An Eye to the Future: On Édouard Glissant’s “Sun of Consciousness”

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TRANSLATION BRINGS NEW LIFE to books. Yet, translation is also subject to large-scale social forces that determine reception. Translation’s role in the reception of the capaciously talented Martinican author Édouard Glissant serves as a case in point. On the one hand, the argument can be made that Glissant’s reputation as a world-class writer was established in part due to two English-language translations: J. Michael Dash’s 1989 essay collection Caribbean Discourse, composed of selections from Glissant’s voluminous Le discours antillais; and Betsy Wing’s 1997 translation Poetics of Relation. And yet, while helping Glissant become visible to English-language readers, these two translations have also had the unintentional effect of circumscribing Glissant’s vast, varied oeuvre in a way that many of his devoted readers regret. The obvious importance of these works has encountered an unspoken limit within the Anglo-Saxon academy, in which a little Glissant is thought to go a long way.

The publication of a new translation can act to reshape dialogue. In this role, a translator works as critical agent of change. Nathanaël’s work as a translator of Édouard Glissant deserves considerable credit in this regard. First, her 2010 translation of Poetic Intention provided a “prequel” of sorts to Poetics of Relation. Its literary essays, first collected and published in French in 1969, include a number of essays that help us understand Glissant’s poetic universe.

Now, readers have the benefit of yet another prequel — a prequel to a prequel: Sun of Consciousness, Nathanaël’s translation of Soleil de la conscience. The text was first published in French in 1956, appearing at a critical early juncture in Glissant’s work, after the first publications of his poetry and two years before the publication of La Lézarde, which won the Prix Renaudot and transformed Glissant into a national literary figure overnight.

Sun of Consciousness prepares readers both for Poetic Intention and Poetics of Relation. The book presages the key concepts and style of his future work: it contains many of the themes of Glissant’s subsequent philosophical and poetic meditations, and it also demonstrates his inimitable mix of poetic prose, poetry, and philosophical speculation, rooted in local affinities that bring together geographical and cultural forms of consciousness.

Sun of Consciousness is also a prequel in another sense: the oracular nature of its scope. The past, the present, and the future are forever linked in Glissant. As he writes about his rite of passage to France through the lens of someone who has inherited European culture but must reconcile it with his own experiences, his mind is attuned toward how this personal reconciliation can propel a broader social consciousness. He means to articulate a vision of the future beyond the colonial, beyond even the postcolonial — a further future in which diasporic consciousness will propel people beyond the proprietary boundaries of the national.

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The University of Liverpool Professor Charles Forsdick has called Sun of Consciousness a “poetic narrative of a journey” from Martinique to France, thereby identifying the book as an example of postcolonial travel writing. To me, it reads like a meta-travel narrative, with extensive commentary on voyages, travel, and writing itself.

The volume contains both essays and poetry. There are prose poems that still have a vital contemporary feeling — experimental and urgent — despite being written more than 60 years ago. While Glissant’s essays usually have the feeling of public prose, here, his prose feels like a philosophical and poetic diary parceled out into six sections: “From the Gaze to Language,” “The Course of the Poem,” “The Two Pages of the Voyage,” “The Experience Revealed,” “Sun of Consciousness,” “Cities, Poems,” and “At last the muds have knotted the soul…

While Glissant wrote in many genres (unfortunately, his work as a novelist and poet has been given short shrift), this work bears early evidence of what I call his poetry of concept — making use of the literary means of poetry to achieve a philosophic vantage on the world. In particular, the book meditates — or mediates — between chaos and measure, as Glissant strives “to find the just measure of [his] primordial chaos.”

The sense prevails that Glissant is writing these words first and foremost for himself as he builds a method to think through experience. While the word “knowledge” is, by my count, the most frequently occurring keyword in the book, he doesn’t strive for an imperial knowledge to cement a definitive relation between chaos and measure. His work is “not to propose lessons or programs.” Rather, he aspires to a “savoir-vivre,” or a pragmatic method for living, day by day, place by place.

In the first sentence of Sun of Consciousness, Glissant reveals that he has been trying for eight years to discover a “French solution.” The solution in question is not simply for the “problem,” or conundrum, of Martinican identity — at once French and clearly not French. His problem is also that of balancing intellectual and experiential allegiances: his traditional French education — “the monolithic obstinacies of Education” — versus his experiences of the spiritual, historical, and natural geographies of Martinique.

Sun of Consciousness is decolonizing in the basic sense of that term. Glissant tries to peel layers off of his consciousness to arrive at a balance of forces. Decolonization is not simply the departure of a colonial political power — former colonial subjects must also work to decolonize the mind. This means shedding colonial socio-cultural forces to arrive at a worldview not defined by the colonizer-colonized dichotomy, but by a third vision, one of an interactive and multi-directional world. The book represents a powerful example of Glissant’s vision of non-national or world literature as the “continuous movement of literature […] marching toward yet other lands.”

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The oracular is one key to understanding Glissant as a writer and thinker; it is also perhaps a reason why his poetry remains hardly read in translation. W. B. Yeats might well be the last truly oracular English-language canonical poet. Think how W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” published in 1939, represents the likely death of the oracular in English-language poetry — Icarus has fallen, and he won’t ever get up.

But Glissant is oracular. His vision directs us toward the future. While European history and its depredations, just as Antillean history and its lacunae, are two of the writer’s major obsessions, these subjects don’t relegate him to the past. Rather, they propel him into imagining what’s to come. Sun of Consciousness is suggestive — potently suggestive — of global futures.

This sense of potential reveals itself word by word. Nouns pop, rising as quasi-symbolist, Platonic “forms.” A prose poem uses capitalization in telling ways: “Low Vegetations,” “High Vegetations,” “Surge,” “Word,” and “Fire” create a cultural and spiritual geography that reads like geomancy — the belief in the connectivity of place and spirit. The poet’s vision and sense of experience is expansive, magical: he describes snow as “an illumination,” “an opening,” “the enlargement, the established communication.” Then, coming to Paris, he doesn’t arrive there, as would most travelers, but rather he “fall[s] in.”

The oracular also comes across in Glissant’s penchant for declarative statements, prediction, and revelation. “I have said the chaos of writing and the surge of the poem” or “I call generosity…” use the first-person subject pronoun to rare effect: these are the speech acts that arise from within a poetry of concept. A statement about modern art follows in the same vein: “Today the general character of occidental art […] is absence of community.” Thinking forward, Glissant proposes connected futures where “[a]ll the gathered children, all the flowering clays are the rearing of [this] tomorrow.”

In the translator’s note, Nathanaël reminds readers that these are the first premonitions of the “all-world,” that vast consciousness that will be on full display in two of Glissant’s later works — a novel, Tout-Monde, and a work of theory, Traité du Tout-Monde. (The latter text has been translated into English by Celia Britton and will be published for the first time by Liverpool University Press during the summer of 2020.) Indeed, an initial hint of the all-world emerges on the very first page of Sun of Consciousness: the writer announces how he will “divine perhaps that there will be no more culture without all of the cultures.” Glissant’s vision of a world to come grows in strength as the book progresses. The section “Sun of Consciousness” makes clear that this metaphor is the conceptual prequel to the “all-world.” The thinking that crystallizes in the book’s latter sections effectively forms the conceptual blueprint for what will later become the “all-world.” In this expanded, expansive, and liberating consciousness, civilization will appear minoritized so that no single civilization will be “metropole to the others.” It is an open and fruitfully chaotic vision of the future that aims to declare the “[p]resence and whole sovereignty of the world” beyond the national.

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That Sun of Consciousness has remained untranslated for so long has been attributed to the sheer difficulty of the work: the distinctive stylistic and conceptual challenges that it poses to the translator exceed almost any other of Glissant’s texts.

The translator of any idiosyncratic writer is tempted to standardize; English-language journalism’s short sentences and banal punctuation loom nearby as an implicit standard of any literary work’s readability and worth. With Glissant, then, the translator is conscious of wanting (or not wanting) to make the occasional opaque expression somewhat less so. While some critics may dislike the obscuring marks of “incorrect” punctuation, others may go so far as to trumpet them as signs of the Glissantian opaque — the writer’s deliberate attempt to be difficult as a riposte against imperial knowledge.

In the end, I would suggest that these elements (punctuation, word choice, serpentine syntax) are part and parcel of Glissant’s uncontrived originality, and by retaining all three, Nathanaël’s translation allows us to consider the value of that originality. In her translator’s note, she mentions that the decision to retain Glissant’s odd punctuation is deliberate, arguing that punctuation expresses something integral to the work. In this sense, the translator passes on to the reader the challenges the work poses.

In La matière de l’absence, Patrick Chamoiseau, the great Martinican writer and the author’s friend, defines terms such as “chaos” and “measure” (to choose just two) as “poécepts,” or poetic concepts. They are signposts, or orienteering devices, for maneuvering through discursive terrains, and yet their connotative sway changes according to context and circumstance. Glissant concretizes this thinking in his work, exhorting the “quasi-necessity” of a “chaos of writing” to match the chaos of the sense of self in a world ruined by nationalism, colonialism, and war. In a ruined world, thinking is not necessarily easy to do.

To further understand the “chaos of writing,” the concept of the archipelagic that runs throughout Glissant’s oeuvre works well. Glissant writes that being born on an island comes with the risk of insular thinking and a limited imagination. Instead, though, he sees Martinique as one site in an archipelagic imagination full of “maritime breakaways.” To live on an island and never to leave might foreshorten experience and understanding of the world. But, on an island, a person might well heed the call of the sea and the promise of other lands, and the writer “must open, he must open himself, see otherwise, the other.” The archipelagic is a mode of linking across the pelagic.

Glissant’s odd punctuation, syntax, and vocabulary are ways of organizing his imaginary and his world through writing. The idea of the archipelagic, then, serves as a way to understand how meaning grows in the particular, organic way of Glissant’s poetic-philosophical prose. In an archipelago, new islands arise out of the sea; in Glissant, meaning arises through the quasi-geological laws of magma, tectonic movement, and new creation.

The concept of the archipelagic reminds me how theories of translation are inextricably linked to theories of identity. New islands in an archipelago erupt into a system of connected islands. Every translation brings forth a new book that bears a relation to other books: either other translations of the same source-language text, other translations of other books by the same author, or books with some other imminent, volcanic relation. At the same time, each translation redefines the entire set through the new possibilities that it brings. The archipelagic idea of identity in Glissant — the self opening constantly in becoming — also reminds me of the analytic philosopher David Lewis’s theory of modal realism. Lewis imagined that other earths must exist, or else we could not understand the logic of the counterfactual (the case of “what would be” or “could have been if…”). In his imaginative schema, a person’s selves live different lives in parallel universes, on parallel earths. The person’s selves spring from the same source (the condition of their possibility), then diverge. Different contexts force the person’s selves to make different choices, and different choices lead to different lives. They are at once unique and intimately related.

Seen through this lens, translation no longer exists within an original-and-copy relation, the limiting binary through which it is normally viewed. A theory of translation appropriate to the setting of Glissant’s and Lewis’s thinking would vouch for translation as occupying one site (island or parallel world) in an identity of relation and difference. The paradigms of imperial knowledge — hermetic either-or thinking — would fade away; the master and the servant disappear. The stereotypical prejudices arising from a conceptual framework of authenticity and appropriation would be revealed to be colonial in essence. Instead, in the chaos-world — the diasporic contemporary world — each translation could be seen as one site of identity bearing relation to its precedent — with an eye open to the future.

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Matt Reeck has published translations from the Urdu, French, Hindi, and Korean. French Guiana: Memory Traces of the Penal Colony, his translation from the French of Patrick Chamoiseau with photographs by Rodolphe Hammadi, will be published by Wesleyan University Press in Spring 2020.