André Breton once called Saint-John Perse, “The man of my epoch most tirelessly in search of all men.”
Édouard Glissant gave him the title, “The last herald of a systematic universe.”
Breton, Glissant, Perse: All three are poets of the Francophone world. Breton, most associated with French surrealism, was born in Normandy in 1896. Glissant, the great theorist of creolization and of Caribbean poetics, was born on the island of Martinique in 1928. Perse, a diplomat by profession who was also awarded the Nobel Prize for his poetry in 1960, was born on the island of Guadeloupe in 1887. I have placed the two quotes above one after another because, without additional context, Breton and Glissant seem to be saying the same thing, or at least something similar, about Saint-John Perse: that his poetry is expansive, that he is the seeker of a universal Humanity. But there are opposite values attached to what Breton and Glissant see in Perse. Breton means to praise his work. Glissant is highlighting a limitation.
What accounts for these opposite values that Glissant and Breton bring to their readings of Perse? Is it generational difference? Is it cultural difference? Breton is speaking of a contemporary whereas Glissant is speaking of an antecedent. Breton is rooted in metropolitan France. Glissant is an Antillean poet. Perse, for what it’s worth, was the first Caribbean-born writer to be awarded the Nobel, although his literary persona is that of the eternal exile and the wanderer, which is what is really at the heart of what Glissant has to say about him. Glissant does not, he can not in the same way that Breton does, see any heroism in Perse’s insistence on being unencumbered by particularity, traveling the world in search of Truth. He sees this tendency in Perse but urges us not to accept it blindly. Glissant himself hesitates in the face of Perse’s wanderings. Something is not right. And what has really troubled Glissant is that Perse’s background overlaps in too many places with his own, and not because of any “universality” on the part of his poetry. No, Glissant recognizes, maybe with some unease, things about Perse that only one Creole can know about another.
André Breton’s praise of Perse, in the meantime, has become anachronistic. The “search for all men” is mostly abandoned now; we can be thankful for that. Contemporary readers will likely be in sympathy with Glissant when he writes, in his 1976 article on Saint-John Perse, that “the world can no longer be shaped into a system. Too many Others and elsewheres disturb the fragile surface.” Strip away all of the false universality from Perse and the interesting thing that is left is the part of himself he tries so urgently to hide. We are left to puzzle over his Caribbean background, the roots that were no roots at all because they sent him soaring into the endless voyages known as the pure state of exile.
“Perse both turns his back on us, and is one of us,” writes Glissant, and he is not the only French West Indian poet for whom Saint-John Perse is a lingering presence, a source of uncertainty, sometimes a target, and occasionally a brother. Consider Aimé Césaire’s poem, “Voodoo Ceremony for Saint-John Perse”, written shortly after Perse’s death. Césaire’s ambivalence in this poem is a magnificent, troubled, celebratory, angry ambivalence and his ability to express this complex feeling is what separates Césaire from lesser poets. Here are the final verses:
“(and did he see it did the stranger see it
Redder still than the blood of Tammuz
Than our Decebalian faces
Did he see it did the stranger see it?)
Turledoves of darkness and resentment
and may the arch catch fire
And from one ocean to another
May the sumptuous magmas in volcanoes answer each other
To honor, with all muzzles all portholes smoking,
Under sail towards the high seas,
The ultimate Conquistador on his last voyage”
There is something tortured here, as there often is in Cesaire’s poetry. The source of the anguish in this case is this “stranger” and whether he “saw it” (saw what? Something that to Césaire is of unspeakable importance. Is it “Did he see me?”). What Césaire is essentially asking is whether the stranger is a stranger at all. He seems unsure. His reaction is to claim Perse (to celebrate him) while simultaneously keeping his distance.
Glissant, without making any reference to Césaire’s poem, notices the same two reactions in himself, and notices also that these contradictory feelings leave an ambiguous aftertaste:
“these two reactions are liable to leave something unexplained in Perse: the reaction that makes us want to drag him back forcefully to his Caribbean roots (him, the inveterate wanderer); the other one that makes us eager to whiten him as a French Creole, with that twisted legacy from which he secretly suffered.”
This is, I think, exactly to the point. It relieves Perse of his universality while explaining his thirst for it. Perse, it seems is a product of history after all – and a particular Antillean one at that. Césaire and Glissant, linked to him by that history, are uncertain of him, uncertain of his Caribbean whiteness, “a fragile Caribbean-ness” Glissant calls it in Perse’s case. On the other side of the uncertainty is insight, the sort of insight about Perse that Glissant summons easily and naturally, and which a Frenchman like Breton would probably not necessarily have access to. Perse, Glissant writes, is:
“Reliving the dilemma of the White Creole, caught between a metropolitan history that does not include him (and that he, in reaction, claims meticulously and energetically as his legitimate ancestry) and the natural world of the Caribbean which engenders new points of growth that he must perhaps deny.”
There it is: The roots of Perse’s poetic sensibilty, if not of his cultural belonging. The alienation that is sometimes the product of a Caribbean whiteness (I do not think Glissant means Caucasians only. He is not speaking of sinister things like racial essences). The alienation that sometimes leads to the sensibility of the wanderer. Constant travel can soothe the pain of homelessness. This seems to be Perse’s response.
And yet Glissant is still cautious. Perse’s wandering is his freedom and also his privilege. “He is not involved in this history, as he was free to walk away from it,” writes Glissant. Whether we agree or not, it is true that Perse’s wanderings did not lead him back to the source, but ever onwards and outwards.
Increasingly these days Perse is mentioned as an influential Caribbean poet. One only has to read his poem “To Celebrate a Childhood” with its images of “cows smelling of cane syrup”, and “mute faces the color of papayas and boredom”, to get a sense of the images that he carried with him his whole life. Perhaps they are the images that also sustained him. What’s remarkable about this poem is that its tone is both nostalgic and ecstatic, not a usual combination. A celebration of loss? His remembrance is not a melancholic remembrance. It is the memory of an island he left behind, a landscape within him that no amount of wandering into the universal heart of mankind could erase or blur.
A few samples from Saint-John Perse’s “To Celebrate a Childhood”:
In those days they bathed you in water-of-green-leaves; and the water
Was of green sun too; and your mother’s maids, tall glistening girls,
Moved their warm legs near you who trembled…
(I speak of a high condition, in those days, among the dresses, in
The dominion of revolving lights.)”
“…O! I have cause for Praise!
My forehead under yellow hands,
My forehead, do you remember the night sweats?
Midnight unreal with fever and the taste of cisterns?
And the flowers of blue dawn dancing on the bays of morning
And the hour of noon more sonorous than a mosquito, and arrows
Shot out by the sea of colors…”