Carnivalesque History

Haitian carnival on “the cosmic stage of the universe.”

November 21, 2019 12-1 PM EST

Our discussion on November 1st focused on Movement 1 of the novel. Our colleague at the University of Virginia Marlene L. Daut, provided a terrific foundation for our discussion with a set of questions surrounding “History and the City” (below), and opened the conversation with a great presentation of how to think through both the place of history in Depestre’s novel and the various Haitian literary genealogies, going back to the nineteenth century, that he was potentially drawing on and in dialogue with.

Our discussion then spiraled around several insights from participants (some jumping off from the comments below), about how to think through Depestre’s playful relationship to the question of history, of masking and masquerade, and of carnival. Contributors offered different ways of thinking through the question of precisely what Depestre might be saying about, and doing with, history in the ebullient carnival scene. We had a particularly interesting riff on why this was all set in 1938, with a series of potential referents and echoes surrounding that year: the publication of C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, and major labor uprisings in the British Caribbean. We dwelled on the remarkable moment when Depestre depicts Jean-Jacques Dessalines playing a ping-pong match with Stalin (and showed some of the sketches of work by artist Nathalie Jolivert, who has been inspired by that scene in some of the work she is doing for the exhibit). As was the case in our first meeting, the time went by too fast, with many strands and insights still to be followed — which we will take up in our next meeting!

History and the City (Pre-Conversation Questions by Marlene Daut)

In After the Dance, novelist Edwidge Danticat writes that Depestre’s Hadriana represents “one of those rare literary cases in which a novel’s character becomes even more real, and more powerful, than actual people.” Remarking upon the numerous visitors who travel to the city of Jacmel year after year “looking for Hadriana,” Danticat wonders, “Did Depestre and Jacmel create Hadriana or did she create Jacmel and Depestre?” Depestre undoubtedly created a transcendent character with Hadriana, whose story has clearly resonated for a wide array of readers and travelers. Yet while Danticat reads the city of Jacmel as the real zombie in the story—“A case can be made that the Jacmel I am visiting now cannot help but be a slightly zombified version of its former self”—is there a way in which Jacmel, like Hadriana, actually ends by escaping zombification?

Un-settled by European colonizers in the seventeenth century, the city of Jacmel was a colonial creation that became the site of magnificent postcolonial yearnings, particularly for Simón Bolívar, whom Depestre paints into the story by describing his “appearance” during Carnaval.  The reader of Hadriana will subsequently learn that Bolívar visited Jacmel to gain assistance for his quest to fight for independence for Gran Colombia. Yet, Bolívar’s explicit connection to the city of Jacmel only makes the other historic figures, especially Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henry Christophe, appear out of place. Before tracing a long list of revolutionaries and their cities, so to speak, Hérard Dumesle wrote in his Voyage dans le nord d’Hayti (1824), “Every single place on this island, now famous because of this unforgettable war, […] testifies to a victory or consecrates a glorious memory.” If each of the Haitian revolutionaries comes to life in Dumesle’s travelogue in the separate regions and cities with which they are associated, then what does it mean for Christophe, Dessalines, and Toussaint to appear in the “wrong” city, so to speak, in Depestre’s novel?

You can view the video of our meeting (which we started recording a bit late, so it begins in the midst of Marlene Daut’s presentation), and read the chat below.

Hadriana Chat Carnivalesque History

 

 

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13 Replies to “Carnivalesque History”

  1. I really like these questions, Marlene. One of the things I love about Depestre’s novel is the way it evokes and wanders through the many layers of Jacmel’s history, sparking with references, some of them very elliptical, to historical figures and moments. There are some wonderful maps of Jacmel held in the French Bibliothèque Nationale, from different eras, a few of which are here:

    From 1760: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b531035760
    From 1786: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b531035832
    From 1800: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8492190x
    From 1804: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53027884c
    From 1892: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52503688j

    Laurent Dubois says:
  2. (Movement 1, chapter 3, section 1 – Carnaval scene)

    By placing important figures from Haitian history and fantastic figures from Jacmel’s culture alongside European figures, Depestre suggests an alternative version of the supposedly universal and immutable History. In many occidental narratives of global history, Haiti is presented as a country whose past and culture revolve around French leadership and domination. While its role as a profitable colony is often included, its existence as an independent state is often neglected or relegated to the fringe. Through Carnaval, however, Haitians are able to assert the legitimacy and centrality of their own history, while also poking fun at famous occidental leaders and generals. For instance, Alexandre Pétion is described as hugging Alexander the Great, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines is described as playing table tennis with Stalin. These interactions suggest a sense of equality and camaraderie among these figures and the cultures to which they belong. Thus, Depestre challenges universalist ideas, reminding us that there is no History. Instead, there are multiple histories, each of which offers a different way of understanding individual cultures and international relationships. In this scene, participants in Carnaval construct a new narrative that transcends the limitations of time and place and introduces play into historical storytelling.

    Jessica Cohen says:
  3. I’m looking forward to the discussion tomorrow! This is such a fun novel, and as Laurent says, it has so many layers.

    Marlene calls our attention to the mixed-up way history appears in the novel’s carnival scenes: I think Jessica is right to see Depestre placing Toussaint and Dessalines alongside Alexander the Great and Stalin as a way of making us think about dominant historical narratives.

    Marlene’s framing makes me think even more about the irreverence of the descriptions. Depestre’s carnival revelers aren’t interested in historical accuracy, or even real history for that matter. These aren’t “vindicationist” versions of Haitian heroes or world-historical actors deployed to underscore Haiti’s achievements. Typical versions of nationalism (in Haiti and elsewhere) treat “founding fathers” as objects of veneration: I wonder how much our deterritorialized author is seeking to deflate precisely that kind of noirist iconography.

    Rafe Dalleo says:
  4. Hi everyone, I missed the original chat due to poor scheduling but am excited to be part of it tomorrow. I teach high school English at a boarding school in MA (Andover) but also have 2 online sites on Haiti and teach a course on the literature and history of the Haitian Revolution with a colleague. A student and I did an independent project this fall on 20th-Century Haitian literature, and we just read, among other things, Hadriana, and it was interesting to see how the text landed with a high school senior (he has been avidly following the book club too!). To help contextualize things for him, I pulled out Leah Gordon’s Kanaval for pictures and Danticat’s After the Dance (the endpapers of the hardcover have great maps, and it was fun tracing the various routes from the novel). I also pulled out a book I’d grabbed years ago at a conference: Jacmel en Photos by Jean-Elie Gilles (it’s an Educa Vision text). Most of it’s poor quality, because it’s reproductions of folks’ personal photos, but it’s a great resource in many ways, and I was struck by its nostalgia in it (photos of prominent Jacmélians of the late 1800s, early 1900s, photos of the now-non-working electrified street lamps of the 1890s, etc.).

    In the last conversation, there was much discussion of time, and Gilles’s book made me think of the nostalgia in Hadriana, the way it’s often returning to a wealthier heyday of the 1890s, for instance (including a mention of those street lamps). The novel is mostly about 3 days in 1938, but even within that time, there’s a longing for another time and a sense of Jacmel in 1938 being a diminished thing and of everything after 1938 being diminished in comparison to that time (a sort of temporal Russian nesting doll). I wonder about the ways in which the Haitian revolutionary figures are another kind of nostalgia here as well as a rebuke and challenge to contemporary political stasis–both in practice in Carnival and in the text itself. I’m always wondering about the narrative of the Haitian Revolution in tension with other kinds of nostalgia (like for Duvalier, for instance).

    Along with those major Revolutionary names are so many very specific Jacmel names that are mostly lost to a non-Haitian, non-Jacmélian-of-a-certain-era reader, and I wonder about this very specific recreation of Jacmel by a writer writing from abroad and recreating a kind of “imaginary homeland,” as Rushdie puts it. It feels in parts like Gilles’s book–a very specific kind of mapping of people and places of Jacmel in that time, and I appreciated the book’s ability to be both incredibly local in time and space (a love story of the main character and Jacmel, as much as Hadriana) and exist outside of it for a different kind of audience that seems explictly non-Haitian.

    Lastly, I was behind on site updates but just added a couple of more recent Manoir Alexandra photos from 2017 and earlier (the clearest photo is from 2017) here: http://www.mappinghaitianhistory.com/south-east Just scroll down to the Jacmel General section. Since then, they’ve built on huge additions to the original structure and reopened and can be found via Google as both Hotel Adriana and Hotel Alexandra…

    Stephanie Curci says:
  5. Thank for these thoughts, Stephanie, and for the information about that Gilles book — it looks fascinating! I’m really interested in the way you, Rafe and Jessica have all highlighted the interesting ways in which Depestre is playing with history here: the “sense of equality and camaraderie” Jessica identifies, the “irreverence of the descriptions” noted by Rafe, and the use of history in the constitution of a kind of Rushdie-style “imaginary homeland” you note. In her artwork for the upcoming exhibit, Nathalie has been producing some amazing visual responses to this (notably the ping-pong scene!). So much swirling around in this particular section of the novel…

    Laurent Dubois says:
  6. Greetings all. I’m a journalist born in Haiti but who has lived mostly in the U.S. and now in Paris for the last seven years. I’ve been working on a book about my family’s 300-year presence in Haiti. In the research process I’ve been educating myself on Haitian history and literature so this discussion is very valuable. I couldn’t participate in the first session because of the schedule change but I will join session #2.
    I have lived on and off in Haiti and was particularly struck by Depestre’s evocation of Jacmel, a town where I have family ties (one relative was a judge) and have visited several times.
    He captures the hermetic nature of small-town life; our narrators know all the principal characters and their strengths as well as their flaws. There’s no need to ponder their behavior because they act as expected.
    The other aspect that rings true is the narrator’s pride in his home town. You get this less so today when the Haitian world is so centered in P-au-P. I remember a Jacmelian relative lambasting people from Cap Haitien as “barbarians” because they used a different word for umbrellas (voum-tak). Haitian identity was once closely bound to place of origin. My mother’s side talked about Grande-Rivière du Nord (near Le Cap) although they had not lived there for several generations.
    Depestre uses an inconsistent mix of real Jacmel names (Kraft) and slightly altered (Radsen instead of Madsen – although he correctly refers to their Danish origins).
    Finally, I am curious how Depestre, who has had a deeply political life, leaves out the political-economic context. The last US Marines had left Haiti just four years before the book’s setting. The global depression was in full bloom with the world heading toward WWII. Tensions between blacks and mulatres were rising as the noirist/indigeniste post-Occupationmovement was taking hold. Was this because of his long absence – or a deliberate artistic choice – to isolate Jacmel from the global realities that would complicate the story?

    Joel Dreyfuss says:
  7. Good morning, everyone! Thanks for engaging with the questions. I am very excited to lead today’s discussion. In the interest of time, I am going to paste a few of the passages below that I am really interested in discussing with all of you.

    1. “All over the square, the various masks reconstituted the particular time and space that corresponded with the heroes they represented at the moment of their participation in the planet’s history. But historical memory had gotten mixed up….Alongside all the legendary characters, but never truly joining them in their fantastic adventure, roamed a host of other Jacmelian visions, just as fancifully dressed, but who had opted for the less spectacular roles of pigs, orangutans, birds of prey, bulls, sharks, cobras, crocodiles, tigers, Tonton-Macoutes, and leopards” (83-84).

    2. “This masked occasion had convoked three centuries of human history to my sister’s wake. Figures sculpted from the purest marble and figurines of rotten wood had come together to dance, sing, drink rum, and refuse death, kicking up the dust on my village square, which, in the midst of this general masquerade, took itself for the cosmic stage of the universe” (84).

    3. “For white people, the zombie is just one of those fanciful Haitian ways of dealing with fate. The Siloés would have made a mockery of my memories” (125).

    4. “In our country, it’s true: history repeats itself more than it does elsewhere” (126).

    5. “According to Uncle Ferdinand, a zombie–man, woman, or child–is a person whose metabolism has been slowed down under the effects of some organic toxin, to the point of giving all appearances of death; general muscular hypotonia, stiffened limbs, imperceptible pulse, absence of breath and ocular reflexes, lowered core temperature, paleness, and failure of the mirror test” (128).

    Marlene says:
  8. I am also wondering if some of the hyper-local aspects of the novel is intentionally opaque to a non-Jacmélian or non-Haitian reader, that it’s supposed to resist some of the “Letter from Jacmel” treatment of the visiting writer in the 2nd movement. Especially with Carnival, which is both hyper-local and increasingly sold to a non-Haitian gaze, I wonder if there’s a bit of insistence on unreadability.

    Stephanie Curci says:
  9. Grateful to Marlene for facilitating a wonderful conversation today, and for these brilliant comments. I am a PhD candidate in Art History at Columbia, and am interested in Négritude-era thought and writing primarily as it is filtered through African American writers and artists, so I am relatively new to Depestre. But this book is truly remarkable.

    Joel, you bring up a point that I was thinking about today and which resonated in your question about 1938- about the political-economic realities that quietly suffuse the text, but are not explicitly mentioned (except in the letter to Uncle Féfé as folks discussed today). If there are cultural references that would be legible to Jacmelians and Haitians, as Stephanie notes, it is curious too that these are transposed to a world that has been crafted as somewhat distinct or even autonomous save for certain coded references to global politics threaded through (the effigies in the carnival, for instance). This world has everything to do with the creation of rich scenes of carnival, and its legitimation of ‘inversion’ or turning typical conventions inside out, per Bahktin. The hilarious tensions between the Catholic purists and the Vodou practitioners draw this out especially.

    The aesthetic language describing the carnival scene, the details of the landscape, and the sensual intimacy among/between bodies consistently pulls me into this text as a visual thinker — and yet the question of the limits or parameters on carnivalesque “transgression” that someone brought up today feels relevant. New modes of world-making outside the constraints of class and colorism seem permissible in the space that Depestre illustrates for us.

    Abbe Schriber says:
    1. Abbe, these are really fascinating points, and connect with our broader exhibit project — all the artists also found the novel, and particularly the carnival scene, to be really striking visually. I like also how you emphasize the way that this kind of swirling visuality also creates a possibility for trangression and “new modes of world-making.” Great to have these thoughts!

      Laurent Dubois says:
  10. Hello,
    So sorry I missed yesterday, but logistics were impossible on my end yesterday. I loved reading your comments, notably from Rafe, and how your students have responded to the novel. Can’t wait to hear more about the conversation and I plan to be present for the third one.

    Also, if you expanded on the “opacity of hyper-locality,” as per Stephanie’s last post, I would love to know more. I often wonder about what it means for a novel to be ‘opaque,’ that is to whom? How is readership and perhaps intended readership involved. What I mean here, is how is ‘postcolonial culture industry’ (Sandra Ponzanesi, i.e. a French public sphere in which the novel was published) intended or not? Of course, it should not matter, according to those structuralists phenomenologists; and yet, the novel circulates based on readership. What many of us have found so elusive in the past in speaking about Depestre’s work, is that he seems to perform the elusiveness for everyone… so is it a ‘hyper-local’ opacity… or is it opaque for all readers… **if you spoke about the varying layers of opacity in relationship to the notion of the ‘carnavalesque’ then I am ‘navrée.’**

    Till next time. No need to answer at all! Just wanted to say I am present in intention and hopefully there for the December meeting.

    Again apologies, just had no childcare yesterday.

    Alessandra says:
    1. You were missed, Alessandra, but we’ll have the video and chat up soon. We were really just getting to these questions around locality and opacity at the end of the conversation (there never seems to be enough time!) but that would definitely be something we can jump right into during the next conversation, and of course something we can continue to explore in this space in the meantime.

      And this point about Depestre’s “elusiveness” is really fascinating and spot-on.

      Laurent Dubois says:
  11. I missed the session but have watched the recording of it, so thank you for making that available. I feel a bit timid as I respond to the discussion and to the book, as I am just a reader and not a scholar. All of you have fascinating things to say that make me realize how much I missed in my reading. You all speak of historical and literary allusions that passed right under my nose. I don’t imagine there are many authors who inspire this kind of collaborative effort at interpretation and celebration, and I am grateful to be a fly on this wall. Before taking a class with Professor Glover, all I knew of Caribbean literature was Danticat, Césaire, Walcott, Perse, Kincaid, Fanon, and CLR James, barely enough to count on two hands and not nearly enough to see all that you see. I confess at this point in my life to read almost exclusively for pleasure and so I read Hadriana as a simple love story, almost as the answer to a simple question put to the narrating couple, as if over dinner: how did the two of you meet? And what a wonderful answer! Some pleasures are more complex than others. I read the story of an obsession. There is a sighting, a wedding to the wrong man, a funeral, a carnival, a kidnapping, an escape and adventure, and at last a reunion followed by “ten years as a happy couple” into the present. A man seems to look back on his life from a more quiet future. He tells the story of his obsession with a woman, an obsession that he projects onto a town called Jacmel, a town made of realist bits of the town of his childhood mixed with fantasy and nostalgia. A young boy falls in love with the most beautiful woman in his town, in the world even, as the object of anyone’s infatuation is always the most beautiful person there is. The narrator makes of Hadriana a kind of Bizarro Beatrice, an inverted ideal, whose beauty demands that she take her rightful place in the world as sexual subject and object. When the journalist’s article on Jacmel makes no mention of Hadriana or the wedding, I had to ask myself, are the people keeping a secret? Does no one remember? Or is the whole story a vision of one young man’s passion for his beloved? Hadriana’s version of events spirals into a whole new world of horrific realism. Hers is not quite the same tale of a Haitian community worshiping a French girl. She leaves home. I found my mind wandering to another history, wondering if, despite all the retellings, Iphigenia has ever really written her story from the grave. Here, the adoring narrator makes Hadriana a cosmic sacrifice. She experienced things quite differently. I enjoyed hearing everyone in the discussion talk about carnival and the cosmic stage, and about Depestre’s work connecting Haitian history to world history. Literature is a strange thing. It seems to do different things in different places and times. It is hard for me to imagine a future that does not recognize Haitian history as world history, but who has a crystal ball? Multivalent histories will probably have to condense in oder to survive? Your discussion about carnival makes me wonder if one of the things “it does” while erasing boundaries and inverting identities is create memories. A paradox, perhaps.

    Brad Wahlquist says:

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