The Open Boat by Edouard Glissant

For the Africans who lived through the experience of depor­tation to the Americas,* confronting the unknown with nei­ther preparation  nor challenge was no doubt  petrifying.

The first dark shadow was cast by being wrenched from their everyday, familiar land, away from  protecting gods and a tutelary community. But that is nothing yet. Exile can be borne, even when it comes as a bolt from the blue. The  sec­ ond dark of night fell as tortures and the deterioration of person, the result of so many incredible Gehennas. Imagine two hundred human beings crammed into a space barely capable of containing a third of them. Imagine vomit, naked flesh, swarming lice, the dead slumped, the dying crouched. Imagine, if you can, the swirling red of mounting to the deck, the ramp they climbed, the black sun on  the horizon,  vertigo,

African languages became deterritorialized, thus contributing to creolization in the West. This is the most completely known confronta­ tion between the powers of the written word and the impulses of oral­ity. The only written thing on slave ships was the account book listing the exchange value of slaves. Within the ship’s space the cry of those deported was stifled, as it would be in the realm of the Plantations. This confrontation still reverberates to this day.

This dizzying sky plastered to the waves. Over the course of more than two centuries, twenty, thirty million people deported. Worn down, in a debasement more eternal than apocalypse.  But that is nothing yet.

What is terrifying partakes of the abyss, three times linked to the unknown. First, the time you fell into the belly of the boat. For, in your poetic vision, a boat has no belly; a boat does not swallow up, does not devour; a boat is steered  by open skies. Yet, the belly of this boat dissolves you, precipi­tates you into a nonworld from which you cry out. This boat is a womb, a womb abyss. It generates the clamor of your protests; it also produces all the coming unanimity. Although you are alone in this suffering, you  share  in  the  unknown with   others whom  you  have yet  to  know. This boat is your womb, a matrix, and yet it expels you. This boat: pregnant with as many dead as living under sentence of death.

The next abyss was the depths of the sea. Whenever a fleet of ships gave chase to slave ships, it was easiest just to lighten the boat by throwing cargo overboard, weighing it down with balls and chains.  These  underwater  signposts  mark  the course between the Gold Coast and the Leeward Islands. Navigating the green splendor of the sea-whether in melan­ cholic transatlantic crossings or glorious regattas or tradi­ tional races of yoles and gommiers–still brings to mind, com­ ing to light like seaweed, these lowest depths, these  deeps, with their punctuation of scarcely corroded  balls and  chains. In actual fact the abyss is a tautology: the entire ocean, the entire sea gently collapsing in the end into the pleasures of sand, make one vast beginning,  but a beginning  whose  time is marked  by these balls and  chains gone green.

But for these shores to take shape, even before they could be contemplated, before they were yet visible, what sufferings came from the unknown! Indeed, the most petrifying face of the abyss lies far ahead of the slave ship’s bow, a pale mur­ mur; you do not know if it is a storm cloud, rain or drizzle, or smoke from a comforting fire. The banks of the river have vanished on both sides of the boat. What kind of river, then, has no middle? Is nothing there but straight ahead? Is this boat sailing into eternity toward the edges of a nonworld that no ancestor will haunt?

Paralleling this mass of water, the third metamorphosis of the abyss thus projects a reverse image of all that had been left behind,  not  to  be  regained  for   generations  except-more and more threadbare – in the blue savannas of memory or imagination.

The asceticism of crossing this way the  land-sea  that, unknown to you, is the planet Earth, feeling a language van­ ish, the word of the gods vanish, and the sealed image of even the most everyday object, of even the most familiar animal, vanish. The evanescent taste of what you ate. The hounded scent of ochre  earth  and savannas.

‘Je te salue, vieil Ocean!” You still preserve on your crests the silent boat of our births, your chasms are our own uncon­scious, furrowed with fugitive memories. Then you lay out these new shores, where we hook  our  tar-streaked  wounds, our  reddened  mouths and  stifled outcries.

Experience of the abyss lies inside and outside the abyss. The torment of those who never escaped it: straight from the belly of the slave ship into the violet belly of the ocean depths they went. But their ordeal did not die; it quickened into this con­tinuous/ discontinuous thing: the panic of the new land, the haunting of the former land, finally the alliance with the imposed land, suffered and redeemed. The unconscious memory of the abyss served as the alluvium for these meta­ morphoses. The populations that then formed, despite hav­ ing forgotten the chasm, despite being unable to imagine the passion of those who foundered there, nonetheless wove this sail (a veil). They did not use it to return to the Former Land but rose up on this unexpected,  dumbfounded  land.  They met the first inhabitants, who had also been deported by per­ manent havoc; or perhaps they only caught a whiff of the rav­ aged trail of these people. The land-beyond turned into land­ in-itself. And this undreamt of sail, finally now spread, is watered by the white wind of the abyss. Thus, the absolute unknown, projected by the  abyss and  bearing into eternity  the womb abyss and the infinite abyss, in the end became knowledge.

Not just a specific knowledge, appetite, suffering, and delight of one particular people, not only that, but knowledge of the Whole, greater from having been at the abyss and freeing knowledge of Relation within  the Whole. Just as the first uprooting was not marked by any defiance, in the same way the prescience and actual experience of Rela­ tion have nothing  to do with  vanity. Peoples who  have been to the abyss do not brag of being chosen. They do not believe they are giving birth to any modern force. They live Relation and clear the way for it, to the extent that the oblivion of the abyss comes to them and that, consequently, their memory intensifies.

For though this experience made you, original victim float­ ing toward the sea’s abysses, an exception, it became some­ thing shared and made us, the descendants, one people among others. Peoples do not live on exception. Relation is not made up of things that are foreign but of shared knowl­ edge. This experience of the abyss can now be said to be the best element of exchange.

For us, and without exception, and no matter how much dis­tance we may keep, the abyss is also a projection of and a per­spective into the unknown. Beyond its chasm  we gamble on the unknown. We take sides in this game of  the  world. We hail  a renewed  Indies; we  are for it. And  for this relation made of storms and profound moments of peace in which we may honor our boats.

This is why we stay with poetry. And despite our consenting to all the indisputable technologies; despite seeing the political leap that must be managed, the horror of hunger and igno­rance, torture and massacre to be conquered, the full load of knowledge to be tamed, the weight of every piece of machin­ery that we shall finally control, and the exhausting flashes as we pass from one era to another-from forest  to  city, from story to computer-at the  bow  there  is  still  something  we now share: this murmur, cloud or rain or peaceful smoke. We know ourselves as part and as crowd, in an  unknown  that does not terrify. We cry our cry of poetry. Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone.

 

*The Slave Trade came through the cramped doorway of the slave ship, leaving a wake like that of crawling desert caravans. It might be drawn like this: African  countries  to the East; the lands of America to the West. This creature is in the image of a fibril.

 

Excerpt from:

Glissant, E. (1997) The Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Harbor: University of Michigan Press.