The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
by Aimé Césaire

Reviewed by John Murillo III


Published by Wesleyan University Press, 2013   |   120 pages

The jacket insert of The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land promises insight into “the beginning of Césaire’s quest for négritude” and I am jettisoned into psychic vertigo. When (re)thinking the temporality of blackness on political-ontological, psychic, and historical planes of being, my ears tune to the sounds of the fragmented and overlapping perspectives projected onto the back of tightly clenched eyelids. The echoic reverberations of the words of so much black thought bleed into each other, melding with Césair’e’s across the attenuated membrane of time and space for blacks:

Spillers’s “murdered
over and over again
by the passions of a bloodless and anonymous archaism, showing itself in
endless disguise” (Spillers 1987, 68),
vicious repetition cyclically maintained by structures institutional and psychic; and,
Hartman’s “afterlife of slavery” (Hartman 2007, 6),
time and space attenuated such that
the violence
that marks black flesh and produces (anti)blackness
as “the grammar and [ghost] of our every gesture” (Wilderson 2009, 119, 123); and,
the many orders of labyrinth to which
Anthony Paul Farley attends when describing the walls
made of skin flesh, black flesh, black flesh marked up,
undecipherable hieroglyphics—Spillers—of and on the serpentine wall
its own symbolic labyrinth within the labyrinth
crashing one into the earth of yet another, psychic labyrinth,
all rooted in the larger legal one,
situated in the global structure one,
adrift in the universe of the ontological one,
and Farley begs the haunting question of beginnings and entrances—
where we enter is where we exit so where is the labyrinth’s
beginning, or ending?—when did ‘we’ really
cross the threshold of the door of no return (Brand 2001),
pass violently through the blood-stained gate (Douglass 1987; Sharpe 2010),
and emerge?—did ‘we’ emerge?—is it over?
where and when did ‘we’ begin?

—do ‘we’ “begin”?
—over and over again; do ‘we’ merely

the Mobius questions repeat and overlap and the scenes of their sounds collide, illuminating and mutilating each other, whirling around the singularity of the question—of beginnings and endings, of narrative energies and possibilities, of blackness itself—

And so…where do ‘we’ (re)begin, ‘here,’ with the editors’ (or at least the book jacket’s) opening promise? What do ‘we’ see, or what must ‘we’ imagine, and what insight do ‘we’ gain when confronted with the claim of origins as it relates to Césaire, black movement(s), black thought, and blackness?

From the introduction: “We do not claim to reveal what the poem ultimately means but rather how it was meant to be read in 1939. Reading with the poem’s first audience, so to speak, will finally permit a new generation to judge its enduring power a century after the poet’s birth” (xx, emphasis mine). This particular edition – a facsimile of a 1939 “preoriginal” of Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land – foregrounds the material differences between this working draft version and its 1956 successor destined for publication. It is the editors’ contentions that the additions and edits Césaire made between versions detracts from certain spiritual and rhythmic elements of the original draft. They suture this to their desire to confront claims scholars and historians make of the 1956 version about a mythological place of origin for the Négritude movement and its hero, and resituate them in a version of the poem (the 1939 preoriginal) that, in their reading, holds a deep spirituality at its core that is muddled by more overtly ideological elements later-added ot the final 1956 version.

What Arnold and Eshleman seem to seek, with regard to both the Négritude movement and Césaire’s poetry, is to resituate the point of entry, to reveal that the door and threshold are elsewhere, in order to reframe the reason(s) this poem endures over time, or attenuate the time between itself, its stylistic and political origins, and the “new” generation that ‘now’ bears witness to the letters and lines on the page.

Does the preoriginal as presented support the authors’s claim that the text in its original is a less ideological, political poem? Any assertion that this preoriginal produces a muddling or negation of the ideology of Césaire’s later drafts and not an elucidation or enhancement of them seems highly debatable. Or, drawing from the method and interests of Fred Moten (“Just Friends”) regarding the competing translations of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, one instead finds a productive expansion of that politic in Césaire’s persistent transmutations of the poem from 1939, through 1947, and to 1956—in the very existence of the shifts and differences itself.

Still present in the preoriginal are the devastating and brutal metaphors that bring to the fore the voice of Frantz Fanon (himself credited with the defense and development of the Négritude movement) and David Marriott (who writes about and through Fanon, particularly in Haunted Life) and the brutal, monstrous intimacies between the language and the horrors it both captures and can never totally embody, the land and sea a topography of flesh cut, flayed, burned, on the verge of explosion, obliteration, a native landscape ugly and cacophonous and mad(dening); brutal metaphors spinning around the centrality and singularity of the blackness with which Césaire grapples, a blackness inextricably tied to the hideousness of the earth itself (3-17).

Still present is the phenomenological meditation on blackness and transcendence (above the landscape, into the cosmos), blackness and descent (into its own depths, into the depths of the earth), and its clear tie to the methodology of so many scholarly and poetic interventions, spanning Fanon, Marriott, W.E.B. Du Bois, Dionne Brand, Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson, and any number of the voices responding to the signals transmitted by Césaire’s poetry, emergent in the delayed arrival of the speaker announcing himself, “I,” first in strophe 25 (much different than the 1956 translation, which opens with an additional strophe that bluntly inserts this same “I,”), and from then onward, all the crises of the black self, internal and external, that lurk behind and haunt that pronoun’s every invocation, and his recognition of a need to “accept” (so that he might confront honestly) these ghosts.

Still present in this version, like the 1956 publication, is the insistent repetition; still clear is the use—rather, blackening of French alexandrine verse to mark stylistic and psychic shifts in the poem’s speaker; still present is the insistent repetition; still apparent is the intense psychic struggle; still clear is the blackening of technique drawn from (in the eyes of the editors) Charles Paudel—the long lines and the rhythms of Césaire’s strophes—and Charles Péguy—the insistent repetition; still present, still clear, still available, still.

Still essential is the religious rituality of the prayer and jubilation that span the second half of the poem in Césaire’s, or his speaker’s, attempt to shift from descent into transcendence, to totally invert the very (psychic, metaphorical, metaphysical) landscape such that his acceptance of depth alchemically transmutes into the possibility of ascension.

“Where are we going?
Why are we slowing down?”

Certainly, as is the argument of the editors, these elements, particularly the religiosity of the text, interact with the later additions and edits Césaire makes to the poem and their ideological forcefulness. From the amalgamation of the 1939 “first” or “preoriginal” version, the “first” audience’s (type of) reading, the 1947 version(s) published in France, and the 1956 version and the abundant scholarship around its mythological status – the temporal, aesthetic, and ideological attenuation made visible between versions does produce a “new” generation of reading that would be wholly different without this new piece to the puzzle.

All spinning around the singularity of négritude,
Itself spinning around the singularity of blackness;
Blackness’ gravitational centrality
Bleeding through the not-so-distinct temporalities of each version
And before
And beyond

Which is to suggest, simply but precisely, that the attenuation of time and space that violently marks and rends black flesh with undecipherable hieroglyphics (and participates in rendering them undecipherable), that is simultaneously refigured and reasserted by those markings and that flesh, and that replays over and over again in and on the minds, bodies, and metaphysics of black beings, places Césaire’s poem in a constitutive spatiotemporal displacement. Put differently, the poem and the négritude movement it initiates—according to this text, at least—begin long before their beginnings, begin at the beginning of blackness, and bleed through the attenuated membrane of space-time for blacks into the present, such that the work he produces here haunts and is haunted, forward and backward, dispersed into everywhere and always. Put still differently, this is to more meticulously justify the claim that what ‘we’ witness in this (re)beginning, this version of the poem, and the poem itself, are timeless.

John Murillo III is a PhD student at Brown University in the English department. His primary research interests include twentieth century black literature, afro-pessimism, critical theory, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, and cosmology. He is currently at work on a novel and comic book, both entitled Dark Matter.

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