Le paradoxe du parfum, c'est qu'il libère ce qu'il capture.
—Lyonel Trouillot, Le doux parfum des temps à venir
In a conversation with Laurence Garcia for France Inter (a French public radio channel) in May this year, Lyonel Trouillot spoke about his relation to writing and politics, as a writer and teacher living and working in contemporary Haiti.1 In a voice at once personal and critical, reflective yet poignant, Trouillot offered a picture of his writing conceived as a mode of bearing witness (témoigner) to the protracted suffering and injustice in Haiti—the mal-vivre or malaise that is a pervasive dimension of the everyday lived experience of ordinary people around him. Part of what was so searching in what Trouillot had to say was the way he spoke of the paradoxical relation between the fictive and the real in his writing. Realism and modernism—in his brand of experimental formalism—were not incompatible dimensions of comprehension and literary expression. To the contrary: his fictions, he said, constituted so many “fragments of the real” (fragments du réel), fictive refractions of the all-too-present realities in a country burdened by the present history of the past. The real, Trouillot said, is “sufficient” (le réel, c'est suffisant). Which is not to say that writing should have a merely passive, absorptive relation to reality. Writing to him is a mode of cultural activism. Asked at a certain point by his interlocutor whether in the circumstances of contemporary Haiti he considered himself an optimist or a pessimist (a not irrelevant question), Trouillot responded simply that he would call himself a pessimiste actif, an engaged pessimist. It is a self-description of subtle, revealing paradox.2
The occasion for the conversation on France Inter was the publication of Trouillot's most recent book, a short, intense poetic work called, enigmatically, Le doux parfum des temps à venir (which might be translated as The Sweet Perfume of Times to Come). It is in many ways a characteristic work; not unlike his narrative fictions, Bicentenaire (2004), for example, or La belle amour humaine (2011), what you have here is a figuration of the real, an alchemical concentration of the real. The poem neither reflects nor redacts reality. It is, rather, its essence. For what Trouillot is asking you to do is not to suspend your apprehension of reality but to intensify it.
Le doux parfum des temps à venir evokes the way memory is awakened by the embodied and paradoxical sense of smell. It is night, and a woman somewhere begins to speak to her daughter, herself now a young woman, in a voice of intimate disclosure. “Femme je suis. / Et ta mère.” (Woman I am. / And your mother.) It is perhaps the first time this mother has really spoken to her daughter. It will certainly be the last. She is dying; by daybreak she expects to be dead. She asks only that her daughter ensure that when she dies her “dead eyes face the sea” (Tu mettras mes yeux morts face à la mer).3 This, in effect, will be her last will and testament. She will recount to her daughter not only the hard truths of her life (the material want, the abuse, the betrayals, the humiliations) but also the truth of her attitude to life. She wants her daughter to see her in all her flawed humanity, to breathe her dissenting woman spirit. Above all, she is not ashamed of who she is, what she has done. She has not loved the angry men who took advantage of her, but she has “loved love” (j'ai aimé l'amour). She has loved her own nakedness (j'ai aimé la nudité de mon corps). She has never been anyone's servant (je n'ai jamais été la servante d'un seul). This is the dissenting virtue she wants her daughter to see: “a free woman is mistress of her fragrance” (une femme libre est maîtresse de son parfum).4 She wants her daughter to promise her that she will contravene every convention that stands in the way of her realizing her essence: who she is, who she can be. On this one night of sharing—de femme à femme—she aims to dispel the misunderstandings between them, and to send her daughter upon the path toward her own “woman fragrance” (parfum de femme), her “uniqueness” (unicité). She gives her an empty box (coffret vide) in which to hide the “sweet perfume of times to come,” when at last she finds it.5 And when she does find it, she will take the box to the highest mountain and open it so that the fragrance is released upon the world. Here is the moral of her story:
The paradox of life is that you have in some measure to let it go in order to embrace it. The paradox of fragrances is that you have to release them in order to realize their pleasures, essences. This is why for Lyonel Trouillot fragrances have a kind of utopic quality—they beckon, futurally. But the futurity they signal to us is less an assurance than an intimation of times to come.
Practicing translation across the translocal Caribbean is increasingly an unavoidable theme in Caribbean intellectual work. How are we to think critically about the politics as well as the poetics of translation? What relations of language and power are brought into play in acts of translation? Small Axe has been obliged to recognize that these are questions that can no longer be taken for granted but have, rather, to be thought out loud, argued over, repeatedly. Our colleagues Kaiama Glover and Martin Munro, both scholars who have engaged with these questions, have conceived a project—“Translating the Caribbean”—to address them. The essays from this project will be published over two issues of the journal: the current one and Small Axe 45 (November 2014). As Glover and Munro suggest, invoking Edouard Glissant, the cultural-political implications of the common history of colonial plantation slavery across the regional Caribbean has been obscured by our inability to communicate translocally—literally, to begin with—and our inability, therefore, to properly recognize, much less work productively with, what we share and what we do not. Nor did the narrow monolingualism of our various nationalisms do much to reverse this balkanizing aspect of our colonial legacy. With this project, Glover and Munro aim to initiate a critical discussion that takes seriously the imperative both to make translation a more systemic dimension of our thinking and to think translation itself in its multiple dimensions: linguistic, conceptual, political.
One Caribbean scholar who was deeply concerned with the issue of the translocal Caribbean, and whose work can be read as a practice of continuous linguistic and conceptual translation, was the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot (Lyonel's older brother). Our new colleague Yarimar Bonilla has assembled for this issue a remarkable group of contributors to think about Trouillot's interconnected legacy to anthropology and Caribbean studies. Each contributor to “Thinking with Michel-Rolph Trouillot” focuses critically on a different aspect of his wide-ranging oeuvre—from his influential thinking about the relation between historicity, historical knowledge, and power to his idea of Duvalierism as a form of totalitarianism, and from his ideas about scales of relationality between the local and the global to his persistent worry about the uses of the trope of Haitian exceptionalism—to illuminate the overall shape of a singular mind at work. Notably, none of the contributors is interested in mere hagiographic celebration. Indeed all are concerned less with thinking about, than in thinking through, the thought of Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Our hope is that this group of essays will contribute not only to the already considerable discussion of this remarkable Caribbean scholar but also to a renewal of thinking about the very idea of a critical Caribbean “social science” to which he was so resolutely committed.
With this issue of Small Axe we come, alas, to the end of our three-year project titled “The Visual Life of Catastrophic History” (generously supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts). This has been an enormously rewarding project for Small Axe to have undertaken, in particular because our ability to directly commission work allowed us to more than just passively respond to existing trends in art practice, and thinking about art practice. It allowed us to invite visual artists and art historians and critics to reflect on a common theme of undoubted importance for our Caribbean aesthetic and intellectual imaginations. For the question of how catastrophic pasts find their way into contemporary visual fields and idioms is obviously one with deep resonances for the way we picture to ourselves and to others the story of our historical community and identity—and, therefore, how we might yet repicture what we have been given, and what we have so far made.
The promise of Small Axe, I think, unfolds in such recurrent gestures of intellectual reconsideration—the persistence of revision, rethinking; the whole continuous effort of rewriting and repicturing ourselves. This is what enables the kind of ongoing dialogue that constitutes the widening, overlapping circles of an intellectual tradition.
Paris, Prague, Vipiteno
The conversation on France Inter took place on 26 May 2013. See www.franceinter.fr/emission-le-57-du-week-end-rencontre-entre-chien-et-loup-avec-lyonel-trouillot (accessed 28 May 2013).
Think of the sensibility that shapes his Objectif: L'autre (Waterloo: André Versaille, 2012).
Lyonel Trouillot, Le doux parfum des temps à venir (Paris: Actes Sud, 2013), 12 (all translations mine).
Ibid., 31, 30, 32, 10.
Ibid., 21, 54.