The definition of a culture is convoluted; an amalgam of historical ambiance, traditions, and internalization of subconscious perceptions. Perhaps this complexity is what has made definition of Caribbean culture very challenging. While being governed by European aesthetic norms in a dominated colonized society, Caribbeans in Martinique often struggled to develop a concept of self; striving to free themselves, yet misguided in their approach. What resulted is a series of literary movements; each pertaining to the definition of Caribbean culture.
The authors of these movements developed unique perspectives about racism through the contexts of identity, psychology, linguistics and ideology. One such author is Mary-Magdeline Carbet, whose Point d’orgue, in 1958, showcased her native beliefs towards her Caribbean culture as well as her role of a woman in society through her poetry. Although her perspective in her poetry is vague; there are numerous undertones in her writing which are reflected in later works by Caribbean authors such as Franz Fanon and Jean Bernabe.
Although Carbet does not address all the contexts of Caribbean culture, her ambivalent poetic voice within her poems is one which is indicative and symbolic of dynamic definitions of culture in French Caribbean literature. This study will analyze the contexts of culture referenced in Carbet’s poems using perspectives from later works such as Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Bernabe’s “In Praise of Creoleness”. While the later works offers a more refined definition of Caribbean culture, there are subtle allusions to similar ideas within Carbet’s poetry.
Identity within “In Praise of Creoleness” is defined as “an interior attitude-better, a vigilance, or even better a sort of mental envelope” (Bernabe et al. 886). This definition proceeds with a distinct contrast to an “exteriority”, which represents a “quasity-complete acquisition of another identity”. In this respect, Bernabe delves into the concepts of identity from a cognitive and from an environmental perspective. This is associated with one which is foreign to the Caribbeans, emulating the French.
The distinct polarities of the “interior” and the “exterior” is described as “magnetized from opposite directions” to show that the divergence of Caribbean culture from the European traditions is required to attain true identity; which the authors refer to as “Creolism” (Bernabe et al. 887). This interpretation of identity is also reflected in Carbet’s “Would I Deny? ”. Within this work, Carbet has a strong sense of identification with her heritage. She expresses this through a set of rhetorical questions at the end of each stanza, affirming the characteristics of her homeland.
She describes physical characteristics which are reminiscent about her heritage such as “the whip of the wind”, the “smell”, the “blue velvet of the air” and the “rustling of the palms” (Hurley 58). Descriptions of “exteriority” of the island without expressing her emotional reactions to her homeland display a physical separation of the author from her homeland. The author also further describes French atmospheres such as the “sky of pale loves”. However, she confesses to herself that she has a certain “nostalgia”, which ultimately complicates her love for her island and thus her identity (59-60).
This poem presents the contrast of the exterior and the interior which Bernabe described as the determinant of confusion in the Caribbean identity. In “Would I Deny? ”, Carbet expresses this idea by representing alienation as a physical separation from her own identity. In the final two stanzas, the poet’s description of her Native land changes to one of underlying concern: “You want our laughter, our songs / Poignant or not, to give rhythm to your life” (59). She rejects the island, as her identity for her own fear of being rejected herself.
This is characteristic of Bernabe’s descriptions on the Creole identity, where feelings of alienation lead to a defensive, somewhat guilty feeling when Caribbean people attempt to embrace their own identity (Bernabe). Another pivotal concept in defining Caribbean culture is the underlying psyche of Caribbeans. In Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon analyzes the effects of a racist oppressive society on the psyche of a black man. Using personal anecdotes, Fanon presents an analysis to show that oppressive cultures, such as colonizing nations, often lead to repressed psychological health, such as the inferiority complex.
Caribbean people, amongst a French culture, often assimilated to the dominant ideological and linguistics in society, in an attempt to gain acceptance, “to speak means above to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (Fanon 17). However, Fanon also shows that assimilation often leads to a cognitive dissonance, when Black people are unable to identify with the “white masks” which they are wearing to gain acceptance. He discusses the “black-white relation” as a difference in direction “of dual narcissism and the motivations which inspire [them]” (9-10).
He presents an example which he shows the different interpretations of a Tarzan movie within the black and white psyche. The black man identifies with Tarzan, fighting oppression, while white man identifies the black man as one of the savages. This difference in potential internalization within the two races represents the distinction which Fanon believes, that all blacks need to realize in order to escape inferiority. In Carbet’s “Would I Deny? ” the poet faces a “dual narcissism” which Fanon described in the black psyche.
Although, she praises her homeland, her vulnerability from alienation, leads to a “masked” fear of rejection within her subconscious, leading to a psychological separation from her intimate relationship with her native land (Hurley 59). Likewise, in “Transplant”, Carbet alludes to Fanon’s “black-white relation” showing incompatibility of a black heart to a white man. The psychological dissimilation of the black psyche with the white masks which Fanon referred to in his novel is represented in the poem through the rejection of the transplant (Hurley 97). To transplant a negro heart into all those/ Whose disgrace it is not to have one. ” (98). The physical rejection represents a moral rejection of the black man to the white attitudes. This rejection marks an awakening and a sense of retribution for the black man (Ormerod). Gender associations within the Caribbean culture definition were also strongly associated with concept of colonization. Predecessors of Bernabe such as Eduoard Glissant and Edward Said argued that colonized cultures were often “feminized” by developing the inferior culture as “submissive, pleasure-giving, accommodating and, ultimately, screwed” (de Lauretis 54).
This association was based on a position of a heterosexual male, whose ideology was that feminine characteristics represented weakness and vulnerability. This sort of ideology asserts two arguments: the inferiority of women and the inferiority of subordinate cultures by being described as feminine. However, Patrick Chamoiseau often refuted these “masculine” concepts through the development of strong feminine characters in his fictional works. Female characters are often “forceful subjects of social and political action” (Ormerod).
In Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows, Marquerite Jupiter, the female protagonist is associated with “sexual and personal autonomy” (de Lauretis 55). The descriptions of predatory males within his novels also represent the idea that colonization was a concept which was considered to be “masculine”. In his manifesto, “In praise of Creoleness”, the lack of descriptions of a clear sexuality, male or female, in defining Creoleness represents his indifference towards gender as a characteristic of Caribbean culture.
Rather, he focuses on the concept of a “whole-world”, one which unites races, ethnicities, and gender to create a stable Caribbean identity (Bernabe et al. 888). The strength of feminism as a symbol of Caribbean freedom from colonization, and sexual oppression in Chamoiseau’s works is also present within Carbet’s poetry. Although she expresses numerous connections with the Caribbean, she also presents responses to personal experiences as a woman, which represent her ideology towards gender in the Caribbean society.
In “Torment”, Carbet celebrates the “painful pleasure of a sexual encounter,” one which represents her intense associations with feminism (Hurley 67). She presents a feminine perspective with ambigious sexual partners to represent diversity in the feminine sexuality, one which is free from racial, political and social constraints. These sensual descriptions are shown by using elements such as “flowers of joy,” and represents freedom through celebration of “a burning delightful torment” (68).
This uninhibited description shows great bravery on behalf of the poet, and an evolution from descriptions of women in a Western tradition in Romanticism where women were considered to be suffered and repressed (69). From an ideological standpoint, sexual freedom described in the poem is one which is indicative of Carbet’s description of feminism in Caribbean culture of the late twentieth century. The feminism which Carbet alludes to has a dual meaning: the freedom of oppressed cultures like her native land, and the freedom of women from a sexually-biased society.
Her perceptions of women foreshadow the thoughts of writers such as Chamoiseau, who viewed Caribbean culture as unisexual. Linguistics is another component of cultural definition which has been present in Caribbean literature. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argues that language is a tool of power and objectification of the black identity. This concept was further exemplified in “In Praise of Creoleness” when Bernabe defined the Caribbean culture through the concept of Creoleness.
Linguistics in Caribbean literature has been interpreted numerous times, often from the lack of a constant identity. In 1939, Aime Cesaire denounced French cultural dominance and emphasized the African diaspora, often referred to as “negritude” (Ormerod). However, to Caribbean intellectuals of later generations, Africans only represented a common oppressed people. However, their customs, religions and national origin were different from that of Caribbeans. Post-negritude generations found, that linguistically, the views of Cesaire were too restricted.
To Edouard Glissant, an influential Martinican writer, the “Caribbean consciousness needed a change in direction” (Ormerod). He argued that the racial affiliation with Africa was not able to compensate for the idea of “Antillante” (Caribbeanness). Influenced by this notion, Martinicans such as Bernabe , Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant developed a literary movement through the definition of Creoleness. Their description of Antillante, focused on culture through a discrete definition of language.
In “In praise of Creoleness” they criticized negritism for “worsening [this] identity instability” by a “fascination of foreign things” which further alienated Caribbeans into “self-withdrawal, mimetism,” leading to further alienation (Bernabe et al. 889). The essential definition of Caribbean identity required an “interior vision”. This involves the conversion of “raciological distinctions” described by negritude to one which encompassed “a new cultural design”, which is representative of the diverse cultural aspects of Caribbean history.
The Creole language, which is ascribed to as a multiracial Caribbean language by Bernabe, was the vehicle which these authors used to define the Caribbean culture. In Carbet’s poems, this perception of Caribbean culture through a language description is absent. Perhaps this omission to any linguistic references represented Carbet’s own ambivalence towards Caribbean language. Although she alludes to references of French language as well as those which are native to her own heritage, she does not make the “primordial soup”, which Bernabe describes the Creole language to be.
The conjunction of these necessary languages, which was asserted by writers of the late 20th century is undefined in her work. Her focus, rather, is to show that incongruity, from a linguistic perspective, is one which needed definition in order to develop a stable Caribbean identity. Caribbean culture has long been analyzed from various contexts. Although, the definition of a culture is not restricted to identity, psychology, ideology, and linguistics, these contexts provide a basis for analytical methods to describe the evolution of cultural definitions.
In Carbet’s Point d’orgue, these contexts are addressed to delve into some of the difficulties of defining Caribbean culture. Within her poetry, there are subtle allusions to problems which limited Caribbeans from freeing themselves from an oppressed environment of the Europeans. Although, she omits linguistics in her analysis of Caribbean culture, she presents valuable insight into a perspective from one with an unknown identity. Her descriptions of exteriorities of her heritage represent the struggles of Caribbeans to define their own identity.
Meanwhile, her psychological separation from her heritage represents the subconscious feelings of inferiority which many Caribbeans also faced after generations of European dominance. Likewise, her ideological emphasis on feminine empowerment is symbolic of colonial freedom. While her tone is ambivalent throughout her poetry, her subtle anecdotes reflect ideas which are foreshadowed in later literary works written by Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks and by Bernabe in “In Praise of Creoleness”.
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