Since Édouard Glissant’s death in February 2011, the work of the Martinican author and thinker has provided increasing number of readers with a unique insight into contemporary questions of globalization and its various impacts. Glissant’s writings reflect on slavery, racism, colonialism and the afterlives of empire, offering a vision of a culturally diverse and interrelated world.
Liverpool University Press has recently published the first three volumes of the Glissant Translation Project: Introduction to a Poetics of Diversity and Treatise of the Whole-World, translated by Celia Britton, and The Baton Rouge Interviews, by Kate M. Cooper. Three more volumes are in preparation : Mémoires des esclavages, La Cohée de Lamentin and Philosophie de la relation. In this interview, the series editors discuss the translation of Glissant’s later works and the importance of sharing his thought with wider, Anglophone audiences.
Charles Forsdick: Alexandre, the first three titles in the series represent the culmination of many years’ work on your part. You launched the Glissant Translation Project at Louisiana State University and have led activity this through digital networking as well as via a series of important symposia. Liverpool University Press was delighted to become a partner in this initiative, but can you tell us about the origins of the project? What were your intentions in setting it up and what did you hope to achieve?
Alexandre Leupin: Working over the years on Édouard Glissant’s corpus, I became strongly convinced that his thought, as represented in the multiplicity of literary genres he practiced and mixed, was an original contribution to philosophy. As such, the essays deserved translation, since powerful ideas can be disseminated through different languages while preserving their strength, this despite the well-known obstacles and difficulties of reconstruing them from one language to the other.
In addition, Glissant was not very accessible to an anglophone public, the only translations available being Poetic Intention and Poetics of Relation (and more recently Sun of Consciousness), and a partial rendition of The Caribbean Discourse. By the way, this may have cost him the Nobel Prize, since the jurors are more attuned to English than to French. During the last few years, I have given several seminars on Glissant in English, but the scarcity of translations was always a major hindrance.
Imagine then my joy when you became co-director and LUP accepted to host the project of a dedicated series of Édouard Glissant’s essays. The fact that we have almost completed the project in the space of four short years will remain one of the greatest satisfactions of my long career.
CF: These first three volumes will present aspects of Glissant’s work that will perhaps be unfamiliar to those who have only been able to read translations of his earlier work, notably those you have just mentioned: Caribbean Discourse, The Poetic Intention or Poetics of Relation. Why do you think it is so urgent to translate the more recent texts into English? What impact do you think these new translations will have on the new audiences we hope they will reach?
AL: Glissant’s thought is an ocean dotted by archipelagos. Before the LUP series, anglophone readers had access to small islands, one wave here and there, so it was urgent to give these readers a more global map.
More pressing still, in a Western world torn apart by identity politics and fast regressing to tribal exclusions, Glissant’s poetics of inclusion, of overcoming problems tied to the ghettos of fragmented thought, of surpassing the individual’s confinement and the limitations imposed on him by history good or bad, all this needs to be accessible to the vast anglophone readership. I say Western world because elsewhere, more often than in the West, the politics of tribal identity (sexual, racial, etc.) are enforced with a happy, unproblematic ferocity.
I am convinced that, when he remaps the Relation of everything to everything, Glissant builds a unique wisdom about the most searing contemporary problems, a wisdom which we have only begun to explore. The Memories of Slaveries, which you are presently translating for the series, is an excellent example.
CF: Palestinian critic Edward Said described a ‘late style’, suggesting that works produced towards the end of an artist or writer’s life are not always neatly conclusive, but can prove to be more searching, unresolved and contradictory. The examples on which he draws are wide-ranging, from Beethoven through to Richard Strauss, from Jean Genet to Glenn Gould. The Glissant Translation Project aims to bring to wider attention the work of the last twenty years of Glissant’s career, from the final decade of the twentieth century and the opening decade of the twenty-first. For him, this was a period of great productivity, of restless political engagement in the areas of ecology, Caribbean autonomy and the memorialization of slavery. Why, in your view, are those final years such an important part of Glissant’s work?
AL: Glissant’s thinking is coherent from the very beginning to the end. The seeds of notions that will later blossom are already planted in his first works. His thought is also repetitive, as he himself admits. But reiteration is not a useless duplication, it is part of Glissant’s poetics and art of writing. Variations on a theme induce new directions, enrich the picture, detail one facet or another. Allow me to quote from the Treatise on the Whole World, which Celia Britton expertly translated for the series:
“We often used to privilege the practices of repetition, in an attempt to know or try to catch hold of the implicit or already obliterated meetings between the peoples in the world and in the histories of the world, but it is one of the principles of the Aesthetics of the Whole-World that no one ever utters the same words twice to form the same ideas, in this river of the world. So we utter infinitely imperceptible variants that act as a ferment and revealer of all repetition.” (TTM 161).
Hence, repetition is an agent for change, and a reader who wants to attain an accurate picture of Glissant’s thinking must consider all the variations, progressions, nuances in his entire work. The late essays thus play a crucial role in unveiling the ultimate stages of his reflection.
CF: One of the volumes we have just published, The Baton Rouge Interviews, consists of your own conversations with Édouard Glissant while he was a colleague of yours in Baton Rouge. Can you tell us about the circumstances that led to these exchanges, and say something also about Glissant’s time at Louisiana State University?
AL: When I met Glissant in 1988 in Paris, I had already mastered a certain amount of literature, criticism and philosophy. Yet here was this writer who uttered statements that I had never heard before, statements that did not succumb in any way to clichés. I was profoundly intrigued and fascinated. That led me to the project of the Interviews, to which Glissant was happy to respond, given his interest for the Middle Ages. The interviews themselves were one of the happiest moments of my life, a time of discovery and enrichment of my outlook and vision in all kinds of fields. The most beautiful praise I have received about this book is Patrick Chamoiseau’s: “You have made Glissant say things he had never said before.”
Glissant’s presence at LSU marks the years were the Department of French reached its acme. The Center for French and Francophone Studies and my department were a beehive of creative activity that gave us an extraordinary radiance and that made our lives as researchers and human beings truly meaningful. His resignation from Louisiana State University, to take up the post of Distinguished Professor of French at the CUNY Graduate Center, was a catastrophe, both personal and institutional.
CF: You are the author of a remarkable book, Glissant philosophe, soon to appear in English translation. It analyses your subject’s writing primarily as that of a philosopher, heavily influenced by European traditions but presenting diversity and interrelationships in radically new ways. Your range of reference is startlingly wide, going from writers with which many of us are familiar in the context of Glissant’s work, such as Deleuze and Guattari, but taking in also medieval thinkers unfamiliar to those of us who don’t work in that period. You describe the experience of writing this volume: “Pour écrire ce livre, j’ai dû me défaire et me refaire.” I like your reference to processes of unmaking and remaking – these seem central to any understanding of Glissant’s work. Could you explain his place in thinking on globalization and cross-cultural encounter, both in the past and in the present – and also how you think these new translations might influence thinking across these fields?
AL: Most philosophical references in the book are also Glissant’s, and, because of his formative years at the Sorbonne, he was familiar with the Middle Ages, a period that fascinated him: reading his work at a certain level calls for a broad culture. It also shows that his thinking is not a tabula rasa, where his notions would begin with him.
Now, about what led me to Édouard Glissant, philosophe: when he died in 2011, I was asked for articles and interviews and began to reread him. I quickly understood that I had not apprehended his thought, even if I had taped and edited the Baton Rouge Interviews; also, I noticed that his essays where full of philosophical notions that were familiar to me, and without which, in my opinion, a true interpretation of Glissant is not possible (this is not to ban any other possible approach). This prompted me to reread the entire corpus and extract the book from it.
The undoing and re-creating process I allude to is in fact an answer to the short poem “Sur l’imaginaire” he dedicated to me in 2002 and which I have had reproduced in the book. In the poem, Glissant prompts me to consider a non-systematic system. Thus, in order to write Édouard Glissant, philosophe, I had to get rid of a systematic thought I had always practiced, or at least correct its fictitious systemacity with the non-systematic powers of poetry.
When Sylvie Glissant read the book’s draft, she told me: “Édouard always knew that you would join him.” This caused some “Unheimlichkeit” in me; there was something uncanny about this quasi-prophetic statement. My uneasiness was reinforced by a sentence Édouard Glissant wrote for the blurb on the back cover of The Baton Rouge Interviews; he answers the question of why the Entretiens were published sixteen year after their taping: “Why? No doubt in order to give time to what each of us would still have to write and conceive, then and since then, in order to rejoin what we had so peacefully exchanged between us, outside of any limit.”
Édouard Glissant had seen something in me to which I was totally blind. Life gives us signs and chances; it is up to us to listen to them and seize the opportunities. I rejoined him, sadly, after his death: which means that his thinking is infinitely alive.
Finally, addressing the last part of your question, Charles, I would like to go back to Hegelian dialectics, which permeates a lot of what Glissant has done. We seem to be at a moment in history where no synthesis, even temporary, is possible (Glissant’s dialectics differ from Hegel’s in the sense that they remain forever opened to the unpredictability of the future, there are not an Absolute Knowledge which ends history and thought). In other words, theses and antitheses are today locked down in a non-dialogue. Glissant’s works are all about giving syntheses, that is, the open-ended fusion of opposites, a chance.
This is a profound and wise message our contemporaries would do well to heed.
For more information on the Glissant Translation Project, please visit our website.