[work in progress]

opening gambit

All origin stories imply another origin: the origin of the tale. The setting was a small, chic office in the Place de la Sorbonne, belonging at the time to the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie. The year was 2008, and a small team of editors had gathered to plan an ambitious new edition of Aimé Césaire’s works.1 The debate hinged on the choice between a genetic or a critical approach. Only a handful of those in the room were familiar with the traditions of textual scholarship that gave meaning to that distinction. Among them was Pierre-Marc de Biasi, who among other accomplishments, was already known as a virtuoso of la critique génétique for his work on Flaubert. He was hesitant.

“You just can’t do good genetic critique without enough scraps of paper” he offered, suspicious of the 20th century, distracted from the history of colonial and anti-colonial archives—and I quote from memory, so he probably didn’t say that. “Yes you can!” I retorted, speaking out of turn and breaking ranks. “If you pay close attention to the material cues in a typescript, you can do it.” He wasn’t convinced, so we made a bet: 5 euros…


In one of those all-too-predictable ironies in the annals of literature, Aimé Césaire worked on Et les chiens se taisaient 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 In all the different versions that come down to us, published or unpublished, the central figure in the text is a rebel who refuses to compromise with the pretensions of power.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 his own 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 (p.28).

Out of the gate we should take Césaire at his word—the fib will become apparent soon enough. At the most basic level, the most important themes in his œuvre are already prefigured in the different versions of Et les chiens se taisaient available to us: anti-colonialism, rebellion/revolution, nègritude, words as weapons, and, of course, freedom and the Caribbean.

The unqualified freedom he assigns his text, though, raises immediate questions: Free in what sense? As in free verse? Free from censorship? From peer or generic pressures? When it slips off the record? All of the above? Free from embodiment, from medium? Certainly not. No text is. Aimé Césaire and the Broken Record is in the public domain; is a text free when it sheds its remix and access restrictions? Perhaps for Césaire in a different key, most definitely so for us now. Under what conditions can we grasp the co-incidence of freedom when its recovery and loss is the explicit subject of the tragic tale of Toussaint Louverture recounted in “…et les chiens se taisaient”—when the very word derives its modern sense from negating those conscripted by modernity and its archives?3 We should be careful here not to confuse the freedoms we yearn for with the freedom of texts. We run the risk in this co-incidence of conflating by allegory several different kinds of reparations, when perhaps we should proceed by strategic metonym to avoid the obverse mistake: to assume they are not related.

Juxtaposed to place in his answer, the freedom of the text spills into its opposite without replacing it: an anchored flight from place—fuga estática de la poesía. The vehemence of his response to Beloux sanctions in turn a reading of his works where the paradox becomes a source question: how can a text be both free and situated? Some might shrewdly build a holistic answer out of the notion, found in his early essay “Poésie et connaissance,” that poetic freedom is a miraculous weapon reconciling self and world to produce a richer truth than science. Such a commendable reading already bares the seeds of another answer, an answer contained in the “profound importance” of the text: freedom, as the fugitive virtue of a text, points to a source…

The nébuleuse, an astronomical soup of clashing dust particles and gases can be read as a metaphor for atelier, as workshop more than work, but also as that distant and diffuse source in need of return. The bewildering shift of Et les chiens se taisaient—particulate as dust and gas—from a situated historical tragedy on the Haitian Revolution (c. 1941 - 1943) to a highly iconoclastic lyrical oratorio hollowing the iconic rebel (1946), later re-situated for a larger market for books and stagings (1956), provides an exemplary case for exploring the tension between the freedom of text and the bind of place, and by extension, the genetic process that will situate the rest of Césaire’s work—and our own today.

A timeline of events surrounding the working and reworking of Et les chiens se taisaient shows two major clusters of intense activity, when the major textual transformations took place. The first period extends from c. 1941 to 1946. In these years, Césaire created the historical drama based on the Haitian Revolution4 that introduces the title “…et les chiens se taisaient.” In 1944 he begins to transform this work into the “oratorio lyrique5 that will represent its first published version as part of the poetry collection Les Armes miraculeuses (1946). In the second period, from 1954 to 1956, he develops the two other major versions of the work: the collaborative piece created with Janheinz Jahn, Und die Hunde schwiegen (1956), widely distributed and performed in Germany, and the “arrangement théâtral” published in Paris (1956). In a dizzying chain of textual events, these four major versions trace a journey from historical particularity to an oneiric universalism, and on to what we may be tempted to call a reconciliation of the two in the attempts to stage it at the height of the 1950’s anti-colonial movements.

Addressing particulars and universal aspirations in their storylines, the texts gathered under the rubric Et les chiens se taisaient were produced—and continue to be reproduced—under very peculiar circumstances. While these material traces may complicate our view of the work—or texts—any worthy attempt to find ourselves there, Wo Es war, in the crumbling flesh of archives and flash of circuitry, remains one of our most savvy hermeneutic gambits—a necessary component, perhaps, of our efforts to reshape and steward an anti-colonial past—to be with, not write about.

Aimé Ferdinand David Césaire—now canonized, pantheonized, just Césaire—had to navigate many different editorial waters before his texts opened to a world market for literature and ideas. His words are now carried in bytes crossing the oceans by submarine cable, often fragmented beyond repair in the password protected coffers of global finance. As expected, the drama of that emergence also bears the scars of these shifting situations. The freedom of a text is here as elsewhere tempered by the extent and make-up of the playing field—its genetic horizon… and our own.


  1. Now in print as Poésie, théâtre, essais et discours. The volume includes my own diplomatic edition of the typescript of “…… et les chiens se taisaient”. Most of the analysis in this chapter appeared first in that volume and on the first chapter of my dissertation↩︎

  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. I point here to David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. In this work Scott makes a convincing argument that the shift from the 1st edition to the 2nd edition of CLR James’ Black Jacobins carries a transition from anti-colonial romance to a salutary postcolonial tragedy due to a shift in James’ “horizon of expectation” (p.45). The concepts developed in Scott’s volume resurface in my own work in various ways. ↩︎

  4. For a narrative of how this text was discovered and a plot summary see my article “Découverte d’un tapuscrit d’Et les chiens se taisaient(Gil)↩︎

  5. Césaire describes the work this way in an interview with Claude Stevens, “Pour un théâtre d’inspiration africaine,” La Vie africaine. 59 (juin 1965): 40-41. This generic definition has since then been accepted by critics. ↩︎