Battle of Fort Sanders, Knoxville, Nov. 29, 1863. Wikimedia Commons)
  • “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
  • “[…] le monde entier s’archipélise et se créolise.” Édouard Glissant Traité du Tout-Monde

My inner child was an English major, but before that he majored in history. In fact, he got a master’s in history at the University of Tennessee Knoxville before he started wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, changed majors and went for a PhD in English. So an op ed piece on the New York Times website with the arresting headline “What’s With All the Fluff About a New Civil War, Anyway?” caught my eye Sunday.

And that in turn gave me a new context for reconsidering Faulkner’s novels. We’re all of us, always and forever in the Yoknapatawpha County of his novels, burdened with the legacy of slavery, racism and the way we stole the land from the American Indians. Back in the height of my tweed-jacketed English major days at UT Knoxviile, I thought Faukner’s legacy was a Southern problem. Turns out, as I realized after I moved up north, it’s an American problem. It’s ours to deal with, all of us, and Sunday’s piece in the Times tries to do that in a humorous but thought-provoking way.

But I think we need to go further. And that thought in turn led me to consider a postcolonial concept known as creolization, coined by cultural anthropologists but reflecting an attitude often summed up by quoting Salman Rushdie, who “rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” (I’ve blogged a lot about creolization, and pulled together some of my notes HERE.)

Maybe we’d all be better off if we embraced our diversity, all of it, and made more of an effort to reconcile ourselves with our history, all of it. A postcolonial French author named Édouard Glissant, an expat who taught at LSU and NYU, has done just that with a reconsideration of Faulkner that concludes the Mississippi novelist transcended the racism of his time and place. (I’ve blogged about it HERE and HERE, and I think we can learn from him.) Glissant, as Wikipedia summarizes it, finds “parallels between the history and culture of the Creole Caribbean and those of Latin America and the plantation culture of the American South, most obviously in his study of William Faulkner.”

I think there’s merit in that, and I suspect it can go both ways, that we in the US have something to learn from postcolonial, creole writers like Glissant. We’ll get back to him in a moment

But first, the article in Sunday’s New York Times, which turned out to be thought-provoking in spite of its clickbait headline.

What really got my attention, even more than the headline, was the artwork that accompanied it. The Times credited the picture to a Getty Images stock photo, but I recognized it as a print of the Battle of Fort Sanders (shown above), fought in 1863 at the crest of the same hill overlooking the UT campus where I lived in off-campus housing a hundred years later. (I blogged about it HERE, in a post about the “Trumpification of the Supreme Court” and the outlook for further polarization in response to what I consider its extreme right-wing, white Christian nationalist agenda.)

Sunday’s column in the Times was by a free-lance historian named Sarah Vowell, who writes books with a humorous take on US history. She’s filled in on occasion for snarkmeister Maureen Dowd on the Times’ op ed page, and she’s written books like The Wordy Shipmates, about the Puritans of early New England, and Assassination Vacation, described (by Wikipedia) as the chronicle “a road trip to tourist sites devoted to the murders of presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield and William McKinley.” Not entirely serious, but not entirely fluff either.

Riffing off of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s defeat in the Montana Republican primary, Vowell (a self-identified Montana Democrat) apparently decided to have a little fun with the way Cheney cited Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln in her concession speech.

“How far will she take her Civil War analogies?” Vowell asks. “If she’s running in the 2024 presidential primary, ‘Let’s burn down Atlanta’ might not be an optimal vote-getter in Fulton County.” President Millard Fillmore, she added, might be a better role model than Lincoln. Vowell explains:

Ms. Cheney might pull off being our generation’s Millard Fillmore — every girl’s dream. In choosing majority rule as her life’s work, she has landed on the only either-or issue in the United States (aside from pineapple on pizza).

Defending the premise that, after a fair election, the legitimate Electoral College winner becomes the president-elect — an idea so basic I literally learned it in first grade, when the kids who preferred Gerald Ford in our mock election just sucked it up and congratulated Jimmy Carter’s gang of 6-year-olds — is our most important issue and explains the ginned-up rumors of war, especially since Ms. Cheney’s nemesis on the topic is something of an attention-getter. On everything else, the United States in 2022 feels more 1850 to me than 1861. [Link in the original.]

I concur, but I’m not sure how much comfort I take in it.

‘The past Is never dead. It’s not even past’

For one thing, the Compromise of 1850 is generally viewed by historians as the last gasp of the old political system before it was shattered by the irreconcilable partisan differences over slavery that led to the Civil War in 1861. Vowell sees distinct parallels to today:

The country circa 1850 was trapped in a trilateral predicament in which President Fillmore, presiding over a Unionist center aiming to prohibit slavery’s extension into the new western territories, was caught between a far left and a far right, some abolitionists being almost as keen on secession as the slaveholders — an outcome that would have benefited the latter.

Recent polling on the growing support for secession echoes that 1850s-style tripartite political divide. Last year the University of Virginia Center for Politics issued an unnerving report in which 41 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans “somewhat agree” that red and blue states should secede from the Union and form separate countries. Eighteen percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republican respondents “strongly agree.” Thus secession is one of those subjects where each party’s extremists are de facto allies, like forsaking the First Amendment or provoking every educator and librarian in America to resign.

Preserving free and fair elections isn’t the only “either-or issue” out there today — abortion and the culture wars come to mind — and we’re looking more and more like the 1850s every day. Mmore than a year ago, in fact, James Davison Hunter, the University of Virginia sociologist who coined the term “culture war” in the 1990s, observed in an interview with Politico that “you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence. And I think that’s where we are.”

Hunter also said the issues that were supposed to be settled by the first Civil War are still with us — “My view is that the reason why we’re continuing to see this press toward racial reckoning is because it’s never been addressed culturally.” That gave me the blue willies at the time (I blogged about it HERE), and things have only gotten more strident, more racially tinged, further polarized since then.

Hunter’s main point, to oversimplify it a little, is that today’s partisans see each other as an “existential threat,” and the resulting vitriol and defensiveness lead to more partisanship. I’ve spent a good share of my time studying the 1850s, as Swedish immigrants tried to navigate the currents of the day, and the parallels I see are eerie. And frightening. Extremism begets more extremism. Sooner or later a John Brown goes off the rails, and you have 1861 all over again.

Which is why I don’t exactly take comfort in Vowell’s analogy.

At times it seems like we’re already in a state of civil war, although it looks to me more like early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland than Gettysburg and Chickamauga (or the Battle of Fort Sanders). And I don’t know how we can turn things around in 11 years. But based on a couple of things Vowell says toward the end of her op ed, there may be hope. She recalls an encounter in Bozeman, Mont., where she lives:

Midpandemic, I stood in line for hamburgers between a snarling blonde who chewed me out for wearing a face mask and a high school classmate’s brother keen to talk about the Times linguistics newsletter writer John McWhorter. Both of my neighbors ordered French fries cooked in the same vat of oil. Where is the demarcation line in that scenario — the milkshake machine?

Her point: 21st-century America can’t section off neatly into warring states like they did in 1861. Left unstated was another, more important point: Our common humanity. We still wait for the same milkshake machine. Vowell concludes:

The Texas Republican Party, ever aspirational, put secession from the United States into its most recent platform. And yet secession is technically illegal — thanks to Texans. In 1869, in Texas v. White, the Supreme Court ruled secession unconstitutional and declared the Union “perpetual.”

Hence the intoxicating appeal of these continuing fantasies of partition and civil war: We are stuck with each other. We are stuck. With each other. Perpetually.

Why yes. Of course. There may be something else here, too.

‘The entire world Is becoming an archipelago and creolizing’

So what’s all this stuff, to slightly misquote Sarah Vowell’s headline, about archipelagos anyway? Well, it didn’t make sense to me till I remembered Édouard Glissant, who had a lot to say about creoles and archipelagos, was from Martinique. It’s one of the Windward Islands, part of the Lesser Antilles archipelago on the edge of the Caribbean (see inset in map below); administratively it’s an integral part of France (and therefore the European Union); its currency is the euro. Confusing? Welcome to our globalized world. And Glissant’s.

Martinique in Lesser Antilles archipelago (CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

One more thing to know about Martinique: Its population is mainly descended from African slaves brought there to work on sugar plantations, thoroughly mixed with Europeans, Carib Indians and descendants of 19th-century immigrants from South India. (Salman Rushdie, no doubt, would approve.) While its official language is French, its vernacular speech is a blend of French, indigenous and West African languages known as Creole or Kréyol Mat’nik. “Though Creole is normally not used in professional situations,” says Wikipedia, “members of the media and politicians have begun to use it more frequently as a way to redeem national identity and prevent cultural assimilation by mainland France.”

So when Glissant says the world is creolizing, it’s useful to know where he’s coming from. Literally. Where he actually came from was a creolized, or mixed, culture.

While the academic concept of creolization comes from linguistics, it’s a good overall metaphor for the way cultures interact with each other — and change — as they come into contact over time. (Again, think of New Orleans.) It’s a metaphor, rather than an empirically proven hypothesis. But it’s a useful metaphor.

Glissant, who was born in Martinique, lived in France and the US and taught at NYU, took the creolization metaphor to the next level with a vision “of the whole world as a network of interacting communities whose contacts result in constantly changing cultural formations.” Those words are from an assessment by his biographer Celia Britton of Aberdeen and University College London, who said in Glissant’s 2011 obit in The Guardian that his work “constitutes not only a profound reflection on colonialism, slavery and racism, but also a powerful vision of a world where cultural diversity flourishes.”

Glissant’s prose is hard to follow, and the aphorism he’s best known for — “le monde entier s’archipélise et se créolise” (the entire world Is becoming an archipelago and creolizing) — sounds like word salad at first. But when you unpack the metaphors, it begins to make sense: To Glissant, as I understand him, the global culture is like an archipelago, a cluster of islands — like his native Martinique — rather than a continent dominated by grand narratives like free-market capitalism and American pop culture. A related metaphor is that cultures are like rhizomes, webs of interconnected underground roots rather than single taproots. French professor Michael Wiedorn of Georgia Tech, who has written extensively about Glissant, explains how the metaphors intersect:

Archipelagos are, of course, rhizomatic: they have no unique centre, whereas for both Glissant and Deleuze/Guattari [philosopher Gilles Deleuze and political activist Félix Guattari, who often collaborated with each other] in the tree form all roots converge on and lead to one vertical structure. In the case of archipelagos, their peoples have such a plenitude of origins that their roots have no one home in the past; rather, they shoot outwards, towards other islands in the present. Just as each island in an archipelago gestures toward its counterparts, human cultures must learn to turn outwards towards other cultures and, indeed, simply towards others.

Thus Glissant’s vision allows for cultural diversity; indeed, it promotes diversity.

Glissant also had some thought-provoking things to say about William Faulkner’s novels and “the South’s dark entanglement with slavery, inextricable from its roots and its tormented history” (quoted verbatim here in another essay by Celia Britton). She adds, paraphrasing Glissant:

In other words, he reads Faulkner’s work as dominated by the issue of the origin of Southern society; Faulkner’s sense of the damnation of the South, he argues, stems from the impossibility of founding a legitimate filiation [parentage] – and this in turn is impossible because the whole society has been brought into existence by a crime: an ‘original sin’. [Italics in the original.]

In still other “other words” (Faulkner’s, in fact), the past is never dead. It’s not even past. Something to think about during the inevitable white backlash that followed the racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020. “[I]f if a truly transformational politics is ever to take shape,” says Wiedorn of Georgia Tech, “we must change the way we think in the wake of our encounters with archipelagic thought.” In other words, we can be guided by Glissant’s concept of creolization and cultural diversity. It’s a metaphor, not a strategic planning document, but it may suggest a way out of the dilemma that has so many pundits worried about the prospect of another civil war. Wiedorn concludes:

Archipelagic thought is not a solution or an answer, but a source of creation and creativity. The nature of that creative production remains uncertain and unpredictable. What sort of ideas or entities the Glissantian theorization of the archipelago might one day engender remains to be seen.

If all of this seems academic and English major-y (or comparitive lit major-y), I can’t really deny it. But where have the old ways of thinking gotten us?

Links and citations

Celia Britton, “Edouard Glissant” [obituary], The Guardian, Feb. 13, 2011

__________, “The Theme of the Ancestral Crime in the Novels of Faulkner, Glissant and Condé,” in American Creoles: The Francophone Caribbean and the American South, ed Martin Munro and Celia Britton (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012)

James Davison Hunter, “How the ‘Culture War’ Could Break Democracy,” interview by Zack Stanton, Politico, May 20, 2021

Sarah Vowell, “What’s With All the Fluff About a New Civil War, Anyway?” New York Times, Aug. 28, 2022

Michael Wiedorn, “On the Unfolding of Édouard Glissant’s Archipelagic Thought,” Karib, Feb. 26, 2021

Wikipedia articles on Antillean Creole, archipelago, creolization, Deluze and Guattari, George Floyd protests, Getty Images, Édouard Glissant, Lesser Antilles, Martinique, rhizome, the Troubles, Sarah Vowell and Yoknapatawpha County.

[Uplinked Sept. 2, 2022]

One thought on “Archipelagos? Can a French postcolonial novelist’s creole metaphor help us head off a new Civil War?

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