United by Suffering: Transformation Through Blood Imagery in Cesaire’s Cahier du Retour au Pays Natal

The narrator of Aimé Césaire’s long poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Cahier du Retour au Pays Natal, 1939) speaks of a restless and intense desire for his[1] race to embrace its own identity and rise up in defiance of those who have tried to subdue it for generations. Using blood  imagery, the narrator illustrates the transformation of himself and, at least he hopes, of his people. He first demonstrates the manner in which the suffered-upon land of his native island reflects the restlessness and pent-up, nearly frenzied energy of his people, which he feels is ready to burst open at any moment. After he has described this state of hesitation before a grand outburst, he notes a transitional phase in which the image of blood takes on the significance of an intimate connection to the rest of his race.  Finally, at the end of the poem, both of these significances are united, as the blood imagery demonstrates the narrator’s rising sense of connection to a larger universal and historical body, a realization that is largely grounded in the notion that his people have suffered together. In essence, then, the blood imagery first demonstrates the suffering of the narrator’s people that has kept them subdued, then gradually morphs until it becomes clear that it is precisely by means of this suffering that the narrator forms his deep connection with the others, principally of his own race but even, it could be argued, with all those who have suffered at the hands of oppressors through generations.

In the first stage of the poem, the narrator characterizes the land as a living space restless with the generations of oppressed slaves suffering on it. His initial use of blood imagery in describing the land thus reveals not only its character, but the character of the slaves themselves. For instance, he calls the flora of Martinique “flowers of blood” (Césaire 2).  Blood is a substance that without doubt connotes living beings; at the same time, spreading or sharing it represents a deeply intimate relationship, akin to that of two members of a family. The use of blood to describe the flowers thus immediately connotes an intimate relation between the living and the land. In fact, according to Abiola Irele of Ohio State University, the preceding line, “martyrs who do not bear witness,” makes clear that the blood on the flowers represents the spilled blood of those who have died on the island, through slavery or by any other inhumane means (38). Thus, the very first image of blood establishes that the suffering of those who have lived on this land has traveled within the land itself. Along with it has traveled the slaves’ resignation to their fate, which is to live an ultimately meaningless and “futile” life of suffering indicated by the “screeching and babbling” of parrots (Césaire 2). The parrots’ meaningless gibberish is a means by which the natural imagery on the island, which has absorbed the people’s suffering, screams aloud their frustration.

After the flowers, the morne is the next natural element to be described in bloodlike terms. The narrator observes, “…the morne in restless, docile hooves—its malarial blood routs the sun with its overheated pulse” (4). The morne is suppressed and yet for this reason all the more restless with some kind of feverish energy it desperately wants to release, as indicated by the medical terminology in the latter half of the phrase.  Besides serving as another example of transforming a stereotypically-beautiful image of the Caribbean into one of illness and repulsiveness, suggesting that the island’s charms are superficial and distract from its serious issues, the morne also reflects the preceding passage, in which the narrator laments the pent-up energy of the nevertheless subdued throng of his race—subdued, because they do not direct this energy toward meaningful issues, such as their freedom and racial identity (2-3). The break caused by the hyphen in the aforementioned passage about the morne causes a sense of hesitation, thus representing the way in which the energy of the narrator’s people is held back from eruption.

In fact, the narrator continues his description of the morne by noting “…the restrained conflagration of the morne like a sob gagged on the verge of a bloodthirsty burst, in quest of an ignition that slips away and ignores itself” (4). The phrase “on the verge of” suggests an image of this powerful sob forcefully stopped just as it was about to pour forth, immediately creating a tension between the energy teeming within the morne, eager to emerge, and the external forces that keep this energy from rising up. As with the other images of the land, this clearly refers to the state of the slaves. The narrator emphasizes this by following this depiction of the morne with a description of the manner in which slaves frequently committed suicide, which was by choking on their own tongues (4). The connection between the term “gagged” in the image of the morne and the choking slaves is evident. The slave contains the same vitality common to all humans, but as this feature has been suppressed within him for so many generations, it builds up until the slave literally bursts at the seams with it; ultimately, he dies from this unbearable repression of his individual humanity. Because he cannot speak forth his words and ideas, they choke him. He becomes mad with desire to express what he will never be allowed to. Through the image of the morne, the narrator therefore illustrates the greatest suffering that oppresses the slaves. All of these images of nearly-fluid movement forcefully-held stagnant in time suggest that the poem itself is holding back, desperate but as of yet unable to unleash its inner energy.

Despite the description of the way in which the race to whom he feels connected remains oppressed by the suffering it endures, the narrator’s tone actually changes fairly quickly , indicating that he conceptualizes of his people as more than simply a victimized, hopelessly oppressed and forsaken race. Whereas the blood imagery he has used previously is feverish and otherwise weak from the effects of slavery and suffering, it transforms as he reflects fondly upon those few happy moments in which his people share, “…our foolish and crazy stunts to revive the golden splashing of privileged moments, the umbilical cord restored to its ephemeral splendor, the bread, and the wine of complicity, the bread, the wine, the blood of honest weddings” (6).  Despite the fact that the narrator calls these moments “foolish” and “crazy,” the idealism implicit in the expression “golden splashing of privileged moments” conveys his own fondness for these few incidences in which his race truly relishes itself and its culture. Irele suggests that the mention of the umbilical cord connotes the narrator’s deep connection to his people (48). Although she gives no specific evidence for such a conclusion, the context of the umbilical cord imagery does indeed indicate that he finds a kind of maternal comfort in these moments, a feeling of deep connectedness to this body of people.

Afterwards, the narrator mentions “the bread” and “the wine of complicity,” references to the Christian ritual of transubstantiation during Mass, or the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. This therefore seems to be an implicit reference to blood—blood in a sacred, elevated context, as a substance that has been transformed and has the power to transform those who encounter it. Irele argues that the word “complicité,” is “associated with the poet’s deep consciousness of an organic bond with his community, extending to union with nature” (6). Her reading reiterates the strong link between the people in the land that proves that the land’s descriptors refer also to the people who suffer on it. More importantly, it stresses the deep unity that the narrator feels exists among his race. The narrator repeats the terms “the bread” and “the wine” again, as though to emphasize their importance as symbols of the transformation of blood.

This is indicated by the final explicit reference to blood, which, according to Irele, is actually a reference to a marriage tradition in which the newlywed bride’s virginal blood becomes sacred, representing a healthy union between the two people (48). From this, she determines, “The image of blood now takes on an immediate meaning both as a symbol of the biological constitution of the people and of the timeless compact that binds members of a living community from one generation to another in an organic whole” (48). In this transitional period of the poem, therefore, the blood of the slaves is no longer viewed as sickly and futile, but rather for the first time represents the empowering connection between all members of the narrator’s race.  The order in which the different parts of this stanza are mentioned represent the progression of the narrator and his people. First, the umbilical cord connotes a new birth, a readiness to embrace a radical re-conceptualization of his race’s own identity. The twice-mentioned bread and wine represent the way in which the slaves gradually undergo a self-awakening of their race as a whole, seeing their blood not as malarial but as an indicator of a much greater bond that exists between them.

Even after this passage about the transformation of blood into a positive symbol of the narrator’s identity and connection to his race, there  are several other moments where he continues to think of blood in the context of the humiliation of suffering. For instance, at one point he imagines the “putrid blood” of states where slavery is institutionalized (Césaire 16). He also exclaims , “So much blood in my memory!…My memory is encircled with blood” (25). Both of these images, particularly the way in which blood frames his recollection in the second, connote the major role of suffering in the individual memory of the narrator, as well as in the collective memory of his race. The presence of such negative blood imagery after the transformative passage with the bread and wine indicates that the narrator has not yet completed his own self-awareness and coming-into-recognition of his racial identity, but still struggles to perceive his race as anything other than a people which has been oppressed to the point of near-obliteration of their humanity.

However, mixed in with these images of blood are positive ones, indicating the narrator’s gradual change of mindset.  He thinks again of the build-up of frenzied energy within his race, but this time says, “…the splendor of this blood will it not burst open?” (17). Now the blood, although it still yearns to bubble out from its confines, is at the very least described as filled with “splendor;” it is no longer “malarial,” and no longer the pathetic blood of “martyrs without witness.” This phrase occurs in a passage in which the narrator imagines, using the conditional tense, the actions his race would perform, given their freedom. Many of their actions would involve shouting, the very opposite of gagging themselves with their tongues. The blood here thus obviously connotes their shared experience of unleashing their pent-up, frustrated humanity. At one point, the narrator defiantly protests, “…you ripen for the twentieth time the same indigent solace that we are mumblers of words//Words?… ah yes, words! but words of fresh blood, words that are tidal waves…” (23). The narrator questions the word “word” and then seems to recognize “ah yes, words!” as though his conception of the first iteration of “word” differs from that of the second.. He does in fact clarify that, though his people speak “words,” they are not just any words but those of “fresh blood” and “tidal waves.” While the latter image certainly suggests strength, power, and flowing forth, the first connotes again the unity and intimate connection between all of the slaves. The fact that it is “fresh” and parallel to the image of the “tidal waves” suggests that the narrator is now beginning to see his people not as shameful and humiliating, but rather as gathering together, becoming self-aware, and ready to stand up and defy their oppressors. Finally, the hesitation built up in the first half of the poem begins to slowly show hints of releasing itself.

The transformation of the image of the blood throughout the poem represents a transformation of suffering itself from an object that serves as the cause of oppression—slaves are oppressed because they suffer—to one of unification and salvation—the narrator’s race is strong and must rise up in defiance of its oppressors largely because it is united by suffering.  Although the narrator feels a close bond with his race, one of the main means by which he feels this connection is the suffering that they all have endured together. This is obvious from the passage in which he compares himself to a list of various other minorities of different religions and races, their only similarity to each other and to him the fact that they have suffered together (11-12).

Imagery of suffering continues at the end of the poem, which resembles a prayer or incantation to some higher being. The narrator evinces this tone by beginning many of his sentences with phrases such as “Eia for those who…” in praise of his people and commands such as “Grant that I…” in pleading for him and his people to develop certain qualities. The effect of this prayer-like tone is not so much religious as it is universalizing, a sweeping gesture by the narrator toward crying for his own transformation in spirit to occur among all of his people. He shouts,“Blood! Blood! All our blood aroused by the male heart of the sun…” (36). The narrator repeats twice with exclamation points the forceful “Blood,” placing them at the beginning of the sentence as though to prioritize bearing to the world his pride of his own racial heritage. Only after this exclamation does he explain, that the blood of his people has become aroused by “the male heart of the sun.” Before, the sun had caused his people’s sickly blood to develop an “overheated pulse.” Now, however, the sun “arouses” the blood; all evidence of sickness has long been washed away at this point, leaving only the pride of having blood that rises to defiance of the same heat that had once sickened it. Later on in this prayer-like cry, he says, “I accept…I accept…totally, without reservation…” (39). This is a mark of complete, unconditional acceptance of what follows, which is a list of the blemishes of his race caused by their suffering under slavery, as well as a detailed chronicle of many of the cruel instruments used to exact such punishment (39-40). The fact that this list appears in such a rousing cry for the narrator’s race to come into self-actualization indicates that he views their suffering as playing an immense role in their development and relationship as a people.

At one point, he calls outright for “…my special geography too; the world map made for my own use, not tinted with the arbitrary colors of scholars, but with the geometry of my spilled blood, I accept//and the determination of my biology, not a prisoner to a facial angle, to a type of hair…but measured by the compass of suffering…” (43) Here, for perhaps the first time, the blood image and the image of suffering emerge within the same sentiment. Before, the poet unconditionally accepted his race as it was, blighted by suffering. Now, he begins to totally accept not the way the world is, but the way the world should be—for instance, he imagines a world map based on the “spilled blood” of his race, an image that evokes at once the extent of the cruelties endured by his race through generations and the importance to him that this suffering be documented, even used as a framework for viewing the world. This further demonstrates his newfound respect for and desire to showcase his “blood,” or racial heritage. He further imagines a world where he is not measured by any biological feature common to his race, but rather “by the compass of suffering,” a clear reference to his desire for the suffering of his people to be remembered, to set a framework for their conceptualization of themselves as a race in much the same way that he calls for it to serve as a framework of the new kind of map he describes. From this point on in the poem, blood is described in only positive imagery associated with rising to a heightened state, an obvious indicator that the narrator has by this point completely transformed into the prophet who is proud of his blood and the suffering his blood has endured.[2]

Thus does the image of blood in the poem, as it transforms from a sickly, held-back substance to one finally flowing with full force, unleashed, and rising in pride, reflect the narrator’s growing recognition that suffering, the force that at one time subdued his race, is also the force that ultimately unites it. This is because it has served, as he remarks, as the “compass” of their lives for many generations, directing their paths and serving as a framework for their relation to one another. It is important to note, in order to avoid misunderstanding, that the narrator does not approve of this suffering in any way; there is no indication in the poem that he feels his people needed to undergo suffering as a kind of character-building or any such naïve, borderline racist sentiment. Rather, he accepts unconditionally that his people have suffered, and by accepting, he means that he has finished treating that mark of his race as something of which to be ashamed, and now recognizes it as a principal force through which his people can find unity and embrace their identities. For if they embrace their race in its entirety, including the suffering it has endured, they break the main chain with which slavery shackles them —that of shame stemming from that most brutal form of suffering, the necessity of holding all of their vitality and innovation within until it overcomes them.

The last line, “I will now fish the malevolent tongue of the night in its motionless veerition!” demonstrates this (51). Though difficult to interpret because of the neologism “veerition,” Irele speculates that this word is rooted in the narrator’s sentiment that “his agitated existence…comes to hold the promise of fulfillment in a higher mode of experience…” (150). The use of the word “tongue” connotes the earlier example of the slaves who would commit suicide by choking on their tongues, or in other words becoming overwhelmed by their own vitality crushing them from within. The narrator’s last, ardent determination to act, in itself a progression from the stagnant, restrained nature of the first half of the poem, is in fact an effort to manipulate this suffering so that it can be used as a means of obtaining self-actualization and unity among his people, ultimately leading to a rebellious stance against their current state, rather than as a tool through which to keep them locked in place.

 

Works Cited

Césaire, Aimé. Edited by Abiola Irele. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2000. Print.

Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. Print.


[1] There is actually no indication of the narrator’s gender in the poem. However, for the sake of clarity, rather than constantly using the pronouns of both genders I have decided to use masculine pronouns, because many consider the poem to be at least in part autobiographical.

[2] Several instances of this positive blood imagery can be found on p. 44, p. 47-48, and p. 50

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