Michael Dash, professor of Francophone literature in the Departments of French and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and known for his work on Martinican writer Édouard Glissant, passed away on the morning of June 2 in New York City. I first met him when I was a graduate student and he a young UWI professor, and his example of diligent, insightful and committed scholarship has guided my own career. He will be sorely missed.
Born in Trinidad, Prof. Dash began his career at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and wrote extensively on Haitian and French Caribbean literature. His books include Culture and Customs of Haiti (2001), The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World Context (1998), Haiti and the United States (1997), Literature and Ideology in Haiti: 1915-1961 (1981), and Jacques Stephen Alexis (Black Images, 1975). He was also the co-editor of Libète: A Haiti Anthology (1999) and the translator of Edouard Glissant’s Monsieur Toussaint: A Play (2005) and Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (1989).
I remember reading recently that prophets are often defined by what they are not. I am not saying that Edouard Glissant was a prophet but he does represent an intellectual watershed in the Caribbean intellectual landscape. For the time being though, there is a tendency to regret what he was not. There has been a rash of criticism aimed at what critics call “the late Glissant” who is seen as blindly following Deleuzean nomadology in his apolitical celebration of global creolization. Even his defenders have tried to construct him as a “warrior of the imaginary” or pointed to the various political pamphlets written with Chamoiseau before his death. I think in both cases, critics are still haunted by the example of Frantz Fanon as a model for Caribbean writing. Glissant had never felt that literature should be put in the service of political causes – certainly not in a narrow, utilitarian way. He began writing at a time when a decolonized world heralded by politically committed writing was coming into being. These new nation states were flawed and there but there was no way of imagining alternatives. This was where literature as a new mode of cognition came in. As I have written elsewhere, Glissant, from the outset, proposed that writers and thinkers should be approached and frequented like towns. He said this about Faulkner and later about the figure of Toussaint Louverture. I think his thought should be approached in this way – an urban space of diversity, open to all and facilitating various intellectual itineraries. Perhaps, in accordance with the creole saying quoted in one of the epigraphs of Caribbean Discourse, “An neg se an siec” ( a black man is a century), the Glissantian century has only just begun.