Jacques Stephen Alexis is better known as the pioneer of Haitian marvellous realism than as an early contributor to today’s vast body of theory on world literature. And yet, in his two most important essays published in Présence Africaine, Alexis outlines an original concept of world literature from his perspective as a twentieth-century Haitian political activist and author. In ‘Du réalisme merveilleux des haïtiens’ (1956) and ‘Où va le roman?’ (1957), Alexis gives specific guidelines on how to contribute to humanity’s progress, which he believes is the prerogative of anyone who wishes to forge their way into the world literary system.2 Addressing both Haitian and black writers around the world, Alexis writes: ‘L’histoire nous offre une chance de contribuer à la marche en avant de l’humanité, de devenir des coryphées, d’utiliser tout un aspect de l’humain qui a été négligé, sous-estimé et s’est sérieusement atrophié dans les vieilles cultures d’Occident’.3 This reveals Alexis’s revolutionary vision for Haitian literature: it can become world literature by reimagining a way of being human that has historically been neglected or atrophied in the West. In this article, I examine Alexis’s two Présence Africaine essays in light of francophone postcolonial criticism and recent scholarship on world literature and, in doing so, I identify a dual mandate in Alexis’s critical thought. On the one hand, he develops a notion of world or universal literature from outside Europe and, on the other, he redraws the equally Eurocentric lines of what he sees as a restrictive and racialized category of ‘the human’. I argue that attention to these two aspects is crucial to gaining a better understanding of Alexis’s writing on marvellous realism.
Alexis concludes ‘Où va le roman?’ by explaining that Haitian writers cannot achieve their goals without international solidarity:
[D]ans la conjoncture historique actuelle, c’est d’abord avec le roman des peuples noirs et d’Amérique latine que le roman haïtien a une fraternité de combat. Tant que le racisme et l’impérialisme n’auront pas été définitivement liquidés sur la planète, les peuples noirs, les peuples de couleur et les peuples sous-développés devront se tenir fermement les mains. Faisons notre Bandoeng littéraire!4
As a Caribbean writing in French, Alexis’s injunction ‘Faisons notre Bandoeng littéraire!’ is directed at fellow writers from the Caribbean, as well as writers in Africa and the diaspora. Rather than suggesting a special affinity with French metropolitan literary practices on the basis of a shared language, Alexis claims that the Haitian novel primarily joins ranks with its black and Latin American counterparts in the same ‘fraternité de combat’. There is little doubt that readers of the prominent Paris-based journal of black letters Présence Africaine would have been sympathetic to his call for a broader conception of literary production, one that is international in scope and takes into account voices from the margins of a Western-dominated global socio-economic system. In closing this essay, Alexis references the first large-scale Afro-Asian conference held two years prior in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia, to bring together non-aligned nations opposed to colonialism in order to discuss economic, political, and cultural cooperation. By invoking the spirit of Bandung as a model for ‘Third World’ solidarity for black and colonized people across the globe, Alexis also shows how his conception of the human in literature depends on thinking transnationally.
Although this second essay is often overlooked by scholars, it is a crucial extension of Alexis’s ‘Du réalisme merveilleux des haïtiens’, in which he first theorizes ‘réalisme merveilleux’ or marvellous realism as an aesthetic mode for simultaneously representing the totality of Haitian social experience and politically transforming it. As I show in this article, Alexian marvellous realism draws inspiration from wide-ranging cultural and political discourses across the Atlantic world. Within Haiti, Alexis builds on the nation’s tradition of universalist thought that goes at least as far back as the 1804 Revolution. In this regard, scholarship by J. Michael Dash, Martin Munro, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, among others, has helpfully illustrated the persistence of universalist discourses of emancipation in Haitian culture and politics throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.5 I also explore Alexis’s most significant transnational ideological influences – namely Marxist and anti-colonial humanism, with which he first engaged in Port-au-Prince, and later within the community of African and diasporic artists and intellectuals based in Paris.
My contention in this article is that these Caribbean and black intellectual traditions converged in Alexis’s thought and provided him with the requisite vocabulary not only to critique European ideas of world literature and the human, but also to offer his own radically contingent and alternative redefinitions. In the first part of the article, my close reading of Alexis’s 1956 and ’57 essays on marvellous realism recovers his observations on Haitian literary production in a global framework and relates them to the overarching project of finding new, distinctly non-Western narrative strategies for human representation. Next, I discuss Alexis alongside contemporary theories of world literature and francophone postcolonial criticism, including the issues surrounding the 2007 manifesto ‘Pour une littérature-monde en français’ and its debt to Caribbean cultural theory. Finally, I examine Alexis alongside the anti-colonial humanists Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, who were similarly engaged in the political and aesthetic project of redefining humanity after decolonization.
Legacy of the marvellous
Jacques Stephen Alexis was born in 1922 in Gonaïves, Haiti, and began his studies in Port-au-Prince where he co-founded the left-wing journal La Ruche with René Depestre and other students. From an early stage communism was very influential on Alexis and he took an active role in the strike that led to the overthrow of Élie Lescot’s government in 1946. Later that year, Alexis left for Paris to study medicine on a government scholarship and he remained there until 1957. While in Paris, Alexis met left-wing writers and activists from around the world and made friends with prominent black intellectuals like Césaire, Fanon, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who all became important interlocutors. Despite his short literary career, Alexis earned a place in the canon of Haitian letters with the three novels Compère Général Soleil (1955), Les Arbres musiciens (1957), and L’Espace d’un cillement (1959) and a collection of short stories Romancero aux étoiles (1960), all published by Gallimard, making him the first Haitian to be published by the prestigious Parisian press. Political activism remained an essential part of Alexis’s life, taking him on trips to the USSR, China, and Cuba before his untimely death in 1961 during an unsuccessful uprising against the totalitarian Duvalier regime.
‘Du réalisme merveilleux des haïtiens’ was originally presented at the Premier Congrès International des Écrivains et Artistes Noirs held at the Sorbonne in 1956, then printed in Présence Africaine and followed a year later by ‘Où va le roman?’ in the same journal. Taken together, these essays theorize a localized variety of social realism that takes into account ordinary Haitians’ quotidian practices of incorporating elements of the marvellous, the miraculous, and the mythical. Alexian marvellous realism combines cultural nationalism with a regionalist point of view, casting the Caribbean as a nexus of multiple, global cultures (African, European, and indigenous), the result of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism.
Marvellous realism, like its more popular English homologue magical realism, is understood by many critics as the postcolonial literary mode par excellence, identifiable as much by its hybridity and polyvocality as by its staging of oppositional discursive systems of realism and fantasy.6 The transgressive potential of marvellous realism is also worth noting because, in Wendy Faris’s words, it constitutes ‘a powerful decolonizing mode’.7 Alexis was very much concerned with this political imperative, which sets him apart from Alejo Carpentier and his earlier instantiation of ‘lo real maravilloso’. Already in 1949, the Cuban writer Carpentier, inspired by André Breton and the European surrealists, used the Spanish term in the preface to his novel El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World) to describe the re-creation of the aesthetic world view of the Latin American other.8 While the apolitical Carpentier presents an essentialist view of the unexpected richness of Latin American reality, Alexis’s marvellous realism recognizes both its own historical specificity and its capacity to transform Haiti.9
Rather than seeking to arbitrate the regional variants of marvellous realism, my reading of Alexis seeks to understand the Haitian author’s attempt to position his national literature in the realm of what he referred to as human or universal culture. He makes this aim clear in the following lines:
Pour se résumer le Réalisme Merveilleux se propose:
1e – de chanter les beautés de la patrie haïtienne, ses grandeurs comme ses misères, avec le sens des perspectives grandioses que lui donnent les luttes de son peuple et la solidarité avec tous les hommes; atteindre ainsi à l’humain, à l’universel et [à] la vérité profonde de la vie.10
This quotation brings to light some of the abiding questions in Alexis’s commentary on Haitian literature: how does the act of ‘chanter les beautés de la patrie haïtienne’ enable ‘solidarité avec tous les hommes’? And how does marvellous realism help Haitian authors reach for ‘l’humain’ and ‘l’universel’? We could add here the latent question that will come into focus in the present article: how does an ostensibly peripheral national literary tradition interact with its dominant counterparts in the global literary arena?
In ‘Du réalisme merveilleux des haïtiens’, Alexis simultaneously points to the unique status of the Haitian subjectivity and aesthetic while highlighting a shared and equal global humanity. He urges Haitian writers to renounce the inheritance of French bourgeois expressive forms that are ill-suited to conveying ‘le sens du vrai, du beau, et de l’humain’ in the Caribbean.11 He casts doubt on the ability of a few elitist works of literature to capture an entire nation’s ‘originalité et l’humanité générale de son apport culturel’.12 Rather, Alexis champions the use of popular and local forms that stem from lived experience: ‘Pour nous, une œuvre de culture est une somme qui témoigne pour des humains’.13 Further on in the essay, Alexis explains what this kind of bearing witness for humans means for novelists by suggesting that incorporation of the marvellous into everyday life requires fully exercising the human senses:
les populations sous-développées du monde ayant vécu encore récemment en pleine nature ont été obligées pendant des siècles d’aiguiser particulièrement leurs yeux, leur ouïe, leur toucher […] il est indiscutable, qu’elles ont une sensibilité d’une vivacité particulière.14
Alexis’s argument rests on the romantic notion that the lifestyle and working conditions of Haitian peasants have given them a singularly sensuous relationship to reality, a phenomenon that artists and writers ought to exploit in order to produce works of art marked with Haitian authenticity. Also embedded here is the fetishist belief that Haitian peasants are valuable to the collective cultural memory because they are less Westernized and less alienated (from themselves, from their essence). In identifying the primitive narrative forms of the peasant majority as the locus of cultural authenticity, Alexis closely follows Jean Price-Mars’s influential ethnographic work on Haitian folklore. Price-Mars’s book Ainsi parla l’oncle (1928) led the indigéniste movement’s celebration of the culture of the rural and working-class masses. While the first outline of Alexis’s marvellous realism mimics Indigénisme’s cultural nationalism, in his second essay ‘Où va le roman?’ he shifts his concept into a more international political framework. Throughout the two essays, Alexis retains the vaguely defined indigéniste idea of performing cultural authenticity in art.
Published under the rubric of a ‘Débat autour des conditions d’un roman national chez les peuples noirs’, ‘Où va le roman?’ marks a major point of distinction from Carpentier’s largely apolitical theory.15 Here, Alexis tailors his earlier comments on marvellous realism to the black novel, insisting that that genre should ‘dénoncer l’aliénation raciste, colonialiste, impérialiste’.16 Fused with Marxist ideology, the realism proposed here is not merely descriptive but should be politically transformative, ‘une action au service de l’homme, une contribution à la marche en avant’.17 The essay makes some firm aesthetic prescriptions for Haitian and black writers, reprising the rejection of ‘le roman d’esthètes constipés, le roman inverti, faussement intellectualiste, anémique et décadent qui constitue le plus clair de la production romanesque de l’Occident bourgeois’.18 In an echo of the négritudistes Senghor and Césaire, Alexis invites Haitian novelists to replace ‘la forme esthétique du roman français […] linéaire, sobre, cartésienne’ with an authentic and local aesthetic that is ‘vaudouesque, tambourinaire, chantée, et dansée […] une forme ramifiée, rigoureuse, dans son désordre comme les beaux arbres de nos forêts, chaotique comme la conscience haïtienne contemporaine, contradictoire, poétique, violente’.19 Following Alexis’s logic, marvellous realism designates for writers an opportunity to represent an alternative mode of human relationality to the restrictive European standpoint and therefore to ‘fertiliser l’art mondial d’une manière originale’.20 In other words, Alexis’s project of stylistic and formal innovation opens up an emancipatory political horizon, for it allows Haitians to reclaim the humanity denied to them through European colonial discourse.
In the interwar period, poetry in Haiti rose to prominence and – like the Harlem Renaissance, Négritude, and other movements abroad – it became an artistic tool for denouncing US and European imperialism. However, by the time Alexis was writing in the 1950s, the novel was increasingly the form of choice for staging and demanding political transformation.21 With his novel Gouverneurs de la rosée (1944), the founder of the Haitian Communist Party Jacques Roumain inaugurated the roman paysan, a genre that focuses on the reality of rural life, not the bourgeois values of the Francophile urban elite that had previously dominated the Haitian novel.22 Like Roumain’s hugely popular text, Alexis’s novels centre around peasant and proletarian protagonists, such as La Niña Estrellita and El Caucho in L’Espace d’un cillement, Gonaibo in Les Arbres musiciens, and Hilarius Hilarion in Compère Général Soleil, who is described as a kind of national emblem and Haiti’s truest version of itself: ‘Un vrai visage d’Haïti, mais aussi un visage de partout, le visage des petites gens de toute la terre’.23
The humanist commitment behind Alexis’s marvellous realism is of course revealed in all his own fiction. As Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi explains, ‘chez Alexis, l’engagement idéologique est prétexte à l’intrigue; c’est lui qui soutient l’intrigue, souvent insignifiante’.24 Indeed, in all cases the plot is subordinate to the decision to set the story in a specific political context. For instance, Les Arbres musiciens explores the campagne anti-superstitieuse led by the Catholic Church against Vodou followers between 1939 and 1942, while Compère Général Soleil is concerned with the plight of both rural and urban manual labourers, with Trujillo’s 1937 massacre of Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic serving as the narrative climax. Foregrounding popular subjectivity in specific historical cadres, Alexis’s own marvellous realist fiction divests from the novel’s presumed élite positionality and invites the reader to think about who occupies the place of the human. Notable among the stylistic strategies Alexis himself uses is the entanglement of sensorial descriptions of the human body with images of the natural world. Nowhere is this juxtaposition of human and non-human subjectivities more evident than in his début novel. In Compère Général Soleil, the marvellous is registered primarily in the personification of the eponymous sun, the town Port-au-Prince, the Artibonite river, the night, the wind, the forest, the landscape, and so on – all of which take on the role of ‘characters’ in the panoramic view of Haitian society from below.25
Alexis’s own use of the marvellous realist mode has enjoyed international acclaim, as indicated by the re-edition and translation of his fiction into 11 different languages.26 However, Alexis’s essays have been sharply criticized, most recently by contemporary Haitian author Jean-Claude Fignolé. Fignolé dismisses their ‘style pompier, la rhétorique pompeuse, cocardière’, suggesting that leftist dogma eclipses the value of his aesthetic theory: ‘à la recherché d’une esthétique nouvelle, Jacques Stéphen ne se garde pas d’être militant, ne s’empêche pas d’être idéologue de gauche, ne se prive pas d’être victime d’une culture peut-être mal digérée’.27 Fignolé interrogates the logic of marvellous realism, arguing that the two composite terms are mutually exclusive and that, in general, the concept relies too heavily on an unwitting reduction of all Haitian popular beliefs to a romanticized view of Vodou. He goes on to satirize Alexis’s radical outlook: ‘l’engagement idéologique et révolutionnaire conditionne sa vision du héros positif, solidaire, de la lutte de tous les exploités, nouveau modèle d’homme qui, lui aussi, lorgne vers l’universel. Révolution mondiale oblige’.28 Although Fignolé falls short of recognizing the critical purchase of creating a ‘nouveau modèle d’homme’, he does finally point to a central contradiction in Alexis that I wish to exploit. Fignolé rejects Alexian marvellous realism because it confines Haitian literature – and, by extension, Haitian social experience and ontology – to otherness: ‘Pourquoi alors, à tentation d’invention similaire ou presque, nous laisse-t-on le réalisme merveilleux comme droit et raison de nous installer dans une différence à seule fin de nous persuader que nous sommes autres’.29 Indeed, this reflection forms the crux of critiques regularly made of the supposedly emancipatory possibilities of a marvellous realism underpinned by alterity.30 How, then, does Alexis, as a writer using the French language, distinguish himself from metropolitan French literature without trapping himself in an exoticizing framework? For Fignolé, Alexis’s apparently incongruous decision to package himself as ‘the postcolonial exotic’, to borrow Graham Huggan’s term, is made in the name of a nostalgic authenticity and primitivism.31 In order to understand this accusation levelled by Fignolé and to evaluate Alexis’s strategic mobilization of racial, national, and cultural differences, I will now frame the discussion in the terms of contemporary world literary criticism and provide some further historical context on worldly and humanistic thought in Haiti and the Caribbean more broadly.
Haitian and francophone Caribbean perspectives on world literature
With the explosion of academic interest in world literature as a methodological and critical concept in recent years, theorists have come up with a range of geospatial configurations for reading literature, proposing qualifiers such as world, planetary, and hemispheric. The most commonly rehearsed trajectory of the term ‘world literature’ is firmly within a Eurocentric framework. David Damrosch’s emblematic account traces the German term Weltliteratur, coined by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1827, followed shortly after by a brief allusion in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s 1848 Communist Manifesto, to the famous 1952 essay ‘Philology and Weltliteratur’ by one of the founders of modern comparative literary studies, Erich Auerbach.32 Damrosch’s definition of world literature as ‘not a set of texts but a mode of reading: a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our own place and time’ indicates the renewal of interest in studying the global circulation of texts beyond their original cultural milieus.33
The extant theories of world literature that highlight the ways in which literature figures imaginative cartographies and alters perceptions of geopolitical space are an indication of the reach of Emmanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory.34 Wallerstein’s social scientific approach draws on modernization theory and has been instrumental in accounting for Western hegemony of global literary culture, though the dialectic centre-periphery structure does limit how we conceive of ideas that move within the margins. Examples of this approach include Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading and Pascale Casanova’s La République mondiale des lettres.35 For her part, Casanova draws on Bourdieu’s sociological analysis of the literary field and relies heavily on geospatial thinking in her identification of Paris as the literary ‘capital’ of the world, the centre through which all great writers aspire to and are obliged to enter in order to achieve economic and cultural legitimation.
In a different vein of inquiry, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak eloquently addresses the many levels of the problem that world literature presents – including translation, canonicity, and pedagogy – and ultimately demands a critical assessment of Western humanism’s role in literary studies:
Insofar as Comparative Literature remains part of the Euro-US cultural dominant, it shares another sort of fear, the fear of undecidability in the subject of humanism. Who slips into the place of the ‘human’ of ‘humanism’ at the end of the day?36
Spivak’s comments on comparative literature could easily apply to world literature. The two approaches to studying literature across boundaries (national, ethnic, linguistic, and so on) diverge at times, most notably on the importance of reading in the original language. However, they have at least one common root in humanism – the subject which Spivak invites us to scrutinize. No less a figure than Edward Said, the critic whose work helped inaugurate postcolonial and world literary theory, dedicated much of his career to studying the Western humanistic tradition. Said’s work brought to light the epistemologies of Orientalism and empire entrenched in Western humanism, but he remained committed to a new ethics of humanist reading practices.37 More recently, Amir Mufti has built on Said’s work in his book Forget English! Mufti evaluates the dominance of English in short-sighted contemporary discourses on world literature and reminds us of the phenomenon’s dubious origins and complicity with ‘the structures of colonial power and in particular the revolution in knowledge practices and humanistic culture more broadly initiated by Orientalist philology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries’.38
In the French-speaking world, the most ambitious intervention in recent years has come from outside the academy, from a group of authors in the form of a manifesto titled ‘Pour une littérature-monde en français’. The short text first appeared in Le Monde newspaper in 2007, proudly declaring, ‘le centre, ce point depuis lequel était supposée rayonner une littérature franco-française n’est plus le centre’.39 Written by Michel Le Bris and Jean Rouaud with 42 co-signatories from around the French-speaking world, the manifesto expressed frustration with ‘francophonie’, a term they deemed redundant, fraught with imperial overtones, and inconsistent with the recent successes of non-metropolitan writers in the 2007 season’s literary prizes as proof of the emergence of ‘une littérature-monde en langue française consciemment affirmée, ouverte sur le monde, transnationale’.40 Although the authors of the manifesto were eager to call out francophonie as ‘le dernier avatar du colonialisme’, they did not fully reckon with the implications of a literary prize system run by metropolitan arbiters.41 They rather hoped that France’s equalizing embrace of polyphonic writing in French from multiple continents might evacuate inequality: ‘le temps nous paraît venu d’une renaissance, d’un dialogue dans un vaste ensemble polyphonique, sans souci d’on ne sait quel combat pour ou contre la prééminence de telle ou telle langue, ou d’un quelconque “impérialisme culturel”’.42
While the manifesto was received with a great deal of criticism, with some commentators dismissing it as a publicity stunt and citing the absence of philosophical rigour and historical awareness, the littérature-monde project stimulated a substantial public and academic debate about publishing and reading practices in French.43 Numerous scholars, including Dominique Combe, Lydie Moudileno, and Eric Prieto, have pointed to the manifesto’s debt to Caribbean cultural theory.44 Edouard Glissant, one of the distinguished co-signers, had already dedicated most of his extensive career to thinking through the issues raised in the manifesto. Although Glissant attended the 1956 Congress and started writing around the same time as Alexis, it wasn’t until much later that he published Poétique de la Relation (1990), his celebrated poetic theory of multiple cultures in contact modelled on the Caribbean.45
To be sure, Caribbean literature has long portrayed the region as a fertile site for rethinking binaries such as local/global, centre/periphery, or colonizer/colonized. In Keithley Woolward’s words, Caribbean literature, with its ‘critical practice of exploring the cultural diversity, syncretism, and instability of the local translocally’, can serve as a compelling ‘design’ for world literature.46 Writers from Haiti in particular, in the two centuries since gaining formal independence from French colonial rule, have consistently situated the nation in an international framework and looked beyond their borders to self-define. This was not always by choice. Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo argues that the black cosmopolitan outlook which many adopted in the wake of the 1804 Revolution was not voluntary but a necessary response to the experience of dehumanization in political power structures.47 It follows that much of Haitian literature, as Martin Munro convincingly argues, with its emphasis on ‘the humanity and worldliness of Haiti and its people’, anticipates many aspects of littérature-monde and theorists such as Glissant.48 Munro goes on to say that ‘Haiti and its authors were worldly phenomena, of their time, and intimately connected to the wider world, and in particular to the broader emancipatory movements that continued to rumble throughout the nineteenth century’.49
These values endured in the first half of the twentieth century and, along with the US Occupation of Haiti between 1915–34, shaped the literature written in this period. As a direct result of the military occupation, there was a rise in cultural nationalism, as seen in the Indigénisme movement of the 1920s and ’30s. But for many writers, such as those publishing in La Revue indigène as Chelsea Stieber explains, this stance was deliberately combined with cosmopolitanism.50 In the wake of the US Occupation, the gathering momentum of African decolonization movements as well as the growth of the Communist International meant that radical Haitian writers continued to look outward for solidarity with their national political projects.51 Dash notes that the ‘1946 generation’, the group of young Haitians including Alexis who helped overthrow the Lescot government, was increasingly determined to push local ideological and literary issues into an international context.52 Alexis’s contemporary Depestre, a fellow writer and communist organizer, recalls how profoundly Alexis was affected by the direct action they took to remove the traditional mulatto élite from power: ‘C’est à partir de ces journées de lutte, chaudes de fraternité virile, belles de violence fécondante dans les rues, que commença la mue qui allait rattacher le talent, la vitalité, l’élan de créativité d’Alexis au nombril de la Révolution’.53 So by the mid-1950s, Alexis was writing at a historical juncture defined by disappointment with the Haitian political leaders who came after the 1946 rebellion. Disappointment turned to despair in 1957 when – in the same year that Alexis moved back to Haiti and published ‘Où va le roman?’ – François Duvalier was elected president in Haiti on the back of a noiriste campaign. Although Noirisme previously shared Indigénisme’s cultural authenticity, Duvalier rapidly perverted the ideology, making it synonymous with his state totalitarianism. Alexis – who was acutely aware that Duvalier had hijacked black nationalism and that Noirisme now represented the new openly fascist regime – founded the Marxist Parti de l’Entente Populaire (PEP) in 1959 but was forced to flee the country shortly after due to a crackdown on communism.
Given that the universalist ideals of both 1804 and 1946 were seriously under threat in the national political sphere in Haiti at this time, it is understandable that Alexis maintained an internationalist literary and political outlook. Indeed, towards the beginning of ‘Où va le roman?’, Alexis makes an assertion that sets up the tension between the national and the global: ‘Naturellement pour tous les romanciers de notre temps, le public romanesque n’est plus un public strictement national, il tend à s’élargir et devient un public international’.54 Although elsewhere Alexis insists on the by now self-evident idea of the Caribbean, with its multiple cultural affiliations, as a globally interconnected zone, in this instance he is making another interesting point. The mid-twentieth-century reading public is, for Alexis, not bound by national borders. Instead, he delineates marvellous realism’s affiliation with social realism, proposing this mode as a transnational route of circulation. By strategically aligning his uniquely Haitian brand of realism with other realisms rooted in Latin American, the US, or the Soviet Union, Alexis forges his place in a worldwide constellation of canonical writers. Alexis strings together a list of authors who have inspired him, from pioneering Haitian novelists Frederic Marcelin, Fernand Hibbert, and Justin Lhérisson to the Brazilian Jorge Amado, the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias, the Peruvian Ciro Alegria, the Americans John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, as well as a host of Russian writers including Gorki, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. It is immediately obvious that the pantheon of world literature Alexis curates is inhabited exclusively by men. What is also striking is that Alexis makes no remarks on the linguistic difference of French, Spanish, Russian or other languages he cites. While Alexis believes that reading practices should not be defined by national boundaries, he does argue that writers – especially those outside the West – clamouring for admission to the realm of world literature can productively mobilize their national identity. Alexis records his own experience:
Plusieurs influences se sont exercées sur moi dont je voudrais rendre compte afin de montrer que pour un romancier de quelque race qu’il soit, l’expérience littéraire mondiale est une somme qu’il est désormais impossible de dissocier. Si les romanciers des peuples noirs ont des choses qui les rapprochent plus particulièrement, ils sont néanmoins solidaires de tout l’acquis de l’humanité comme de celui de leur culture nationale.55
Alexis carefully discerns national culture’s specificity in his elaboration of black writers’ contributions to a universal human culture. This outlook contrasts sharply with littérature-monde’s postnational and anti-essentialist principle of transcultural interaction. And yet, both reach abstractly for the universal. In making sense of this, it is useful to keep in mind Nwankwo’s reminder that cosmopolitan and national identities are not mutually exclusive but can be manipulated in order to access one from the other.
In his essays, Alexis continues to think through the possibility of an ethical cosmopolitanism rooted in national interests. He dismisses ‘les pseudo “mondialistes” de la culture’ and ‘romanciers qui après un ou deux livres prometteurs ont marqué le pas après avoir abandonné leur pays pour venir s’installer en Occident ou ailleurs […] et leur art devient chaque jour moins original, moins authentique’.56 Without mentioning any names, he goes on to describe the set of elitist and deracinated diasporic youth:
entre quelque Saint-Germain-des-Prés et quelque Boul-Mich’ [sic] de telle ou telle capitale occidentale, cette belle jeunesse intellectuelle, ardente, généreuse, capable de fortes et grandes choses, mais sans boussole, s’épuise dans les jeux intellectualistes, les pantalonnades pseudo-poétiques, la masturbation artistique et l’inversion de gout.57
This anxiety about national authenticity and the implications of commercial success in Paris resonates half a century later in littérature-monde. The 2007 project was premised on precisely the concern that minority writers are subsumed and flattened under the sign of francophonie governed by Paris. Jane Hiddleston has made a helpful set of reflections on the ostensibly ‘new’ humanism of littérature-monde and its unacknowledged debt to mid-twentieth-century predecessors. She argues that whereas the 2007 project fails to recognize ‘its potential complicity with the assimilatory forms of Eurocentric humanism that the writers of the littérature-monde movement set out to reject’, anti-colonial humanists such as Césaire, Fanon, and Senghor adopted a more revolutionary praxis and thought more rigorously about the distinction between the universal and the particular.58 As I turn the discussion to Alexis’s interlocutors in Paris, we shall see that Alexis is similarly cautious of the close proximity of European humanistic and literary norms to colonial practices. While he does not risk brandishing a single, commodifiable moniker for world literature, Alexis does repeatedly demand a more inclusive understanding of global writing practices untethered to coloniality. At the same time, Alexis takes a compromising view when he concedes the benefit of strategic self-essentialism – that is, to manipulate an identitarian claim in order to gain access to the world of world literature.
Alexis and anti-colonial humanism
In the longer view of Paris’s central role in black intellectual history, the charges pressed by Alexis against élite Left Bank cosmopolitans appear exaggerated or at least surprising.59 He was one of half a dozen official delegates from Haiti at the 1956 Congress organized by Présence Africaine, the premier post-war forum in Paris for discussing black liberation, and he certainly benefited from the intellectual crossovers at this landmark meeting. Alexis’s critical view of European humanism was closely aligned with some of the most famous black intellectuals in Paris at the time, such as Césaire, Fanon, and Senghor. As Hiddleston has shown in her book Decolonising the Intellectual, they were similarly struggling to find an idiom through which to reinvent both the ‘fraught place of the human’ and ‘the universalism that fuelled the destructive, failed policy of assimilation, as well as Third Republican colonial humanism, so that it c[ould] more convincingly accommodate the experiences of different cultural groups as they have been determined, and have determined themselves, through history’.60
The Martiniquan Césaire, as early as 1935 in the first issue of L’Etudiant noir, describes how the black youth ‘veut contribuer à la vie universelle, à l’humanisation de l’humanité’.61 Some 15 years later, in his Discours sur le colonialisme, Césaire extends this idea with a devastating critique of European humanism. We recognize the urgency of engaging in this project of ‘humanisation de l’humanité’ when we take into account the simple equation formulated by Césaire in the Discours: ‘colonisation = chosification’.62 He elaborates on the hypocrisy inherent in the French mission civilisatrice’s humanist ideals that in practice dehumanized the colonized: ‘jamais l’Occident, dans le temps même où il se gargarise le plus du mot, n’a été plus éloigné de pouvoir assumer les exigences d’un humanisme vrai, de pouvoir vivre l’humanisme vrai – l’humanisme à la mesure du monde’.63 It is possible, therefore, to read Césaire’s poetry as part of the same project of undoing the status of colonized ‘thing’ and reclaiming humanity. Additionally, his Négritude poetics allows him to reach for the universal. Doris L. Garraway, commenting on Césaire’s epic poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939), explains how his Négritude poetics transcended blackness in order to reach for a universal humanity: ‘Only a racial consciousness that is attuned to the historical construction of any and all blackness will enable the black man to imagine himself as human, thus demonstrating even more profoundly that Négritude is a humanism’.64
Although Césairean Négritude and Alexian marvellous realism employ similar tactics and claim to be a kind of humanism, they do have some significant differences. Alexis seldomly referenced Négritude and seemed to regard it with a degree of ambivalence born possibly of his caution in dealing with Noirisme at home in Haiti.65 Dash underlines the fact that whereas the proponents of Négritude Césaire and Senghor exploited the racial difference between Africa and Europe in their writing, Alexis’s marvellous realism ‘was based in Marxist notions of spiritual alienation created in capitalist society’.66 Capitalism, Alexis maintained, had debilitated the European imagination. But, in Haiti, the human imagination was still open to the supernatural and closely connected to nature and mythology. Likewise, colonialism devastated the dynamism of human subjectivity in the Caribbean.
Most crucially, the two shared the view that, for the colonized, literature is the space in which human self-actualization can happen. Whereas Césaire posits a humanism based on black essence and favoured poetic expression, the humanism behind Alexis’s marvellous realist novel is conceived in racial terms but also, significantly, combines national and regional consciousness. Alexis at once aligns himself with the global struggles against colonialism and is careful to emphasize the national specificity of his position in the international ranks of new humanists:
nous faisons partie d’une grande phalange, l’armée internationale des combattants d’un nouveau humanisme, mais nous restons ce que nous sommes, un bataillon haïtien; nous n’oublions pas le passe de luttes propres à notre peuple. Nous sommes attentifs à toutes les expériences de nos frères de partout, nous étudions leurs leçons mais nous ne renterons jamais les trésors légués par nos pères.67
Given Alexis’s investment in national culture in rethinking the human, he is perhaps more closely connected to Fanon, whose writing on the war of independence in Algeria interrogates revolutionary nationalism. In the conclusion of Les Damnés de la terre, Fanon famously calls on black and colonized people to reinvent a new man: ‘Pour l’Europe, pour nous-mêmes et pour l’humanité, camarades, il faut faire peau neuve, développer une pensée neuve, tenter de mettre sur pied un homme neuf’.68 Fanon’s anti-colonial humanism is also informed by a deep disappointment with the emptiness of French discursive gestures towards humanity’s progress that could barely conceal colonial injustices. Accordingly, he cautions against copying Europe and reproducing its false humanism: ‘Décidons de ne pas imiter l’Europe et bandons nos muscles et nos cerveaux dans une direction nouvelle. Tâchons d’inventer l’homme total que l’Europe a été incapable de faire triompher’.69 Having deconstructed the exclusionary conception of Western Man, Fanon suggests that decolonization brings with it the revolutionary freedom to conceive of humanity otherwise. The humanisms of both Martiniquan thinkers resonate strongly with Alexis’s call for a literature that pushes the imaginative horizon of the human. Indeed, they are all part of a moment of anti-colonial critique that Hiddleston has described as essential to reinventing the category of the human more generally.70
Fifty years on, there are echoes of Alexis and the anti-colonial humanists in contemporary scholarship, especially work by Sylvia Wynter that seeks to unsettle the dominant epistemological position of Western Man. Wynter explains that the present era is defined by a fundamental struggle
between the ongoing imperative securing the well-being of our present ethnoclass (i.e. Western bourgeois) conception of the human, Man, which overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself, and that of securing the well-being, and therefore the full cognitive and behavioural autonomy of the human species itself/ourselves.71
Wynter notes that race in particular powerfully constituted the parameters of humanity in the European colonial enterprise in the Americas, casting indigenous people and enslaved Africans as Europe’s irrational human others. As I have shown in this article, Alexis is preoccupied with unsettling precisely these colonial power structures that have over-represented Western Man. As part of his argumentative tactics, Alexis rhetorically monumentalizes the West and its placement of Western Man at the centre of literature in order to entreat its immediate demolition. In its stead should stand Haitian-style literature with its knack for a more capacious human representation.
In closing, I wish to consider a rare instance in Alexis’s writing in which he contemplates his training in medicine and suggests that his two professions are epistemically entangled:
Je ne suis jamais arrivé à établir de cloisonnement entre mon activité scientifique, mon travail de médecin, plus particulièrement ma découverte de neurologue et de psychiatre d’une part, et mon labeur, ma création de romancier d’autre part; j’ai le sentiment que mon activité s’exerce en un domaine unique: le domaine de l’humain. Pour tout dire, je crois que le roman peut être le premier champ de manœuvre où l’homme tentera de fondre tout son domaine spirituel, expérience vitale, savoir scientifique, sensibilité affective et artistique, en un ciel unique: la connaissance.72
By situating his work as neurologist and novelist in the same domain, ‘le domaine de l’humain’, Alexis makes clear the belief that his theory operates on multiple planes: the political, the scientific, the philosophical, and of course the aesthetic. The tension between discrete fields of knowledge which Alexis evokes here is interesting when we consider the inherently problematic figure of the human in Western epistemology, a figure that is at once saturated with and devoid of meaning. Recalling how Said, Spivak, and Mufti trouble the place of the human in world literary studies broadly conceived, it may be helpful to place them alongside Wynter’s provocation. Like Wynter, Alexis is concerned with ‘genres’ of humanness and is acutely aware of the complicity of colonial power in ordering knowledge and forms of human (and non-human) life.73 Moreover, in drawing a parallel between the field of biomedical science on the one hand and discursive or novelistic practices on the other, Alexis calls attention to the battle for global recognition and representation of ‘other’ modes of being human historically excluded by evolutionary theory and the pseudo-science of racial difference that justified colonial conquest.
Reading Alexian marvellous realism in the context of world literary history and the context of Marxist and anti-colonial humanism in the twentieth century, as I have attempted to do in this article, reveals the intimacy of the twin projects of rethinking the human and decolonizing world literature. Indeed, we get a very different sense of the Eurocentric genealogy of world literature when we insert a figure from marginal, Third World spaces, or what is more often called the Global South today. Alexis seeks in his literary theory to provide an intercultural model derived from his personal experience of forging a plural identity in the Caribbean: ‘nègre, latino-américain et haïtien jusqu’à la moelle des os, je suis le produit de plusieurs races et de plusieurs civilisations’.74 However, Alexis also argues that writers from (formerly) colonized parts of the world can productively make an identitarian claim in order to gain access to ‘l’expérience littéraire mondiale’ or ‘la culture humaine’. The strategic self-essentialism proposed by Alexis contrasts sharply with more recent theorizations of world literature, such as the utopian postnationalism of littérature-monde or the Glissantian view of intercultural relationality. It has been my contention throughout that the humanism behind Alexian marvellous realism recognizes the inherently uneven nature of humanity so long as it is structured by coloniality and that it proposes in response a novelistic mode capable of narrating more inclusive, plural, and dynamic modes of being human.