African Literature, African Critics: The Forming of Critical Standards, 1947-1966

By Rand Bishop | Go to book overview

6 African Literature, Littérature engagée

THEORY

There is little question of the impact of Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Orphée noir" on modern African literature. The Cameroun critic Jean-Paul Nyunaé referred to it as a "magistrale étude" (164), and seldom, if ever, has its importance been questioned. Ezekiel Mphahlele was disturbed by its influence, though primarily because he said it helped consolidate the vocabulary of the Negritude critics ( "Postscript", 80-81). What has not been so thoroughly discussed is the importance of Sartre's other ideas on African literature -- in particular, the concept of engagement, the view that literature should be engagée,or committed to the solving of the problems of the contemporary world, developed by Sartre in his essay Qu'est-ce que la littérature but explicated two years earlier in the initial issue of his Les Temps modernes ( "Présentation").

Bernard Fonlon, the Cameroun editor of Abbia, was one of the few African critics to refer specifically to this aspect of "Orphée noir." In his Ph.D. dissertation at the National University of Ireland, he cited Sartre's statement that "black poetry in French is, today, the only great revolutionary poetry" ( La Poésie, xii*).

One of the few Africans to consider the broader nature of Sartre's influence was Abiola Irele, though he was particularly interested in the European influence upon Negritude. Irele sketched the European context of this influence succinctly:

The nature of literary activity in Europe has not been without consequences for the literature of negritude. The years preceding World War II saw the development of a literature of "causes," culminating in the outpouring provoked by the Spanish Civil War. This literature

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