Monday, September 23, 2013

Tracing the Baudelaire intertext in Aime Cesaire's "A Tempest"

You know the part in Cesaire's "A Tempest" where Antonio is making fun of Gonzalo's fantasies about the island they've landed on (which, three pages later, Gonzalo himself will call a "filthy hole"!), and he quotes a couple of lines of verse?
Men whose bodies are wiry and strong
and women whose eyes are open and frank
"I see you know your literature," Gonzalo responds.  But I didn't recognize it. On this reading I finally got curious enough to Google the quotation.  Nothing.  Turns out it's not a common (or particularly good) translation.  So I went to the French original and found
Des hommes dont le corps est mince et vigoureux,
Et des femmes dont l'oeil par sa franchise étonne.
It's a mid-19th-century poem by Charles Baudelaire, called "Exotic Perfume," in which the speaker reposes his head on his mistress' breasts and falls into a reverie, dreaming of sailing the open seas and coming ashore on a verdant and fragrant exotic island. 

What a perfect intertext.  Can you see why this particular late-Romantic French poem is such a great foil for Aime Cesaire's deconstruction of the French civilizing mission?

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