In the shadow of Mount Pelée: Interview with Aime Cesaire
By Ann Scarboro
Excerpt from "Aimé Césaire: Poet and Statesman" a documentary produced by Mosaic Media and Full Duck Productions.
Born in Martinique in the French Antilles in 1913, Aime Cesaire, poet, playwright and politician, was to become one of the most influential intellectuals of African renaissance. Along with Leopold Senghor, the poet and first president of Senegal, he formulated the concept of Negritude that led to a worldwide movement of black African cultural pride. Cesaire's criticism of European civilisation and racism was to have a profound influence on fellow Martinican and African revolutionary, Franz Fanon, reflecting in works such as Black Skin and White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. Cesaire, now aged 94, was interviewed by Ann Scarboro, a US professor and a specialist in French Caribbean, French, and ethnic literatures with over twenty years of experience as a university professor and high school teacher. In this short excerpt from the documentary "Aimé Césaire: Poet and Statesman" he talks about his early poetic influences.
Aimé Césaire: Poet and Statesman (40 minute documentary of 2001 interview, available in French or in English voiceover)
AAS is Ann Armstrong Scarboro, AC is Aimé Césaire.
AAS: Césaire spent his early childhood with five siblings in the small coastal town of Basse- Pointe in the shadow of the volcano Mount Pelée. His father, also an intellectual, taught school in Basse-Pointe. His mother, an independent woman, ran the household with a firm hand. Césaire loved Martinique’ s island landscape of trees, plants, cane fields, rolling hills, cliffs, volcanoes, swamps and ocean. He knew all these elements of nature intimately. Their images permeate his entire being as well as his writing.
AC: When I want to know myself, I read myself in the landscape. That is what is important. Yes. The tree speaks to me. I don’t know if I can talk to the trees, but I know that they speak to me and they interpret me…. nature, the tree, the stone, the landscape, the volcano. But the volcano! It is fantastic! It is prodigious! When I look at Mount Pelée, this reserve of energy, this force that comes up from the deep, out of the depths of the earth, this magma that rises up and spills out under the sun, it is fantastic. And there the great lesson is read. ….. People say the volcano is dead. But no, it is not dead, and that is one of the great lessons, isn’t it? The reserve is there. One of these days…… Well, we too, we are going to explode like a volcano. We are not dead. People think we are dead. Don’t believe it. We are not as dead as that.
AAS: Césaire is about to recall the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902. This event left the town of Saint Pierre in rubbles and killed the entire population except for two men. He survived, because his jail cell protected him.
AC: And I am happy when I look at the volcano. You have to understand why I love the volcano. Because the volcano is not solely destructive. People call it a catastrophe. But the volcano is also constructive. That is what is important. The volcano builds. It builds itself, and it builds us. …. The volcano, Saint Pierre. And then right beside Mount Pelée you see an immense kapok tree. This tree builds also, and it brings a lesson as well. Beside the tree on the mountain above the town of Saint Pierre you can see crosses marking graves. This kapok tree, this protective kapok tree with its five arms, that too is symbolic.
AAS: After Césaire described his affection for this symbol of endurance and protection, I asked him if he were still writing poetry today.
AC: No. I never wrote poetry as a literary genre. That is not my conception of poetry. If I don’t write poetry now, it is not because I don’t have the time. It is because poetry for me is the inner knowledge of the human being. It is a call to action. And if I liked Surrealism, I understood it in my own way. What interested me about Surrealism was the possibility, or the hope in any case, of going to the deepest part of the self, of having finished with the superficial, the already done, of breaking the surface, of descending even deeper than the ocean floor. And for me, that was poetry.
Everybody always asks me who are you? I don’t know anything about that. When I want to know myself, gain some insight, I re-read my poems. It is through the poem that I know myself. The poem for me is what allows me to descend within myself, to wander among my phantoms, among my fantasies, my dreams, my terrors, all of that. It is through the poem that I gain knowledge. I call this “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” a first poem. It is the poem of a battle with myself, of a sort of internal revolution, and of a call to action. I did not call it “Notebook” as a joke.