a history

The following is adapted from my doctoral thesis, “Migrant Textuality: On the fields of Aimé Césaire’s ‘Et les chiens se taisaient’” (“Migrant”). For a thorough account of how I came upon the document see my article, “Découverte d’un tapuscrit d’Et les chiens se taisaient.” (“Découverte”).

In one of those all-too-predictable ironies in the annals of literature, Aimé Césaire worked on Et les chiens se taisaient1 more than on any other text throughout his writing career only to have it be his most neglected. We can understand why the text was so important to him. In all the different versions that come down to us, published or unpublished, the central figure in the text is a rebel who refuses to compromise with the pretensions of power. For Césaire the poet and anti-colonialist, this fundamental antagonism provided a source and an opening. He was aware of its enduring purchase too. This much is clear from an interview he gave François Beloux in 1969:

Mais cette première pièce, je ne la voyais pas “jouée” ; je l’avais d’ailleurs écrite comme un poème. Cependant, ce texte présente pour moi une profonde importance : parce que c’est une pièce très libre et située dans son milieu—le milieu antillais. C’est un peu comme la nébuleuse d’où sont sortis tous ces mondes successifs que constituent mes autres pièces2 (Beloux 28).

Though genetic analysis does not support the assertion that he wrote it above all as a poem, at the most basic level, the most important themes in his later œuvre do already prefigure in it: anti-colonialism, rebellion/revolution, nègritude, words as weapons, postcolonial governance and, of course, freedom and the Caribbean. The “nébuleuse,” an astronomical soup of clashing dust particles and gases can be read here as a metaphor for atelier, as workshop more than work, but also as that distant and diffuse source in need of return.

We have reason to believe that Aimé Césaire started work on “…… et les chiens se taisaient” sometime in 1941, during the height of l’Amiral Robert’s infamous regime in Martinique. The major indication comes from the typescript itself. Defying his captors, Toussaint Louverture, the main character of this early version of the work, asks them to spit on him “l’épais crachat des siècles/ mûri/ en 306 ans” (76).3 Rewinding from 1941, this odd number gives us 1635, the year Martinique and Guadeloupe were appropriated in the name of the French Crown by Pierre Belain d’Esnambouc. The “thick spit,” aged 306 years, could reasonably refer to the time that Martinique has been under French control.

The figure 306 could also point to 1492, if we date the years back from 1798, the year that Toussaint signed the treaty with the English, which is directly alluded to in the first act, and which falls within the fictive timespan covered in the play. One reason to prefer this interpretation would be Toussaint’s address to Columbus in the early parts of the play. Alas, the number 306 comes from a scene in Act 3, when Toussaint is already in prison in the Jura Mountains, or as the historical record would have it, in 1802. The last starting point would take us back to 1502, the year the first captured African is traded in America by the Spanish villain, Juan Cordoba de Sevilla. I tend to prefer this last computation. Thankfully, we don’t need to decide one way or the other categorically between these three manouvers, since all work to some extent.

A couple of years before 1941, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire had returned to Martinique from their student-years in Paris, where his “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” had just been published in the journal Volontés. As soon as they returned, he began to teach secondary school at the recently opened Lycée Schœlcher in Fort-de-France. In April of 1941, almost a year after Petain came to head the État Français, through the collaboration of Aimé, Suzanne, René Ménil, and Aristide Maugée, the first issue of the journal Tropiques would see the light of day. Soon after the publication of Tropiques Nº1, the Capitaine Paul Lemerle would anchor in Martinique, bringing with it André Breton, Wifredo Lam, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Victor Serge, and a host of other intellectuals fleeing the war. Aimé and Suzanne would meet Breton and Lam soon after their arrival in Martinique in one of the most famous chapters of twentieth-century literary history.4 These new friendships, forged in the matter of a few precarious weeks, would soon become avenues for new collaborations, but even more importantly perhaps, they would allow A. Césaire to project his artistic ambitions outside the confines of Vichy Martinique.

During these years, from 1940 to 1943, Martinique was going through a period of “intense invention”5 linked to the political, social and economic conditions brought on by Petainiste ultraconservative colonial policies (Glissant 98). As Eric Jennings convincingly argues in Vichy in the Tropics this “form of colonialism steeped in social-Darwinist determinism and rooted in a reductionist, organic understanding of other, usually ‘primitive,’ societies and ‘races’” had many unintended, and thus greatly under-acknowledged, consequences (1): ideas of hyper-nationalism and folklorism were quickly repurposed by the colonized; anti-universalist discourse became the foundation for particularist strands of intellectual activity; and last but not least, the harsher policies fueled anti-colonialist sentiment across the French colonies. The productions of Aimé Césaire and his circle during these years confirm Jennings’ analysis: The journal Tropiques makes a nudge in the direction of folklorism and nationalism, even as early as its first issue;6 Tropiques also became a space to discuss and embrace philosophies of difference, including Frobenius’ anthropology of Hamitics and Ethiopeans (S. Césaire 27-32). In addition, the rabid censorship under l’Amiral Robert’s government can be cited as the main cause for the journal’s oblique style, while the regime’s tighter grip on the black populace accounts for the journal’s hyper-antagonism.

All of the above applies more specifically to the typescript, “…… et les chiens se taisaient.” Because the drama was written in secrecy, its language seems to have been inversely influenced by the politics of censorship. The typescript makes explicit what Tropiques cannot afford to. With the refrain “mort aux blancs,”—”Kill the Whites”—framing the retelling of Haitian resistance against French ambitions, the play confronts head on the ruses of colonialism and imperialism, providing a great counterpoint to the subterfuges and misdirections of the published material of the time. On the other hand, the typescript still contains much poetry that was typical of Césaire’s contribution to Tropiques, effectively creating a rift in the text between straightforward and oblique language, cum poetry.

Beginning in 1940 and reaching their peak in 1943, British and U.S. naval blockades made transportation to and fro the island increasingly difficult, isolating Martinique to a certain extent, but not completely (Jennings Escape 108, 119-121). The most accessible form of communication with the outside world remained the postal package or letter delivered on the limited number of ships that were allowed passage—the lines to the Americas were under these circumstances more open than to the old world. This situation must also be taken into account when we try to understand Césaire’s strategies of publication and composition once correspondence begins with Lam in Cuba and Breton in New York. Undoubtedly, the possibility of external editorial environments becomes vital under the watchful eye of state censorship, however weak the possibility or the censorship. Perhaps as a result of these new avenues, the text’s bind to the Caribbean—audience and history—are stronger in its earlier stages of composition than in later ones.

As opposed to start dates, we find more precise information about the completion of the typescript in a trove of letters from Césaire to Breton housed at the Bibliothèque Litteraire Jacques Doucet in Paris. The first of these letters to mention the play is postmarked September 23, 1943, where A. Césaire notes he has just finished “un drame nègre7 (Quelques lignes). A letter dated November 16, 1943 announces the impending arrival in New York of a package containing “un recueil possible de poèmes ainsi qu’un drame : Et les chiens se taisaient.” The next letter from A. Césaire, postmarked Jan. 17, 1944, announces the arrival of some supplementary pages for “Et les chiens se taisaient” consisting of the short text “Intermède.” The Césaire documents at the Fonds Yvan Goll in Saint-Dié des Vosges, France, where the typescript is housed today, do not include this shorter piece. This suggests that Breton handed the typescript to Yvan Goll somewhere between November and January. Because the Césaire folder at the Fonds Yvan et Claire Goll does not include the short piece “Intermède,”8 it is also safe to say that the integral Saint-Dié typescript was part of the package that Césaire announced in mid-November of 1943, and that the writing and revising was completed close to this date.

The story of how Yvan Goll became involved in the editorial life of Aimé Césaire in New York has been superbly narrated by Albert Ronsin, former curator of the Goll archive, in his essay “Yvan Goll et André Breton.”9 After making amends with Breton more than a decade after they came to blows over the paternity rights to surréalisme, they both began to collaborate on a special issue of Goll’s journal Hemisphères. This happened between the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944, around the time Césaire sent his typescript. Both Goll and Breton had spent time in the Caribbean en route to New York, both had something to say about it, and each had columbused a black poet: Nicolás Guillén for Goll and Aimé Césaire for Breton. Issue 2/3 of Hemisphères would include Breton’s introduction to Césaire, “Un grand poète noir,”10 Césaire’s own “Purs sang,” and an announcement on the back cover for an upcoming edition of Césaire’s “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,” translated by Yvan Goll.11 Cordial relations between Goll and Breton would not last long after this new collaboration. In May of 1944, while working together on the translation of the Cahier, they had another, final falling out.

The correspondence between Goll and Breton, also housed at Saint-Dié, makes clear that the relationship between the two was above all editorial. This is evident from Breton’s business-like responses to Goll, and Goll’s obsequious editorial proposals to Breton. Breton did not seem to respect Goll’s artistic judgment, nor did he seem to value the awkward friendship. Given the nature of their collaboration, and the fact that Breton was already using Goll to publish Césaire, chances are that the busy Breton loaned Goll the typescript of “…… et les chiens se taisaient” in hopes that the latter would adopt the project. The publication, of course, never materialized, and Goll never returned the typescript to Breton, despite the latter’s repeated entreaties and the intercession of their mutual friend Robert Lebel. In his last letter to Goll (12 Dec. 1944), Breton reminds Goll that he has asked for the typescript three times already. That is the last we hear of this typescript until 2008, when a footnote in Ronsin’s article prompted me to travel to Saint-Dié des Vosges.

When we consider the size of the text—107 loose leaves + title page—a completion date of late 1943 also reinforces the argument that the text was begun in 1941. A text of this size is larger than all of Césaire’s combined output up to that date, from his first pamphlet pieces in Paris as a young man, to the 1939 edition of “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,” to his contributions in Tropiques.12 Considering the enormous tax on his time that made him such a successful and dedicated teacher (Ngal 111-113) and his already substantial literary activity in Tropiques, we cannot but be astonished by this hitherto unknown work, which without a doubt, was Césaire’s most ambitious effort up until that point.

works cited


  1. The title in italics refers to the published work. When referring to the typescript, the title is in quotation marks and with the unusual trailing elipsis found in the original. ↩︎

  2. [But this first work, I never envisioned it “staged”; I wrote it above all as a poem. However, this text is of the utmost importance to me because it is a work that is both free and well situated in its environment—the Caribbean. It is a bit like the nebula where all the other future worlds that constitute my other works come from.] My translations unless otherwise indicated. ↩︎

  3. [The thick spit of the centuries/aged/after 306 years]. I owe the following observation in part to the French critic and editor Pierre Laforgue, one of our collaborators in our edition of A. Césaire, Poésie, théâtre, essais et discours (Arnold). ↩︎

  4. The classic retelling of the story by Breton was first published as “Un Grand poète noir” in 1943 (“Grand”). The story can also be found in Martinique Charmeuse Des Serpents (Martinique). For some anecdotes about the time spent together in Martinique see Julia P. Herzberg’s “Wifredo Lam: The Development of a Style and a World View” (50-51). ↩︎

  5. Alors c’était un isolement assez complet, et la conséquence en a été aussi qu’il a fallu absolument que la population trouve elle-même des solutions à toutes les privations … C’est pour cela que je dis que pendant cette période les Martiniquais ont vraiment inventé—je pense que de ce point de vue c’est une période qui a développé l’esprit d’invention.” (Glissant 98). ↩︎

  6. This explains in part A. Césaire’s article, “Charles Péguy” and selections from his poetry in the first issue of Tropiques. In the article, Césaire defended Péguy for his nationalist love of the peasantry (39-40). Because Péguy had been appropriated by the Petainistes, Césaire could maneuver a message of Martinican particularity using him as a stand-in for a nationalism rooted on the peasantry—the same Péguy who said “Je ne veux pas que l’autre soit le même, je veux que l’autre soit autre. C’est à Babel qu’était la confusion, dit Dieu, cette fois que l’homme voulut faire le malin” [“I don’t want the other to be the same. I want the other to be the other. Our confusion comes from Babel, God says, when Man wanted to be too clever.”] (1569). These words echo Césaire’s own anti-assimilationism in the first issue of l’Etudiant noir: “Jeunesse Noire, il est un poil qui vous empêche d’agir : c’est l’Identique, et c’est vous qui le portez.” [Black youth: you are a hair away from acting: and that is the Identical, and it is you who carries it] (“Négreries”). This reading is, of course, complicated by the fact that Césaire had already praised Péguy for his “heroïsme” in the article “Le Message De Charles Péguy,” published in Paris in 1939 (2), where and when assimilation was the more important concern. That other article ends with the words, “à Suivre,” which imply that the Tropiques article is the announced continuation. For further analysis see Aimé Césaire, Le «Fil Et La Trame», Critique Et Figuration De La Colonialité Du Pouvoir by Buata B. Malela (26-28). ↩︎

  7. My gratitude to René Henane for allowing me to consult his copy of the transcriptions of the correspondence and for his generous friendship. ↩︎

  8. This short manuscript can be found instead in the Fonds André Breton at the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet. ↩︎

  9. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Nadine Ronsin, who has taken over the role of curator of the Goll collection after Albert Ronsin’s passing. She has welcomed me on two occasions, with the sort of hospitality that inspires the best in others, to the peaceful small town of Saint-Dié des Vosges in Lorraine—where town lore would have it, the name “America” was used for the first time in recorded history. I also thank her colleagues at the Bibliothèque Municipale for providing a comfortable work space and a pleasant atmosphere for the days of arduous scanning and research. ↩︎

  10. We learn from the letters that “Un grand poète noir” was written at the behest of Goll as a possible introduction to the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, by a somewhat unwilling Breton, who didn’t consider Hemisphères to be the appropriate vehicle for such a text. This short tribute to Césaire will go on to have a life of its own in several other publications since, most notably as the introduction of the Brentano’s edition of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal and as a chapter in Breton’s Martinique, Charmeuse de serpents↩︎

  11. This dual-language edition was finally published three years later in 1947 by Brentano’s in New York. For a textual history of Césaire’s masterpiece, please see my essay “Bridging the Middle Passage: The Textual (r)evolution Of Césaire’s Cahier D’un Retour au Pays Natal.” ↩︎

  12. This statement remains true in so far as we have not yet recovered his thesis on Black Southern writers in the United States, and can only speculate how much effort he put into it. Not much would be my guess. ↩︎