Tchicaya U Tam’si, born in 1931 in M’pili, Congo, died in France in 1988. Poet, novelist, and playwright,Tchicaya U Tam’si is one of the greatest writers in french-speaking.
His works include
collections of poems : 'Le mauvais sang' (1955), 'Feu de brousse', 'À triche cœur' (Ed.P.J. Oswald), 'Le ventre' (1964), 'Le pain ou la cendre' (1978, Ed. Présence Africaine)·
theatre : 'Le destin glorieux du dernier Maréchal Nnikon Nniku, prince qu’on sort'(1979, Éd. Présence Africain), 'Le bal de Ndinga' (1987).
p class="p1">novels : 'Les cancrelats' (1980), 'Les méduses ou les orties de mer' (1982), 'Les Phalènes' (1984, Ed. Albin Michel), 'Ces fruits si doux de l'arbre à pain' (1987, Ed. Seghers).
[published in RN 05 in June 1992, unpublished original text from a letter written in 1988 in French translated by Victoria C. Koppel.]
[This text can be read as an exchange of ideas with his compatriot Sony Labou Tansi and his 'The Infernal Letter to Monsieur Arthur Rimbaud' published in RN 08 in December 1991]
”l’d rather run with the wind of history or lose myself in wine,
it's revenge on the agony which always comes too soon.
Stop fatalism. ”
These few premonitory lines came from Tchicaya in early 1988,
some time before his death, with New Year’s wishes and the text of ’The Source’.
He added that he wanted to be an iconoclast to the faith of God-Source worshippers.
Revue Noire seems to be the right place to share this free thought.
Nicole de Pontcharra
Origin and identity: the two facets of a door seen from the same side. It is, in fact, admissible that origin legitimize identity. Origin nourishes identity, lends it credence, authenticity, stamps it with a luster and shine which are its mark. This is why, one says for instance, “like the source, like the river”. Yet no river starts at its source. It comes together further down, where it’s majestic, barely recognizable from what it was at the source. So the adage “like the source, like the river” doesn’t entirely hold true. Climates encountered determine more than the source, for they correct, they shape. The terrain covered along the way is decisive. In short, a river is unrecognizable to its source. The river cannot deny its source, but the parental tie is obliterated in a profound severing. This severing creates not a boundary, but two paths, two destinies perfectly independent from one another. The river has a different destiny than its source. And a different identity.
The modest origin of the source cannot then be compared to the bounteousness of the river, taking so much water from elsewhere, even from other sources. Blue Nile, Red Nile. On two slopes of the same river basin, of course. The source has but one landscape, the river has thousands enough to spare, upstream and down, before being swallowed by the sea.
The source is to the river like origin is to identity. The identity of an individual is not a given. It is as unstable and unpredictable as the course of a budding river searching for balance. Identity is not a given because it’s dynamic. Yes, the source is to the river like origin is to identity. We can accept the definition of man offered to Diogenes : a two-legged animal, who, once weaned, can use his two legs to move. Does this animal return to its mother’s womb ? Never. Mother and son have two destinies. Their bond is emotional and therefore subjective. There is no evidence that the bond is of any other nature, for in reality, it is purely moral. From the time of Abel, Eve is a woman shared with Adam. The idea of mother, exclusive spouse of father, is noble, of course, but dangerously neurotic. It’s a sorry son who never desired his mother, unless he condemned himself to the hypocrisy of desiring her in vain in the bodies of other children of Eve. The tragedy of the Oedipus complex is born of this aberration.
Even more so, where does one take root ? I mock those who boast of roots which cannot be seen. These roots are but too fictional. Braggarts launch into haunty hyperbole to speak of them, but can’t make them real to a deaf-mute. The vanity of genealogy !
Heredity is cultivated. Atavism is an animal reflex inside us. But animality is what society tries most to destroy. Education seeks to remodel man and drives at reproducing a counterfeit being. Docility anticipates the revolt against dogma. An original destiny must be founded on more than just heredity and atavism together. It is almost inconceivable that two brothers, known blood relations, could have such similar behavior as to be mistaken for the same destiny.
The banners of identity, source and roots, are flown high and brandished to mislead the people, to distract them from the necessity of earning their daily bread. To cradle them in pernicious illusions so they accept their lives when the time comes. The roots one speaks so much of don’t protect anyone from toothaches and other ills, nor from the worst, like hunger. The fruit of the tree is more important than its roots ; for the tree at least, its roots are not a prideful abstraction.
Look at me far from my source
among the plankton
that eats fish
that comes from depths which know not
the tropical climate limed with herbs and trees
when the moment i was born
has died with time gone by
must I survive its agony
I’ll romp on the back of
I too, am far from my “roots”. For me it’s life around the globe, waiting for the migration to other galaxies. Peace in the happiness of freedom from all constraints and every loyalty to putrid agonies. I’d put fire to my wounds. I am fearless of heartache. If I have a word of advice for those chained to the soil, it’s “Move ! Get about ! Throw down the taboos ! Live a lively life alive, grow ! Sooner piss on the land that bore you, it’ll be better fertilized.
I come back to the soft water of the source. Its song more cristalline than the river rolling toward the sea, carrying me with it. I had my footing, and all of a sudden, levitation isn’t enough, to confront the surf, driven mercilessly between two banks by the horrifying waves of the high seas. So I know the hazardous and human adventure, but the source didn’t have to run dry. It can stagnate, murky, nothing but itself, stuck there. Source-genius-Lare*, with no thirst for faraway. Sheltering no dreams of evasion. Tortured by none of the nightmares which make you jump out of bed and in a flash see the light of the newborn morning. To fondle pebbles is to stagnate. So I take the side of travel. I haven’t got my feet on the ground ? It doesn’t matter. I’m drunk on the feeling of sea breezes that swirl all around. And every dawn will be mine, if I triumph over the precariousness of the human adventure.
From as far away as I can remember, I’m mud colored. Ochre or miry. Green too, with the putridness of vegetables my gluttonous digestion releases, cerebrally colicky. I am perfectly well aware that the pride we have in our origins is a fixation with the past. I quiver in anticipation of salt baths the sea promises. The sea baths will provide for me. No, I won’t swim upstream to the source, against the current pulling me to the sea.
Decidedly, to be up to my ankles in the source water would forever prevent me from going beyond the human adventure. I wouldn’t like that. I’d sooner the source run dry and the sand storm fly, ‘til the thick waters of the placenta are forgotten.
I’m a fire thief
because I’m sulfur
and phosphorous of flesh
with a soul aquamarine
Fire thieves never stay still. Camp after camp, they douse the useless hot ashes with the dirty water of their ablutions and take off, fearless of sandstorms in the desert, caring only to preserve the light within themselves, counting on the Southern Cross to keep death from a second chance at their lives. Every danger overcome is a seminal lesson and an experience acquired. Ask these thieves of fire to chant you their star course, you’ll agree their memory is of time to come, and not time gone by with Job, wallowing on a dung heap. Life is a conquest, not a reminiscence. Charge the fire in the sky ! Charge the sun ! Light is easier to digest than basalt or gritstone. I say Fy ! to ancestors of every sort. Except for the fiery ones, rare as they are.
I’ve been too tainted by all I’ve seen and done to believe in the lustrousness of the source. I remember it not as a fountain of youth but as a place so narrow I had to duck my head, which is big and battered by hard knocks. Truth has scarred me with so many pock marks and other calamities that I wouldn’t recognize myself in the image the source would have of me, and would show me if I did indeed go back. I could arrive in broad sunny daylight or by the light of the full moon, the air infected with sweet lichens.
In short, I don’t believe in roots any more than I believe in origins. Moorings undone I don’t know how many moons ago. I will always turn my back on the place I’m coming from. With a fragile neck I never turn my head to look back nostalgically. Under any circumstances. Because every crisis of nostalgia that hits me grieves my heart and drowns my lungs. I run in the open air with nostrils hungry to inhale the scent of algae and iodes. That’s how it is, maybe the source which brought me into this world, one day toward evening, conceived of me this way. Hell if I know.
And if the sea was the real source
the rivers for lack of salt
the rivers dirty themselves with mud
mixed up by the feet of vandals
with the blood of their victims.
The origins I worry about most are the ones which have been disfigured by the bloody History of vicious hegemonies. Like the votive fountains consecrated to the cult of ancestors whose idiocy is rendered divine.
The placenta, first place of arms
The umbilical cord, first tie
To which abuse of fidelity do I abandon myself
I prefer to play out the drama of drowning
on the back of a sperm whale
It’s prescribed in the ritual of birth. The two ends of the umbilical cord are broken, the belly button knotted. A scar bears witness to this brutal rupture. If my stomach wears it still - like a stigma, a withering - it’s one more reason not to give this barbaric ritual any forgiving value. Expelled from the womb, thrown out to graze in the world, I will forever seek the light to hide myself behind, to escape old demons, old instincts. Gregarious or not.
I believe the idea of origin is mythifying. A dangerous mystique. From this myth, alas, come the legions of prophets ever so ready to promise the apocalypse if we don’t seek shelter in the shadow of submission to their dogma. Shall I submit ? Never ! I’d sooner sell my soul to the devil. The most intimate revelations come to us from sources which no longer exist. My goal, therefore, is to be the wandering light of a dead source. De profundis, then. Clamavi ! Adventure, rather than feet tied to obsolete certitudes.
Put asunder all that could nourish this imbecilic fantasy !
All aprioris are neurotic. It doesn’t matter where the wind and wine come from.
Tchicaya U Tam’si, from a letter of 1988
* Lare : a household god.