Uprooting Antillean identity: Maryse Conde's 'La colonie du nouveau monde.'(Maryse Conde: A Special Issue)
Geographically multiple, the Caribbean population is entirely the result of displacements since none of the original inhabitants of the islands have survived. Instead, the population is made up of European settlers, forced immigrants during slave trades, and hired low-cost labor imported after the abolition of slavery which led to waves of migrations to and within the Caribbean. Today, migration is taking place, in reverse mainly away from the islands, often motivated by the lack of work, towards metropolitan countries.(2) If such geographic mobility is thus constitutive of Caribbean identity, it might be the case that Conde's affirmation of the need for a parallel internal nomadism is an attempt to come to terms with this often involuntary condition.
To lead a nomadic life is then Conde's personal choice that links her to other writers. In the preface to Out of the Kumbla (1990), Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido write: "Most well known Caribbean writers have an experience of migration, and for some writers, . . . migration is a central inspiration for their creative work" (xvi). According to Maryse Conde, creativity is, indeed, a desirable mode of living which leads her to affirm "errance." "L'errance" alludes to the intricacy of going astray, wandering around and not getting everything right. It is by erring in all these shades that she who creates always also forms herself and thereby slowly forms her own identity. And while we have heard about multiple layers of identity and postmodern fragmentation as conditions of our lives,(3) Conde's statement strikes as a novelty, a rarity at least, among statements about African-American identity: it is in contrast with the widely spread assumption that the problems with identity formations stem from the uprootedness of the people who came to the Americas from Africa through slave trades.
I want to read Conde's statement specifically with regard to the situation of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Despite many parallels between the history of these two islands with that of the larger area of the Caribbean or the United States, fundamental differences as to their colonial past have resulted in peculiarities which, at first glance, could be overlooked only too easily. Since the United States are themselves former colonies, their economic considerations were usually wrapped in discourses of political legitimization. Post-independence slave trade in the Caribbean has thus a status quite different from that in the United States where the whole weight of slavery needs to be worked out, today, without significant reference to political institutions outside the country. On the islands, however, the abolition of slavery was often directly or indirectly tied up with independence movements in which (former) slaves were involved. The resulting independence of many islands has opened up space for rather diverse cultural developments, as in the cases of Cuba or Jamaica.
Guadeloupe and Martinique, on the other hand, are not independent nation states. Nor has working out the consequences of former slave trades become a matter of considerable communal importance, as it is currently in the United States. Rather, these two former French colonies became integrated departments of France after World War II. Michel Giraud argues that, to assure the support of the Antillean population for what Glissant calls a one-directional relation of dependency, French neo-colonial politics sought "to reinforce the indigenous colored pro-French middle class with whom the masses could identify, whose social position and lifestyle would represent the ideal they desired for their children. This was achieved by means of widespread public education along with the promulgation of an assimilationist ideology, which presented the maintenance of the relationship with France as a guarantee of progress" (239). As a consequence, social structures pertinent to identity formation are "less the result of the intrinsic, autonomous effort of the society itself, resulting from its own internal dynamics, than that of an exterior tutelary power imposing and directing from outside" (235). As one of the consequences of these determinations from elsewhere, Edouard Glissant cites a strong tendency towards social and political apathy of alienation when social groups "se discriment non pas directement par rapport a la fonction qu'ils exercent dans un processus de production, mais bien par rapport a la vocation decidee pour chaque groupe par ceux qui controlent le mode de production: les capitalistes francais" [are not distinguished directly on the basis of their function within a production process, but, instead, with regard to their vocation. The role of every group is, however, decided by those who control the mode of production: the French capitalists]. In other words, "il y a absence totale de liens autonomes . . . entre les divers groupes sociaux; meme leur affrontements sont regis de l'exterieur" [there is a total absence of autonomous links . . . between the various social groups; even their confrontations are regulated from the outside] (209-10). This total determination leaves individuals as well as social groups with nothing but "vivre de maniere nevrotique les contradictions de la situation" [living the contradictions of the situation in a neurotic fashion]. In this context, Glissant views neuroses not primarily as individual pathologies but also as the socially structured state of "absence de reference a soimeme" [absence of reference to oneself] (212). For, as far as social structures are concerned, the class-determined, mimetic (neurotic) desire of the popular classes leads to a relative class stability in that it captures, diverts, and eventually immobilizes all energies that might be invested into a potential reshaping of classes. The present result is what Glissant calls la misere mentale.
Against the temptation of falling into a delirious state of immobility, a series of attempts of moving out of the material as well as cultural dependencies were launched. Among them is the "Negritude" movement from the 1930s with its emphasis on a common past of all descendants from Africa. As a response to the factual lack of rootedness in the immediate cultural environment in the Caribbean, the importance of roots and origins has been stressed in fictional and theoretical discussions for a long time. This movement based its ideas on a valorization of African elements. Rene Depestre views its emphasis on African origins as both an act of resistance to the destructive consequences of colonialism and a useful means to bring about an alternative perspective of consciousness. In a number of fictional works by Caribbean women, difficulties with identity formation are, indeed, linked to a lack of roots. A chain of alienation is depicted in a mode that Marie-Denise Shelton calls a specific "feminine pathos." It deploys varying scenarios which share the sense that uprootedness is an obstacle for female identity in particular.
Conde has explored this line of experience extensively in her earlier work. Particularly in her first novel, Heremakhonon, the female heroine's desperate search for her roots in Africa reflects the confusions and contradictions produced through cultural imaginaries that are tinted by colonial discourses and by a subsequent mixture of negritude fantasies and the effects of assimilation politics. In all of these discourses, the possibility of coming to terms with one's identity is more or less foreclosed through the production of - mostly repressed - material as well as cultural dependencies. Conde emphasizes that such hierarchical relations feed off of the creation of complicities. The family saga La vie scelerate, for example, dwells on several responses through which the former colonized seek to create liberation narratives. These attempts find a limitation in their own reenactment - or appropriation - of colonial structures, for instance, as to the genderization of Antillean identity. La vie scelerate shows that the locus of cultural (re)production is frequently gendered as female, and the attempt to reappropriate the island and its past actually reproduces colonial structures with the island/female body being exposed one more time to the violence suffered. In this text, too, Conde points out that, as a consequence, female identity in particular becomes problematic.
To escape the hopelessness of the situation, women are prone to taking flight into a variety of illusions or dreams about rootedness which often prove little constructive. For, to flee does not easily make the story fly, as a worthwhile alternative to rootedness. The prevalent move on the male side is reappropriation and this attempt might only lead to the point of death with all roots left up in the air, as is the case in Traversee de la Mangrove. In this text, Francis Sancher gets killed in the battle between the roots of his own, haunting past - which he tries to dig out - and the presumed rootedness of the islanders which becomes loose in the same process, to their annoyance and beyond their bearing. Flight or compulsive reappropriation do not lead out of alienation. They neither bring (back?) any roots nor do they allow one to do without them.
As an alternative to such approaches, Conde provocatively claims that the whole business of roots is a false question, and that, against its grain, rootedness ("l'enracinement") obstructs creativity and along with it, potential identity formation. (Literary) creativity and identity are, for Conde, closely tied up with each other. While they are not contingent on rootedness they do not exclude the past, in which they better not be rooted. The past comes into play as a passing moment. In her alternative model to a search for roots, Conde envisions passing relations:
[All literature is a search and an expression of oneself which passes fatally through a knowledge of ancestors. All literature is the attempt to say oneself, to situate oneself in the world, to define oneself in relation to others and to oneself. . . . There is no novelist for whom "I" is a given. We need to explain this "I," we need to elucidate this "I," we need to travel through this "I."]
I am very intrigued by the idea of "voyager a travers ce 'je'." It gives a feeling for what it might mean to be multiple and nomadic, rather than to view identity as a container with a limited, knowable content when "voyager a travers ce 'je'" at a geographic, cultural and temporal level is not viewed in opposition with identity. "My" identity must then, indeed, be very different from a tree and its rootedness in the ground.(4)
Furthermore, Conde stresses that there is the necessity for a temporal interpretation of the voyage, too. It is not possible to determine, find, articulate, dig out or deplore one's identity and then "act accordingly." Such temporal sequence would utilize the past as a guarantor of the present. But can we guarantee the present based on the past? It seems that one reason for looking to the past when inquiring about identity is precisely that it can guarantee the present. For Conde's notion of identity, however, the past is first of all a danger. She quotes from her own novel Les derniers rois mages: "il ne faut pas vivre avec le passe [mais] le mettre a mort sinon c'est lui qui tue" [one must not live with the past (but) kill it off, otherwise it will be the one to kill] (Pfaff 139-40). This allows for a strong reading of what literary endeavors which are said to pass "fatalement par une connaissance des aieux" [inevitably through a knowledge of ancestors] might accomplish: They cannot avoid dealing with the past (Pfaff 108-9). Or else, one might add, the consequences would be fatal. Now it turns out that the same stands for dealing with the past other than in passing. Conde warns against dwelling in the past endlessly. Instead, she urges to pass through it, to leave it behind, kill it off, not grow roots there, and all this in order not to be killed by it.
That nomadic uprootedness and some kind of encounter with the past, are, however, in constant tension becomes clear in Conde's own writings. They can actually very well be read as the carrying out of this very struggle. And, as the novels show, it is all but easy to find ways which allow for the formation of identity structures, individual or communal, that would not overemphasize either movement or rootedness in a somewhat immobile past at the (disastrous) expense of the other element. In her novels, Conde invents stories about attempts at dealing with the past so that it can become a constructive part of living in the present. However promising these attempts might look in the beginning, it usually does not take long until the search is faced with obstacles with which it becomes increasingly difficult to deal. Frequently, the endeavor displayed in the narratives ends with at least partial failure.
Conde's claims in interviews as well as in her more theoretical writings make clear that such failures within her narratives by no means reflect hopelessness on her part, personally. Conde's fictional texts struggle with the difficulties of not getting caught in dead-ends resulting from a certain way of grounding oneself in the past. Her claims as a cultural critic and as woman from Guadeloupe familiar with the struggles because of her personal background can be read as a performative act, too, in that they emphasize the necessity of moving on with the search, and this with the confidence that the situation is all but lost. Thus, searches for roots in Africa (Heremakhonon), in a family tradition (La vie scelerate), in a Guadeloupean past (Traversee de la Mangrove), or in their combination into an Africa-related, mythical family saga (Les derniers rois mages) bring about a series of incompatible stories. On the one hand, they point to the necessity of an ongoing inquiry about the contradictions inherent in the tentative identity models explored. On the other hand, Conde also locates more and more specifically those structures which, clinging to supposedly salutary versions of roots, are resistant to meaningful identity formations.
Conde's most recent novel, La colonie du nouveau monde, presents an intriguing comment on the effects of French assimilation politics for Guadeloupean identity formations. Through a movingly painful and at the same time highly parodic tale, the text displays what it might mean to repress a colonial past of dispossession in the wake of the subsequent cultural constellations which lack autonomous organization. This novel gives a manifest content to la misere mentale whose inherent contradictions are usually repressed as the "latent content" of Glissant's cultural neurosis. In the text, the manifestation of the contradictions become the source of a comic sight (for some characters and especially for the reader) while the main characters of the novel are stuck in the confusion of their situation: they mainly keep themselves busy acting out their problems and contradictions.
Confusion is indicated as early as in the title. La colonie du nouveau monde is an ambiguous phrase which first of all reverses the common denomination according to which the "New World" is a colony. Now, the New World seems to have acquired its own colonies, in a multiplication of colonial annexations into so far untheorized spaces.(5) The question of whose colonization and how and where is thus indicated as central theme. The protagonists are a couple from Guadeloupe. Their first meeting in a psychiatric hospital in Paris where both seek treatment for their misere men tale marks the context for all subsequent searches. The woman Tiyi grew up in a black middle class family which has internalized the messages of French assimilationist politics and believes in its status as equal French citizens. As an actress in Paris, Tiyi was, however, never given the role of her dreams, Chekhov's sea gull. She realizes that her class has never worked out but simply repressed its conflictual past. As a consequence, "ils n'avaient pas su lui faire comprendre que certains reves ne devaient pas entrer dans la tete des filles de sa couleur" [They had not been able to communicate to her that certain dreams better not get into the head of girls of her color] (47). Tiyi's dependency on Aton, her man, is fueled by a mixture of love, hate, pity and a sense of guilty obligation. At the same time Aton, who has not received the same sophisticated education as Tiyi, mainly holds on to life because of her gaze at him ["a cause de son regard sur lui" (13)].
When Aton and Tiyi, the two characters who initiate the journey to Egypt, are treated in French psychiatric institutions, the physicians, while being very attentive ["tres attentif(s)"], are incapable of curing Tiyi ["impuissant(s) de la guerir"] and never find what Aton's problem is ["les medecins d'ici n'ont jamais rien trouve"] (46). Conde suggests that the contradictions at work in the couple's misere mentale cannot be articulated within the structures of French psychiatry and its institutional boundaries. These troubles in the life of French Caribbean citizens of African descent might be a structural, institutional blind spot. As part of the unconscious foundations of a metropolitan French self-understanding, which determines the grounds of all of its institutions, there is no space for the effected negativity that Glissant calls the Antillean misere mentale. Since we have seen that there are reasons why Aton and Tiyi do not have access to alternative cultural constellations which might offer relief, their action seems rather courageous: As the only alternative to guaranteed misery, they take their lives into their own hands/heads and try to work things out. Lacking the necessary distance which, in a traditional (psycho-)analytic setting, aims at working through contradictions that need to be assumed in passing, the couple's bravery becomes an (unsuccessful) acting out which the novel follows closely.
In the following reading of the novel, I want to show that the events of the plot in La colonie du nouveau monde correspond to a displaced manifestation of tensions between, on the one hand, pronounced claims and goals and, on the other hand, previously repressed, returning aspects of the past. If Conde presents the couple's misere mentale, at the level of individual psychology, as states of alienation which are minimally stabilized through the little promising construction of a mutual dependency-without-freedom, the novel expands into the attempt to move out of this situation. Within the novel, this attempt itself fails. Conde's own narrative practice aims, however, at the construction of spaces beyond the limitations experienced by the characters of the novel. Through the display of the process (including its failure), Conde makes a significant comment on the cultural discrepancies and inequalities binding the tongue of her Caribbean protagonists to their continental mainland: She succeeds in turning some of those repressed elements into a readable narrative which is inaccessible to the psychiatrists in Paris. A psychological dimension of experience thereby becomes visible to which their "master narrative" cannot assign a space. Actual implications of presumably "healthy," internalized convictions according to which the people of the French Antilles are like all other French people appear suddenly in a rather problematic light. Particularly elements of a French self-understanding pertaining to (colonial) mercantile endeavors become obstacles to the Antillean quest for identity. The couple's quest instinctively seeks to work its way around those aspects which historically did not go without racial implications that are disastrous for the self-image of the Antillean people. Aton and Tiyi encounter, however, resistances which are representative for the situation of the Antillean people: It is their implicit self-representation which always betrays more complicities with the roles from which they try to escape than they can acknowledge.
The plot of La colonie du nouveau monde is motivated by a revelation. The sun gives Aton the mission of leading the world back to the original simplicity of life before commerce and technological development.(6) To "accept" being Aton the Sun God allows him to reject "comme une peau trop etroite ce prenom de Bienvenu que sa mere lui avait legue pour braver le destin" [like a too tight fitting skin his first name, Bienvenu, which his mother had bequeathed to him to brave destiny] (9). Feeling ill at ease in the world as Jean Bienvenu, he hopes that his new task will make for a more meaningful life. Aton's missionary narrative points geographically to the Nile Delta as a place of both origin and return around which all fantasies are organized: "Sa croyance remontait au temps des origines quand, dans un marecage informe et gluant, peu a peu, le Soleil avait fait apparaitre la Vie" [His belief went back to the times of origins when, in a shapeless and sticky swamp, the Sun had little by little furthered the appearance of life] (17).(7) Aton does not envision reaching the designated space of salvation-in-the-Sun through political struggles for post-colonial independence but, instead, through a spiritual renewal which is believed to bring relief to the misery of all people equally. The message had given Aton several years of international success as a guru. At the time of the novel, the family and the very few remaining followers are in Colombia, still erring around in the wake of the (almost) lost hope of finally reaching the holy grounds of Egypt.
Aton's redemptive promise can be read as an ambiguous comment on the past. On the one hand, it is clearly intended as a gesture which "kills off the past so that it will not kill" by trying to erase the entire history of human civilization up until the point of its supposed origins. On the other hand, the fantasy return to Egypt embraces structures of the past even though they are explicitly rejected. First, there is the Negritudist myth of an African liberation narrative. While Aton "n'avait que faire d'Haile Selassie, de Bob Marley et de l'Ethiopie" [had no need of Haile Selassie, Bob Marley and Ethiopia], the group is (mis?)taken for "une colonie de rastas" [a Rastafarian community] (17). Second, assuming the cultural and economic power necessary to carry out a worldwide purification, the group's claim becomes complicit with precisely those colonial gestures which are rejected most fervently: Besides simple litanies in adoration of the Creator, Aton's dreams also include the usurpation of a geographical space along with the fantasy of being venerated in the glory of the Sun God. His childhood fantasy that "un jour, Sa gloire l'inondereait et tous seraient temoins" [one day, His Glory would inundate him and all would be witnesses] (19) reflects less a humbleness towards the Dieu Soleil than it echoes grandiose claims of the Roi Soleil! Thus, the religious narrative turns out to be an amalgamation of a Negritudist gaze to Africa and early colonial fantasies. It contains all those elements of the Caribbean past that need to be ignored (or repressed) so that assimilationist ideologies go unquestioned.
The latter aspect is of greater importance: the novel inquires about the problems that occur when trying to escape involvement with colonial narratives. Whenever an alternative is sought, almost inevitably elements of such narratives as well as their practical implications have already slipped in. After all, this is not the first time that we hear about a group with a mission that is crossing the oceans in search of a mythical promised land. Colombia, which is rarely itself the promised land but a place where people get stranded, is named after one of its leaders. Conde writes her novel at the time of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. To situate the text in Colombia marks this occasion and asks the question, where have five hundred years of colonization led? The title of Conde's novel inscribes the text into a series of (colonial) dreams. Reversing directions, the followers of Aton want to rejoin their version of the promises linked to the color of gold: Egypt becomes their Eldorado, their version of gold.
In a discussion of contrasting uses that have been made of the Eldorado myth, Mark McWatt remarks that this myth is
central to New World man's attitudes towards origins, history and identity. . . . Eldorado's promise of fabulous riches in gold was never realized, the legendary city never found, and one can dismiss the story as a falsehood, a cruel lie that is at the heart of the settlement of the New World, so that one's origin lies, as it were, in a huge disappointment, . . . dreams impatiently pursued to their inevitable disillusionment. (33)
While McWatt does not categorically exclude the possibility that this myth could be a potentially liberating moment for the Caribbean, he finds it very problematic to reenact the loss of the dream of Eldorado in literary works. The repetition of the myth and its disillusionment might condemn the present only too easily to continuous failure and lead to a bleak vision if this structure were taken as the paradigm of Caribbean identity. Not much hope would be left to the people of the Caribbean and they can only look "to worlds across the sea for meaning and identity" (34).
Particularly in the case of Guadeloupe and Martinique, McWatt's doubts seem in place. The question is whether the repeated display of a problem forecloses change. To get stuck in the immobilizing powers of prefigured repetitions is certainly one aspect of Conde's novel. Thus, in La colonie du nouveau monde, the dream of the self-declared Sun God ends with the dissolution of the sect and the death of almost all its followers in a Waco-style blow-up. In the process, repetitions and re-enactments of inherited structures take, however, some rather original turns. If the very specific past of the French "Departements d'Outre-Mer" (DOM) has led to a rootedness in the repetition of heteronomous structures, a radical blow-up might, in an initial way, be a way of killing off the past so as to escape the eternal return of its spell. Through a further inquiry into Conde's construction of Aton and his group in Colombia, we can situate colonial traces more concretely in their historical context.
There is, for example, Aton's involvement with the French educational system. During his studies in Paris, Aton was disappointed by the neglect of ancient history other than the so-called "miracle grec" [Greek miracle]. Consequently, he studied Egyptian history "s'enfermant dans les bibliotheques, dechiffrant des manuscrits, lisant des theses et des travaux de doctorats savants, s'initiant sans maitre au secret des hieroglyphes" [locking himself up in libraries, deciphering manuscripts, reading theses and other works written by learned doctors, initiating himself without a master into the secrets of hieroglyphs] (80). While Aton situates himself outside the classroom, his parallel endeavor of leaving the framework set by Western history altogether remains within structures laid out by this very institution: The return to the beginnings comes about in the form of extensive studies of temporarily neglected archives. The content of his hope is thus inscribed into the civilization that Aton tries to do without.(8) Furthermore, all representations which subsequently fuel the followers' imaginations are equally "well preserved." For some of the fluid and neglected margins become solid in the wake of variations on colonial appropriation and turn into the stuff that fills museums. As things are, it is only in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin that Aton has had a chance to admire the "purity" that might come out of a return to the life giving sources indicated by the myth. Looking at a statue of "himself," Aton appropriates ideas about his own identity.(9)
Conde takes the joke of literalizing metaphors created in previous narratives one step further. Part of the repressed in the story of Aton is the grounding of his religion in prominent markers of Western civilization, i.e., its archives and museums, its collections of conquered and stolen relics as well as diligently or greedily accumulated knowledge. As long as such fetishes are walled within the boundaries of museums and hidden deep down underneath libraries, the repressed of history does not threaten to return. But in La colonie du nouveau monde, precisely these security walls start falling down.
There is, for example, The Wall, the one that used to cut through Berlin, and within Berlin, separated the Staatliche Museum with its famous collection of Egyptian art in the West from the Pergamon Museum in the Eastern part of the city. Rudolf, the prodigal son of a wealthy family in the former West Germany, first had to brave this wall to go from one to the other. The meaning of the Egypt myth seems to be proportionate to the energy that it takes to "get there." With the fall of the Berlin wall, acts of bravery are no longer necessary. This unleashes energies that need to be spent for meaning. So Rudolf and Ute cross the Atlantic to join up with the Sun God's most recent incarnation himself. With the German couple, the return of the repressed of history arrives at Aton's residence in Colombia in the form of a monstrous, half-blond and half-bearded creature that storms out of one myth into another.
To look for meaning above all in the reflection of one's own spendings - of money, time, and distances - defines the tourist. Dean MacCannell points out that "tourist attractions are precisely analogous to the religious symbolism of primitive peoples" (2). The shared logic underlying religious as well as touristic endeavors fuels Rudolf and Ute's crusade to the Americas.(10) And the text suggests that some level of involvement, if not compliance, with the logic of tourism might be an alternative to simply perishing altogether. Conde makes very clear that, anyway, there is no escape to this logic. Thus, the transformation of Aton's intended search for authenticity into folklore is the condition of the group's stay in Colombia: Enrique Sabogal, in charge of tourism in the small community of Santa Marta, has invited them with an eye on profitable commercialization. Furthermore, Aton's hope about a return to Egypt has been fueled from within a realm which is in stark contrast with his fancied autonomous purity. During the group's preceding stay in Guadeloupe, the writers Henri Gabrillot and Jose Rosario, wire pullers of his journey, had nourished the hope in ambiguous ways:
[To believe them, Colombia commands an important fleet which cruises the oceans of the world from America to Africa and Australia.... it would be a child's play to put on board Aton with his small group.]
Aton and his followers are presented as potential actors playing roles. They perform on stages of which they themselves are oblivious and which they do not manipulate ["ce serait un jeu d'enfant que d'y faire monter Aton et sa petite compagnie"]. The play is their own story plus its repressed frame. Such "settings" function like blind mirrors. Conde thus presents the stakes of the new religion in terms of a narrative which is blind to its own premises. This constellation produces precisely an image of Antillean identity as discussed above: it is the result of stagings from instances exterior to the presumed content. The text takes apart every gesture, every explanation and every decision so that they appear as (grotesque) substitutions in the places of huge blind spots. In the end, Aton's mission fails. He pours kerosene all over the house to die in the flames. Death takes the place of a return to the beginnings of life. The stories underlying all stories told in the text only allow for the shaping of deformations.
Of course, it is inevitable that blind spots exist. But the text is very specific in pointing out that these blind spots are all but "neutral." Particularly through the story of the German couple, Conde shows that Aton's religion partakes in a logic similar to colonial cultural fantasies. It implicitly sanctions a megalomaniacal urge for possession and appropriation as well as its vengeful counterparts. Thus in La colonie du nouveau monde, Aton appears as a potential savior to a group of Haitians whose political hopes had died. They leave in anger since Aton acts as if the white couple from Berlin were superior beings. This is not part of their set of ideas.(11) Rudolf himself comes to America to forget about a trial for child molestation, but only to seduce Nefertiti, Aton and Tiyi's older daughter. She drowns herself in despair. Parallel to the white man's sexual abuse of a girl of color, the follower Mesketet from Guadeloupe operates within the same logic: he seduces Ute in a combined expression of machismo and racist hate.(12) Both men operate according to hegemonic cultural fantasies which are here lived out through the bodies of women.(13) The text itself would then be a second reflection of plot reflecting colonial cultural fictions.
Conde brings this doubly fictional quality of the plot to the foreground when reporting on the events prior to Colombia:
[The writer Henri Gabrillo had indeed a house in Maurepas and in the evening, he came to chat with Aton. People said that this was merely the curiosity of a writer who is faced with a pretty subject for a novel. One of these days, the story of Aton would be found between the pages of a book, deformed to the point of unrecognizability.]
This passage inscribes the creation of the novel La colonie du nouveau monde as a creation into the text itself. Prior texts by Conde have done the same. La vie scelerate, for example, ends with the narrator's decision of writing down her family's story, the very story of the text in the reader's hand. This time, the self-consciousness of the text as a "deformation" - or writerly mis-representation - is, however, claimed explicitly. Conde makes it so obvious that it's more than a hint, the old trick that would put forth the textuality of the novel. This time, it becomes a joke: within the text, "La colonia del nuevo mundo" (16) is the name which a joker has given to their place in La Ceja.
Conde presents many elements of the text as an ambiguous comedy. It displays the disastrous "real" consequences which are the inevitable result of the series of substitutions. So the question is what the novel accomplishes as a creation. After all, IT does not disappear in the floods of water, the burning sunlight, the flames of fire or the walls of prisons and asylums which most of the characters choose or are left with as their final stage. What distinguishes the text from its stories - and gives it its life - might be that IT survives as a "deformation" - or writerly mis-representation.
At the narrative level, this gap is marked by a critical distance between the narration as a whole and its constitutive elements. On the one hand, the constantly shifting narrative perspective within the novel produces a strong sympathy for the characters' struggle. On the other hand, Conde does not invite her readers to identify with any of the characters. Their point of view appears increasingly as a distortion. Conde's language reflects the characters' own mirroring of their illusions and dreams - be it a statue in a museum, a role one would like to play, or escapes from difficult-to-face situations. Images of walls and prisons are used to describe psychological states of despair and abandonment which seem insurmountable.
Conde thus maintains distance and an absence of resolution by means of an emphasis on psychology. More than innovations and experiments with language, psychological insights actually fuel the flow of the text. Conde offers so much psychobiographical details leading to such complex psychological motivations that the characters appear as hopeless prisoners of their neurotic entanglements. Conde seems to comment cynically on the application of traditional Western psychology to the Caribbean people regardless of social context. Rather than to open up language, the increasingly contorted explanations become twisted obstacles to changes and new beginnings. Once the walled-in, stiffened lives become visible as such, something happens between these enclosed spaces: they seem to evoke, in the background, hopes or promises which eventually desire a life or a language of their own. Such desires for new spaces become the moving force of the text.
The text is thus placed both on the side of an increasing closeness to versions of the past and in a clearly marked distance with regard to them. This produces a comic distance without, however, leading to comic relief. Things remain seriously unresolved. Conde's own seriousness in the face of the chaos and catastrophes within the story relies profoundly on the comic removal from them. This attitude is emblematic for Conde's understanding of writing. She views it as a necessary condition for truthful creation when she claims:
[It is the gaze of the stranger which is the gaze of discovery, of astonishment, of deepening. If one is too familiar with a place, one is too rooted in a place, one can no longer write about this place truthfully. One mythifies.]
"Mythification" gets caught up in the details of a narrative or a problem, so much that it (mis)takes its logic for an independent (absolute) truth. Then the woods cannot be seen for the trees. Conde cautions against identification with any such logic.(14) Something other than projective space is necessary for discoveries. Furthermore, to "mythify" is in tension with "true writing." Mythification would refer to what is literally "grounded" in the attempt to make up stories/histories based on familiar rosters which remain unquestioned.(15) Conde expresses doubts as to the truth of a writing out of the rootedness of the realm of myth. The claim is indeed that such closeness to the past might very well be fatal. Conde's hope in the "regard de l'etranger" wants to give up this kind of rootedness or closeness. The task that she sets for herself is to make up a story in which the up-rootedness of the writing allows for more truthful writing: It oscillates between closeness and distance.
Despite the closeness to the characters' suffering, Conde does not enroot her story into their perspectives. Instead, she follows their logic beyond its own enclosures. This procedure discloses that all available narratives operate as if they could rely on stories about origins which guarantee that things work out eventually. One thing becomes clear then in Conde's text: There is no place ELSE - "worlds across the sea" (Watt 34) - to look to anymore for freedom and identity. Whatever effects they might have produced, those worlds no longer look like solid places where the past is securely walled in to provide an identity. The only thing that the Antillean people can find there are images of "themselves" which have been established to consolidate "Europe's" own identity. Through this literalization of the mirroring relationship between the French mainland and the DOM, Conde constructs a powerful image of Glissant's analysis. Glissant points to the need of France's to create a desire of resemblance on the islands. Conde emphasizes that this production of mimetic desire on the islands operates on no grounds other than to serve economic interests and a desire for prestige of the mainland.
For the former colonized, this only leaves la misere mentale. The story of the German couple brings out the absurd circularity of this logic. And no later than in the title, Conde has played out the literalization of the old scenario in which both Europeans and Antillean people assimilated as if they were alike - are inspired by museumized, dead representations of Africa. All arrive in the new World one more time to look there for meaning. This "meaning," however, has not taken on more life just because of the oceans crossed. It remains a reflection of the oldest myths. And so "Europe," too, manages only to participate in the failure of the quest.
Conde's presentation thereby becomes a forceful attempt to kill off the past. La colonie du nouveau monde destabilizes unacknowledged fantasies about roots which have fueled many hopes: the text gets rid of the implicit assumption that a European based (or mediated) narrative could lead somewhere. This backbone of assimilationist attempts crumbles. And when Conde does not put anything in the place of that which is "lost," she suggests that there might not be any narratives that she would want to rely on forever. The past is never a stable reference but a series of (mainly disastrous) events: stirred up grounds which, at times, are strategically declared the terrain of roots. But such assertions never pay. Thus, no flights either from or into the past prove successful in La colonie du nouveau monde. The emptiness of non-identity remains and cannot be filled through the (re)-appropriation of already existing myths. They only kill and so they need to be done away with. They take up too much room.
By doing away with so many illusions, Conde opens up new spaces. Maybe more simply: some space. In Francoise Pfaff's series of interviews with Maryse Conde, the search for spaces is marked as one of Conde's urgent needs. Having left Guadeloupe early on in her life, she has often experienced exclusions and the search for a place. She certainly knows what she is talking about. At one point, for example, she had to leave Ghana because of its political situation. During her numerous journeys, she feels comfortable in Paris only for a while. Upon her return to Guadeloupe, a new loneliness leads to the novel Traversee de la Mangrove. And as far as literary life is concerned, she always feels that she remains somewhat excluded from the writings of African-American authors. Maybe the active construction of concrete spaces that is happening in African-American cultural production has already fought its way through some of the dependency structures which are still in place in the French islands.
Of course, Conde, as an accomplished person, does not fall into the traps of lament. Her writings, on the contrary, open up spaces that are filled with desperate attempts, complaints and judgments. Writing can become a place beyond either mental misery or flight away from it. Conde's writings clear grounds which are filled with obstacles. In that sense, they create: they create space, make visible the possibility that something else could happen, might be accomplished once people, whole cultures, a tradition of memories and continuously reenacted scenarios are no longer in the way. Eventually, something else must become possible, if only sufficient space can be made for creativity.
At the end of the novel, the younger daughter, Meritaton, returns to Tiyi's family in Guadeloupe. The entire plot appears thus as a detour, necessary in order to bring about some clarification to the initial puzzlement concerning identity. Conde leaves open what this journey towards the unknown will bring for Meritaton. The only thing the girl knows for sure is that she never wants to go back to Colombia, the place of her own past. She is not interested in re-living the past (or living on in the past). Nevertheless, the past will remain with her as past: "[o]u qu'elle aille, quoi qu'elle fasse, elle ne pourrait jamais rejeter ces jours de sa memoire" [wherever she might go, whatever she might do, she could never reject those clays from her memory] (249). To do away with the past means then to assume its disastrous aspects.
In her first novel, Heremakhonon, Conde has chosen a protagonist who is always haunted by a past that she cannot assume. The text depicts a series of restless flights across the globe. This motif becomes a constant figure in Conde's work and a pronounced element of La colonie du nouveau monde. What is at stake, though, is not to reject the past, and with it everything in the present that results from it wholesale but to assume uprootedness. This way, the past can be killed off in all those versions in which it presents itself as if it were a guarantor or the holder of a secret origin. For such pasts always turn up as a haunting ghost.
In Conde's most recent novel, the killing off of the past opens up the possibility that something new can come out of the images and stories which survive once the people and events have been put to rest. Meritaton establishes a relationship with her dead sister, who does not haunt her but whom she carries inside her own body, "comme une femme son foetus, respirant du meme souffle, le coeur bartant au meme rythme" [like a woman her fetus, breathing the same air, the heart beating in the same rhythm] (256). When Meritaton asks her sister numerous questions, Nefertiti "repondait par des sons caressants, mais incomprehesnsibles, et Meritaton s'apercevait que sa soeur parlait un nouveau langage auquel elle devrait s'initier" [answered with caressing but incomprehensible sounds, and Meritaton realized that her sister spoke a new language to which she should initiate herself] (256).
Conde's writings must be read as the attempt to initiate herself to a new language. One that still carries within it traces of a past that she no longer wants to be implicated with or haunted by. A language that writes stories and histories which can no longer be silenced by the ghosts of an unassumable past. One that courageously constructs stories and histories into those spaces of hegemonic determinations which silence all stories into the emptiness of la misere mentale. Writing is then an ongoing move towards yet unknown places rather than an ever stable solution.
1. All translations from the French are mine.
2. The Caribbean Exodus, edited by Barry B. Levine, presents a complex study of the latter phenomenon.
3. According to Deleuze and Guattari, it is equally a Nomadic state which alone allows us, under the conditions of late capitalism, to avoid being devoured by ideologies which do not care very much about life. In Toward a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari view the introduction of nomadism as the political element of Kafka's writings since nomadism is a way of fleeing "assemblages" which threaten, through the use of notions of law and duty, to promote the stasis of desire. Nomadic elements, disrespectful of established institutions or delimitations, are viewed as a means to move away from social constellations marked by paranoid laws and their obedience (see 73).
4. Here, Conde's original ideas about identity intersect with feminist attempts to refigure subjectivity. In "Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse," Judith Butler claims that "the political critique of the subject questions whether making a conception of identity into the ground of politics, however internally complicated, prematurely forecloses the possible cultural articulations of the subject-position that a new politics might well generate" (327). Butler's examination of the construction of gender leads her to the conclusion that "genders can be neither true nor false but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity" (337). Locating identity in movement is Conde's way of undermining the possibility that rootedness look like a guarantor of or provider for identity. By thus questioning the very ideologies which assume primary and stable identity formations, Conde takes a sometimes playful and sometimes sarcastic look at the resulting scenarios.
5. This is not unlike the story of our cat, Snowball. Sometimes, he gets wild and wants to play with human hands as if they were other cats. Since we are not cats and do not like to be bitten in that way, we throw a stuffed animal at Snowball, a lion by the name of Louise, which does not seem to mind being played with rough. When people are surprised to learn that the lion's name is Louise, my friend explains "it's his pet."
6. In "Moses and Monotheism," Freud claims that the Egyptian Aton is the "original" Moses. Jean Bienvenu's task is thus an undoing of the (religious) foundations of the Occident including its own historiographical accounts.
7. The sun also appears in Carib mythologies. Sebastian Robiou-Lamarche states that several cultures in tropical America and some tribes of the Orinoco in particular observed the days of the passing of the sun through the zenith in order to celebrate agricultural rites. In those days, some tribes believed that the perpendicular solar rays, with their creative effect, penetrated Mother Earth more, giving way to Creations (42).
8. Sally McWilliams writes that
colonization is not always an absolute end, but often another cultural manifestation that must be reshaped by the post-colonial subject into productive material for the post-colonial society. This reshaping of cultural codes and structures is a reversal of the process of colonization. (105)
In Conde's novel, such reshaping hardly takes place. Instead, Aton tries to reenact what he has studied without changing it in ways which would allow him and his followers to bring about productive transformations as to their situation.
9. That Aton's belief is less a return to an original "purity" than re-enactment is, moreover, not only due to the academic and cultural foundations of his own beliefs and gestures. As a quite audible aside, Conde also signifies upon previous enactments of such beliefs and gestures themselves. We hear the rambling of the crusades that Atonists and Jes Grews in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo have carried out for the last few years. The cacophonic noises of their conquests now resonate as yet another origin on the pages of La colonie du nouveau monde. Aton, in this line of the story, becomes one of the art works he has read about or seen in a museum and which is now on the move back to Africa.
10. MacCannell traces the merging of religious aspirations and tourism historically:
self-discovery through a complex and sometimes arduous search for an Absolute Other is a basic theme of our civilization ... What begins as the proper activity of a hero (Alexander the Great) develops into the goal of a socially organized group (the Crusaders), into the mark of status of an entire social class (the Grand Tour of the British "gentleman"), eventually becoming universal experience (the tourist). (5)
11. In 1804, Haiti, formerly a French colony called Saint Domingue, became the first Black Republic. Conde thus alludes to the struggles of the island to maintain its independence in the face of internal and external threats.
12. Maria Diedrich writes about Toni Morrison:
In her endeavors to radically expand her readers' horizons, the writer does away with traditional, comfortable patterns of binary thinking, thus deconstructing her black audience's expectations for a positive black self in opposition to a negative white other. (180)
Conde's procedure here shares this endeavor.
13. For an extensive discussion of the dead female body as a site of cultural production, see Elisabeth Bronfen's powerful study Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, 1992).
14. In The Narrative of Liberation, Patrick Taylor distinguishes between myth and liberation narratives: "Mythical narrative reaches its limit in the tragedy of endless repetition: everything is in flux, but nothing is very different; the weak defeat the strong, the strong defeat the weak; the weak become the strong. Lacking is the vision of a qualitatively new world free of human oppression" (xii). Thus at stake is the need for ways of leading one's life as well as for narratives which lead out of (mythical) closure.
15. Mircea Eliade, for example, proposes another definition of myth:
myths describe the sudden and sometimes dramatic breakthrough of the sacred ... into the World. It is this sudden breakthrough of the sacred that really establishes the World and makes it what it is today. Furthermore, it is a result of the intervention of Supernatural Beings that man himself is what he is today, a mortal, sexed, and cultural being. (7)
According to this account, myth thus gives human beings an identity by taking away anxieties about unknown aspects of their origin and by grounding what "to be human" consists of. But this gesture is designed to free human beings from the need to explain their existence from within the limits of their reality.
Brockway, Robert W. Myth from the Ice Age to Mickey Mouse. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Butler, Judith. "Gender Trouble, Feminist Therory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse." Feminism/Post-modernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Conde, Maryse. La Civilisation du bossale. Paris: Harmattan, 1978.
-----. La colonie du nouveau monde. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1993.
-----. Heremakhonon. (En attendant le bonheur). Paris: Editions Seghers, 1988 (1975).
-----. La vie scelerate. Paris: Editions Seghers, 1987.
-----. Traversee de la Mangrove. Paris: Mercure de France, 1989.
Davies, Carole Boyce, and Elaine Savory Fido (eds). Out of the Kumbla. Caribbean Women and Literature. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Depestre, Rene. Bonjour et adieu a la negritude. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1980.
Diedrich, Maria. "'Things Fall Apart?' The Black Critical Controversy Over Toni Morrison's Beloved." American Studies 34.2 (1989): 175-86.
Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. New York: Harper Torchbook, 1963.
Giraud, Michel. "Political Subordination and Society in the French Antilles." Society and Politics in the Caribbean. Ed. Colin Clarke. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Glissant, Edouard. Le discours antillais. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1981.
Harris, Leonie B. "Myths in West Indian Consciousness: An Examination of George Lamming's Native of My Person." Critical Issues in West Indian Literature. Selected Papers from West Indian Literature Conferences 1981-1983. Ed. Erika Sollish Smilowitz and Roberta Quarles Knowles. College of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix: Caribbean Books, 1984.
Levine, Barry B. (ed). The Caribbean Exodus. New York: Praeger, 1987.
McWatt, Mark. "The Two Faces of Eldorado: Contrasting Attitudes Towards History and Identity in West Indian Literature." Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Conference on West Indian Literature. Ed. Mark A. McWatt. St. Michael, Barbados: Department of English U.W.I., Cave Hill, 1985.
MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.
McWilliams, Sally. "Tsitsi Dangarambga's Nervous Condition: At the Crossroads of Feminism and Post-colonialism." World Literature Written in English 31.1 (Spring 1991): 103-12.
Pfaff, Fancoise. Entretiens avec Maryse Conde. Paris: Karthala, 1993.
Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Robiou-Lamarche, Sebastian. "Island Carib Mythology and Astronomy." Latin American Indian Literatures Journal 6.1 (Spring 1990): 36-54.
Shelton, Marie-Denise. "Women Writers of the French-Speaking Caribbean: An Overview." Caribbean Women Writers. Essays from the First International Conference. Ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley, MA: Calaloux Publications, 1990. 346-56.
BETTINA SOESTWOHNER, a native of Germany, is a visiting professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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