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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.”

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