Stepping outside the Magic Circle: The Critical Thought of Maryse Conde

By Nesbitt, Nick | The Romanic Review, May-November 2003 | Go to article overview

Stepping outside the Magic Circle: The Critical Thought of Maryse Conde


Nesbitt, Nick, The Romanic Review


The writings of Maryse Conde are critical to their core. Her novels dismantle the pieties of everyday life to look at what lies underneath: the fragile narcissism of subjects who erect facades of ideology and self-importance around the naked core of their being to ward off ever-impinging social violence. This social violence can take the most varied forms; from the most intimate tribulations between mother and daughter, to the anonymous violence of neocolonial societies of systematic dependency, in which every individual encounters constant daily reminders--in employment, in consumption, in leisure and travel, in education, in language--that it is not they, but a far off Metropolis that determines the parameters of their existence. To survive in such a context, to survive not simply as human animals who have a right to minimal social benefits (the healthcare, unemployment insurance, aid for single mothers, and other benefits that Guadeloupeans enjoy in contrast to many other Caribbean nations), but to survive as human individuals against the constant undermining of one's autonomy is, according to Conde, to construct and produce.

Like the slaves who were their ancestors, slaves who refused to be reduced to animalistic quotas of production by their masters, but who rather produced a new culture from the shattered remains they found at hand--Wolof, Norman and Breton, Bantu, East Indian, Native American, Chinese, and many others--the contemporary subjects of French neocolonialism produce, constantly. In their situation of structuralized dependency on the Metropolis, however, certain paths of production remain blocked. Where would one find the capital to start a hotel when one must compete with Meridian, Sofitel, and Accor? How can one place locally-produced goods in competition with mass-produced European items, particularly when a local preference for all that is European negates any value-added benefit from the marker "Made in Guadeloupe"? But human subjects will produce as long as they live.

The critical thought of Maryse Conde seeks out the heteronymous productions we resort to when our autonomy is blocked. We barricade ourselves within a private world, of family or romance or fiction, where the illusion of autonomy can persist, until eventually the reigning structural dependency infiltrates its way into our lives through cracks in the walls we have built with the received, pre-socialized materials we have at hand (the ideologies and beliefs of parents, educators, friends, the media). Every subject, every individual, exists in his or her individuality as a construct of pre-existing society. There is no individuality prior to socialization; the maroon cannot escape into autonomy, but only into the sheer animality of mere survival in the forests. (1) What Rousseau called the inferior "freedom" of the state of nature may indeed be preferable to the violence and terror of slavery, and perhaps even to the sort contemporary dependency of neocolonialism. It is, however, both an unsustainable illusion in a globalizing world and unequal to the modern possibility of autonomy first imagined by Rousseau and actualized beyond anything he could imagine in the Americas in the events of the Haitian Revolution. Human autonomy is not an originary human essence, the foundation of our "Being," but a construct and production of modernity. The Enlightenment created the ideological conditions for Louis Delgres' 1802 revolution that, like the Haitian Revolution, was addressed not to ameliorating local working conditions, but to a universal claim for human autonomy and the rule of law irregardless of color ("A l'univers entier, le dernier cri de l'innocence" wrote Delgres before he blew himself up, along with his troops, and a few of those Napoleon sent to reconquer Guadeloupe).

Paradoxically, the same unceasing colonial progression of modernity into every dimension of Guadeloupean life has so far served primarily to capture colonized subjects in a net of systematic dependency, from consumerist consumption to political irrelevancy as subjects of Matignon and the EU. …

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