two premises: a self can be an inner entity who beholds, in its own phenomenal space, the world, as well as become the beheld object itself. Our self beholds a self, and this beholding can take the form of a tension between what we believe ourselves to be and those actions which we might deem out of character. This inside/outside dichotomy frames the opening to “The Mirror,” in which two places are characterized by a distinct quality of light: “the room was small and lit by candles, whose glow mingled mysteriously with the moonlight streaming in from outside.” Like the soul, these two qualities of light “mingle mysteriously,” and this new double-light grounds the text’s central questions of legibility, resting between (if not the mirror and the lamp) the mirror and the candle.

“The Mirror,” in accordance with Jacobina’s compulsive misreading, is a willfully obverse retelling of Plato’s Symposium. A number of men gather after dining and happen to discuss the nature of the human soul. Aside from Jacobina, they do it in a cordial and friendly way, as the opening paragraph stresses twice, juxtaposing the relaxed mood of the meeting with the depth of the philosophy at play. Someone will propose that the soul should be doubled — Jacobina reprises the role of Aristophanes, whose beautiful contribution imagines humans as lonely souls seeking their ancestral pair. But while Jacobina’s monologue claims to be about the duality of all souls, he does not realize that he speaks as someone who has reached his goal in singularity, not only as a result of his weird tale, but also because he refuses to engage in dialogue — a sharp departure from Aristophanes. In a paratextual coincidence, the tale that follows “The Mirror” in the 1882 collection is titled “Alcibiades’ Visit.” In Plato’s text, Alcibiades arrives late to the debate, much like in Machado’s book he arrives only when the tale is already over. In “The Mirror” he cannot join the discussion, as its end had already been precipitated by the protagonist’s sudden disappearance.

Other references further weave this string of misunderstandings: the off-hand remark that “the best definition of love is not worth a girlfriend’s kiss” inverts the main point of Diotima’s lesson on Erôs, that through the love of beauty, the lover can progress from the desire for earthly bodies up until the Form of love itself, the beauty of beauty – a girlfriend’s kiss is the first step towards a philosophical understanding of love. Another reversal: contrast the two mules who philosophize while shaking away flies with Socrates, the original gadfly of Athens. These are two examples of Jacobina’s materialism and anti-intellectualism, traits of a character who defines his humanity by his uniform and converses on the condition that others do not answer him: “I never engage in arguments,” he says, “but if you will listen in silence, I can tell you about an episode in my life that demonstrates the issue in question in the clearest possible terms.”

Mirror and discourse become two distinct, mutually reinforcing, techniques of selfhood, of self-making. Like Bram Stoker’s count (roughly contemporary to Machado’s collection), Jacobina’s absent reflection stands for an inhumane absence of soul. Their vampiric quality is similarly grounded on class parasitism and social hierarchy. The mirror-object — and its historical baggage — melds this individuative process into the formation of collective identity: in 1808, the Portuguese court was exiled in Brazil. The outcome of the pressure and demands of hundreds of newly-arrived courtiers is mixed: Brazil’s global standing as a colony is reinforced (its independence imminent) but so is the weight of slavery on a society already dependent on such labour practices. The Portuguese mirror, in which you “still see the gilding, eaten away by time,” reflects Jacobina, a man whose fragile identity is null without slaves to prop it up.

But what mirrors are like when alone, paraphrasing Rilke, can also be the source of the inexhaustible thing, of poetry — of the ability to jump over the mere reflection and engender oneself out of nothing. Jacobina briefly recognizes, but fails to espouse, such a possibility. Obsessed with the exterior soul, he takes up writing, unavailingly; on being inquired on his nourishment, he retorts that he vociferously recited verses — but his list of chosen works betrays mindless quantity rather than quality, it suffers from the same problem as the paper — an imbalance between the black ink of the text and white paper of the page, content and form:

At one point, I considered writing something (…) But the style, like Auntie Marcolina, would not come. Sœur Anne, sœur Anne… Nothing at all. All I could see was the ink turning blacker and the page whiter.

Purely physical and deprived of the feeling of poetry, he abandons all poetic endeavors, brags that by putting on the uniform, he managed to overcome the six remaining days of solitude without feeling them. As he had noted before, “facts will explain the feelings, facts are everything.”

In Clarice Lispector’s text, conversely, to feel is the appropriate point of departure for the ethical inquiry – even as it displaces the practical task of finding the “important” paper. There are no Jacobinean false-dichotomies: the paper — its importance and storage — may fall squarely on that world of “facts,” but the promise of knowing selfhood rests on the recognition of the external action of safekeeping the paper:

When I don’t know where I have kept an important paper and the search becomes useless, I wonder: if I were me and I had an important paper to keep, which place would I choose to keep it? Sometimes it works. But sometimes I get so impressed by the phrase “if I were me,” that the search for the paper becomes secondary, and I start to think, I mean I start to feel.

Unlike Jacobina, Lispector proposes that the real self is a blindspot between what we are and what we do; or it is both, or neither, simultaneously.

In another text titled “Fernando Pessoa Helping Me” (21 September 1968), she compares (unfavourably) the writing of weekly columns to the writing of books, remarking that she cannot but reveal who she truly is whenever she signs her name. “Will I lose my secret intimacy?” If so, “what to do?” A quote from Pessoa brings a modicum of solace: “To speak is the simplest way of becoming unknown.” The doubling of the self, for Lispector, starts with a conversation-opening question. As the text opens, she asks herself, and promptly asks us as well, for despite the monologue nature of the weekly newspaper column, what follows should be a conversation with a world of readers — a notion she expounds in a different text (“To Be a Columnist,” 22 June 1968). Lispector talks to us, her readers, and thus also to herself.

This dialogic technique of selfhood creates a self, just as it erases another. One is brought forth in the posing of a question, alternatives disappear as it answers. “If I were me I would give everything I have,” she writes. The becoming of who one is represents this entry into the ineffable feeling, larger than thought, a form of self-estrangement: one un-knows in order to know oneself; we risk becoming unrecognizable to our acquaintances and to ourselves. Lispector’s emphasis on this dialectic returns the reader to the tension Machado underscores on the matter of style – which Jacobina pointedly lacks. To have a style is also to be recognizable when doing something new. Our friend or beloved does something we could not have predicted, but which we, nevertheless, recognize as their character: we recognize their ‘signature’ style. It is crucial to preserve spaces in which we might become unrecognisable. Friendly conversation among equals and essayistic writing are two examples of performative stages where character might rehearse it(s)self freely.

Lispector’s essay ends with a smile, an odd reaction for someone just now so close to the “full pain of the world” and also the opposite of Jacobina’s terror. Might the difference be explained also by a distinct approach to the necessity of pain? Lispector’s leap of faith involves a harmonization of the pain before, and the pain after – to become who we are is to enter a dialogue of pain and feeling: the pain of the world, of this new-self firmly rooted in it, but also the pain once held in our not-self, out of feeling’s sight. “I pinched my legs, but the effect was only a physical sensation of weariness or pain, nothing more,” says Jacobina. When he (feverishly roleplaying as the wife of Perrault’s Bluebeard) calls for “sister Anne,” might he be looking for this secret room, whose door, as the tale goes, is opened by a key dipped in blood? But he, not Bluebeard, had concealed this haunted room. He fails to realise that he should rather, like Lispector, call – ask – for himself. And if in-between the pain of the world and our secret pain lies the pain of others, this too is ignored by Jacobina, who quickly discards the notion of meeting with his aunt.

In describing the real self, Lispector does not once use the verb to feel. This true “I” experiences and has (a uniform, perhaps), but it does not feel. In the final sentence, however, it is reused twice, in a gradating retreat: I felt myself smiling is an involuntary movement that the second “felt” has delivered unto a familiar shape. The bridge of feeling leads to an unknown; would feeling be waiting for us on the other side? There may be solace in believing that it is reserved for the self who is not yet – and that its loss might be a price too incommensurable to pay in order for one to become who one believes themselves to be.

Summary in Portuguese

A aproximação entre “O Espelho”, de Machado de Assis”, e “Se eu fosse eu”, de Clarice Lispector”, solicita uma comparação entre duas técnicas de individuação: o espelho e o diálogo. Ambos são eternos fabricadores de eus alternativos e moradas da reflexão. O conto de Machado explora a diferença entre eles; o texto de Lispector oferece uma resposta e um contraponto interessantes ao tratamento de Machado da individuação enquanto tragédia de enganos. Podemos pensar no eu a partir de duas premissas: um eu pode ser uma entidade interna que, no seu próprio espaço fenoménico, observa o mundo, ou pode tornar-se o próprio objecto da observação. O nosso eu observa um eu, e esta observação pode assumir a forma de uma tensão entre aquilo que acreditamos ser, nós mesmos, e certas acções que possamos julgar como incaracterísticas. Esta dicotomia interior/exterior enquadra a abertura de “O Espelho”, na qual dois espaços são caracterizados por meio de uma distinção na natureza da luz: “a sala era pequena, alumiada a velas, cuja luz fundia-se misteriosamente com o luar que vinha de fora.” Tal como a alma, estas duas qualidades da luz “fundiam-se misteriosamente”, e esta nova dupla luz alicerça as questões centrais, no texto, de legibilidade, colocando-se entre (se não o espelho e a lâmpada) o espelho e a vela.

Transformations Beyond ‘Nature’: Seamus Heaney’s Medieval Poetics

Jill Wharton
April 2021

Throughout his career, Seamus Heaney invoked medieval literary allusion, adaptation, and translation to punctuate his iterations of Irish history.[1] And not, as one might expect, to catalyze a nostalgic sense of lost authenticity, but extensively and strategically, to transformative structural ends. To elucidate a ‘transformation’ is to speak of the coeval nature of latency, of potentiality, alongside those qualities that outlast an ending. As Heaney’s translation of Sweeney Astray opens: “the why and wherefore of [one’s] fits and trips, and also what happened afterwards.” To transform is supremely a matter of artifice: to incarnate a subject’s alterity requires exposing narrative architecture, a willingness to display ‘character’ as an instance of technê, through which modes of art fluctuate or combine. The result for Heaney is often an episodic, associative, rhetorical structure designed to privilege perception over physicality, thus dilating the historical present. 

Part lunatic, part prophet, mad Sweeney-the-bird-man is both physically and spiritually translated from historical figure to mythic archetype and in his metamorphosis he becomes the suffering vatic poet. “The world goes on but I return / to haunt myself. I freeze and burn. / I am the bare figure of pain” (61). As a medieval source-text, Sweeney suggests to Heaney a tradition that enables ecological thought, what the poet describes as “poetry piercingly exposed to the beauties and severities of the natural world…extend[ing] our sense of location to include ‘anywheres.’” [2]

Heaney’s translations and poems foreground correlations between Irish linguistic germination and a located sense of trans-historic dwelling. His identity-constituting pilgrimage narratives subtend contemporary Irish politics, permeating sectarian exigencies with vignettes of pre-12th-century Northern Europe. As Declan Kiberd has noted, after Sweeney Astray, Heaney’s poems became “less bound by hard-and-fast titles… now they tended to take off into the sky or across the waters on a voyage into the unknown. That unknown was a dimension in which man could at last become an almost non-human witness of himself.”[3] This observation is central to the title poem in 1991’s Seeing Things which conflates the image of nervous passengers on pilgrimage to Lough Derg, by way of Inishbofin (Inis Bó Finne or ‘Island of the White Cows’), with an extraterrestrial sky-ship borrowed from The Book of Clonmacnoise.

Lough Derg, Station Island (including the 1984 volume by that title), and St. Patrick’s Purgatory feature across Heaney’s oeuvre as experiential sites for both reimagining the significance of sacred symbols, and for reflecting on the Irish past from the vantage point of imagined utopias. In “Seeing Things”, Heaney’s speaker recalls: 

Inishbofin on a Sunday morning.
Sunlight, turfsmoke, seagulls, boatslip, diesel.
One by one we were being handed down
Into a boat that dipped and shilly-shallied
Scaresomely every time. […]

All the time
As we went sailing evenly across 
The deep, still, seeable-down-into water,
It was as if I looked from another boat
Sailing through air, far up, and could see
How riskily we fared into the morning,
And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.

This double-vision, it is important to note, does not leave the speaker with a dichotomous sense of Christian submission to an external providence, but rather with a benedictory vision of ethical humility. In the poem, there is no spiritual father to appeal to in the ferry to Inishbofin to calm the poet’s incipient panic. The mundane world, refracted through nature’s powers of semblance, henceforth seems strange: nature catalyzes the visionary.

Heaney’s figurations of landscape are often remarkably consonant with the dinnseanchas tradition. Modern Irish translates the word dinnseanchas as ‘topography’—in old Irish, it connotes ‘stories, or lore of the old places,’ and the genre dates to the early Middle Ages, at least to the 11th century (the earliest date known for such poems as were compiled in the Book of Leinster.) Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who has reimagined the genre in both her poetry and criticism, writes: “In dinnseanchas, the land of Ireland is translated into story: each place has history that is being continuously told… The landscape itself contains memory, and can point to the existence of a world beyond this one. [It] allows us glimpses into other moments in historical time.”[4]

Heaney’s eighth poem in “Squarings”, which Helen Vendler has called (for her this is a criticism), “the ‘theory poem’ in the volume”, demonstrates the textual strategies of both place-name poetry—by invoking the 6th century monastery at Clonmacnoise—and the diffusive passage between world-orders central to an saol eile (‘the other world’).[5] That is, it exemplifies the ontological orientation I’m arguing these traditions furnish to Heaney: the dialectical ballast of medieval literary and topographical tradition that opens the landscape of Ireland to more expansive “pre-national” ways of conceiving of dwelling, alongside the reflective, visionary ‘through-line’ lyric can provide for non-human concerns in the radically destabilized ‘natural’ world: 

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

[1] Heaney, aside from his distinguished translation of Buile Suibhne (as ‘Sweeney Astray: A Version form the Irish’, 1983), translated Beowulf (1999); published his lectures “The God in the Tree: Early Irish Nature Poetry” (given in 1978 for Raidió Teilifís Éireann); redacted “The Wanderer” in his prose-poem of that title in the 1975 volume Stations; translated “Deor” (“Tear”) from the Exeter Book; and authored the “Foreword” for The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation(2011). 

Omitted from this brief essay is Heaney’s 1996 poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” a work that illustrates the confluence of Heaney’s thinking on the relationality of the natural world and human habitation in Irish source texts. Specifically, he cribs the chronicle of St. Kevin retailed in Gerald of Wales’ The History and Topography of Ireland.

[2] Seamus Heaney, “The God in the Tree: Early Irish Nature Poetry” pp. 54-55.

[3] Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 597.

[4] Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Selected Essays ed. Oona Frawley (Dublin: New Island, 2005), p. 159-160.

[5] In Irish: ‘the Otherworld” is a repository of that-which-is-inherently-fantastic. In modern Irish, saol signifies, alternately, ‘life’, ‘time’, and ‘world’, and is distinct from the pedestrian noun for world “domhan” which can’t be combined with any term for “other” in idiomatic use. 

Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Harvard, Mass: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 136. 

The Broighter boat (from the Broighter hoard, in the National Museum of Ireland)

Summary in Portuguese

Ao longo da sua carreira, Seamus Heaney recorreu a alusões, adaptações e traduções da literatura medieval como forma de pontuar as suas releituras da história da Irlanda. E não o fez, como se poderia esperar, para despertar um sentimento nostálgico de autenticidade perdida, mas, antes, de uma maneira ampla e estratégica, com objectivos estruturalmente transformadores. Esclarecer o que é uma “transformação” é falar da natureza coeva da latência, da potencialidade, que acompanha as qualidades que prevalecem após um final. Conforme a abertura da tradução de Heaney de Sweeney Astray: “o porquê e o para quê das [nossas] convulsões e escorregadelas, e também o que acontece depois.” Transformar é, supremamente, uma questão de artifício: encarnar a alteridade de um sujeito requer que se exponha uma arquitectura narrativa, uma disponibilidade para apresentar a ‘personagem’ como um exemplo de technê, por meio do qual os modos da arte oscilam ou se misturam. O resultado, para Heaney, é muitas vezes uma estrutura retórica episódica, associativa, concebida para privilegiar a percepção ao invés da fisicalidade e, assim, dilatar o presente histórico.


Bernardo Ferreira
Universidade de Lisboa

Atlantique (2019), dir. Mati Diop. For educational purposes only.

Regarding the supernatural mystery of Mati Diop, I am reminded of the words with which, in the 18th century, Thomas Browne opens his Pseudodoxia Epidemica: “Would Truth dispense, we could be content, with Plato, that knowledge were but remembrance; that intellectual acquisition were but reminiscential evocation, and new Impressions but the colouring of old stamps which stood pale in the soul before.” But an arbitrary Truth, whose existence would be less interesting than our passion for it, would never authorize it, for one reason or another. Perhaps this is why, like Diop, Browne believes in ghosts and troubled spirits, in the possibility or ineluctability of the life of the dead as memory. The mere fact of memory’s imperfection would make inevitable haunted hauntings of all of us. 

Diop’s battle in Atlantics is this unfinished coloring that makes up cinema, or, in other words, it is the problem of cinema as the capture of what is there. We also remember Rebecca, that invisible figure the camera follows at the climax of the story filmed by Hitchcock; we think of other ghosts that demand to be filmed. Diop shoots the bottles of perfume left on the bedside tables of the men heading to Spain, and so we are reminded that some things cannot be filmed; things which, as they fade away, not even the temporary arrest operated by cinema is able to fixate. “The art of salvation is the art of memory,” said John Donne. But in the face of all the profanation the film bears witness to — of the value of work, of love and marriage, and finally, of the rest of the dead who die without land — how can the refugees from an insane and insanable memory, as Chris Marker put it in Sans Soleil, perform the communal or secret gestures of remembrance?

Cinema, which may be generally defined as a technique of possible-light, of knowable-light, can be hardly articulated with this broken memory. Because the resulting triangulation is an unfinished “mere coloring”, it does not constitute the Truth of Justice, or, in the humble version claimed by the characters of Atlantics, the possible truth of possible justice. And, as if the substitute offered very little solace, it falls far short of the wishes of Ada and the ghost-Souleiman, who does not reclaim his overdue wages or funereal exile, but only the wound of forbidden love. 

Therefore, Atlantics lives on the same hope in the notion of a ghostly remnant that guides Ada’s thoughts and actions: the notion that Souleiman may exist in the detective assigned to investigate the case with a supernatural outline (the fire that sets off in her new husband’s bed, on her wedding day). And if Ada believes — justifying herself only by love’s stroke of intuition — that from the visible world something can refract what memory alone is not capable of manifesting in Truth, we too are led to enter the game of mirrors and lost-and-found lights hiding under cinema. Escaping the room through a window is an invitation brought to us from Alice: an invitation that, if we take the clue, materializes in the final scene — the world of truth, of which love is the only measure, was that of the mirror. And where are we, if we have already followed Ada’s trail?

Just as the world of physics arrives in our eyes as a reflection, so the camera is a receptacle of secondhand light. Because it derives its constituency from that light, we believe it may contain the memory of that other luminosity we often thought we could glimpse out of the corner of the eye, dodging through the walls, shining in the window or enlivening the milky look of saints and portraits. In the film, the beautiful images of the sea dandling crystals remind us of this: that there is always a hope whose gentle lapping does not allow it to be forgotten, that this light may be a refracted restoration of what would not be known only from memory.

For Dante, all creation could be composed of beings with crystalline properties, existing because they refract themselves and the divine light. In a similar way, the girls in the film unfold themselves prismatically, also giving a filmable shape to what previously could not be, strictly speaking, made into cinema: the other that survives in me. From this problem, from its logical improbability, the detective mystery in the story is structured; and on the same principle it ends. And thus the promise of daytime, crystalline ocean is fulfilled during the night, and the white eyes embody the secret art of extramission – windows through which an inner light uncovers a dim world, receptors of their own beams rather than the ricochets of other luminous bodies.

The dream of an aesthetic and moral victory (the dream that can be dreamed of if we do not assume more than the ardor for truth) would consist of surrendering to the act of filming a light-memory that were lucid — i.e., transparent, in its etymological sense. This is not, therefore, a ghost story or, if it is, it is out of dedication to a fragility that exhorts us to transparency, to the despair sublimating the solidity of the body and the self. And it is, first of all, a love story, which, as the author of Tristan wrote, “should be made of crystal, translucent, and without a single flaw.”


Bernardo Ferreira
Universidade de Lisboa

A propósito do mistério sobrenatural de Mati Diop, recordo-me das palavras com que Thomas Browne, no séc. XVII, abre a sua Pseudodoxia Epidemica: “se o autorizasse a Verdade, alegrar-nos- ia, e a Platão, que o conhecimento não fosse mais que rememoração; que a aquisição intelectual não fosse senão evocação reminiscente, e Impressões novas mera coloração de antigos carimbos outrora pálidos na alma.” Mas uma qualquer Verdade, cuja existência seria menos interessante do que o nosso ardor por ela, não o autorizaria nunca, por uma razão ou outra. Talvez seja por isso que, tal como Diop, Browne acredita em fantasmas e almas penadas, na possibilidade ou inelutabilidade da vida dos mortos como memória. De todos nós faria a mera factualidade da imperfeição da memória inevitáveis assombrações assombradas.

Esta coloração insuficiente que é o cinema é a batalha de Diop em Atlantique ou, posto de outra forma, é-o o problema do cinema como captura do que está lá. Lembramo-nos também de Rebecca, dessa figura invisível que a câmara segue no clímax da história filmada por Hitchcock; pensamos noutros fantasmas que exigem ser filmados. Dos homens a caminho de Espanha, Diop filma os frascos de perfumes abandonados nas mesas-de-cabeceira, e assim nos lembramos de que há coisas que não podem ser filmadas, que, conhecendo como desvanecentes, nem o arrestar temporal do cinema é capaz de fixar. “A arte da salvação é a arte da memória,” salmodiava John Donne. Mas face a toda a profanação de que o filme é testemunha – do valor do trabalho, do amor e do casamento, e finalmente, do descanso dos mortos que morrem sem terra – como podem os refugiados de uma memória insana e insanável, como dizia Chris Marker em Sans Soleil, ensaiar os gestos comunitários ou secretos da rememoração?

O cinema, que podemos liberalmente definir como técnica da luz-possível, da luz-conhecível, dificilmente se articula com esta memória quebrada. Porque a triangulação resultante é uma insuficiente “mera coloração”, não se constitui como Verdade da Justiça ou, na versão humilde reclamada pelas personagens de Atlantique, a verdade possível da justiça possível. E, como se o sucedâneo oferecesse fraca consolação, fica muito aquém dos desejos de Ada e do fantasma- Souleiman, que não reclama o pagamento dos ordenados atrasados ou do desterro fúnebre, mas só a ferida do amor proibido.

Atlantique, assim, vive da mesma esperança numa noção de réstia fantasmagórica que guia os pensamentos e as acções de Ada: a de que Souleiman possa existir no detective designado para investigar o caso de contornos sobrenaturais (o fogo que deflagra na cama do seu novo marido, no dia do casamento). E se Ada crê – justificando-se apenas num golpe de intuição do amor – que do mundo visível algo possa refractar o que a memória sozinha não é capaz de concretizar em Verdade, também nós somos levados a entrar no jogo de espelhos e de luzes perdidas e achadas que se esconde sob o cinema. A fuga do quarto pela janela é um convite de Alice que, caso entendamos a pista, se concretiza na cena final – o mundo da verdade de que o amor é a única medida era o do espelho. E onde estamos nós, se já seguimos no encalço de Ada?

Tal como aos nossos olhos chega reflectido o mundo da física, também a câmara é um receptáculo de luz em segunda mão. Porque dessa luz faz depender a sua condição, julgamos que possa conter em si mesma a memória dessa outra luminosidade que frequentemente julgámos entrever pelo canto do olho, esquivar-se pelas paredes, brilhar na janela ou animar o olhar leitoso de santos e retratos. No filme, as imagens belas do mar embalando cristais disso nos recordam: existe sempre uma esperança, cujo marulhar não permite o seu esquecimento, de que essa luz possa ser uma recuperação refractada do que da memória não se faria conhecimento.

Para Dante, toda a criação poderia compor-se de seres de propriedades cristalinas, existindo porque refractando-se a si mesmos e à luz divina. É de semelhante forma que as raparigas do filme se desdobram prismaticamente a elas mesmas, dando também forma filmável ao que antes não podia ser, estritamente falando, cinema: o outro que sobrevive em mim. Deste problema, da sua improbabilidade lógica, se constrói o mistério detetivesco da história; da mesma forma termina. Cumpre-se assim, durante a noite, a promessa do oceano diurnamente cristalino, e os olhos brancos dão corpo à arte secreta da extramissão – são janelas através das quais uma luz interna descobre um mundo escuro, receptores do seu próprio feixe e não dos ricochetes de outros corpos luminosos.

O sonho de uma vitória estética e moral (o sonho com que se pode sonhar se não admitirmos mais do que o ardor pela verdade) consistiria na entrega ao acto de filmar uma luz-memória que fosse lúcida – transparente, recordando a etimologia. Não se trata portanto de uma história de fantasmas ou, se o é, é por dedicação a uma fragilidade que nos exorta à transparência, ao desespero que sublima a solidez do corpo e do eu. E é, em primeiro lugar, uma história de amor, que, como escrevia o autor do Tristão, “deveria ser feito de cristal, translúcido, e sem uma única falha.”

Guadeloupe on the Margins

Jill Wharton
January 2021

(Para ler este texto em português, clique aqui.)

Maryse Condé’s The Belle Créole was published in French in 2001, but did not appear in English translation until early 2020, a surprising lapse when we consider Condé’s celebrated literary status, prolific output, and career of elite academic appointments. In what follows, I survey several of The Belle Créole’s strange, and estranging, formal qualities to suggest how Condé’s novel asserts a sense of historical pessimism, offering attentive readers an ethnology of failed contexts of family and social belonging for its characters, caught in the turmoil of a fictionalized early 21st century Guadeloupe. 

The Belle Créole announces in its title a fascination with colonially-formulated cultural ambiguities: créole is a tricky signifier, at once ethnic, cultural, and linguistic, but fixed neither to race nor to the ruling class. Should our reading be focalized, then, by an engagement with the island’s hybridized language as a repository, or point of entrée, to culture? Or is the appeal of such beauty ironized from the jump? After all, The Belle Créole, perhaps a comment on the language, figures also as a character: the streeling sailboat rotting in the harbor, freighted with the protagonist Dieudonné’s painful memories of a lost childhood. And it is this vessel that carries our protagonist to his destruction (a multivalent dénouement to which I’ll return). Even our mock-hero’s name, ‘God-given,’ lodges a wry comment on any colonialist model of identity obsessed with purity. Compounding our disorientation, the novel opens on a sweltering and claustrophobic courtroom scene, entitled “Afternoon,” plunging the reader into a tense spectacle of corrupt social posturing, and, it emerges, of thwarted revolutionary potential. 

No question we’re in the hands of an exhaustively well-read author, whose intertexts range across The Tempest, Ulysses, the New Testament, Harper Lee and beyond. Though it soon becomes clear that Condé, whose research expertise includes Black stereotypes in Caribbean literature, has grown weary of literary theory’s vaunted affordances, Négritude very much included. All of these mythic, archetypal registers compete for our attention in a novel with a simple plot, a speculative landscape, and a vividly-drawn cast of characters. Might it be that The Belle Créole forges a path for peripheral—in contrast to postcolonial—realism? If we understand peripheral realism as a dialectical mode and a representational praxis, where elements of experimental fiction are employed to undermine methods of realist representation in the novel, then we might interrogate how and to what ends The Belle Créole expresses exasperation with the coin of academic critique (even, or especially, of historicist design). We can also assess the types of moves Condé makes to force the reader to reflect on her own assumptions regarding at least three formal problems. 

The first: a broad construal of protagonicity in the novel form. Henry James’ classic formulation appears in The Art of Fiction where he writes: “what is character, but the determination of incident?” In The Belle Créole we have not only a highly inscrutable and unempathetic protagonist, but a series of companionate characters and a strong motif of twinning: Marine & Loraine; Boris & Benjy; Ana & Carla; Dieudonné, Rodrigue & Luke, whose embedded complementarities all seem to suggest some displaced Otherness Within. Why, the text appears to ask, are ‘families’ formed and described in the ways that they are?

Second: as noted, the novel implicitly and explicitly questions the status and efficacy of literary theory. Specifically, the narrator and characters offer derisive commentary about Economic Determinism, postcolonial critique, and Négritude, as when the attorney Matthias Serbulon reflects on the outlines of the case he has built:

At first, Matthias had been proud of his line of argument, which he deemed Césairean, or even Fanonian. The cruel békée mistress. The defenseless slave… Now, this melodrama that had won the credulous jury over so well seemed to him to lack imagination. His actors had done no more than play out the old stock roles, donning costumes that tradition had worn thin (30).

Or, as Marx had it in “The Eighteenth Brumaire”: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”; what Serbulon fails to consider is that perhaps the revolutionary impasse besetting Port- Mahault is one in which, to conclude Marx’s sentiment, “the content goes beyond the [recollected] phrase.” I speculate as much because Condé’s asides at academic critique exist in palpable tension with the novel’s desire to (re)educate us historically, and the usefulness of systemic critical awareness is brought to bear in Dieudonné’s abject construction of a false binary to explain his mistress Loraine’s cruelty toward him. Dieudonné transfers his heartbreak over her loss of affection into hostility toward Luke (the occluded object of his own desire), and blames also his own lack of (imported) cultural refinement. In fact, Loraine abuses Dieudonné, and likely her other “black gigolos,” on explicitly racist and imperialist grounds. 

A third formal problem Condé raises is reader-response, specifically rendering the operations of class-consciousness and relative capitalist privilege readers bring to a novel set on a pointedly ambiguous island in Guadeloupe, whose landscape and history must be partially interpreted as a fantastic patchwork of colonialist creation. At several points, the narrator appears to condemn the type of novelistic consumer who approaches texts set in exotic locations for their sensational escape “value,” an aesthetic based on insidious contrasts (these are places where, in the slogan of one the island’s department stores “life is less expensive”). Several of our key characters are visitors or acculturated transplants, including a promising young ethnologist. We might expect any one of them to exercise modes of interpretation on their environment, and yet they are all either frustrated in their attempts to achieve self-actualization (Ana, Dorisca, Carla) or, they appear reductive, opportunistic, and exploitative in their self-fashioning as arbiters of the island’s post-colonial legacies of power (Luke, Boris, Serbulon). With these constellations of characters, Condé frustrates our hopes for narrative futurity. What are we to learn from such an omission, and from our consequent alienation from the novel form? 

The imperative to make literary “tourists” face the hellish realities endured by the inhabitants of such picturesque, subcultural locales is perhaps why we have the novel’s repeated casual depictions of, and allusions to, rape and rape culture (even, or especially, perpetrated on young girls like Hélène, or in the threats leveled against Dorisca). Pervasive too at street-level are the ubiquitous, demonic troupes of wild dogs that “with their living-dead gaze” seem to symbolize hardly-suppressed imperial violence. The narrator tells us “Like everybody in the country, Dieudonné feared and despised dogs. It goes way back. In the plantation days, dogs hunted escaping blacks…worse still, they were animals only good for a laugh, or pity” (47-48). These packs of dogs are exterminated in yet another spectacular display of internalized state barbarism at the novel’s end (they are rounded up, gassed, and ‘incinerated’), pointing to cycles of violence squarely in the Fanonian tradition. Given the dramatized panic over moral and social ‘degeneration’ on the island, Condé may be condemning both colonizer and colonized in the Darwinian specter of animals different in degree but not in kind. More generally, we can ask how and why The Belle Créole seems bent on frustrating our desires for satisfying plot-level or interpretive closure.

To double back on The Belle Creole’s striking battery of experimental elements, we encounter:

The open and aggressive questioning of our protagonist’s moral status as a villain. This problem is raised right away by posing his heroism as a shifting, media-created spectacle. We quickly learn that Dieudonné is very likely a murderer, and also a witness, and failed perpetrator, in Hélène’s rape. His ambivalence as a moral actor, or even as a subject fit for moral improvement, is constantly commented on by both the narrator and other characters. Reflecting on the roosters Dieudonné raises for bloody sport, a pastime that Serbulon “refrains from mentioning” in court, the narrator tells us that these cock-fighting victories landed Dieudonné in the newspaper for the first time, where his photo showed a teenager, his facial features “still taking shape: Will he be an angel, or a beast? The Good Lord alone knows.” 

We also encounter repeated, unannounced breaks in the temporality of the narrative, often catalyzed by Dieudonné’s propensity for drifting into protracted reveries over his affair with Loraine while in the company of his family (or Ana, or Dorisca), or in recalling his sublimated romance with Luke–the content of chapter 18. These episodes may or may not be related to the epileptic seizures Dieudonné suffers early in life, which are presumably not being treated, but this is rarely mentioned as the novel progresses…

We have also an omniscient narrator who breaks the narrative frame in favor of direct address, often with cynical commentary on a stereotypical reader’s expectations. Consider the intrusive way the narrative jettisons any expectations of romantic love or paternal attachment between Dieudonné, his baby Werner, and Ana, commenting: “A mother tenders her breast to her baby. The father looks on. Isn’t that the picture of happiness? A conventional, deceitful picture. In reality, everything happens differently. The father doesn’t love the mother, doesn’t love the baby” (130). Is this the fallout of slavery’s rending of biological family ties, and skewing of fatherhood more specifically? ‘Plantation days’ indeed. For Dieudonné (ashamed, closeted), only the maternal is consistently erotic (the sensation of the sea; his submissive caretaking of Loraine), and so desire and satisfaction can only ever be retrospective. His childhood, pictured as a brief, tenuous, paradise of ersatz familial love, is imaginatively accessible only through the figure of the Belle Créole, on whose final voyage we lose sight of our protagonist, run aground in a dry season:

The gendarmes easily identified the wreckage: it was the Belle
Créolea boat up for sale with a spot at dock number 2 in the
Mégisserie marina. Everyone knew that for a time, it had been
used as a squat for a gang of wrongdoers, drug traffickers, who
were now under lock and key, and for many years to come, thank
God, along with the sadly famous Dieudonné Sabrina, unfortunately
freed thanks to his lawyer’s tricks. Since there was no risk
of pollution or environmental damage, the gendarmes decided
after careful reflection to sink the wreck.
The divers brought in… found no body. As if the sailboat had detached itself from the dock and come to these parts to run aground all by itself. As if a ghost
had taken the helm. Despite this, the people of Port-Mahault understood quite
well that Dieudonné had been on board. They were too taken
with stories of extraordinary events to judge it just a banal accident,
to think that the Belle Créole, uncontrollable after all
those years of inaction, had merely played a fatal trick (182).

This closing image evokes the wreckage of a slave ship, with no survivors to swear intent. As Walter Benjamin observed: “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” And so The Belle Créole, both in form and content, points toward a theory of political realism that also deploys a rhetoric about critical race studies and canonical knowledge production.1 The novel confronts the way in which new, unseen realities are staged in a culture where status and power are presumed to be immediately legible, and leaves the reader to interpret these characters’ ends as we see fit. Will the protagonists be victims, for whose suffering we feel pity; or will they be heroes of resistance? Whatever else, in the novel’s prosaic, ruptured endings, Condé refutes the naturalist impulse of comfortable bourgeois readers to take a certain thankful satisfaction that they have not been, and will never be, placed in such circumstances themselves.

1 In the novel’s spirited critique of empiricism as a tool of colonial oppression, we recall that this narrator is not only omniscient, but claims, acerbically, to speak collectively and pedagogically, from chapter 20 onward, of “the following facts belong[ing] to history” where “everything happened just as we reported” (178).

Guadalupe nas Margens

Jill Wharton
Janeiro de 2021

La Belle Créole, de Maryse Condé, foi publicado em francês em 2001, mas não surgiu em tradução inglesa até ao início de 2020 [o romance permanece inédito em português], um intervalo surpreendente se tivermos em conta a fama do estatuto literário, a produção prolífica e a carreira de posições académicas de elite de Maryse Condé. Na reflexão que se segue, examino várias características formais, estranhas e promotoras de estranhamento, de La Belle Créole, para sugerir que o romance de Condé avança uma noção de pessimismo histórico, oferecendo a leitores atentos uma etnologia de contextos falhados de pertença familiar e social para as suas personagens, apanhadas na turbulência de um início do século xxi ficcional em Guadalupe.

La Belle Créole anuncia no seu título um fascínio por ambiguidades culturais de molde colonial: créole é um significante complexo, simultaneamente étnico, cultural e linguístico, mas não enraizado na raça nem na classe dominante. Deve a nossa leitura orientar-se, então, por um compromisso com a linguagem híbrida da ilha enquanto repositório, ou ponto de entrada, para a cultura? Ou será que o apelo de tal beleza assume, à partida, uma forma irónica? Afinal, La Belle Créole, consistindo talvez numa referência à língua, surge também como personagem: o veleiro abandonado, a apodrecer no porto, com as memórias dolorosas da infância perdida do protagonista, Dieudonné. E é esta embarcação que transporta o nosso protagonista à sua destruição (num desenlace multifacetado ao qual regressarei). Até o nome do nosso herói de faz-de-conta, “Dado por Deus”, inclui um comentário irónico sobre qualquer modelo colonialista de identidade, obcecado com a pureza. Para somar à nossa desorientação, o romance abre com uma cena de tribunal sufocante e claustrofóbica, intitulada “Tarde”, mergulhando o leitor num tenso espectáculo de posicionamentos sociais corruptos, e, ao que parece, de frustre potencial revolucionário.

Estamos, sem dúvida, nas mãos de uma autora exaustivamente culta, cujos intertextos abrangem A TempestadeUlisses, o Novo Testamento, Harper Lee e muito mais. No entanto, torna-se rapidamente claro que Condé, cuja área de especialidade enquanto estudiosa inclui os estereótipos Negros na literatura caribenha, se cansou dos alardeados recursos da teoria literária, e inclusivamente da Negritude. Todos estes registos míticos, arquetípicos, competem pela nossa atenção num romance com um enredo simples, uma paisagem especulativa e um quadro de personagens vividamente traçado. Será que La Belle Créole abre caminho para um realismo periférico, em contraste com o realismo pós-colonial? Se entendermos o realismo periférico como um modo dialéctico e uma praxis representativa em que elementos da ficção experimental são empregues para subverter os métodos de representação realista no romance, podemos, então, perguntar-nos como e com que fins La Belle Créole exprime exasperação face ao cunho da crítica académica (até mesmo, ou especialmente, a de contorno historicista). Podemos também aferir os tipos de movimentos por meio dos quais Condé força o leitor a reflectir sobre as suas próprias suposições a respeito de pelo menos três problemas formais. 

O primeiro: uma concepção geral da “protagonicidade” no romance. A formulação clássica de Henry James aparece em The Art of Fiction, na qual ele escreve: “o que é a personagem, se não a determinação do incidente?” Em La Belle Créole, temos não apenas um protagonista largamente inescrutável e desprovido de empatia, mas também uma série de personagens concomitantes e o motivo poderoso da “geminação” entre elas: Marine & Loraine; Boris & Benjy; Ana & Carla; Dieudonné, Rodrigue & Luke, cujas complementaridades intrínsecas parecem todas sugerir algum tipo de Alteridade Interior deslocada. Por que são as “famílias”, parece o texto perguntar, formadas e descritas tal como são?

Segundo: como já referido, o romance questiona, implícita e explicitamente, o estatuto e a eficácia da teoria literária. Mais especificamente, o narrador e as personagens tecem comentários jocosos em torno do Determinismo Económico, da crítica pós-colonial e da Negritude, como acontece quando o advogado Matthias Serbulon reflecte sobre os contornos do caso que defendeu:

[Ao início, Matthias sentira-se orgulhoso da sua argumentação, que considerou césairiana, ou até fanoniana. A cruel amante békée. O escrevo indefeso… Agora, este melodrama, que havia tão facilmente conquistado o crédulo júri, parecia-lhe parco de imaginação. Os seus actores não tinham feito mais do que representar os velhos papéis do costume, vestindo figurinos que a tradição havia desgastado.] (30)

Ou, como disse Marx em “O 18 de Brumário”: “uma vez como tragédia a outra como farsa”; o que Serbulon não tem em conta é que o impasse revolucionário que atormenta Port-Mahault talvez seja um impasse em que, para concluir o sentimento de Marx, “o conteúdo ultrapassa a frase [reminiscente].” Atrevo-me a esta especulação porque os apartes de Condé, relativos à crítica da academia, vivem numa tensão palpável com o desejo do romance de nos (re)educar historicamente, e a utilidade de uma consciência crítica sistemática é posta em uso na construção abjecta, de Dieudonné, de um falso binário que explica a crueldade da sua amante, Loraine, para com ele. Dieudonné transforma a sua mágoa pela perda do afecto dela em hostilidade em relação a Luke (o objecto ocultado do seu próprio desejo), assim como culpa a sua própria falta de refinamento cultural (importado). Na verdade, Loraine abusa de Dieudonné, e provavelmente de outros dos seus “gigolôs pretos”, por motivos explicitamente racistas e imperialistas.

Um terceiro problema formal levantado por Condé é a estética da recepção [reader-response], de que se extrai, especificamente, as operações de consciência de classes e de relativo privilégio capitalista que os leitores trazem a um romance ambientado numa ilha marcadamente ambígua em Guadalupe, cujas paisagem e história têm de ser parcialmente interpretadas como uma fantasista manta de retalhos de criação colonialista. Em vários momentos, o narrador parece condenar esse tipo de consumidor de romances que se aproxima de textos localizados em espaços exóticos pelo seu “valor de uso” enquanto escapismo sensacionalista, numa estética baseada em contrastes insidiosos (estes são lugares onde, conforme o lema de um dos estabelecimentos comerciais da ilha, “a vida é mais barata”). Várias das nossas personagens são visitantes ou transplantes aculturados, incluindo um jovem e promissor etnólogo. Podíamos esperar que qualquer delas exercesse algum modo de interpretação do seu ambiente, e, no entanto, ou todas elas acabam frustradas nas suas tentativas de granjear a sua realização pessoal (Ana, Dorisca, Carla), ou parecem redutoras, oportunistas e exploradoras na sua auto-formação enquanto árbitros das heranças pós-coloniais de poder da ilha (Luke, Boris, Serbulon). Com estas constelações de personagens, Condé frustra as nossas esperanças numa futuridade narrativa. O que devemos aprender de uma tal omissão e da nossa consequente alienação da forma do romance?

Talvez a necessidade de fazer os “turistas” literários encararem as realidades infernais sofridas pelos habitantes destes locais tão pitorescos, subculturais, seja a razão de termos no romance repetidas e casuais representações da violação e da cultura do estupro, e alusões a essa realidade (até mesmo, ou especialmente, perpetrada sobre raparigas jovens como Hélène, ou sentida nas ameaças dirigidas a Dorisca). São também disseminadas pelas ruas as trupes ubíquas, demoníacas, de cães selvagens que, “com o seu olhar morto-vivo”, parecem simbolizar a violência imperial dificilmente reprimida. O narrador diz-nos: “[Como toda a gente nesta terra, Dieudonné temia e detestava os cães. Isto vem de muito atrás. Nos tempos das plantações, os cães caçavam negros fugitivos… pior ainda, eram animais que só serviam para rir, ou para ter pena]” (47-48). Estas matilhas são exterminadas no que consiste, ainda, numa outra demonstração espectacular de barbarismo estatal no final do romance (elas são cercadas, gaseadas e “incineradas”), remetendo para ciclos de violência perfeitamente inseridos na tradição fanoniana. Tendo em conta a dramatização do pânico quanto à “degeneração” moral e social na ilha, Condé pode estar a condenar tanto o colonizador quanto o colonizado segundo o espectro darwiniano dos animais, diferentes em grau mas não em natureza. De forma mais geral, podemos perguntar-nos como e por que razão La Belle Créole parece um texto decidido a frustrar os nossos desejos de um fechamento satisfatório ao nível do enredo ou da interpretação.

Para somar à impressionante reserva de elementos experimentais de La Belle Créole, encontramos:

O questionamento aberto e agressivo do estatuto moral do nosso protagonista enquanto vilão. O problema coloca-se, de imediato, quando o seu heroísmo é representado como um espectáculo volátil criado pelos média. Descobrimos rapidamente que Dieudonné é, com muita probabilidade, um assassino, e também uma vítima, e um perpetrador falhado, na violação de Hélène. A sua ambivalência como actor moral, ou até como sujeito apto ao aperfeiçoamento moral, é comentada constantemente pelo narrador e por outras personagens. Ao reflectir sobre os galos que Dieudonné cria para uma diversão sangrenta, um passatempo que Serbulon “se refreia de mencionar” em tribunal, o narrador diz-nos que as vitórias nessas lutas de galos levaram Dieudonné pela primeira vez aos jornais, onde a sua foto mostrava um adolescente com os seus traços faciais “[ainda a tomar forma: Vai ser ele um anjo ou um monstro? Só Deus sabe.]”

Também encontramos repetidas e imprevistas interrupções na temporalidade da narrativa, muitas vezes motivadas pela propensão de Dieudonné para entrar em devaneios acerca do seu caso com Loraine quando está na companhia da sua família (ou de Ana ou Dorisca), ou quando se recorda do romance, sublimado, com Luke — o conteúdo do capítulo 18. Estes episódios podem estar ou não estar relacionados com os ataques epilépticos que Dieudonné tem desde criança, e que parecem não receber tratamento, mas este aspecto é raramente mencionado no decorrer do romance…

Temos também um narrador omnisciente que quebra o quadro narrativo em favor do discurso directo, fazendo muitas vezes comentários cínicos sobre as expectativas de um leitor estereotípico. Veja-se de que maneira intrusiva a narrativa descarta quaisquer perspectivas de amor romântico ou apego paternal entre Dieudonné, o seu bebé, Werner, e Ana, comentando: “[Uma mãe amamenta o seu bebé. O pai observa. Não é aquela a imagem da felicidade? Uma imagem convencional, enganosa. Na verdade, é tudo diferente. O pai não tem amor pela mãe, não tem amor pelo bebé]” (130). Será esta a consequência da escravatura na diluição dos laços familiares e, mais especificamente, na distorção da paternidade? “Nos tempos da plantação”, de facto. Para Dieudonné (humilhado, reprimido), só o maternal é consistentemente erótico (a sensação do mar; os cuidados submissos que estende a Loraine), e, assim, o desejo e a satisfação só podem ser retrospectivos. A sua infância, retratada como o paraíso breve, ténue, de uma imitação de amor familiar, torna-se imaginariamente acessível, apenas, pela figura da Belle Créole, em cuja última viagem perdemos de vista o protagonista, encalhado na estação seca:

Os gendarmes identificaram os destroços facilmente: era a Belle
Créole, um barco à venda, com lugar na doca número 2 na
marina da Mégisserie. Toda a gente soube disso por uns tempos, tinha sido
ocupado por um gangue de malfeitores, traficantes de droga, que
estavam agora atrás das grades, e por muitos e bons anos, graças
a Deus, e pelo tristemente famoso Dieudonné Sabrina, infelizmente
liberto graças às artimanhas do seu advogado. Uma vez que não havia risco
de poluição ou danos ambientais, os gendarmes decidiram,
após cuidada reflexão, afundar os destroços.
Os mergulhadores que nele entraram… não encontraram nenhum corpo. Era como se o [veleiro se tivesse desatrelado
da doca e tivesse vindo ter a estas partes para encalhar por si mesmo. Como se um fantasma
tivesse tomado o leme. Apesar disto, o povo de Port-Mahault sabia muito
bem que Dieudonné tinha estado a bordo. Eles estavam demasiado apegados
a histórias de acontecimentos extraordinários para o julgar um mero acidente,
para pensar que a Belle Créole, incontrolável depois de todos
aqueles anos de inércia, tinha apenas pregado uma partida fatal. (182)

Esta imagem final evoca os destroços de um navio negreiro, sem sobreviventes que digam de sua justiça. Como observou Walter Benjamin: “O passado só se deixa fixar, como imagem que relampeja irreversivelmente, no momento em que é reconhecido.” E, assim, La Belle Créole, tanto na forma quanto no fundo, conduz a uma teoria do realismo político que também utiliza uma retórica em torno dos estudos de raça e da produção de conhecimento canónica.1 O romance confronta o modo como realidades novas e inéditas entram em cena numa cultura em que se presume que estatuto e poder são imediatamente legíveis, e deixa-nos, leitores, interpretar os fins destas personagens como julgarmos adequado. Serão os protagonistas vítimas, pelo sofrimento das quais sentimos piedade; ou serão elas heróis da resistência? Seja como for, nos finais prosaicos, fracturados, do romance, Condé refuta a tendência naturalista queconfortáveis leitores burgueses têm para sentirem certa grata satisfação por não terem sido, e nunca virem a ser, eles mesmos, postos em circunstâncias semelhantes.

1 Na senda da crítica vigorosa, no romance, do empirismo como ferramenta de opressão colonial, lembramos que este narrador não é apenas omnisciente, mas afirma ainda, com amargura, falar colectiva e pedagogicamente, do capítulo 20 em diante, dos “[seguintes factos pertencentes à história]” em que “[tudo aconteceu tal como relatámos]” (178).

(Tradução de Amândio Reis)

Christmas with Césaire

Amândio Reis
Universidade de Lisboa
December 2020

(Para ler este texto em português, clique aqui).

In his most celebrated work of poetry, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal), French writer Aimé Césaire speaks of a return to the island of Martinique, where he was born. Considering his choice of words, we may assume a return is less grounded, and more haphazard, than the return would be. It seems needless to note the indefinite article suggests indefinition. But this assumption also owes to the fact that I am referring to the original poem, published in the 20th and final issue of the journal Volontés, in 1939. This version was, we might say, still “unscathed” by the political retouches performed by the author in the following decades, using coarser tools for a smoother finish. We are therefore presented — to allude to the problem announced in the concept of notebook (cahier) in the title — with the poetization of writing itself: a travel-writing, a ship-poem, a versification in motion or in action.

What could be the meaning of the word cahier, here clearly metaphorical? And, above all, what can we mean by “cahier when we speak of a poem, or, inversely, by “poem” when we speak of a cahier, thus using a term that transports us into a prosaic sphere and register in the context of which lyricism is a self-inflicted wound? But these are not my guiding questions, since I am focusing exclusively on the poem’s twenty-second strophe, and, more precisely, on Christmas, on the African apparition of Christmas, on the eruption of Christmas (Natal in Portuguese) in the native (natal in French as well as Portuguese) land of Césaire. In sum, I am focusing on the N/natal (conflating the senses of Christmas and native) to which the poet has vowed to return in his notebook.

Césaire inserted an invisible vocabular root at the heart of his poem connecting the adjective natal qualifying his land with the resonances of the Christian festivity which, although properly called Noël in French, is derived from the same natalis at the base of terms that still designate for us today, in many languages, that which is native or natal and related to nativity or birth. In so doing, Césaire offers a second destination for what is already only one of several possible returns in the poem: he shall go back to his pays natal but also, more specifically, to the Natal of his pays. I return to this coalescence of natal-Natal in the conclusion, but for now I concentrate on why it earns its place as a touchstone in my reading of the Notebook.

To begin with, Christmas interrupts the iterative temporality of the retrospective visions in the poem by bringing a sudden acceleration. Thus “And time passed quickly, very quickly” [“Et le temps passait vite, très vite”]1 is the inaugural phrase of strophe twenty-two, suspending the anaphora — “At the end of first light” [“Au bout du petit matin”] — that, before, had been repeated in fourteen occasions and enveloped the poem in a litany of frozen time, of hesitant clock hands stuck in eternal morning. This morning is always about to conclude, but it never does (undoubtedly the sign of a triumphant day, or at least of a day highly anticipated, that is never fulfilled). So the velocity of Christmas is what pierces through this cycle during which, since the beginning of the poem, we are not allowed to leave the “end of first light” and instead are left hanging from the tip of a summit from which it is impossible to move forward or go back. But immediately after strophe twenty-two, the vicious circle is restored and then replicated in the following sections, each of which is demarcated by the strident recitatif: “At the end of first light”, “At the end of first light”, “At the end of first light.” Consequently, Césaire seems to be telling us that Christmas is what allows the poem to escape, if only for a moment, from the dead chain of time by breaking and lighting up one of its links. The role it plays as a power switch (interruptor in Portuguese, i.e., that which interrupts/switches on) is precisely what sets it apart from all the other elements dragged in the flood of the long enumeration that the poem essentially is, and it is also what invites us to look at it from a different angle.

The discrepancy between the temporality of the Christmas-segment and the temporality of the poem as a whole — as a diverging note that, for an instant, breaks the harmony of the monotonous concert — is complicated further in the following lines, in a procession of natural seasons: “After August and mango trees decked out in all their lunules, September begetter of cyclones, October igniter of sugarcane, November purring in the distilleries, there came Christmas” [“Passés août où les manguiers pavoisent de toutes leurs lunules, septembre l’accoucheur de cyclônes, octobre le flambeur de cannes, novembre qui ronronne aux distilleries, c’était Noël qui commençait”]. We can see that, on one hand, Christmas is, contrastingly, that which begins while the first light morning never ceases to end, and, on the other hand, that, taking the shape of a hallucinatory episode, Christmas is a fleeting moment throughout the duration of waiting, a dissonant, heterogeneous, and specific trace. Its advent is nestled in a time-cycle otherwise dictated by order and circular (con)sequence: fruit, storm, harvest, fermentation (sugar transforming into alcohol as the agricultural calendar progresses), to which we might add the celebrations associated with each ritual and milestone. Finally, the reader confronts the arrival of a dissociative Christmas, disconnected from any earthly phenomenon and even from the month in which it takes place, whose name, December, — in striking contrast to the names of the months preceding it — is not even pronounced in the poem.

This coy vacillation between hyper-specificity (where each month is linked to its particular rites) and dramatized obscurity (the torturous suspension of diegetic time that elides the arrival of the actual month of festivities) suggests Césaire’s interest in the interplay of the individual and individuality, represented throughout the work in a spirit of obfuscation. Christmas is personified in the world of Césaire, and so hypostasized experiences fear (“It had agoraphobia, Christmas did” [“Il avait l’agoraphobie, Noël”]). This fear’s only equivalent in the text is the fear that the self in the poem experiences toward the sudden now (curiously, agora in Portuguese) that Christmas represents in the passage of time. 

It seems important to consider the affect of this agoraphobic quality of Christmas, which arguably contaminates the space it occupies in the poem (and also adds to the list of infirmities that Césaire catalogues in the “hypochondriac segments” of the work). If Christmas begins by representing a fold, an outer-place, in the agrological timeline of the native land, it also and above all represents an inward fold in the psychological fabric of those who take comfort in its nervous embrace, as for Martinique’s Christmas revelers, the speaker recalls, “not only do the mouths sing, but the hands, the feet, the buttocks, the genitals, and your entire being liquefies into sounds, voices, and rhythm” [“ce ne sont pas seulement les bouches qui chantent, mais les mains, mais les pieds, mais les fesses, mais les sexes, et la créature tout entière qui se liquéfie en sons, voix et rythme”]. In the space of these native celebrations, the self, too, experiences phobia as a witness to: a) the apparition of Christmas, uprooted from the natural processes of seasonality, which arrives (and to which the I of the poem arrives) with no provenance; b) the uniqueness of this event, erupting out-of-time and alien to habitual practices, which cannot be prepared for or absorbed by those taking part in it (“Christmas was not like other holidays” [“Noël n’était pas comme toutes les fêtes”]); c) and, finally, the syllabic frights caused by dispossession and chained to one another (like hands able to join and form a ring only because they are empty) during “a whole day of bustling, (…), endless / jitters, about / not-having-enough, / about-running-short, / about-getting-bored” [“toute une journée (…) d’inquiétudes, de peur-que-ça / ne-suffise-pas, / de-peur-que-ça-ne-manque, / de-peur-qu’on-ne-s’embête”].

In this regressive poem by Césaire, Christmas catalyzes a dissolution in which the agrarian slit of the earth makes way for the psychological slit of the mind.

The ideation of Christmas leads to the disintegration of the body, not because the latter is subjected to continuous violence, as is the case before and after the twenty-second strophe, but because once defunctionalized from all their servile tasks of the field — “and your entire being that liquefies into sounds, voices and rhythm” [“et la créature tout entière qui se liquéfie en sons, voix et rythme”] — its different parts become ludic and musical (i.e., useless and poetic) as they (re)unite in unison for the Kyrie eleison to the Continental god whose worship has no appropriate place and time, emerging only in a super-annual date in the animistic calendar of Martinique. This prayer is emitted from the same source that produces “all sorts of good things” [“toutes sortes de bonnes choses”] driving the taste buds wild, and it reverberates here as a song of the flesh finally freed from itself by action of the spirit. The dismembered body of Christmas is not exactly a wounded body (corpo ferido) but a commemorative body (corpo feriado): the electric monster of Dr. Francenstein.

Christmas brings paradoxical expressions of joy and happiness by generating, for the first and only time in the poem, an opportunity for things as light and frivolous as “the laughter, the whispers, the secrets, the love talk” [“les rires, les chuchotis, les confidences, les déclarations amoureuses”]. Yet, having soon exhausted its ability to intoxicate (“At the peak of its ascent” [“Au sommet de son ascension”]), Christmas forces the exultant singing to take a morbid twist — suggesting an imperceptible line of continuity between the festive dancing and an apocalyptic procession — into paths that lead it to “the valleys of fear, the tunnels of anguish and the fires of hell” [“les vallées de la peur, les tunnels de l’angoisse et les feux de l’enfer”]. What are we to make of this stark inversion of tone and setting, of this final revelation, another term or sense for apocalypse?

In search of answers, I turn from the emotional sphere to the material and to the (corpo)reality of objects, so important for Césaire, whose Notebook primarily conceptualizes and dramatizes the process of writing via the creation of emblems. In sharp contrast to the rotting, degeneration, hunger, pestilence, and deformities that obtrude elsewhere in the poem, casting forth the abjection that colors other latitudes of this landscape, the territory of Christmas is presented as a fragrant and welcoming land of milk and honey. And in these passages Césaire writes not as a surrealist, but in a mode redolent of banquets offered by J.-K. Huysmans or Jean Lorrain:

“and you are cozy in there, and you eat good, and you drink heartily, and there are blood sausages, one kind only two fingers wide twined in coils, another broad and stocky, the mild one tasting of wild thyme, the hot one spiced to an incandescence, and steaming coffee and sugared anisette, and milk punch, and the liquid sun of rums, and all sorts of good things that drive your taste buds wild or dissolve them into subtleties, or distill them to the point of ecstasy or cocoon them with fragrances, and you laugh, and you sing, and the refrains flare on and on like coco palms: ALLELUIA / KYRIE ELEISON… LEISON… LEISON” 

[“et l’on est bien à l’intérieur, et l’on en mange du bon, et l’on en boit du réjouissant et il y a du boudin, celui étroit de deux doigts qui s’enroule en volubile, celui large et trapu, le bénin à goût de serpolet, le violent à incandescence pimentée, et du café brûlant et de l’anis sucré, et du punch au lait, et le soleil liquide des rhums, et toutes sortes de bonnes choses qui vous imposent autoritairement les muqueuses ou vous les fondent en subtilités, ou vous les distillent en ravissements, ou vous les tissent de fragrances, et l’on rit, et l’on chante, et les refrains fusent à perte de vue comme des cocotiers: / ALLELUIA / KYRIE ELEISON… LEISON… LEISON”].

Yet, in the manner of those erotic exchanges that end up in hell, Christmas is ultimately given back to Nature, and, as a consequence, its perfumes must also give way to bitterness and scatology. The gentle melodies and sweet ringing of bells relinquish their charms to the recursive psychosis of the “end of first light”, materialized on the holiday’s exit in the dripping down of a reticent and sickening rain: “and the day comes velvety as a sapodilla, and the liquid manure smell of the cacao trees, and the turkeys shelling their red pustules in the sun, and the obsessive bells, / and the rain, / the bells… the rain… / that tinkle, tinkle, tinkle…” [“et le jour vient velouté comme une sapotille, et l’odeur de purin des cacaoyers, et les dindons qui égrènent leurs pustules rouges au soleil, et l’obsession des cloches, et la pluie, / les cloches… la pluie… / qui tintent, tintent, tintent…”].

In sum, the funereal angst that envelops the Christmas of Césaire is not only derived, I believe, from the fact that this fête is a cultural and linguistic trait (i.e., a construct of symbols and words) inherited without having ever belonged to the native blood of those who receive it. Césaire likewise imbues his depiction of the sacred holiday with morbidity and melancholia arising from an awareness or the discovery that, like the poem written as scribblings in a notebook, on the loose leaves of time, the feast of Christmas, the frenzied rite and rhythm of chapter and verse, must be left behind, must always belong to yesterday — or hier, introduced in a hiatus in the very first word of the title: cahier — without having been able to contain multitudinous life. It must conclude, as any poem must, while the eternal morning of experience will only continue to culminate (registered in the poem’s overabundant use of “…” throughout the morning refrain). And so this is, after all, an aesthetic interval during which “fear imperceptibly fades in the fine sand lines of dream, and you really live as in a dream, and you drink and you shout and you sing as in a dream, and doze too as in a dream” [“la peur s’abolisse insensiblement dans les fines sablures du rêve, et l’on vit comme dans un rêve véritablement, et l’on boit et l’on crie et l’on chante comme dans un rêve, et on somnole aussi comme dans un rêve”].

As the ultimate scene of displacement, and the uncertain dwelling-place, of the somnambulist voice of one who chose to live in a house of words, Christmas, or the poem, is not an origin or a destiny, or a home: it is a return, a dream, four times a dream. 

1A. Césaire, The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, bilingual edition, translated and edited by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, 2013 (Wesleyan University Press).

O Natal de Césaire

Amândio Reis
Universidade de Lisboa
Dezembro de 2020

Na sua mais conhecida obra de poesia, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, Aimé Césaire fala de um regresso à ilha de Martinica, onde nasceu. Atentando na terminologia do título, podemos presumir que um regresso é menos consolidável, mais ziguezagueante, do que o regresso poderia ser. E parece desnecessário notar que o artigo indefinido sugere indefinição. Mas pesa também na evolução deste raciocínio o facto de me referir aqui à versão original do poema, publicada no vigésimo e último número da revista Volontés, em 1939. Esta versão permanece incólume, digamos assim, dos retoques políticos a que o autor submeteu o poema nas décadas posteriores, usando ferramentas mais grosseiras para um acabamento mais polido. Estamos, assim — para retomar o problema anunciado no conceito de “caderno de notas” (cahier) no título —, perante uma poetização do próprio escrever: uma escrita-viagem, um poema-navio, um verso em movimento ou em acto. 

Qual poderá ser o sentido da palavra cahier, aqui claramente metafórica? E, sobretudo, o que podemos querer dizer com cahier quando falamos de um poema, ou, alternativamente, com “poema” quando falamos de um cahier, utilizando assim um termo que nos transporta para uma esfera e um registo prosaicos, no seio dos quais a lírica é como uma ferida auto-infligida? Estas não são, contudo, as perguntas que norteiam esta leitura, já que me concentrarei exclusivamente na vigésima segunda estrofe do poema, e, mais concretamente, no Natal, na aparição africana do Natal, na irrupção do Natal no país natal de Césaire. Em suma, concentrar-me-ei no N/natal a que o poeta promete regressar no seu caderno.

Césaire colocou no centro do seu poema uma raiz vocabular que liga o adjectivo natal, aposto ao seu país, ao nome da festividade cristã, que, ainda que em francês se chame Noël, deriva do mesmo natalis na base de termos que ainda hoje designam para nós, em muitos idiomas, o que é natal ou nativo e relativo à natividade ou ao nascimento. Deste modo, o poeta oferece um segundo destino para o que já é apenas um dos regressos possíveis do poema: ele regressará ao seu país natal e, em particular, ao Natal do seu país. Retomarei esta coalescência de natal-Natal na conclusão, mas detenho-me, por agora, naquilo que a consubstancia enquanto paragem obrigatória na leitura de Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

Em primeiro lugar, o Natal interrompe a temporalidade iterativa das visões refluentes do poema ao introduzir-lhe uma aceleração brusca. Assim, “Et le temps passait vite, très vite” é o chute que encabeça a vigésima segunda estrofe, suspendendo a anáfora — “Au bout du petit matin” — que, antes, se repetira catorze vezes e envolvera o poema numa litania do tempo travado, do ponteiro de relógio parado sobre uma madrugada eterna. Esta madrugada está sempre prestes a concluir-se, mas nunca termina (sem dúvida o sinal de um dia triunfal, ou, pelo menos, de um dia aguardado, que não se cumpre). Então, a temporalidade veloz do Natal é o que interrompe este ciclo durante o qual, desde o início do poema, não nos é permitido sair do “fim da madrugada”, permanecendo, antes, suspensos na ponta de um ápice em relação ao qual não podemos andar para trás ou cair para a frente. Contudo, imediatamente após a estrofe vinte e dois o círculo vicioso é restaurado e repetido nas secções seguintes, demarcadas pelo refrão insistente: “Au bout du petit matin”, “Au bout du petit matin”, “Au bout du petit matin”. Por conseguinte, Césaire parece estar a dizer-nos que o Natal permite ao poema escapar, ainda que por um instante, a essa cadeia do tempo morto, ao quebrar e acender um dos seus elos. Assim, o papel que desempenha como interruptor — nos dois sentidos — é precisamente o que distingue o Natal entre os elementos arrastados no caudal da longa enumeração em que o poema, no fundo, consiste, e é também o que nos convida a olhá-lo de outro ponto de vista.

A divergência entre a temporalidade do segmento natalício e a do poema como um todo — como uma nota disfónica que, por um instante, arranhasse a harmonia do concerto monótono — complica-se ainda nas linhas seguintes, no cortejo das estações: “Passés août où les manguiers pavoisent de toutes leurs lunules, septembre l’accoucheur de cyclônes, octobre le flambeur de cannes, novembre qui ronronne aux distilleries, c’était Noël qui commençait”. Constata-se, pois, que, por um lado, o Natal é, contrastivamente, aquilo que começa enquanto a madrugada nunca acaba de culminar, e, que, por outro lado, assemelhando-se a um episódio alucinatório, o Natal é um instante célere por dentro do tempo da espera, um traço dissonoro, específico, heterogéneo. O seu advento ocorre no seio de um tempo formado, contrariamente, pela ordem e pela (con)sequência: os frutos, as tempestades, a colheita, a fermentação (o açúcar transformando-se em álcool ao longo desta linha do calendário agrícola), aos quais podemos acrescentar as celebrações podemos associadas a cada um destes marcos e rituais. Por fim, o leitor é confrontado com a chegada do Natal dissociativo, desligado de qualquer fenómeno natural e até do seu mês do ano, cujo nome, Dezembro — em contraste acentuado com os nomes dos meses que lhe precedem —, não é sequer pronunciado na língua do poema.

Esta discreta vacilação entre a hiper-especificidade (em que cada mês se associa aos seus próprios ritos) e um encenado obscurecimento (na suspensão torturante do tempo diegético, que elide a chegada do mês respectivo às festividades) insinua o interesse de Césaire na correlação entre o indivíduo e a individualidade, apresentados ao longo da obra numa chave ofuscante. O Natal é personificado no mundo de Césaire, e assim materializado ele experiencia o medo (“Il avait l’agoraphobie, Noël”). Este medo é apenas equivalente, no texto, ao medo que o eu poético sente em relação ao súbito agora (precisamente) que o Natal representa na passagem do tempo.

Parece importante ter em conta os efeitos desta qualidade agorafóbica do Natal, que talvez contamine todo o espaço que ele ocupa no poema (e que se soma ao rol de enfermidades que Césaire elenca nos segmentos “hipocondríacos” da obra). Se o Natal começa por representar uma dobra, um lugar-outro, no friso agrológico da terra, ele representa também, sobretudo, uma dobra interior no tecido psicológico dos que se deixam embalar no seu colo nervoso, já que para os sonhadores natalícios da Martinica, recorda a voz enunciativa, “ce ne sont pas seulement les bouches qui chantent, mais les mains, mais les pieds, mais les fesses, mais les sexes, et la créature tout entière qui se liquéfie en sons, voix et rythme”. Assim, no espaço destas celebrações nativas, em contacto, também o sujeito se torna fóbico perante: a) a aparição do Natal, desenraizada dos processos naturais da sazonalidade, a qual chega (e à qual o eu do poema chega) sem procedência; b) a unicidade deste evento-fora-do-tempo e alheio às práticas habituais, e que é impreparável e inabsorvível pelos que nele participam (“Noël n’était pas comme toutes les fêtes”); c) e, por fim, os sustos silábicos causados pela despossessão e enleados (como mãos capazes de se dar umas às outras e formar um cordão apenas porque estão vazias) ao longo de “toute une journée […] d’inquiétudes, de peur-que-ça / ne-suffise-pas, / de-peur-que-ça-ne-manque, / de-peur-qu’on-ne-s’embête”. 

Resumidamente, neste poema regressivo de Césaire, o Natal desencadeia uma dissolução em que o sulco agrário dá lugar ao sulco mental.

A ideação do Natal conduz à desagregação do corpo, não por este ser o objecto de uma violência contínua, como se verifica antes e depois da vigésima segunda estrofe, mas porque, desfuncionalizados das suas funções servis nos labores do campo — “et la créature tout entière qui se liquéfie en sons, voix et rythme” —, os seus diversos pedaços se tornam lúdicos e musicais (isto é, inúteis e poéticos) à medida que se (re)unem em uníssono para o Kyrie eleison ao deus continental cuja adoração não tem lugar ou tempo próprio, surgindo apenas numa data super-anual no calendário animista da Martinica. Esta oração é emitida pela mesma fonte de onde nascem “toutes sortes de bonnes choses” que enlouquecerão as papilas gustativas, e ela ecoa, aqui, como um cantar da carne liberta de si mesma por acção do espírito. O corpo desmembrado do Natal não é exactamente um corpo ferido, mas um corpo feriado: o monstro eléctrico do Dr. Francenstein.

O Natal convoca expressões paradoxais de alegria e celebração ao dar uma oportunidade, pela primeira e única vez no poema, a coisas tão leves e frívolas como “les rires, les chuchotis, les confidences, les déclarations amoureuses”. No entanto, tendo depressa esgotado o seu potencial inebriante (“au sommet de son ascension”), o Natal força esses cantos exultantes a uma reviravolta mórbida — sugerindo uma linha de continuidade imperceptível entre a dança celebratória e um desfile apocalíptico — por caminhos que atravessam “les vallées de la peur, les tunnels de l’angoisse et les feux de l’enfer”. O que fazer desta inversão de tom e de cenário, desta derradeira revelação, que é outro nome ou sentido para o apocalipse?

Em busca de respostas, viro-me da esfera emocional para material e para a (corpo)realidade dos objectos, tão importantes para Césaire, cujo cahier conceptualiza e encena o processo da escrita, primariamente, por meio da criação de emblemas. Em marcado contraste com as podridões, as degenerações, a fome, a pestilência e as deformidades que assomam noutros lugares do poema, evidenciando a abjecção que colora outras latitudes desta paisagem, o território do Natal é apresentado como a terra fragrante e acolhedora que mana o leite e o mel. E nestes passos Césaire não escreve como um surrealista, mas, sim, num modo rescendente dos banquetes oferecidos por J.-K. Huysmans ou Jean Lorrain:

“et l’on est bien à l’intérieur, et l’on en mange du bon, et l’on en boit du réjouissant et il y a du boudin, celui étroit de deux doigts qui s’enroule en volubile, celui large et trapu, le bénin à goût de serpolet, le violent à incandescence pimentée, et du café brûlant et de l’anis sucré, et du punch au lait, et le soleil liquide des rhums, et toutes sortes de bonnes choses qui vous imposent autoritairement les muqueuses ou vous les fondent en subtilités, ou vous les distillent en ravissements, ou vous les tissent de fragrances, et l’on rit, et l’on chante, et les refrains fusent à perte de vue comme des cocotiers: / ALLELUIA / KYRIE ELEISON… LEISON… LEISON”.

Todavia, tal como acontece com aquelas trocas amorosas terminadas no inferno, o Natal é finalmente devolvido à natureza e, por conseguinte, os seus aromas são também substituídos pela amargura e pela escatologia. As melodias suaves e o repicar dos sinos entregam os seus encantos à psicose recursiva do “fim da madrugada”, figurada na saída do dia festivo pelo gotejar de uma chuva reticente e enferma: “et le jour vient velouté comme une sapotille, et l’odeur de purin des cacaoyers, et les dindons qui égrènent leurs pustules rouges au soleil, et l’obsession des cloches, et la pluie, / les cloches… la pluie… / qui tintent, tintent, tintent…”. 

Em suma, a angústia sepulcral que envolve o Natal de Césaire não decorre apenas, creio, do facto de esta festividade ser um traço cultural e linguístico (isto é, uma construção de símbolos e palavras) herdado sem nunca ter pertencido ao sangue natal dos que o recebem. Pois Césaire também preenche o seu retrato do dia consagrado com a morbidez e a melancolia que nascem da consciência ou da descoberta de que, tal como o poema escrito como notas num caderno, nas folhas soltas do tempo, o festim do Natal, com o rito e o ritmo delirantes dos seus versículos, tem de ficar para trás, tem de ficar sempre para ontem — ou hier, nascido do hiato na primeira palavra do título: cahier —, sem chegar a ter contido a vida irredutível às suas partes. Ele tem de concluir, como qualquer poema tem de concluir, enquanto a madrugada da experiência vai apenas continuar a culminar (o que fica registado no uso excessivo de “…”, pelo poema, ao longo de todo o refrão matinal). E então este é, no fim de contas, um intervalo estético durante o qual “la peur s’abolisse insensiblement dans les fines sablures du rêve, et l’on vit comme dans un rêve véritablement, et l’on boit et l’on crie et l’on chante comme dans un rêve, et on somnole aussi comme dans un rêve”. 

Como espaço do derradeiro desalojamento e morada incerta da voz sonâmbula daquele que escolheu viver por dentro das palavras, o Natal, ou o poema, não é uma origem, não é um destino e não é uma casa: é um regresso, sonho quatro vezes sonho.

Seamus Heaney, “Making Strange”

Seamus Heaney’s “Making Strange”, from Station Island (1984), has served as one interpretive touchstone for our latest workshop on the theme of “Displaced Selves”. Heaney’s meditation on how identity is informed by the experience of travel, the tensions of cultural exchange, and the affordances of intellectual encounter, enriched our understanding of the texts and films that followed as sites where “displacement” in the world leads the self to assume new forms. We are happy to be sharing original translations of Heaney’s poem in Italian and Portuguese!

Making Strange

I stood between them,
the one with his traveled intelligence
and tawny containment,
his speech like the twang of a bowstring, 

and another, unshorn and bewildered
in the tubs of his wellingtons,
smiling at me for help,
faced with this stranger I’d brought him.

Then a cunning middle voice
came out of the field across the road
saying, ‘Be adept and be dialect,
tell of this wind coming past the zinc hut, 

call me sweetbriar after the rain
or snowberries cooled in the fog.
But love the cut of this travelled one
and call me also the cornfield of Boaz. 

Go beyond what’s reliable
in all that keeps pleading and pleading,
these eyes and puddles and stones,
and recollect how bold you were 

when I visited you first
with departures you cannot go back on.’
A chaffinch flicked from an ash and next thing
I found myself driving the stranger 

through my own country, adept
at dialect, reciting my pride
in all that I knew, that began to make strange
at the same recitation.

From Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber, 1998, pp. 221-222.

Italian translation


Stavo fra loro due,
l’uno con con la sua intelligenza da viaggiatore
e il suo contegno fulvo,
il suo parlare come schiocco d’arco,

e l’altro non rasato e confuso
nelle tinozze dei suoi stivali di gomma,
che sorrideva per chiedermi aiuto,
davanti all’estraneo che gli avevo portato.

Allora un’astuta voce intermediaria
venne dal campo, dall’altra parte della strada
e disse: «Sii abile e sii dialettale,
parla di questo vento che lambisce la capanna di zinco,

chiamami rosa selvatica dopo la pioggia
o bacche bianche fresche nella nebbia.
Ma ama i modi di quest’uomo viaggiatore
e chiamami anche campo di grano di Boaz.

Vai oltre il credibile
verso tutto ciò che non smette di supplicare e implorare,
questi occhi e pozzanghere e pietre
e ricorda com’eri audace

quando ti visitai la prima volta
con partenze da cui non si può tornare indietro».
Un fringuello guizzò fuori da un frassino e subito dopo
mi trovai a guidare l’estraneo

nel mio proprio paese, abile
nel dialetto, declamando il mio orgoglio
in tutto ciò che sapevo, che cominciò a straniarsi
nel momento stesso in cui lo declamavo.

(Italian translation by Sara De Simone)

Portuguese translation


Eu estava entre eles,
um com a sua inteligência viajada
e morena contenção,
a sua fala semelhante à corda de um arco,

e outro, lanzudo e desnorteado
dentro dos canos das galochas,
a pedir-me ajuda com um sorriso,
confrontado com este estranho que eu lhe trouxera.

Então, uma astuta voz mediadora
saiu dos campos, do outro lado da estrada,
dizendo “Sê hábil e sê dialecto,
fala deste vento que passa pela cabana de zinco,

chama-me roseira brava depois da chuva
ou bagas de madressilva geladas do nevoeiro.
Mas ama a figura deste que é viajado
e chama-me também o campo de milho de Boaz.

Vai além do que é seguro
em tudo o que está sempre a suplicar e a suplicar, 
estes olhos e poças e pedras, 
e recorda quão ousado foste

quando te visitei primeiro
com partidas às quais não podes regressar.”
Um tentilhão esvoaçou de um freixo
e dei por mim de repente a conduzir o estranho

pelo meu próprio país, hábil
no dialecto, a recitar o meu orgulho
em tudo aquilo que conhecia, aquilo que se começou a estranhar
nessa mesma recitação.

(Portuguese translation by Amândio Reis)