French Language Blog

Revue littéraire no. 2 (bis) Posted by on May 14, 2010 in Culture, Vocabulary

Bonjour! Après avoir discuté (after having discussed) Aimé Césaire on Tuesday, allons explorer son livre (let’s explore his book) Discours sur le colonialisme. Though the discours (speech) first appeared in 1950, the publication by Éditions Présence Africaine dates from 1955. An English translation by Joan Pinkham was published in 1972.

D’abord (first), two interesting notes from the title alone:

  1. Le colonialisme, despite ending in ‘e’, is masculine.
  2. In French, only the first word of a book title is capitalized. So the English translation is called Discourse on Colonialism, but the French is Discours sur le colonialisme. Faites pas cet erreur de débutant (don’t make this beginner’s mistake)!

Aimé Césaire lays it all out dès la prémière phrase (from the first sentence): “Une civilization qui s’avère incapable de résoudre les problèmes que suscite son fonctionnement est une civilization décadente.” A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.[1]Décadente” recalls the Roman Empire before its fall, and thus the high stakes of “solving the problems” Europe has created for itself. Césaire also suggests that these problems are ingrained in European civilization (“les problèmes que suscite son fonctionnement”: the problems created by its functioning). Under this thèse (thesis), the civilization needs to fundamentally change to avoid its downfall.

After criticizing “une hypocrisie collective” for misrepresenting Europe’s problems “pour mieux légitimiser les odieuses solutions,” (to better legitimize their odious solutions), Césaire unleashes one of the glittering, angry sentences that make Discours so provocative.

“… (L)’essentiel est ici de voir clair, de penser clair, entendre dangereusement, de répondre clair à l’innocente question initiale: qu’est-ce en son principe que la colonisation?”

My translation: The essential here is to see clearly, to think clearly, understand dangerously, to respond clearly to the innocent initial question: what, in principle, is colonization? For me, the published translation, by Joan Pinkham, plays down the most important part of this sentence: “entendre dangereusement”.  Mais quelle phrase—but what a line! This is Césaire’s mandate for us, whether you agree with his analysis or not.

Césaire argues that the driving forces behind colonization come “de l’aventurier et du pirate”: from the adventurer and the pirate. By emphasizing these destructive elements of society, “la colonisation travaille à déciviliser le colonisateur”:  colonization works to decivilize the colonizer. Césaire describes the violence and oppression that accompanied French colonization as “le poison instillé dans les veines de l’Europe”:  the poison instilled in the veins of Europe. His disgust for the old continent seems to extend only as far it has been rotted by colonialism. Discours is not a condemnation of Europe, but a wake-up call.

La prevue (the proof) that colonization undermined advancement in the French colonies is, for Césaire, “que c’est le colonisé qui veut aller de l’avant, que c’est le colonisateur qui reticent en arrière.” It is the colonized who wants to advance, and the colonizer who is holding back. As in the beginning, Césaire recalls ancient Rome, comparing “l’entreprise colonial” to “ce que l’impérialisme romain fut au monde antique: préparateur du Désastre” (what Roman imperialism was in the ancient world: the prelude to Disaster).

Written in the aftermath of la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (World War II), the world took note of Césaire’s mise en garde (warning).  Discours sur le colonialisme is important in both the history of colonization and in the birth of a new movement, la négritude, championing black contributions to arts and culture. Je voulais le présenter (I wanted to present it) pour ces deux raisons (for these two reasons). But mainly pour cette phrase brillante: “entendre dangereusement.”

Whatever you think of its politics, reading this book will strengthen your command of French, especially in argument. As Hichem reminded us in April, French speakers love their language. Aimé Césaire may not have loved European politics, but his chef d’oeuvre is a master class in why French is so gorgeous. If you read it, I hope you’ll appreciate this book as much as I do.

Ça y est, c’est la fin du cours! That’s it, class is over! Passez un super weekend!

[1] Joan Pinkham, trans., Discourse on Colonialism (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1972).

Keep learning French with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it