Edouard Glissant @ 80

Many happy returns for the great Martinican poet, novelist and essayist Edouard Glissant (see also — in French — a recent essay, “The World seen from 10 May”) turns eighty today.

Here, a few pages of his thinking about poetry from Introduction to a Poetics of the Diverse, which I translated for the 1999 issue of Boundary2’s special section on the state of poetry, edited by Charles Bernstein.

I speak and, before all, I write in the presence of all the world’s languages. Many languages are dying today throughout the world — in Black Africa for example, languages are disappearing as their users are absorbed into a larger national community, or because the language is no longer a language of peasant production or, simply, of production and thus becomes eroded, or simply because its users disappear physically from the country where they lived — but we know that we write in the presence of all the world’s languages, even if we know none of them. To take my own example, I am permeated, poetically permeated with that necessity even as I have incredible difficulty speaking any other language than those I use (Creole and French). But to write in the presence of all the world’s languages does not mean to know all the world’s languages. It means that in the present context of multiple literatures and of the relation of poetics with the chaos-world, I can no longer write in a monolingual manner. That is to say that I deturn and force my language not into syntheses but toward linguistic openings which permit me to conceive of the relations between today’s languages on the surface of the earth — relations of domination, connivence, absorption, oppression, erosion, tangency, etc. — as the fact of an immense drama, an immense tragedy from which my own language cannot be exempt and safe. And therefore I cannot write monolinguistically in my language; I write it in the presence of this tragedy, of this drama. One cannot save one language in the world by letting the others die. … (39/40)
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Yesterday, in the days of the founding books and of all the literatures that emanated from them, thought — what I call systematic thought — organized, studied, projected these slow and imperceptible repercussions between languages; it foresaw and ideologically framed the movement of the world it legitimately governed. Today this systematic thought — I like to call it “continental thought” — has failed to take into account the generalized non-system of the world’s cultures. Another form of thought is developing, more intuitive, more fragile, threatened, but in sync with the chaos-world and the unforseeable. Though buttressed perhaps by the conquests of the human and social sciences, it derives from a poetic and imaginative vision of the world. This thought I call “archipelagic thought,” a non-systematic, inductive thought that explores the unforseen of the world-totality and attunes the written to the oral and the oral to the written. What I see is that today the continents are being “archipelagized,” as least as percieved from the outside. The Americas are archipelagizing themselves, are constituting themselves into regions beyond national borders. And I believe that this term of “region” needs to be given some dignity. Europe is archipelagizing. Linguistic regions, cultural regions, beyond the barriers of nationhood, are islands — but open islands, this being their main condition for survival.
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To live the world-totality from the place that is one’s own, means to establish a relation, not consecrate exclusion. I believe that literature, in terms of the question of identity, is coming into an period when it will produce epic works, new and contemporary epics. All atavistic cultures, as we said, have known an epic literary beginning. We have mentioned the great founding books of humanity. From the Old Testament to the Iliad, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to the Indian Bhagavad-Gita, from the Icelandic sagas to the Chanson de Roland, from the Aeneid to the Popul Vuh or the Chilam Balam of the Native Americans, to the Finnish Kalevala, the great epic books that found humanity are books that reassure the community on its own fate and that consequently tend, not in themselves but by the use made of them, to exclude the other from this community. I say “not in themselves,” because the great books that found and root communities, are in fact books of wandering. And if one examines the Old Testament, the Iliad, the sagas, the Aeneid, one sees right away that these books are “complete” because while their vocation is one of rooting, they also and immediately propose the vocation of wandering. It seems to me that a new, contemporary epic literature will begin to appear as soon as the world-totality will begin to be conceived of as a new community. But then we will have to consider that this new epic, contrary to the great founding books of atavistic humanities, will be given through a language that is multilingual in the very language in which it will be written. This epic literature will also exclude the necessity for an expiatory victim, as one sees them appear in the founding books of atavistic humanity. The victim and expiation allows for the exclusion of all that they cannot buy back. Or else it permits to “universalize” abusively. The new epic literature will establish relation and not exclusion. Finally, such an epic literature may be able to do without the concept of being, in order to remain astounded by the imagination of becoming, of all the possible becomings of the world, of all possible existings. The question of being is no longer asked in that profitable solitude to which the thought of the universal had been reduced. The universal has been upset and toppled by the diverse. …

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Let me end with some brief thoughts on what I consider one of the most important arts for the future: the art of translation. What every translation henceforth suggests in its very principle, by the very passage it attempts between one language and another, is the sovereignty of all the world’s languages. For this reason translation is both the sign and the evidence that we have to imaginatively conceive this totality of languages. Just as the writer now practices this totality in the language he writes in, so does the translator manifest it in the passage from one language to another, confronted as he is by the singularity of each language. But, just as in our chaos-world one cannot save any one language by letting the others perish, so it is for the translator who cannot establish a relation between two singular systems, between two individual languages, except in the presence of all the other ones, powerful in his imagination, even if he doesn’t know any of them.

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