Countermodernism and Francophone Literary Culture: The Game of Slipknot

Countermodernism and Francophone Literary Culture: The Game of Slipknot

by Keith L. Walker

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Keith L. Walker traverses the traditionally imposed boundaries of geography and race as he examines the literary culture produced by French speakers and writers born outside France. Focusing on the commonalities revealed in their shared language and colonial history, Walker examines for the first time the work of six writers who, while artistically distinct and geographically scattered, share complex sensibilities regarding their own relationship to France and the French language and, as he demonstrates, produce a counterdiscourse to their colonizers’ modern literary traditions.
Martinique, French Guyana, Senegal, Morocco, and Haiti serve as the stage for the struggle these writers have faced with French language and culture, a struggle influenced by the legacy of Aimé Césaire. In his stand against the modernist principles of Charles Baudelaire, Walker argues, Césaire has become the preeminent francophone countermodernist. A further examination of the relationships between Césaire and the writers Léon Gontron Damas, Mariama Bâ, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Ken Bugul, and Gérard Étienne forms the core of the book and leads to Walker’s characterization of francophone literature as having “slipped the knot,” or escaped the snares of the familiar binary oppositions of modernism. Instead, he discovers in these writers a shared consciousness rooted in an effort to counter and denounce modernist humanist discourse and pointing toward a new subjectivity formed through the negotiation of an alternative modernity.
Countermodernism and Francophone Literary Culture will engage readers interested in French literature and in postcolonial, Caribbean, African, American, and francophone studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379188
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Series: New Americanists
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 557 KB

About the Author

Keith L. Walker is Associate Professor of French and Italian at Dartmouth College and coeditor of Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers.

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Countermodernism and Francophone Literary Culture

The Game of Slipknot

By Keith L. Walker

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7918-8


The Game of Slipknot

Poetry was for me the only way to break the stranglehold the accepted French form had on me.

Martinique ... around its neck the slipknot of assimilation. –Letter to Maurice Thorez (emphases added)

... "Odd how the climate has changed. Cold on this island ... Have to think about making a fire ... Well, Caliban, old fellow, it's just us two now, here on the island, only you and me. You and me. You-me ... me-you!"–Aimé Césaire, A Tempest

For you and for me who one and the other were yesterday but one still caught in the game of slipknot –Léon Gontran Damas, "Pour toi et moi"

You know that before leaving I had undone the noose around my neck–Gérard Etienne, Cri pour ne pas crever de honte

Perspectives: Antérior Firmin and René Maran

Francophone literary culture begins with a denunciation. In 1921 the prestigious French literary Goncourt Prize was awarded to René Maran, a Guyanese French colonial administrator in the Central African district of Oubangui-Chari, for his work Batouala, considered the first novel to be written about Africa in French by a Black. In the preface to Batouala, the author condemned French colonial practices in Central Africa and appealed to his "brothers of France" to recall France to her revolutionary, egalitarian, and fraternal dignity. The preface and the novel itself were banned in the colonies, and the Goncourt committee was severely criticized for bestowing the prize upon such "dangerous," inflammatory literature. It was not until 1987 that the Goncourt Prize would be awarded to another francophone writer, Tahar ben Jelloun, for La Nuit sacrée, the sequel to L'Enfant de sable (The Sand Child).

Prior to Maran, however, away from Paris in the relative obscurity of Port-au-Prince circa 1885, the Haitian intellectual Anténor Firmin published De l'égalité des races humaines (On the Equality of the Human Races). In 1855, seven years after the 1848 abolition of slavery in the French colonies, Comte Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau's L'Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races) had been published. Gobineau's essay was not only an a posteriori "scientific" justification of slavery but also an a priori justification for modernity's continuation of colonialist practices of exploitation, which in the postslavery period took the form of oppressive debt systems and the forced labor, servitude, and indenture of Africans, Asians, and Amerindians. Firmin wrote his essay as a counter and a reply to, as well as a denunciation of, the physical, medical, intellectual, and moral anthropology of the period, a discourse considered inimical, or in his terms "iniquitous." Firmin was addressing not only the rhetoric of Gobineau but also that of others, including Ernest Renan in Philosophical Dialogues:

Les hommes ne sont pas égaux, les races ne sont pas égales. Le Nègre, par exemple, est fait pour servir aux grandes choses voulues et conçues par le blanc.

[Men are not equal. The Negro, for example, is made to serve the great things conceived and desired by the White man.]

Firmin's 662-page project has three major organizing goals. First, with an overabundance of evidence, Firmin eloquently defends Egyptian, Ethiopian, and sub-Saharan civilizations, enumerating their contributions to human progress. Firmin thus anticipated the twentieth-century research of Jean Price-Mars and other Black Africanists. Second, Firmin analyzes what he considers the prompt evolution of the Black in the New World from slavery to independence, privileging the case of Haiti and the example of the intellectuals, military figures, and heroes of its independence movement. Firmin states:

Nous allons voir ce qu'ont pu faire dans les hautes régions de l'esprit les arrière petits-fils tirés de la Côte-d'Or, du Dahomey, du pays des Aradas, des Mandingues, des Ibos et des Congos, pour être jetés en Haiti couverts de chaînes et maudissant leur destinée! (P. 438)

[We shall see what in the lofty regions of the mind has been accomplished by the great-grandchildren of those dragged from the Gold Coast, from Dahomey, from the land of the Arada, the Mandingo, the Ibo, and the Congo peoples, to be cast down into Haiti covered in chains and cursing their fate.]

Third, Firmin's goal is to denounce the moral, intellectual, and scientific relativism of Europe: first, through a systematic refutation of the false ethnography of slavery and postslavery racism and second, through a grandiose affirmation, with examples, of the humanity of Blacks. According to Firmin in 1885, one must

détruire les prétentions que la race caucasique affiche au monopole de l'intelligence et de toutes les aptitudes supérieures." (P. 452)

[destroy the claims flaunted by the Caucasian race to a monopoly on intelligence and all superior aptitudes.]

In Firmin's phrasing, one discerns the beginning utterances of Aimé Césaire's assertion in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land: "Et aucune race ne possède le monopole de la beauté, de l'intelligence, de la force ... et il est place pour tous au rendezvous de la conquête" [And no race posesses the monopoly of beauty, intelligence, strength ... and there is space for everyone at the rendezvous of victory]. In fact, much of Firmin's heroic defense of Black humanity prefigures many of the revolutionary positions later taken by many twentieth-century francophone writers.

Throughout De l'égalité des races humaines, Firmin qualifies as "specious," "suspicious," "perverse," "monstrous," "stupid," and "fanciful" the contemporary scientific claims that asserted the differences between Black and White humanity. Before Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism (1950) and his denunciation of "the big lie" of the civilizing mission, of anthropological hypocrisy, and of the dishonest equations that tried to prove that Christianity equals civilization and that Black culture equals savagery and paganism, Firmin had asserted that the work of Gobineau and others was in no way

une réponse scientifique, c'est un pur jeu de rhétorique à réduire à sa juste valeur.... j'aurai droit de lui dire, à cette anthropologic mensongère: Non, tu n'es pas une science! (Pp. 227, 230)

[a scientific response, it is a pure game of rhetoric to be reduced to its just value.... I shall reserve the right to say to this lying anthropology: No, you are not a science!]

Before the Martinican ethnopsychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote his 1961 sociodiagnostic Black Skin, White Masks, in which he analyzed much of the behavior of the colonized as a consequence of colonial processes of socialization and brutalization, Firmin had posited a similar analysis:

Les Européens qui ont le courage de reprocher à l'esclave noir son infériorité intellectuelle ne se rappellent-ils done pas d'avoir employé tous les artifices pour empêcher que l'intelligence ne se développât jamais en lui. Après avoir brisé tous les ressorts de la volonté, toute énergie morale, toute élasticité de l'esprit, ne laissant que la brute là où l'homme menaçait de s'affirmer, ne savait-on pas, sans l'ombre d'un doute, qu'il ne restait plus rien d'élevé dans cet être méthodiquement dégradé? C'est pourtant en s'adressant à lui, le prenant comme terme de comparaison qu'on a établi les bases du jugement par lequel on déclare que les races ne sont pas égales, que les Nigritiens sont au-dessous de l'échelle et les Caucasiens au dessus! Une science qui s'est édifiée au milieu d'un tel renversement de la nature et qui y a cherché ses règles d'appréciation et de raisonnement ne pouvait offrir rien de sérieux, rien de solide. Dans cette pénible occurrence, la science, par une lâche complaisance ou par insufflsance d'observation, s'est rendu complice du plus sot des préjugés et du plus inique des systèmes. (Pp. 488-89)

[Those Europeans who have the audacity to reproach the black slave for his intellectual inferiority do not therefore recall having employed every ingenious device in order to prevent intelligence from ever developing in him. After having broken all the resilience of his willpower, every bit of his moral energy, all elasticity of the mind, leaving only a brute there where a human being threatened to affirm itself, did they not know, without a shadow of a doubt, that there remained nothing more of the lofty in this methodically degraded being? It is, however, in addressing that being, taking him as the basis of comparison, that they have established the bases of judgment by which they declare that the races are not equal, that the Negroes are at the bottom of the ladder and the Caucasians are at the top. A science that erects itself in the middle of such a reversal of nature and that searches therein its rules of appraisal and reasoning can offer nothing serious, nothing solid. In this painful instance, science, by a cowardly connivance or a lack of observation, has made itself complicitous with the most stupid of prejudices and the most iniquitous of systems.]

Before the poet Léon Gontran Damas denounced the highly imitative form and unexamined content of early-twentieth-century Caribbean literature, Firmin had already begun a critique of the state of Haitian literature in 1885:

Malheureusement dans cette première floraison de l'intelligence des Noirs, on ne s'occupa que de la littérature. On aima mieux cultiver la forme dans laquelle les ideés doivent se présenter que d'étudier le fond de ces idées. Beaucoup de brillant littéraire et presque pas de science. Louis-Philippe disait de Villemain qu'il faisait ses phrases tout d'abord et cherchait ensuite l'idée qu'on pouvait y mettre. C'est une saillie qui contient plus de finesse que de vérité; mais il n'est pas moins vrai que les hommes de 1830, en France, sacrifiaient souvent trop à la forme. Imitant tant donc 1'éloquence fleurie avec laquelle les doctrinaires français parlaient de la liberté et des principes, les Haïtiens se mirent à parler admirablement du droit, sans y croire aucunement, sans même s'occuper de ce qui le constitue, ni dans quelles limites il doit s'exercer, ni à quel point, il est respectable. (P. 584)

[Unfortunately in this first flowering of the intelligence of Blacks, one was interested only in literature. One preferred to cultivate the form in which ideas must be presented rather than study the substance of these ideas. Lots of literary brilliance but almost no science. Louis-Philippe used to say of Villemain that he fashioned his phrases first then searched for the idea that one could put into the phrase. It is a witticism that contains more finesse than truth; but it is no less true that the men of 1830, in France, often sacrificed too much to form. Consequently imitating, to quite an extent, the florid eloquence with which the sententious French doctrinarians spoke of liberty and its principles, Haitians began to speak admirably of law, without believing in it in the least, without even dealing with what actually constituted it, nor in what parameters it should be exercised, nor to what extent it is honorable.]

While pondering the bloody past of the slave trade, the wretched conditions of slave life, and the self-serving claims of nineteenth-century anthropology, Firmin resists melancholy and draws strength, pride even, from the slave past and the survival and progress of New World Blacks, thus anticipating the Negritude movement of the 1930s and 40s.

Pour moi, j'avoue bien franchement que je ne puis m'empêcher d'être fier de mes pères, quand je me reporte par la pensée à cette époque de misère où, rivés à une existence infernale, ayant le corps brisé par le fouet, la fatigue et les chaînes, ils gémissaient en silence, mais conservaient dans leur poitrine haletante le feu sacré qui devait produire l'explosion superbe de la liberté et de l'indépendance! (P. 533)

[For me, I must confess quite frankly that I cannot keep myself from being proud of my forefathers, when through thoughts I am transported back to that period of misery during which, tied to a hellish existence, being broken by the lash, by weariness and chains, they moaned in silence but preserved in their panting breast the sacred fire that would produce the splendid explosion of liberty and independence.]

While the word "negritude" is of twentieth-century coinage, Césaire maintains in the Notebook that it "stood up for the first time and declared its humanity" during the Haitian Revolution of 1802-1804. With that in mind, it is perhaps later in the same century, in 1885, with the publication in Haiti of On the Equality of the Human Races by Anténor Firmin–in direct response to the indictment of Black humanity by European physical and moral anthropology–that one can place the beginnings of a francophone literary consciousness and the countermoves of the denunciatory tradition.

In 1921 Maran's existence dramatized a variation of the double consciousness explicated by W. E. B. DuBois in 1902. In DuBoisian double consciousness one is dealing with the tensions between individual racial or ethnic identity and values and collective national identity and values. Specifically, the conflict in DuBois emerged from the existential twoness of being: "One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." In Maran's case, it is the twoness of being Negro and French. Maran's life in 1921 was one of remarkable mobility. His dilemma, knowing colonial history while not identifying with Africa and Africans, prefigures today's dilemma of Parisian-born Blacks who have no memory or experience of Africa or the West Indies. This predicament crosses linguistic boundaries to include anglophone and other francophone Blacks who have been inculcated with Western values and are living in world capitals. Maran's dilemma is expressed today by writers like Caryl Phillips, who shuttles between St. Kitts and London and captures the sense of the contemporary manifestation of Maran's experience:

The question leaps out: "When will it end?" The problem occurs when you don't have any memory of the Caribbean, and you have been told that's where you are from. That's why Alvin in Strange Fruit goes back to the Caribbean, returns to England and actually discovers that the Caribbean is not for him. It's a real problem to have no memory of the Caribbean, and it's a problem to have a memory of the Caribbean. If you seek to discover the Caribbean in somebody growing up in North America or Britain, then nine times out of ten, you will be disappointed.

In Maran's Batouala, the tension between the vision in the preface compared to the contents of the novel is of particular interest, as is the psychocultural location of Maran himself. There is a dissonance or contrapuntal discontinuity between the probing and denunciatory analysis of colonialism in the preface and the content of the novel proper. Maran the novelist is unable or unwilling to write himself out of the traditions, gaze, aesthetics, and position of a Europeanized Black looking upon Africans as an outsider. With a French heart and worldview, Maran sensed that he was in the land of his ancestors, ancestors from whom he distanced himself because he did not share their condition, mentality, or tastes, but whom he recognized, nonetheless, as his ancestors. Today many successful minorities have difficulty recognizing themselves in the socially, educationally, and economically disenfranchised members of their racial or ethnic group, and class asserts itself.

Subtitled in French Véritable roman nègre (A True African Tale), in the English edition the novel is subtitled, An African Love Story. Essentially, it describes a love triangle between Batouala, the chief, Yassigui'ndja, his ninth wife, who is, however, "first" among equals, and the robust young hunter Bissibi'ngui. Yassi and Bissi are sexually overdetermined as characters, and Batouala is "naturally jealous, vindictive and violent." The African woman is portrayed as being of easy virtue and is condemned to promiscuity and infidelity because she acts only according to instinct. In fact, the text states, "The only law is instinct." Thus, Africans cannot rid themselves of innate savageness, and relationships between the African men and women are one-dimensional–reduced to sexual pursuit and satisfaction. Relationships between men in the novel are competitive and deadly; the same is true of the relationships between women. Perhaps the only moment in which the novel echoes the anticolonialist criticisms and preoccupations of the preface is when Batouala pronounces an extended discourse on the character of the Boundjous, or Whites, during preparations for the celebrations of Ga'nza, the ceremony of circumcision and excision.


Excerpted from Countermodernism and Francophone Literary Culture by Keith L. Walker. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: In the Denunciatory Tradition,
I Countermodernism,
1 The Game of Slipknot,
2 Toward a Sociology of Humor,
3 Counterexertions,
II Counterstorytelling,
4 Colonialism, Literary Tradition, and Counterstorytelling,
5 Postscripts,
6 Moroccan Independence,
7 The Blossoming of the Undefined Self,
III Counterconfession,
8 Words Proffered in Pain,
Conclusion: The Francophone,

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