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1The inspiration for this paper stems from the Mellon seminar paper presented by Delali Kumavie at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center on 25 February 2021. Her suggestive work on the poetics of air in Black literature opens new paths for analyzing air as concept and metaphor. As her respondent, I found her careful and rigorous approach rich in potential for unlocking new perspectives on history and culture. In her disquietingly incandescent poetic novella, La vie de Josephin le fou, completed with the energy of urgency in just two weeks in November 2002,2Devi writes the dates of November 11-26, 2002 at the end of the novella. Bragard mentions that Devi’s first draft was completed in three days (85). In an interview with Peter Hawkins, Devi explains: “Joséphin came from an anecdote which I kept to myself for probably twenty years and occasionally tried to write up but couldn’t, then suddenly when it came out it came as a sort of non-stop … I do tend to write very much in a poetic mode… Of course, after that there is all the reworking which is also a very important part. But first drafts are usually written very quickly because they are in that mood and mode” (10-12). Her return to that anecdote might have been triggered by the brutal torture and death of the Creole singer Kaya in police custody in 1999, the violent riots that erupted later, and the country’s intense public conversations about social inequalities and the so-called “malaise créole.” Mauritian author Ananda Devi explores Joséphin’s relationship with the protective aquatic environment that becomes his refuge from domestic abuse and maternal rejection:

J’ai pris l’habitude d’aller dans la mer chaque fois que le monde d’en haut criait trop fort. La mer m’a accueilli chaque fois sans poser de questions, elle avait pas de voix, la mer, que des sons transparents et mouillés, des sons qui vous bercent et vous endorment et vous cicatrisent et vous guérissent… . (20)

Going into the ocean became a habit every time the world up above would scream too loud. The ocean welcomed me every time, without asking any questions–the ocean had no voice, only sounds, transparent and soaked, sounds that could rock you to sleep and heal your wounds…. . (27)

The French-language narrative plays with the homonyms mer (sea/ocean) and mère (mother) to underline the nurturing maternal qualities of the deep, which it contrasts with the behavior of the abused and abusive human mother. Caught in a vortex of violence on land where he must always hold his breath and his tongue, Joséphin has developed the ability to survive without much air. This learned ability to restrict his breathing has prepared him for life under water:

J’avais pas besoin de respirer. J’avais tellement retenu ma respiration depuis bébé pour pas la mettre en colère… que c’était facile de le faire de nouveau pour rester longtemps longtemps sous l’eau. Vivre là, en captant quelques bulles d’air échappées des coquilles. (22)

I didn’t need to breathe. I had held my breath for so long as a baby to not make her mad…. that it was easy to do it again, to stay a long long time under water, to live there, off of a few air bubbles escaped from sea shells. (28)

In a story that takes on the generic characteristics of the fantastic, Devi thematizes the relationship between social or familial oppression and the physiological constriction of lungs due to oxygen deficiency. Joséphin’s (self-)denial of air speaks to us today, eloquently, of an urgent issue that became prominent in the past two years: choking as a form of torture inflicted upon victims of police brutality. The oft repeated slogan, “I can’t breathe,” militant words of the international Black Lives Matter movement, have become a rallying cry against oppression. “I can’t breathe” is recognizable everywhere as a sign of outrage against gratuitous human cruelty, and in 2020, George Floyd became its most famous contemporary symbol, after Eric Garner’s death in a choke hold first drew attention to the issue. Journalist Lonnae O’Neal has discussed Floyd’s fate, his tragic last moments, his call to his absent, deceased mother. O’Neal dwells on the words he uttered as he lay in the street: “Momma! Momma! I am through.” In her elegy to black motherhood, O’Neal asserts that a dying man’s call to his mother “is a prayer to be seen,” “a sacred invocation” that expresses the poignant hope that memory and justice will prevail. She invokes Floyd’s need to be recognized as a human being, to testify to his humanity with his last breaths, and thus to be remembered as having mattered. Her lyrical prose contains direct echoes of Martinican poet Aimé Césaire’s poem “Le cri” in which the narrator forces recognition of his humanity by leaving traces of his “souffle,” his breath, in the invisible presence-absence of air:

Le vent novice de la mémoire des méandres
À vif que par mon souffle
de mon souffle il suffise
pour à tous signifier
présents et avenir
qu’un homme était là
et qu’il a crié

The wind, inexpert at remembering meanders
is stung
to the quick that my breath
my breath alone suffices
to signify to all
now and forever
that a man was here
and that he screamed

The legacy of slavery is central to Césaire’s poetic output; it also remains the historical warp of modern structural racism in societies that are still working through their colonial plantation pasts. Mauritius is one postcolonial country among many in which that past still casts a long shadow and generates abiding social inequalities. Ananda Devi’s work is haunted by these exclusions and the impact they have on her most vulnerable compatriots. But, like Césaire, she works exclusively on the resources of poetic language to work through social concerns, and it is essentially by relation and analogy that her lyrical prose evokes or translates such concerns.

There is, at first glance, little in common between Devi’s broken and exploited Mauritian Creole mother and the trials of grieving African American motherhood, as addressed by O’Neal. Joséphin is a survivor who finds in the ocean a silent and nurturing, yet fiercely unforgiving, environment that suits his willed muteness and his state of bare life. The ocean cradles his childhood in softness, quiets the noise in his head, “les cris qui restaient coincés dans [s]on ventre” (19) [“the screams that stayed stuck in [his] stomach” (25)], and tells him gently to hush since words are useless in the silent marine world of the deep. His flight, or rather his dive, from harsh terrestrial conditions into soothing liquid existence culminates in dreams of return to a womb-like state of amorphous fusion with the sea, “la mer,” a feminine substitute for the absent mother, one that fills the void of his airless existence. This detachment from the mother but reattachment to a fluid maternal principle is mediated by the painfully learned capacity to escape the laws of gravity and the all-too-human dependence on air and oxygen. It is a statement of independence from the forces that would deny him air. Joséphin acts out a transfiguration from human to aquatic creature, and seeks membership into a family of black eels that first enthrall him, hugging him in their soft slippery embrace, but eventually smother and devour him. Horrific as it is, his death at the end of the book is but a peaceful surrender to the ruthless laws of nature: smelling blood on him (he has just murdered two young girls), they cannot recognize his more familiar marine odor, and the hungry migrating eels, on their journey to lay eggs, methodically set to work on his flesh and start a slow process of eating and incorporating him, piece by small piece of flesh.

The character of Joséphin has generally been read by critics as a variation on Devi’s sustained interest in monstrous and disturbing figures. But he is also her complex narrative study of our ambiguous relationship to air and breath, and to the maternal as alternately protective embrace and suffocating power. His initial ability to ration his intake of air but avoid asphyxiation offers an illuminating parable and concrete counterpoint to feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s theorizing of air as the repressed element in Heideggerian metaphysics and Western philosophy generally, air as both an intellectual concept and critical environmental factor that we take for granted at our risk and peril.

As the first scholar to have drawn attention to the centrality of air for the study of ontology, Irigaray begins by questioning even the feasibility of tackling or delineating a topic and invisible substance that escapes every effort to contain and define it. In L’oubli de l’air, she explains:

L’air ne se montre pas. Comme tel, il se dérobe à l’apparaître comme étant. Il se laisse oublier par la perception des nez eux-mêmes. À moins qu’une activité de l’homme ne l’ait préalablement fabriqué.

L’air reste ressource d’être impensée. Impensable?

Unruly and formless, air always escapes the operation that consists in giving it intellectual shape so as to master it. It is an intangible commodity, easily overlooked since it has no exchange value. Elusive and ethereal, air is literally invisible, unlike water and the mineral resources of the earth that we exploit through mining and trade. Yet, air and oxygen are the very conditions of life on our planet. The absence of sustained philosophical engagement with it is, for Irigaray, an index of the problematic individualism that has come to define western philosophy, “the paralysis in our intellectual tradition” (“From The Forgetting” 309). Hence its woeful neglect by philosophy as well as postcolonial literary and cultural criticism.

Irigaray points out that air is the first substance we take in upon being born. “Le premier appel est un appel d’air, il se confond avec un cri” (42) [“The first call is an aspiration of air, it is indistinguishable from a cry”]: the cry of the newborn that signals entry into the human condition, andle cri de détresse” (42) [“the cry of distress” (42)], that might announce an untimely exit from the world of the living, the moment when grown men pray to their mother. George Floyd’s last gasp, a boot on his neck blocking his airways, was such a “cri.”

Joséphin’s death, by contrast, is wordless. He is resigned to what he expects to be a painless and quiet exit that will complete his physical transfiguration from amphibious creature to aquatic foodstuff, useful to the survival of the eel species. In both cases, however, the denial of air frames a gruesome sacrificial outcome that ultimately serves to build community: among BLM supporters of Floyd on the one hand, and in Joséphin’s new family of invertebrates on the other.

Irigaray’s philosophical focus on breath provides us with tools to think through crises of respiration in which the simple ability to breathe is at issue. In 2020, impaired respiration became the symptom of a host of social issues, from the deadly pandemic to the egregious manifestations of structural racism. To put Joséphin in relation with the BLM movement and Devi in conversation with feminist philosophy, then, is to provide clarity and nuance to the project of understanding how the positing of air as an analytical tool for the study of oppression can open new avenues of thought.

The Trésor informatisé de la langue française defines “oppression” as follows:

  • A.
    • 1. Difficulté d’une personne à respirer et gêne qu’elle ressent au niveau de la poitrine.
    • 2. Gêne, malaise d’ordre psychique s’accompagnant au niveau de la poitrine d’une sensation de poids et d’une douleur sourde.
  • B.
    • 1. Action, fait d’opprimer.Empr. au lat. oppressio « action de presser; destruction, action d’étouffer (les lois, la liberté); action violente contre quelqu’un, quelque chose ».

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, on the other hand, prioritizes the sociopolitical meanings:

  • 1.
    • a. unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power
    • b. something that oppresses, especially in being an unjust or excessive exercise of power
  • 2. a sense of being weighed down in body or mind, of constriction.

The difference of emphasis in each language above reveals a certain blindness, in English, to the clinical meaning, namely “chest tightness.” The phrase “I can’t breathe” has made more concrete to the bilingual among us the strong connection between the social and the physical definitions of “oppression.” The inability to breathe is described as “an oppression of the lungs” in French, and we commonly say “je suis opprimé.e“–”I am oppressed” if we have shortness of breath, asthma, or any number of lung or heart problems. “Oppression” is a polyvalent word that applies both to merely physical symptoms and to domination or its hegemonic hold on persons and cultures. The socio-political denotation is much more familiar: oppression as supremacy, coercion, repression, persecution— and of course as punishment that can take the form of a physical withholding of air, either from an individual (by law enforcement officers) or from groups of captives thrown into the dungeons of Gold Coast slave castles by overseers and colonial administrators (as pointedly scrutinized in Delali Kumavie’s work). To discuss airlessness and colonial oppression together is thus to connect two linguistic meanings that convey the powerful and haunting ways in which language does the work of exposing cultural connotations and registering histories of violence.

It is relevant to note that the physiological denotation “gêne respiratoire” only emerges, according to the TILF, in 1659 under the pen of Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch physicist who made crucial contributions to the science of dynamics, earned the admiration of Descartes, Colbert, and Louis XIV, and a position at the French Academy of Sciences. If that physiological meaning appears later than the social one, which TILF dates to the 12th century, it is instructive that the former coincides with the expansion of the slave trade. By the 17th century, holding cells in which captive Africans were tightly packed had become indispensable to slave traders. Elmina Castle in Ghana was seized from the Portuguese by the Dutch in 1637, a fact that cannot have escaped Huygens’s attention. The island of Gorée in Senegal, which we now commonly associate with the French trade, was actually named after the Dutch island of Goeree in the Netherlands. It was an outpost of the Dutch East India Company or VOC in West Africa until 1664.Irigaray’s general argument and her articulation of physiological functions that anchor ontology in biology remind us not to decouple the layers of sedimented meanings that are the verbal traces of history. For her, air is the element that defines the human condition—Being in the Heideggerian sense—not earth as Heidegger implies. It belongs to no one and is shared by all. It is what defines us as being “of woman born” (to use Adrienne Rich’s words). Air thus underscores our connection to nature and to others. It is the paradox at the heart of our universal condition of in/dependence from the (m)other, giver of life. In the 2001 essay “From The Forgetting of Air to To be Two” that extends the approach of her 1983 book, Irigaray explains that:

Breathing inscribes in its rhythm the renunciation of the dream of fusional proximity to she who gives life or restores it: the mother, or nature. To breathe is to separate from her, to be reborn…. To breathe is to leave prenatal passivity, to leave the infantile state, dependent or mimetic, to leave simple contiguity with the natural universe, in order to maintain and cultivate a status as an autonomous living being.

Life is never simply mine […] it comes to be thanks to the shared air and atmosphere. […] Food and even speech can be assimilated, and partially become mine. But it is not the same for air. I can breathe in my own way, but the air will never simply be mine.

Like U.S. second-wave feminists, and the other so-called “French Feminists” (Algerian-born Hélène Cixous, and Bulgarian-born Julia Kristeva), Belgian-born Irigaray’s focus on biology and reproductive rights marked an important era of theoretical reflection on the specificities of the female condition, including motherhood, as the neglected degree-zero of gender normativity. That emphasis on breathing and being born is echoed in O’Neal’s mystical elegy. She highlights how air is key to the dialectic of autonomy and relationality, proximity and distance:

If breathing estranges me from the [m]other, this gesture also signifies a sharing with the world that surrounds me and with the community that inhabits it.

Going out of the mother, I come into the air, I enter into the world, and into the community of living beings. (312)

These insights about the sharing of breath have become painfully relevant during our continuing pulmonary health crisis. Paradoxically, the realization that we are so interdependent has led us to greater mistrust and forced distancing. When occupying the same physical space as others, we have become weary of the proximity of their breath, suspicious of their status, and vigilant about the wearing of masks or other protective equipment. More conscious of the fact that we are dangerously connected by the contents of our lungs and the air we breathe, we have had to keep to ourselves to avoid sharing viruses. To breathe in someone else’s presence during this pandemic is to be exposed to an invisible and seemingly inescapable enemy. It is because of this danger that we are urged to dwell in our own separate environments, uncontaminated by one another’s physiological processes, all the while craving more concrete social and physical forms of communication, more familial and loving intimacies.

At the same time, a consequence of these crises of 2020 has been to train the world’s attention on the lethal connection between breathing and cultural oppression. The punishing treatment meted out to Black bodies in slavery and beyond, and the blatant contemporary profiling resulting in gratuitous deaths, seemed to break through the consciousness of many who understood perhaps for the first time that the historic ground and repressed feature of our democracy is systemic racism.

Irigaray thoughtfully questions the validity of an intellectual activity that bypasses the analysis of air despite the fact that it is the ubiquitous substance that marks our entry into “the community of [breathing] living beings.” She is thus the first, in French, to undo the inability of philosophy to think relationally about ontology and community. Others, such as Édouard Glissant and Jean-Luc Nancy, have since theorized relationality and community, respectively, and continued to shift the epistemological ground.

By valuing autonomy, Western thought created a blind spot about the (generally unconscious) exchange of air that defines much of life on our planet. To think with Irigaray is to understand that to withdraw from such exchange is tantamount to withdrawing from the human community, a situation illustrated by the pandemic.

However, it is the poetic and narrative language of Ananda Devi that seems best to illuminate the impasse in which we end up, since Joséphin’s yearning for the maternal in its oceanic state involves a scenario in which his almost-but-not-quite airless life facilitates his incorporation by marine animals whose survival his body enables. He thus returns to what Irigaray describes as a state of “contiguity with the natural universe” (“From The Forgetting” 311), infans, speechless and formless, his transfiguration serving to blur the boundary between the human and the animal.

Floyd’s death, by contrast, galvanized a resistance movement to reaffirm human dignity that cut across all global social and ethnic communities: “[A] man was here,” as Césaire says. It thus remains for philosophy, forty years after Irigaray’s first discussions of air, to think and rethink the human/nature dualism and our ethical responsibility to “Mother” nature as well as to one another.

Works Cited

  • Bragard, Véronique. “Enfant des vagues ou de la vase? Symbolique marine dans La vie de Joséphin le fou d’Ananda Devi.” Women in French Studies, vol. 15, 2007, pp. 84-97.
  • Césaire, Aimé. “Le cri.” L’Esprit créateur, vol. 32. no. 1, 1992, pp. 5-6. Translated by Annette Smith in “A Man Was Here: Aimé Césaire Revisited,” Research in African Literatures, vol. 37, no. 2, 2006, pp. 125-140.
  • Devi, Ananda. La vie de Josephin le fou. Gallimard, 2003. Translated by Heather Jones as The Life of Madman Joe, unpublished thesis.
  • Hawkins, Peter. “An Interview with Ananda Devi.” Wasafiri, vol. 26, no. 2, 2011, pp. 8-13.
  • Irigaray, Luce. “From The Forgetting of Air to To Be Two.” Translated by Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluhácek, Feminist Interpretations of Martin Heidegger, edited by Nancy J. Holland and Patricia Huntington, Penn State University Press, 2001, pp. 309-15.
  • —. L’oubli de l’air. Minuit, 1983. Translated by Mary Beth Mader in The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, University of Texas Press, 1999.
  • Kumavie, Delali. “The Air Between Us: Reading the Poetics of Air in Global Black Literature.” Unpublished.
  • O’Neal, Lonnae. “George Floyd’s Mother was Not There But He Used Her as a Sacred Invocation.” Commentary, The Undefeated, May 28, 2020.
  • Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. W. W. Norton and Co, 1995.
  • Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé (TLFI), http://atilf.atilf.fr.calarts.idm.oclc.org/dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/advanced.exe?8;s=1320254850;
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