South Africa: From the Archive - The Quarrel With History


Traditional chronological history cannot fully contain dislocating ruptures, such as slavery. Martiniquais intellectual Édouard Glissant argues for a literary orientation in remembering.

As a philosopher, critic and activist, Édouard Glissant dedicated himself to reading the Caribbean experience not as univocal and fixed but as an infinitely varied and inexhaustible text. This is a lightly edited excerpt from an essay originally published in Caribbean Discourse (1989, University of Virginia Press).

Reading the paper The West lndian Writer and His Quarrel with History by Edward Baugh allows me to put forward the following observations.

If it is ridiculous to claim that a people "has no history", one can argue that, in certain contemporary situations, while one of the results of global expansion is the presence (and the weight) of an increasingly global historical consciousness, a people can have to confront the problem posed by this consciousness that it feels is "vital", but that it is unable to "bring to light": because the lived circumstances of this daily reality do not form part of a continuum, which means that its relation with its surroundings (what we would call its nature) is in a discontinuous relation to its accumulation of experiences (what we would call its culture).

In such a context, history as far as it is a discipline and claims to clarify the reality lived by this people, will suffer from a serious epistemological deficiency: it will not know how to make the link. The problem faced by collective consciousness makes a creative approach necessary, in that the rigid demands made by the historical approach can constitute, if they are not restrained, a paralysing handicap. Methodologies passively assimilated, far from reinforcing a global consciousness or permitting the historical process to be established beyond the ruptures experienced, will simply contribute to worsening the problem.


The French Caribbean is the site of a history characterised by ruptures and that began with a brutal dislocation, the slave trade. Our historical consciousness could not be deposited gradually and continuously like sediment, as it were, as happened with those peoples who have frequently produced a totalitarian philosophy of history, for instance, European peoples, but came together in the context of shock, contraction, painful negation and explosive forces. This dislocation of the continuum, and the inability of the collective consciousness to absorb it aIl, characterise what I call a nonhistory.

The negative effect of this nonhistory is therefore the erasing of the collective memory. When in 1802, Colonel [Louis] Delgrès blew himself up with his 300 men using the stock of gunpowder at Fort Matouba in Guadeloupe, so as not to surrender to 6 000 French soldiers who were encircling him, the noise of this explosion did not resound immediately in the consciousness of Martinicans and Guadeloupeans. It happened that Delgrès was defeated all over again by the sly trickery of the dominant ideology, which succeeded for a while in twisting the meaning of his heroic act and removing it from popular memory. Consequently, the French government's March 1848 proclamation to the slaves in Martinique asserted that Guadeloupeans had themselves demanded the reimposition of slavery in 1802. And when the Caribbean hero, Toussaint or Marti, was victorious, this was localised within their respective countries. The ideological blockade functioned just like the economic blockades against Haiti in the past, and against Cuba in the present. If Bolivar found help and comfort in Haiti, if therefore for a while the notion of a common Caribbean history was real, this period was short-lived. Today, however, we are hearing the blast from Matouba. In order to repossess their historical space, the French Caribbean countries needed to break through the dead tissue that colonial ideology had deposited along their borders.

Therefore, because of their colonial origin, these peoples for a long time could only oppose the latter (and especially in the Lesser Antilles) in sporadic bursts of a resistance that persisted, and not in the inexhaustible confrontation that the African countries, for example, could manage. The ancestral community of language, religion, government, traditional values - in brief, a worldview - allowed these peoples, each in its own way, to offer continuous, open resistance. The patience and the self-confidence created by such a cultural hinterland was not available to us for a long time.

What resulted was that the French Caribbean people did not relate even a mythical chronology of this land to their knowledge of this country, and so nature and culture have not formed a dialectical whole that informs a people's consciousness. So much so that obscured history was often reduced for us to a chronology of natural events, retaining only their "explosive" emotional meanings. We would say: "the year of the great earthquake", or: "the year of the hurricane that flattened M Celeste's house", or: "the year of the fire on Main Street". And that is precisely the recourse open to any community without a collective consciousness and detached from an awareness of itself. No doubt the same chronology can be observed in peasant communities in certain industrialised countries.

Nature and culture forms a community

One cannot condemn this practice of a "natural" chronology as pure alienation. A study of the folk imagination, made fashionable because of the excesses of industrial and administrative dehumanisation, demonstrates that the process is more rational than it was first thought to be. But nature once severed from its meaning is as impoverished (for man [sic]) and impotent as being subjected to history. The creative link between nature and culture is vital to the formation of a community.

Today we hear the blast from Matouba, but also the volley of shots fired at Moncada. Our history comes to life with a stunning unexpectedness. The emergence of this common experience broken in time (of this concealed parallel in histories) that shapes the Caribbean at this time surprises us before we have even thought about this parallel. That means also that our history emerges at the edge of what we can tolerate, this emergence must be related immediately to the complicated web of events in our past. The past, to which we were subjected, which has not yet emerged as history for us, is, however, obsessively present. The duty of the writer is to explore this obsession, to show its relevance in a continuous fashion to the immediate present. This exploration is therefore related neither to a schematic chronology nor to a nostalgic lament. It leads to the identification of a painful notion of time and its full projection forward into the future, without the help of those plateaux in time from which the West has benefited, without the help of that collective density that is the primary value of an ancestral cultural heartland. That is what 1 calI a prophetic vision of the past.

"History (with a capital H) ends where the histories of those peoples once reputed to be without history come together." History is a highly functional fantasy of the West, originating at precisely the time when it alone "made" the history of the world. If Hegel relegated African peoples to the ahistorical, Amerindian peoples to the prehistorical, in order to reserve History for European peoples exclusively, it appears that it is not because these African or American peoples "have entered History" that we can conclude today that such a hierarchical conception of "the march of History" is no longer relevant. Reality has, for example, forced Marxist thought to concede that it is not in the most technically advanced countries, nor in the most organised proletariat, that the revolution will first be successful. Marxism has thus used objective reality and its own viewpoint to criticise the concept of a linear and hierarchical History. It is this hierarchical process that we deny in our own emergent historical consciousness, in its ruptures, its sudden emergence, its resistance to exploration.

Because the collective memory was too often wiped out, the Caribbean writer must "dig deep" into this memory, following the latent signs that he has picked up in the everyday world.

Because the Caribbean consciousness was broken up by sterile barriers, the writer must be able to give expression to those occasions when these barriers were partially broken.

Because the Caribbean notion of time was fixed in the void of an imposed nonhistory, the writer must contribute to reconstituting its tormented chronology: that is, to reveal the creative energy of a dialectic reestablished between nature and culture in the Caribbean.

History: Not only the business of historians

As far as we are concerned, history as a consciousness at work and history as lived experience is therefore not the business of historians exclusively. Literature for us will not be divided into genres but will implicate all the perspectives of the human sciences. These inherited categories must not in this matter be an obstacle to a daring new methodology, where it responds to the needs of our situation. The quarrel with History is perhaps for Derek Walcott the affirmation of the urgency of a revaluation of the conventions of analytical thought.

A reality that was long concealed from itself and that took shape in some way along with the consciousness that the people had of it, has as much to do with the problematics of investigation as with a historical organisation of things. It is this "literary" implication that orients the thrust of historical thought, from which none of us can claim to be exempt.

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