Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Sartre's "Black Orpheus"

Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes; those in parentheses are to Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” as it appeared in John MacCombie’s translation in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn, 1964 - Winter, 1965), pp. 13-52. This text is conveniently available online.

Though in general socio-political readings are a subdivision of theme, and all thematic considerations must in any event be balanced with considerations of form and style, négritude writers themselves have foregrounded race in the movement’s very name, and this fact alone justifies (if not demands) a racial response. Yet racial consciousness can only arise in situations of the encounter, mixing, and conflict among differing ethnic groups, so processes of reaction and creolization inevitably swirl around an identity which in a homogeneous environment would be taken for granted.

This fact is implicit Senghor’s seminal 1948 Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache. The mere fact of the poets’ use of the French language, reflecting their thoroughly French education is itself evidence of the mixed character of the project. Unlike the writers of the Black Arts Movement, the négritude writers did not shrink from this entanglement with the culture of their colonialist oppressors. Césaire, for instance, declared “What is négritude if not the aggressive proposition of fraternity?” [1] and Senghor called for a “give and take,” resulting in “a cultural métissage,” “a dynamic symbiosis of complementary parts.” According to him “we are all cultural half-castes” and, in fact, “all the great civilizations . . .resulted from interbreeding.” [2]

The introductory essay in Senghor’s Anthologie by Jean-Paul Sartre titled "Orphée Noir" ("Black Orpheus”) explores this vexed issue, while incidentally guaranteeing the book a wide audience. Sartre may have seemed an unlikely sponsor for these writers from the distant colonies. The Existential philosophy for which he is best-known had, in its prewar form, centered on the individual and had been little concerned with ethical concerns and virtually not at all with political issues.

The Nazi occupation of France and his nine month term as a prisoner of war altered his views. Upon his return to Paris he became a founder (along with Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others) of the resistance group Socialisme et Liberté. Later he wrote for Camus’ underground paper Combat. The posture of l’homme engagé, the Existential man of action, became for him a proper, even a heroic, response to the absurdity of the human condition. [3] Until the end of his life, he espoused Marxism and remained active in left agitation.

The Surrealists on the other hand had expressed revolutionary sentiments, socialist, communist, and anarchist from the start as had the Dadaists before them, and in January of 1927 their leaders joined the Communist Party and encouraged others to do so. [4]

Apart from political considerations, the alliance of négritude writers with Surrealism might have been an insuperable stumbling block for Sartre as he had fiercely criticized the French Surrealists. He rejected Freud and the very notion of a subconscious, characterizing the movement as “an attempt by adults to cling to the destructive daydreams of their adolescent existence.” To Sartre the Surrealists, though they constituted the most important modern poetic movement, nonetheless signaled the bankruptcy of poetry in the West with their abandonment of rationality and absorption in “verbal games.” In Sartre’s view the quietism and impotence of Surrealist theory is evident in their emigration during the Occupation. [5] “They were the proclaimers of catastrophe in the time of fat cows; in the time of lean cows they have nothing more to say.” [6]

Thus, though he had little affinity with their artistic method or their French patrons, his sympathies lay with the anti-colonial posture of the négritude writers. “Black Orpheus” explicitly foregrounds both the historical moment and Sartre’s own white bourgeois European subjectivity. It is most significant for him that négritude “is inserted into Universal History, it is no longer a state, nor even an existential attitude, it is a Becoming, the black contribution to the evolution of Humanity.” [7] The “mission” of Africans,” like the proletariat’s, "comes to him from his historic position.” (47) According to Sartre cultural nationalism is a stage that necessarily precedes blacks’ organizing for socialism. (19) [8] In fact Sartre begins with politics: “When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what did you expect?” (13) but the political views remain anchored in his own subjectivity. Opening with the declaration “I am talking now to white men” (16), he nonetheless says that whites cannot write about négritude. (35) Yet his own warning does not stop him. To Sartre the black race is “chosen” because of its suffering. He sometimes even approaches the Christian notion of the redemptive power of Christ’s Passion, praising the “righteous suffering” of Africans, (42) and claiming that they discover their own pride only to abandon it “through supreme generosity.” (50) It is through the experience of “the absurdity of suffering” that blacks come to a truth elusive to the bourgeois. (45-6)

He conflates the aesthetic and the political, claiming that “black poetry in the French language is, in our time, the only great revolutionary poetry.” (16) In the poems of négritude he finds “the most authentic synthesis of revolutionary aspirations and poetic anxiety . . . essentially pure Poetry.” (35) [9]

Yet much of Sartre’s appreciation is grounded in the acceptance of old stereotypes but with value judgements reversed, a characteristic evident as well in many European connoisseurs of the primitive. Whites are ruled by a crippling “rationalism, materialism, positivism” (17), while blacks possess feeling rather than rationality and a mystic “rapport” in place of science (36) The beauty of black poetry arises from an “intuitive seizure of the human condition and the still-fresh memory of a historic past [slavery].” (43) [emphasis added] “The black man is closer than we to the great period when, as Mallarmé says, ‘the word creates Gods.’” [10] He is therefore enabled to create objective poetry that approaches the charms of magical practice. (29)

Sartre is well aware that the whole structure is mythic. He says quite clearly that the poets’ Africa is “an imaginary continent” though at the same time “more real.” In the end “if he turns to look squarely at his négritude, it vanishes in smoke.” (21) Though it might be purely mythological this assignment of racial roles is familiar. From Montesquieu and Chateaubriand to D.H. Lawrence and recent Africaphiles like Ulli Beier and Janheinz Jahn, and such musicians as Peter Gabriel and Mickey Hart, white authors have used non-white peoples to represent their own subconscious. They have used this view of non-European peoples to criticize their own cultural values and to privilege irrationality and passion. Thus Jahn argues that African poetry is timeless and pure, devoid of historical moment [11], specifically because such a myth is meaningful to him as a white European just as many in our own country continue to view our aboriginal people as noble savages though the term has become taboo.

In fact the trois pères themselves collaborated in the construction of this bipolarity. As students they had encountered the ethnological theories of Leo Frobenius and Maurice Delafoss [12] which seemed to validate the idea of an Africa which was truly civilized, though quite unlike Europe.

Sartre’s politics, as well as, one guesses, his scientific bias and his common sense, resists racial essentialism, though his reasoning seems at times forced. Whites, he says, have “real human flesh the color of black wine” beneath their “strange livid varnish” of whiteness. (14) In spite of the fact that the poems in Senghor’s anthology “were not written for us,” whites can still “tear off our white tights” in order to become simply men” and thus “become part of the totality from which those black eyes exile us.” (15) [13] “This poetry – which seems racial at first – is actually a hymn by everyone for everyone.” (16) “Anti-racist racism” provides the only way out for both black and white. (18) Négritude so efficaciously explodes dualities that it is androgynous. (43)

Sartre’s sponsorship of négritude thus rests ideologically on his own revaluation of Surrealism as well as a pair of complementary or contradictory tendencies: the provisional acceptance of racial conventions and a fiercely engaged partisanship in behalf of the exploited. In spite of the undoubted significance of Sartre’s endorsement, his judgements seem driven by his political engagement rather than by aesthetic considerations of the poetry itself. Though such discernment may be ethically admirable, evaluation of art can never rest on historical or biographical considerations. The most righteous political art may be incompetent, while those with despicable views may produce great works. Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” is more significant as a document of mid-twentieth century race relations and the decline of old-style colonialism than as a study of new poetry. Fortunately for the reader, it is also a great piece of writing. Just as the essays of James Baldwin are monuments of magnificent American prose quite apart from their historical significance, “Black Orpheus” is a beautiful essay, lit with passion and structured with dramatic rhetoric.

1. Lylian Kesteloot, Négritude et situation coloniale, p. 84. Her Les ecrivains noirs de langue française (1963) was published in translation as Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Négritude in 1974.

2. Senghor: Prose and Poetry, ed. and trans. by Guy Reed and Clive Wake, p. 97 and 74-5.

3. See Sartre on Cuba and later references to Che Guevara as "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age." Feeling perhaps that this understated his position, Sartre later called Che the "era's most perfect man."

4. Breton, Aragon, Eluard, Unik and Peret joined the Party, though their movement had earlier been associated with anarchism, including contributing a regular column to the anarchist paper Le Libertaire. The ambivalence of the relation between Communists and Surrealists is evident in Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto (1929) in which he declares loyalty to “historical materialism” and promises Surrealists will prove “fully capable of doing our duty as revolutionaries” while expressing the fear that other Communists may regard his group as “strange animals.” In 1932 Breton was expelled from the party not for bourgeois individalism but because of his association with Trotsky. At a Communist-dominated International Congress for the Defence of Culture in 1935 the Surrealists who had attended were denounced and allowed only marginal participation. In 1938 an essay “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art” signed by Breton and Diego Rivera was published in the autumn edition of the Partisan Review. It is, however, reprinted in the collection of Trotsky’s writings, Art and Revolution. In La Clé des Champs (Free Rein), published in 1953, Breton explains that Trotsky was the primary author. In 1952 Breton wrote "It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognised itself."

5. Some intellectuals who were even more actively anti-fascists (such as fellow philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch) criticized Sartre’s level of militancy during the Occupation.

6. What is Literature, translated by Bernand Frechtman, p. 220.

7. Ibid. 158-9.

8. Americans may be reminded of the “Black Power” espoused by Malik el Shabazz (né Malcolm Little) and Kwame Ture (né Stokeley Carmichael) before their arrival at socialist ideology.

9. Similar sentiments appear in What is Literature and other essays: “For once at least, the most revolutionary plan and the purest poetry come from the same source.” (p. 330)

10. See p. 37 as well. The opposition is restated on the next page as intuition and intelligence. On p. 39 the erotic potency of the black peasant is celebrated. For Sartre, French is an “analytical” language and thus used by blacks only with internal struggle. See p. 23.

11. Jahnheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature, 207.

12. See, for instance Michael Dash, Before and Beyond Negritude, 537 and A. James Arnold, Modernism and Negritude, 37.

13. Though Sartre surely was unaware of the fact, his image coincides with the usage of the word oyibo for white people in Nigeria. Literally, this means “peeled.”

Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas

for Aimé Césaire

I feel laughable
in their shoes
in their dinner jacket
in their stiff shirt
in their detachable collar
in their monocle
in their bowler hat

I feel laughable
with my toes that were not born
to sweat from morning until night’s disrobing
with swaddling that weakens my limbs
and robs from my body its loincloth beauty

I feel laughable
with my neck a factory chimney
with headaches that stop
each time I greet someone

I feel laughable
in their salons
in their manners
in their low bows
in their enormous need for monkeyshines

I feel laughable
with all that conversation
until you are served in mid-afternoon
a bit of hot water
and some rheumy pastries.

I feel laughable
with the theories they shape
to the taste of their needs
of their passions
of their instincts wide open at night
like a doormat

I feel laughable
an accomplice among them
a pander among them
among those bloody hands red and frightening
with the blood of their ci-vi-la-za-tion

They Came Tonight

for Léopold-Sedar Senghor

They came the night the
spun from
of eyes
the frenzy of hands
the frenzy
of the feet of statues
how many of ME ME ME
are dead
since they came that night when the
spun from
of eyes
of hands
of the feet of statues

Hold Off Now

Hold off now with the blues
the boogie-woogie
the muted trumpet
the mad foot-stomping
the joys of rhythm

Hold off now the swinging sessions
with crowds
by cries of hepcats.

Hold off now dropping out
and bootlicking
and brownnosing
the attitude
of those who would be white.

Hold off now for just a bit
The infantile life
and desires
and needs
and narcissism
and individualistic

Nerve Pain

Nerve pain of a running tap
fills the pitcher of my building’s super
till it’s sucked up by a rainbow.

End the nerve pain of a running tap
that fills the pitcher of my building’s super
till it’s sucked up by a rainbow.

Remove from the running tap
the pitcher of my building’s super
till it’s sucked up by a rainbow.

or sever the hand to the elbow
the rainbow that sucks up
the pitcher of my building’s super
which is filled by the nerve pain
of a running tap.

The Blues
for Robert Romain

Give back my black dolls
that they can dispel
the image of wan whores
selling love and promenading
on the boulevard of my ennui

Give back my black dolls
that they can dispel
the constant image
the unreal image
of heaps of spanked puppets
whose miserable mercy
the wind brings to the nose

Give me the illusion that I’ll no longer need to comfort
the need splayed out
before the snoring mercy
under the world’s unthinking disregard.

Give back my black dolls
so I can play with them
the naïve games that come naturally
lodged in the shadow of my laws
my heart recovered
my daring
I become myself again
newly myself
from what I was Yesterday
quite simply
when the time of uprooting came

Will they never know this resentment in my heart
the eye of distrust opened too late
they made off with the space that was mine
the clothes
the days
the life
the song
the rhythm
the work
the way
the water
the shacks
the grey smoked earth
the wisdom
the words
the palaver
the elders
the beat
the hands
the tempo
the hands
the foot-stomping
the sun

Give back my black dolls
my black dolls
black dolls

The Black’s Lament
for Robert Goffin

They gave me back
heavier more tired

My present’s overlaid on my past
staring eyes roll with anger
and shame

The days of inexorable
have never stopped
with the memory
of what had been
my life cut off

It goes on
my dullness
from days gone by
blows from knotted ropes
body burnt
burnt from toe to back
dead flesh
branding irons
of red hot iron
arms broken
under the whip unleashed
under the whip that makes the plantation work
and the sugar mill drink the blood my blood
while the foreman’s pipe shows off to the sky

for J. D.

The days themselves
have assumed the shape
of African masks
to any profanation
of quicklime
flattered by
a piano flatters
repeating the same old tune
of moonlight that sighs
any sort at all
in the shrubbery
et cetera

A Brief History of Negritude

Négritude is a movement of Francophone writers of Africa and the African diaspora who sought to develop a literature reflecting distinctly African values and sensibility. Of course, traditional African poetry, largely oral, but sometimes written, had long existed, as well as a scattering of individual authors in European languages, but the fact that a flowering of literary thought and work arose first in French rather than English or Portuguese was influenced by differences in techniques of colonial rule.

Though all colonial governance was exploitative and often brutal, significant variation existed. The English preferred “indirect rule,” in which they found cooperative traditional rulers who would work with them, in this way maintaining control while leaving much indigenous culture intact. On the other hand, the French sought to educate selected Africans in the French curriculum, and regarded a colonial subject who had mastered not only their language, but who could write explications of Corneille and Racine as a sort of fellow countryman. Thus residents of the motherland’s départements et territoires d'outre-mer have long had French citizenship and representation in the National Assembly and Senate.

Among the promising young students brought to Paris for higher education were Aimé Césaire from Martinique, Léon-Gontran Damas from French Guiana, and Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal. These three produced the journal L'Étudiant noir in 1934–1935 where the word négritude first appeared in a piece by Aimé Césaire.

Yet négritude’s trois pères did not work in isolation. [1] They admired Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology The New Negro and met American writers of the Harlem Renaissance, many of whom, including Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and Richard Wright, spent time in France. [2] Sisters Jane (or Jeanne), Paulette, and Andrée Nardal from Martinique hosted a literary salon and published the Revue du monde noir. Jane Nardal’s article “Internationalisme noir,” one of the earliest expressions of pan-Africanism, was published in 1928. Etienne Léro, René Ménil, and Jules Monnerot from Martinique published a single number of a radical journal titled Légitime défense in 1932 in which Léro condemned as dodoism (that is to say, obsolete) poets such as Daniel Thaly who imitated French literature and advocated instead a poetry influenced by black Americans, Surrealism, and Marxism. Ménil later served as editor of Aimé Césaire’s 1941 Tropiques which had a thoroughly Surrealist program.

Légitime défense, a legal term roughly equivalent to self-defense, had been used by Breton in a 1926 pamphlet declaring Surrealism’s revolutionary autonomy. The Surrealists as a group had also spoken on the specific issues of race and colonialism. In 1932 a manifesto titled “Murderous Humanitarianism” [3] was signed by the principal white figures in the movement such as Breton, Char, Crevel, Éluard, and Tanguy, as well as by Martiniquans Pierre Yoyotte and Jules Monnerot. “Murderous Humanitarianism” was predominantly anti-capitalist, calling exploiters “slavers” and supporting the Communist Party. [4] The few comments on culture per se remain governed by political considerations, and jazz itself seemed to the authors merely a “distorted” vogue like chinoiserie.

“Those Blacks who have merely been compelled to distort in terms of fashionable jazz the natural expression of their joy at finding themselves partners of a universe from which Western peoples have willfully withdrawn may consider themselves lucky to have suffered nothing worse than degradation. The eighteenth century derived nothing from China except a repertoire of frivolities to grace the alcove. In the same way the whole object of our romantic exoticism and modern travel lust is of use only in entertaining that class of blasé clients sly enough to see an interest in deflecting to his own advantage the torrent of those energies which soon, sooner than he thinks, will close over his head.”

The solidarity extended to the colonial subjects by the Surrealists on political grounds was returned by all the important négritude writers, though in varying degrees. In the introduction to Légitime défense, Léro wrote, “we accept without reservation surrealism, to which—in 1932—we bind up our future.” Césaire explicitly identified as a Surrealist; indeed, he regarded himself as a Surrealist before Surrealism.

I was ready to accept surrealism because I already had advanced on my own, using as my starting points the same authors that had influenced the surrealist poets. Their thinking and mine had common reference points. Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation. . . Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor . . . if I apply the surrealist approach to my particular situation, I can summon up these unconscious forces. [5]

Damas’ first collection of poetry was introduced by Robert Desnos and illustrated by Frans Masere, both closely associated with Surrealism. In a revealing hedge, Senghor insisted on the distinction between European reason and African intuition, saying “Negro-African surrealism is mystical.” [6]

The alliance was furthered by other factors, both in Communist politics, and Surrealist theory. It is surely significant that at this time, Stalin’s line encouraged ethnic identification and every recognized minority in the USSR was granted its own national territory such as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Far East. [7] Apart from (and even in a sense in opposition to) revolutionary aspirations, Surrealism shared with négritude writers the celebration of magic and the subconscious. The fetishization of the primitive by European avant-gardists is well-known, [8] while African and African-American authors found the Surrealist rejection of European rationalism and other values attractive, allowing them to view what had seemed superstition as a sort of higher wisdom.

In 1945 Damas’ Poètes d'expression française 1900–1945 appeared with an anti-colonialist introduction quoting Léro's “Misère d'une poésie” (“Poverty of a Poetry”). The book included writers from Africa, the African Diaspora, and Indochina. In 1948 the definitive anthology of the movement was published, Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache. The book’s introductory essay by Sartre titled "Orphée Noir" ("Black Orpheus") guaranteed that the volume would receive widespread attention.

Though Sartre had grown to be sympathetic to the politically revolutionary aims of many négritude poets, he had been actively hostile to Surrealism, most notably in his “Situation of the Writer in 1947” which calls them “victims of the disaster of 1940,” noting that, for all their revolutionary rhetoric, their emigration and solipsistic endeavors in the face of fascist occupation signaled their fecklessness. Indeed, like this condemnation of the white Surrealists, his motives for endorsing writers of color seem primarily political.

Négritude has been criticized from several angles. Wole Soyinka’s jibe "The tiger does not proclaim its tigerness, it jumps on its prey" [9] is doubtless the most well-known. The fact is, of course, that, unlike humans, the tiger proclaims nothing whatever in words, but only in actions. Soyinka later moderated his opposition, saying “When you pass where the tiger has walked before, you see the skeleton of the duiker, you know that some tigritude has been emanated there.”

Tension arose between black writers to whom Marxism or a similar political orientation was primary and those who pursued a specifically Afrocentric art. Stanislas Adotevi from Benin condemned the assignment of racial characteristics even by fellow Africans, and, in particular, objected to the projection of a special intuition or mysticism on Africans. [10] He described the movement contemptuously, saying that, négritude was the “soporific of the Negro. It’s opium.” By its tenets, "in the great orchestra of the Universal, mankind will have Europe as its conductor, white. The Negro will hold the rhythm section. " [11] For some such as the Cameroonian Marcien Towa [12], Senghor in particular was guilty on the one hand of accommodating and finally accepting colonialism and on the other of cultivating a “biologisation du culturel,” which amounted to a sort of racism. Paulin Hountondji, student of both Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser, objected to what he called “ethnophilosophy, implying that different concepts were applicable for different peoples.” [13] Perhaps most influential was Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist, revolutionary theoretician, and former student of Césaire's, who claimed not only that that négritude was simplistic, but also that the notion of the "black soul was but a white artifact." [14]

The influence of these poets is profound. Without attempting further detail, here it will suffice to note that among the groupings and individuals which would not have been the same without their example are political figures such as Harry Haywood, Maulana (Ron) Karenga, and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), artists such as Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and Amiri Baraka, the Afro-Surrealism and Black Arts Movements, Larry Neal, Ishmael Reed and Neo-Hoodoo, Etheridge Knight, Henry Dumas, Jacques Stephen Alexis’ Marvelous Realism, D. Scot Miller, the Last Poets, and, in academia Henry Louis Gates and Molefi Kete Asante.

Whatever evaluation a critic may make of their work in itself, the place of the négritude movement writers is secure in literary history. Their work marked an end of the slavish imitation of European literary models and the beginning of the construction of a modern African literature in European languages. It was Senghor, Damas, Césaire and their fellow-countrymen, not the colonialist overlords, as Sartre’s phrase suggests, who “removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut,” [15] changing and enriching both social and aesthetic thought.

1. All literary history is continuous, but the historian must begin somewhere. Apart from earlier African writing in European languages, Arabic (and Swahili and Hausa) and Bantu, I omit here the earlier movements in the Caribbean of Indigenism in Haiti and Negrism in Cuba.

2. Damas said that McKay was the movement’s spiritual founder and dedicated his first book of poetry Pigment to McKay. Lilyan Kesteloot found that even in the sixties all three of the pères could “still cite entire chapters” of McKay’s Banjo. See Les écrivains noirs de langue française: naissance d'une littérature.

3. Later published in the remarkable Nancy Cunard's Negro Anthology (1934).

4. Revolutionary politics had, of course, been an essential part of the Surrealist program as of Dadaism before it. This element is routinely neglected by more recent theoreticians, practitioners, and scholars.

5. From an interview of Aime Césaire by Rene Depestres at the Cultural Congress of Havana, 1967.

6. By far the best general treatment of the topic is Jean-Claude Michel’s The Black Surrealists.

7. With their tailing of Stalin’s line expressed in the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, the American Communist Party during this era suggested the creation of a similar black national state in the South. This was never a popular notion in American black communities, though in general the Party enjoyed disproportionate support from blacks, for instance electing Benjamin J. Davis, the editor of the Communist Party’s journal The Negro Liberator, to the city council from 1943 until he was jailed for his Party membership in 1949.

8. See for instance, my own “The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art.”

9. Apparently first said in Kampala in 1962. Soyinka’s second comment was from a 1964 talk in Berlin.

10. See, for instance, his “Léopold Sédar Senghor : Négritude ou Servitude?” Poésie de la Négritude: Approche structuraliste, and Essai sur la problématique philosophique dans l'Afrique actuelle.

11. “Dans le grand orchestre de l’Universel, l’humanité aura pour chef d’orchestre l’Europe, le blanc. Le nègre tiendra la section rythmique. La négritude doit être le soporifique du nègre. C’est l’opium.” See also his Négritude et négrologues.

12. His critique is repeatedly restated, including in Poésie de la Négritude and Identité et Transcendance.

13. See Sur la philosophie africaine.

14. See Peau noire, masques blancs.

15. See the opening line of “Black Orpheus.”