Of Filiation and Freedom

John Patrick Walsh, Free and French in the Caribbean: Toussaint Louverture, Aimé Césaire, and Narratives of Loyal Opposition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013); 193 pages; ISBN: 9780253006271 (paperback).

• July 2014

In Free and French in the Caribbean, John Patrick Walsh explores the intertwined legacies of Toussaint Louverture and Aimé Césaire and how both men confronted the contradictions at the heart of French republican imperialism. Each strove to construct political futures that would secure freedom and equality within French sovereignty, and both men ran up against the limits to that project. Reading archives, letters, pamphlets, speeches, and literature, Walsh emphasizes that “how they conceived and narrated the relationship between autonomy and assimilation” highlights, despite the intervening centuries, the complementarity—or perhaps “filiation”—of their political and literary visions.1

Building on the work of David Scott and Hayden White, as well as the extensive historiography of the Haitian Revolution, Walsh proposes that questions of representation and narrative are vital in grasping the problem of “free and French,” and in writing its history. Addressing his book to both literary scholars and historians, Walsh argues that reading historical narratives with a critic’s eye, and inscribing literary narratives historically, will “bring to the fore . . . the larger, interconnected stories of Caribbean autonomy and assimilation” (15). Mingling historical and literary criticism enables a fruitful reading practice that reckons with the Haitian Revolution’s legacy and presence in the contemporary Caribbean.

Walsh divides his analysis into two parts. The first is devoted to Toussaint Louverture, and each of its four chapters unfolds diachronically, tracking Toussaint’s narrative politics through the phases of the Haitian Revolution. Part 2 takes up Aimé Césaire’s engagement with Toussaint in the decades after departmentalization, concentrating on the 1962 historical essay Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution et la problème coloniale and the 1963 play La tragédie du roi Christophe. Close readings of Toussaint and Césaire’s political project, with its negotiation and renegotiation of what it meant to be “free and French,” tie together the volume’s two halves.

The first part of the book tells the now familiar story of the complex political and military machinations of the Haitian Revolution but through the lens of Toussaint’s extensive literary corpus—correspondence, petitions, reports, and proclamations. Central to Walsh’s argument is the metaphor of the family romance, drawn from Freudian analysis and most famously deployed by Lynn Hunt in her study of the symbolic cultural politics of the French Revolution, which proposes that the family furnished an important set of metaphors for reestablishing political legitimacy in the wake of the radical break opened by the French Revolution.2 A letter that Toussaint wrote to his sons Placide and Isaac—students-cum-hostages of the Directory—is a key document for Walsh, as Toussaint’s articulation of a revised family romance becomes “an ideal approach to read the multiple emplotments of Toussaint’s conception of Saint-Domingue and its relationship to France” (33). In this letter, Walsh argues, Toussaint wrote out a new model of filiation that displaced the metropole-colony/mother-child metaphor in favor of himself as both father to his people and brother to the metropolitan revolutionaries.

Toussaint’s mastery of narrative to advance his position is central to Walsh’s argument. Echoing Ben Kafka’s recent work on the power of paper in the French Revolution, Walsh shows that during the tumultuous power struggles between 1796 and 1802, narrative and political authority were intimately linked; political gains and claims to authority required careful literary justification.3 Toussaint outmaneuvered rivals Sonthonax, Hédouville, and Rigaud on the page as well as the battlefield (60). Toussaint’s 1801 constitution fits into this understanding of his literary politics, narrating both a new family romance of Saint-Domingue (with Toussaint as father), and struggling with how to be both free and French. Ultimately, Walsh writes, the constitution “places liberty above, or on a par with, sovereignty” (72) so that “being ‘free’ seems to have had little to do with being ‘French’” (73). The Constitution’s implications and reception in France occasioned Toussaint’s extensive written justifications to Bonaparte, in which he protested his loyalty even as his gesture exposed the contradiction between liberty and colonialism.

The conflict with Bonaparte ended with Toussaint imprisoned in the Jura, striving to complete his Mémoire in his Fort de Joux cell in the vain hope of release. Walsh reads Mémoire as “the final chapter of the larger body of writing,” a “prospective document in that it revises history for posterity’s sake” (81). Toussaint’s defense and emplotment of his revolutionary activities anticipated Césaire’s (and C. L. R. James’s) twentieth-century recovery of the revolution’s legacy. Toussaint’s bitterly ironic denunciation of racism and meticulous defense of his actions on behalf of France and Saint-Domingue constituted a countermemoir, a last-ditch effort to “reactivate the ideas that Bonaparte and metropolitan France chose to ignore” and preserve the ideals of “free and French” (96).

The second part of the book takes up Césaire’s turn to the tragic, yet heroic, figure of Toussaint in the two decades following departmentalization. Drawing from both Scott’s virtuoso reading of James and Gary Wilder’s recent essay on négritude, utopia, and “futures past,” Walsh depicts Césaire’s writing about the Haitian Revolution as an effort to work through a postdepartmental and post-Communist political vision in a rapidly decolonizing world.4 Walsh reads Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture as both an essayistic “walk through a long history of France’s ‘colonial problem’ in Saint-Domingue” and as a “genealogy” of the conflict between assimilation and autonomy in the French Caribbean (106). Merging close readings of the archive with the Hegelian dialectic, Césaire narrated the revolution’s fundamental challenge: that the demand for abolition and universal rights marked the limits of the French republican project. Toussaint was “able to synthesize the stakes of the revolution,” but his political and narrative act foundered on the realities of empire and thus meant exile and martyrdom (115).

Walsh posits that Césaire’s writing on Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution narrated his own preoccupation with the tension between free and French, a concern that permeated his 1950s essays as well as his theatrical writing. Picking up Chris Bongie’s notion of “scribal politics,” Walsh argues for “positioning” Césaire’s La tragédie du roi Christophe “as a suite, part of the effort to historicize a series of interrelated problems,” including the “doubled” nature of postcolonial memory and the “solitude of power” (125, 130–31). Christophe—whom Césaire described as a “ridiculous figure”—provided a means for Césaire to look at his own “distance from the people he represented” and to reflect on the temptations and tragedies of postcolonial power. “Christophe’s tragedy,” Walsh writes, “is the burden of nation building” (133). How to construct a “sustainable freedom,” and Christophe’s abject and tragic failure to do so, outlined the problem of freedom that haunted and haunts the postcolony (135).

Structured around ambitious historiographical and critical arguments and close, intertextual readings, Walsh’s book is not without its flaws. Reading as an historian, I was troubled by certain historiographical shortcuts and perplexed by certain contextual lacunae, but I chalk up my reservations to disciplinary difference. Nonetheless, I want to pose a few questions about Walsh’s theoretical approach, which does not seem fully synthesized or realized. Free and French in the Caribbean borrows most prominently from Lynn Hunt, David Scott, and Hayden White, but their theoretical insights are picked up and put down again without any explicit or overarching explanation. For example, Hunt’s notion of family romance plays an important analytical role in the first part of the book, yet it disappears almost completely from the second part, even though, as Richard Burton has shown, the family romance remains an important metaphor for mediating the relationship between France and the Antilles.5 As a historian I was particularly skeptical of how Walsh used Césaire’s 2004 interviews with Françoise Vergès.6 It is not that Vergès’s interviews are suspect; rather, it is that Césaire’s interpretation of his own work, decades after the fact, is lent extensive critical weight. Allowing Césaire to propose his own hermeneutic for reading his own corpus is anachronistic and also forecloses the reconstruction of the “problem space” in which Césaire wrote. Finally, while Walsh’s focus on the entanglement of political and literary narratives is well observed, in his effort to reconstruct narrative authority in the texts under consideration, he gives short shrift to the ways in which texts escape authorial control. One does not have to subscribe to deconstruction to wish that Walsh had followed the thread and thrust of these texts into territories their authors never quite foresaw or imagined.

Free and French in the Caribbean is nonetheless a valuable contribution to both the rapidly proliferating literature on the Haitian Revolution and the emerging revisionist appreciation of Césaire’s intellectual and political project. It fits comfortably beside Nick Nesbitt’s recent work on French Caribbean critical theory, as well as with Gary Wilder’s work on the utopian politics of departmentalization and decolonization.7 Walsh demonstrates that the question of freedom first broached in the Haitian Revolution and rearticulated following departmentalization remains charged in contemporary Martinique and Guadeloupe. Toussaint and Césaire may have been claimed for official commemorative politics via the Panthéon, but a new generation on the streets of Basse-Terre and Saint-Denis has taken up their mantle and again posed the challenge of “free and French.”

Andrew M. Daily is an assistant professor of French and global history at the University of Memphis. He specializes in French colonial and postcolonial history, with a particular interest in the relationship between decolonization and intellectual and cultural history. His most recent publication is “Race, Citizenship, and Antillean Student Activism in Postwar France, 1946–1968” (French Historical Studies, 2014). He is currently at work on a book tentatively titled “After Négritude: The Cultural Politics of Place in Postwar France and the Caribbean.”




John Patrick Walsh, Free and French in the Caribbean: Toussaint Louverture, Aimé Césaire, and Narratives of Loyal Opposition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 7; hereafter cited in the text.

Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

Ben Kafka, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (Cambridge, MA: Zone, 2012).

David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Gary Wilder, “Untimely Vision: Aimé Césaire, Decolonization, Utopia,” Public Culture 21, no. 1 (2009): 101–40.

5 Richard D. E. Burton, La famille coloniale: La Martinique et la mère patrie, 1789–1992 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994).

6 Aimé Césaire, Nègre je suis, et nègre je resterai: Entretiens avec Françoise Vergès (Paris: Albin Michel, 2006).

7 Nick Nesbitt, Caribbean Critique: Antillean Critical Theory from Toussaint to Glissant (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013); Gary Wilder, “Freedom Time” (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, forthcoming), and “Untimely Vision.”

 

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