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The CLR James Journal

Volume 26, Issue 1/2, 2020

Celia Britton
Pages 119-132

“Double Consciousness,” Cultural Identity and Literary Style in the Work of René Ménil

The notion of double consciousness, as a characterization of black subjectivity, is basic to Ménil’s critique of the alienated “mythologies” of Antillean life and its self-exoticizing literature. Double consciousness renders cultural identity deeply problematic. But it has other, more positive, manifestations, closer to a Bakhtinian idea of dialogism. Thus he praises Césaire’s use of irony as a dual voice. Ménil’s valorization of complexity and ambiguity in literature, against the simple naturalism favoured by the Communist Party but which he insists is not a truly Marxist position, is thus linked to his view of the necessary “doubleness” of Antillean consciousness. Conversely, the simplicity of folklore can offer a basis for cultural identity, but not for good literature. Although Ménil emphasizes the importance of Antilleans reclaiming their history, this is less about discovering one’s roots than providing a dynamic grasp of one’s ever-changing place in a social reality governed by the Marxist dialectic. “Double consciousness” precludes the comforts of fixed identities, but it is a dialectical, not a tragic condition.