Academic journal article The Romanic Review

History, Horror, and Pleasure in Haiti and Africa

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

History, Horror, and Pleasure in Haiti and Africa

Article excerpt

Europeens qui ne connaissez pas cet affreux systeme [de l'esclavage], qui ne pouvez meme pas en concevoir l'idee, bommes sensibles, ne pleurez pas encore sur le tableau, sur les faibles esquisses des horreurs de la traite! N'epuisez pas votre sensibilite, retenez vos soupirs et vos lames; vous n'avez encore rien vu, ni entendu! Ecoutez le recit du regime colonial. (1)

--Pompee-Valentin Vastey, Le Systeme colonial devoile (1814)

The author of this passage was the chief ideologist to the Haitian king Henri Christophe in the early nineteenth century. Vastey's book--which Chris Bongie has called "the first systematic book-length critique of colonialism ever written from the perspective of a colonized subject" (2)--is remarkable for the intense level of specificity that he deploys. For page after page, Vastey details the atrocities committed by the ruling class of Saint Domingue--the slavocracy--in the years before the Revolution. Vastey names names:

   Poncet, habitant sucrier au Trou, avait fait de sa maison une
   veritable prison. (40)

   Corbierre, habitant de la meme paroisse, faisait saigner ses noirs
   et employait leur sang a clarifier le sucre. (41)

   Darech, sous de simples pretextes, les faisait bruler vifs. (43)

And it goes on like that for page after page. Few, if any, postcolonial texts are so intensely focused on the naming of names and the physical details of torture and (to use the term I am going to focus on) horror. Neither Cesaire in his Discourse on Colonialism nor even Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth approaches the kind of horrific writing of Vastey in Le Systeme colonial devoile. If one were to reproduce more extensive passages from Vastey's indictment--the gory details of all the atrocities that he explains--it might well be considered inappropriate. That itself is an illustration of the problem that I want to discuss. "How much" horror is appropriate in certain media and certain contexts? Why? And how can horror be measured?

The other aspect of Vastey's writing that leaps to the reader's attention is his emphasis on meta-discursive dimensions:

   En faisant le trace de ces horreurs, je n'espere point amollir vos
   coeurs. (35)

   Ce n'est point un roman que j'ecris, c'est l'expose des malheurs,
   des longues souffrances et des supplices inouis qu'a eprouve un
   peuple infortune pendant des siecles. Mon sang se glace dans mes
   veines. (39)

   Comment depeindre le crime? (44)

   Quelle expression pourrai-je employer pour depeindre tant
   d'horreursi Je n'en connais pas. Les fleurs et les ornements
   conviennent a des tableaux dont l'homme n'a point a rougir; pour
   un sujet aussi lugubre, pour s'enfoncer dans un cloaque de crimes,
   ils sont inutiles. Je ne ferai que raconter. (40)

And it is true that he "tells" the horrors--but he can't do so without, from time to time, punctuating his catalogue with these meta-discursive meditations, wondering about the effects and the limits of the representation of horror. To record horror, to write horror, is, perhaps, to ask oneself these questions.

For Vastey, however, the answer is clear. Horror and memory are closely linked. He recorded all these atrocities not in order to sell books but so that the rising generation of young Haitians, who in 1814 were too young to have known the old regime, might "remember" and be grateful to their king, Christophe:

   O vous jeunes Haytiens qui avez le bonheur de naitre sous le regne
   des lois et de la liberte! Vous qui ne connaissez pas ces temps
   d'horreurs et de barbaries: lisez ces ecrits; n'oubliez jamais les
   infortunes de vos peres, et apprenez a vous defier et a hair vos
   tyrans! (90, emphasis added)

His writing, even as it explicitly incites hatred against the colonizers, is, in Vastey's own view, a flower of evil--a beneficial thing emerging out of a great historical wrong. Toward the end he makes this even more explicit, as he adjourns again to meta-discursive ruminations addressed to the king, the guarantor of this instance of literacy:

   O mon auguste Souverain! … 
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