Aimé Césaire was born in 1913 in Martinique in the French Caribbean. He left for Paris in 1931 at the age of 18 with a scholarship for school. During his time at the Lycee Louis-le Grand, he helped found a student publication, Etudiant Noir. In 1936, Césaire started working on his famed piece Cahier, which was not published until 1939. He married fellow student Suzanne Roussi in 1937, and the couple moved back to Martinique with their son in 1939. Both Aime and Suzanne got jobs at the Lycee Schoelcher. In 1945, Césaire began his political career when he was elected mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy in the Constituent Assembly on the French Communist Party ticket. During the 1940s, Césaire was busy writing and publishing many collections of his work. He seemed to be influenced by art because he wrote a tribute to a painter named Wilfredo Lam and one of his collections has illustrations by Pablo Picasso. In 1956, Aime Césaire resigned from the French Communist Party and two years later he began the “Parti Progressiste Martiniquais.” During these years, Césaire attended two conferences for Negro Writers and Artists in Paris. In 1968 he published the first version of Une Tempete, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. He continued writing poetry and plays and retired from politics in 1993. He passed away in April of 2008 and was given a state funeral. All of Césaire’s writings are in French with a limited number having English translations.
Césaire’s poetry has been described as a style between “artistic ‘modernism’ and black consciousness” (14). His writing can also be characterized as surreal. Césaire is associated with “negritude,” which signifies the black youth’s attempt to maintain a positive racial identity (3). Many of his works combine the two ideas of negritude and surrealism, which is an aesthetic movement that combines materials from an artist’s unconscious to create dream-like and fantastic aesthetic forms.
Césaire began to focus on drama with the use of the poem “Chiens.” In 1968 he published Une Tempete, a version of Shakespeare’s famous play The Tempest. He wanted to reflect black America in this play but the setting is the Caribbean. Davis argues that “The central paradigm of the colonizer/colonized relation, as it is constructed in The Tempest, embraces the totality of the black experience in the New World” (157). Many critics believe Cesaire’s version of The Tempest is about the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized and the struggle for absolute power. In the play, Prospero is the master of the two men, Caliban and Ariel. Prospero is the colonizer and both Caliban and Ariel attempt to gain their freedom from him. Caliban’s approach to freedom is through rebellion while Ariel tries “to appeal to his [Prospero's] moral conscience”(161). In the end, Caliban’s rebellion fails. In his final speech, Caliban charges Prospero with lying to him and holding him inferior. It is a classic example of the colonized rejecting the colonizer. This is a quote taken from this final speech by Caliban:
Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(lied about the world, lied about me)
that you have ended by imposing on me
an image of myself.
underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That is the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
and I know myself as well. (162)
Works by Aimé Césaire
- Césaire, Aimé. Euvres Completes. Vol.1 (Poesie), Vol. 2 (Theatre), Vol. 3 (Euvre historique et politique). Fort-de-France: Editions Desormeaux, 1976.
- Eshleman, Clayton and Smith, Annette, trans. Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
- Maximin, Daniel and Carpentier, Gilles, eds. La Poesie. Paris: Seuil, 1994.
- Césaire, Aimé. Cadastre. Paris: Seuil, 1961.
- —. Cahier díun retour au pays natal. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1956.
- —. Corps perdu. Paris: Fragrance, 1950.
- —. Ferrements. Paris: Seuil, 1960.
- —. Les Armes miraculeuses. Paris: Gallimard, 1946.
- —. Moi, laminaire . . . Paris: Seuil, 1982.
- —. Soliel cou coupe. Paris: Editions K, 1948.
- Césaire, Aimé. Et les chiens se taisaient. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1956.
- —. La Tragedie du roi Christophe. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1970.
- —. Une Saison au Congo. Paris: Seuil, 1974.
- —. Une Tempete. Paris: Seuil, 1969.
- Césaire, Aimé. Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, trans. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.
- Davis, Gregson. Césaire, Aimé. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Author: Brooke Ritz, Spring 1999
Last edited: April 2012