Jean Métellus has died. Better to put it that way than “is dead,” because he was the sort of person who did things in the active voice. Though I am sure he didn’t want to, he has gone into the great night after a sojourn among us that began in 1937. He was a year younger than my father and three years older than my mother. I felt for him the filial respect of a reader and the conditional identification of a translator (for I did translate him, but one of my reasons for doing so is that I felt a strong difference between his literary personality and my own). I am reminded of how he signed his letters:
Indéfectiblement: what’s that in English? An indéfectible is someone who never gives up, never deserts. And that he was. Convinced that the wretched of the earth were never going to get a fair deal unless they stood up and risked death to demand it, writing his poetry every morning under a big bright picture of Toussaint Louverture, he was indeed indéfectible. A real lefty. Not a deserter. Unshakeable.
Le Monde has a short bio here. “Jean Métellus, 1937-2014, a figure of the Haitian intellectual scene.” I’ll have more to say about it later, but what does it mean to call a man “a figure of the Haitian intellectual scene” when he’s been living in France for more than fifty years? Headlines are rarely written by the journalist who wrote the corresponding article, but I must say that this way of putting things rather confirms than denies the accusation made by the great poet that “French racism is if anything more severe in 2014 than in 1959” (see the article). Métellus? Black man, therefore figure of Haitian intellectual scene, therefore not our problem. Meanwhile, much more importantly, Philippe Sollers has changed his mind about something…
And further Le Monde, God love them, resorts to an esoteric vocabulary when describing Métellus’s book of odes to the heroes of black resistance to racism (e.g.: Rosa Parks, M. L. King Jr., Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela) as being touched occasionally “by angelism or Manicheanism.” That is? Decoded: Métellus occasionally simplified the record, making these resisters unambiguously good and the people against whom they struggled unambiguously bad. A grievous sin against subtlety… But in order to keep it all in the register of polite disagreement, Le Monde uses terms that will be understood by only a few. Is the French paper of record afraid of the Front National, so that they can’t call racism by its name any more? Looking back over Métellus’s broadsides against white privilege, I see the simplification as understandable and not the last word in a competition that has generations yet to run. I had no problem sympathizing with his sympathy. He hated to see good people condemned to live rotten lives because it was more convenient to someone else that it should be so.
Unshakeably. That should sum it up, Monsieur le Docteur Métellus, poète et citoyen éternel de Jacmel. Cher ami, porte-parole extraordinaire des Muses haïtiennes, général de l’armée des mots, may you have readers as long as words are read, and may they recognize your zeal for justice, which spoke through your personas of neurologist and poet. Ainsi soit-il.