Alex Gil | Repairing Nietzsche in Césaire: A few damned notes

La sphère de la poésie n’est pas en dehors du monde, rêve impossible d’un cerveau de poète ; elle veut être justement le contraire, l’expression sans fard de la vérité.

Nietzsche quoted by René Ménil, Tropiques No. 1, April 1941.

0. The curious antifa(z) of early Césaire(s)

What a strange idea, that one could speak the truth without obstacles, especially during a struggle against white fascist miasma. Fake news, post-fact, algorithmic bias, cultural appropriation, filter bubbles, and this just in, a mistrial in Walter Scott’s evident murder, all weighing heavy on us… and we return to repair Nietzsche—again. Césaire might be able to help, but before he does we might have to adopt the repair work of a Mazzino Montinari and a Giorgio Colli, and return the truth to manuscripts and incongruent editorial ecologies.

In April of 1941, under the jealous watch of the Vichy censors, Aimé Césaire, Susanne Césaire and a few kin spirits launched the journal Tropiques. They had keys to the colonial press, l’Imprimerie du Courrier des Antilles, where they would set to work when official business took a break. Their journal could be considered a model of censored #antifa cultural journalism when you read it at the dawn of Trump’s America. In their able hands, for example, the blood-and-soil poetry of Charles Péguy was repaired for a colonized people who could read their own landscape and the ties that bind between the lines. This double voice that could pass censorship seems key to their survival—well that, and the fact that the censors were apparently a bit stupid.

As the journal steamed on during the war, Aimé Césaire was secretly working on a brutally direct historical drama with the title “Et les chiens se taisaient” (And the Dogs Were Silent). The plot of the drama follows the events of the Haitian Revolution and the cruel destiny of its leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, who dies betrayed in a frozen cell in the Jura mountains. The manuscript could’ve cost him his livelihood—if not his life—had it been found by the Vichy authorities. But truth under fascism is only half of the story. After the war, in 1946, after fascism had been replaced with liberal colonialism, the line “mort aux blancs,” kill the whites, rephrained 69 times in the original manuscript, was reduced to one appearance in the PG-13 oratorio published in Paris for a bruised audience—the source used for the translation you read. As with most famous attempts at presenting black armies decimating white armies, history didn’t find its proper stage.

When we speak of the Nietszchean tragedy-as-truth in fascists times, let us not forget this strange coexistence of double-speak under censorship and the unstaged honesty of pseudo-liberation. If our truth is to be Dionysean, I suggest we do not forget the Césairean ruse—l’humour noir cracking up off-stage. We might need it—particularly here, where our words, our phrases, and even our unique writing style is a de facto hashtag—a dangerous archive of betrayal and allegiances.

1. Over time

A “scientific” interpretation of the world … might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be one of the poorest in meaning.… We cannot reject the possibility that [the world] may include infinite interpretations.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (trans. Walter Kaufmann; §§373–74.)


Césaire connections to Nietzsche and the rest of the European irrational-industrial-complex—Claudel, Spengler, Breton, Frobenius, Bergson, Freud, Jung, Frazer, Mabille, and even Bachelard—should not be hard to find after James Arnold’s seminal work Modernism & Negritude, published in 1981. Arnold is not, after all, the only one invested in tallying Césaire’s continental debt… or cancelling it. When I look at the receipts, though, I see nothing but inversion and rebirth.

The PDF of “Poésie et connaissance” you read for Nietzsche 13/13 is a scan of the published facsimile of the penultimate issue of Tropiques, no.12, originally published in 1945, after Vichy had long gone and the journal had traveled the hemisphere by post and suitcase. The Tropiques text itself is an adaptation of a conference paper delivered by Césaire in Port-au-Prince in September, 1944, and first published in Cahiers d’Haïti in December, 1944, at a time of some hope. The differences between the two texts are substantial, and I invite the reader to read the original in our recent edition of Césaire’s works, Poésie, théâtre, essais et discours.

One line missing from your PDF is pertinent here: “Aux temps ou la connaissance était co-naissance, au sens claudelien du mot,” to be found on that suspect paragraph mounting an origin story (your page 158). That claudelian sense is, of course, the sense of a “Traité de la connaissance au monde et de soi-mème”: Knowledge that is born from self and world, but also literally self and world born together—without Bossuet’s god. Césaire’s poet becomes the standard bearer of a “nouvel Art poétique de l’Univers, d’une nouvelle Logique.” (Claudel “Art Poetique”) The same year in October, 1945, he would write to Breton, “Inutile de vous dire que l’action poétique reste pour moi la principale et grande affaire, dont l’autre n’est qu’un complément,” the other being l’action politique. One possible way for you to take him at his word, as I do, may come from Gary Wilder’s recent book Freedom Time, where alternative futures play out from these years.

The same riff can be found in Et les chiens se taisaient in the voice of The Rebel. I apologize for not having at hand the English translation suggested for you. Here’s the source:

j’avais amené ce pays a la connaissance de lui-même,
familiarisé cette terre avec ses démons secrets
allumé aux cratères d’hélodermes et de cymbales
les symphonies d’un enfer inconnu,
splendide parasité de nostalgies hautaines.

Here’s the source of that source:


J’avais amené/j’aurai j’amenerai ce pays à la connaissance de lui-même,
je familiarisé familiariserai cette terre avec ses démons secrets
j’allumé j’allumerai aux cratères d’hélodermes et de cymbales
les symphonies d’un enfer inconnu,
splendide parasité de nostalgies hautaines…

The reason for the shifting tense can be found in the genesis of the manuscript, with source building upon source. The first iteration of the manuscript did not seem to have Toussaint as the center of attention. As Toussaint slowly became the Nietzschean hero you read today, the chronology of events changed in turn. In early drafts, the lines take place after, and in the final state, before the revolution. Not without complication, the scene returns to post-revolutionary time in the 1946 prison.

The time of knowledge co-born of self and world ruminates from the material traces of the record. While I enjoy a flight of fancy to infinite worlds as much as the next theory-bro, the eternal return here is the return of A as A’ regardless of tense—that is, the time of the scarab is always the now of mutable material traces. Of course we are right to compare Obama’s America to the Weimar Republic, as Césaire was right to compare colonialism to nazism!

2. Colombusing Piscator, Toussainting Claudel

Est-ce toi, Colomb ? Capitaine de négrier ?
Est-ce toi vieux pirate, vieux corsaire?

…Et les chiens se taisaient, typescript, ~1941.

If the Nazis hadn’t broken Nietzsche, we wouldn’t have to constantly repair him. His toxic masculinity doesn’t help either. I confess to have once cursed Nietzsche for his machismo on Twitter, with a dash of Catholic guilt for good effect. After all, empathy for a lapsed philologist is not difficult to muster.

In a very real sense, though, repair is more often than not a counter-repair. When Claudel decides to appropriate the techniques of Erwin Piscator, without the latter’s acquiescence, for his obscene redemption of Colombus in Le livre de Christophe Colomb, he leaves the door wide-open for Césaire to repair the repair. Crowds on stage, projections on screen, documentary evidence are all summoned in the typescript of Et les chiens se taisaient. Césaire not only envisioned a staged truth, that truth came with the social justice mechanics of Brecht’s mentor and the anti-colonial fire of a black normalién.

Of interest to our Nietzschean investigations is the fate of the chorus and the screen in the struggle for Columbus’ legacy. Early stages of the typescript reveal a use for the screen that coincides with Claudel’s appropriation of Piscator: a conflation of diegesis with mimesis, where the χορός is to be understood as all voices on stage singing in unison, including the screen: when black armies killing white colonists were described by the chorus, the screen projected black armies killing white colonists—but more importantly, and this is key, the Piscator machine is repaired in the process by overwriting the deus in machina.

From Claudel…

CHRISTOPHE COLOMB II, de même: Quitte ta mère! Abandonne-la! Quitte ta famille! Quitte, quitte ta mère! La Volonté de Dieu est ta patrie! Tout cela qui t’empêche de partir, tout cela est ton ennemi.

CHRISTOPHE COLOMB I: Quitterai-je mon père et ma mère? Quitterai-je ma patrie?

Tout cela apparaît mélangé sur l’écran.

…to Césaire:

La récitante. (dolente)
300.000 hommes, tribart brisé, se précipitent dans la ville et
poussent des hurlements clabauds… Le port est couvert de blancs
qui cherchent à gagner les bâtiments en râde… Ah, les chaloupes
(A mesure qu’elle parle, tout cela se dessine sur l’écran.)

As Nietzsche disavows Die Geburt der Tragödie in a later Preface, Césaire disavows his draft in a letter from July 1944 to Henri Seyrig: “J’ai vraiment honte de vous avoir confié ma petite machine”1. At this point in the genesis our notes are damned to an eternal return. As we transition from fascism to faux-liberalism, the screen is overcome—sublated even—by an unsteagable, prophetic Chorus. Claudel is erased from Poésie et connaissance; Colombus eventually becomes your Administrator. When you read the script today in search of the overman bound, please bear in mind the ruse of the earlier god, Πρωτεύς.

3. Césaire in the hybrid record

I’m running out of steam and time, so I’ll leave you with a few bibliographic pistes as you make your way through the record—hybrid because ours is now part digital, part analog: a curious machine where our own overcoming must take place. If we are ready to join Nietzsche and Césaire in disavowing a mechanistic universe for a gay science (stage or text), we can only do so through the resistance of this, our own machine.

Making your way through Césaire’s hybrid record is, of course, no easier than Nietzsche’s. Césaire traversed many editorial environments and had a penchant for revision and reuse. He allowed his editors legendary freedom. He was also pirated early on. The critical reception begins early and will spread around the world quickly enough. In the 1970s we already start seeing substantial bibliographic work, and it is only accelerating now, renewed by the rigorous work of Kora Véron and the amor fati of Google.

Work in the born-and-die-digital record is just beginning. You can definitely find all of my work on Aimé Césaire open access. Our crowdsourced Zotero bibliography remains an example of what we could accomplish when we work together in these treacherous environments. Based on this bibliography, I’ve put together a map below to give you a sense of the spread of the critical work on Césaire from 1939 until the present, and the difficulties ahead. Feel free to use it as one would an enumerative bibliography:

Pirated scans of his print works can also be found easily online. I personally would be happy to pass you a facsimile or two from the manuscript archives if you send me an email. In the years to come, I will continue to bring you a digital wonderland around Césaire as time, his executors and my day job allows.

Meanwhile, several important works have surfaced in the past few years from the presses worthy of your attention. Below is an incomplete list to complement the one Bernard provided.

Further Reading

Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.
Césaire, Aimé. Poésie, théâtre, essais et discours. Ed. Albert-James Arnold. Paris: CNRS, 2014. Print. Planète libre.
Fonkoua, Romuald-Blaise. Aimé Césaire. Paris: Perrin, 2010. Print.
Noland, Carrie. Voices of Negritude in Modernist Print: Aesthetic Subjectivity, Diaspora, and the Lyric Regime. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Print.
Ruhe, Ernstpeter. Une oeuvre mobile: Aimé Césaire dans le pays germanophones. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2015. Print.
Véron, Kora and Thomas A. HaleLes Écrits d’Aimé Césaire. Bibliographie commentée (1913-2008). 1st ed. Vol. 1. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2013. Print. 2 vols.
Wilder, Gary. Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World. Duke University Press, 2014. Print.

1. We learn of this exchange from a paper delivered recently by Kora Véron at the ITEM, “Configurations d’Aimé Césaire : pour une biotique connectée” (Paris, November 25 2016). I thank Kora always for her friendship and her invaluable archival work. You should too.