Souleymane Bachir Diagne, currently Professor of French and of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York, is the epitome of the cross-disciplinary public intellectual, rare as that role is in the United States today. Trained in Paris by Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and Bernard Pautrat, Diagne was early on a specialist in formal logic, the history of mathematics, and epistemology. But he has become a beacon of cross-cultural dialogue in our world of permeable physical and intellectual borders and the Internet.
Diagne’s African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude, reviewed here, was first published in English translation ten years ago. (Its original French title was Léopold Sédar Senghor: L’art africain comme philosophie.) Diagne’s more recently published autobiography, Le fagot de ma mémoire (‘The Kindling-Wood Bundle of My Memory’)(2021), vividly documents his personal trajectory from Senegal to France to the United States and his engagement with major thinkers at each stop, beginning with Senghor (1906-2001), Senegal’s ‘poet-president’ and co-founder of the immensely influential – equally controversial – Negritude movement in the 1960s.
Old World Senegal’s contributions to New World effervescence are nothing short of awe-inspiring, from the modern nation’s early days of Senghor and Mamadou Dia (who, after being jailed by Senghor, became one of Africa’s most persuasive writers on Islam and modernity, and on the application of the ideals of socialism to African societies) to the current ethos of planetary stars Youssou N’Dour or Sadio Mané. In just these past few days, there has emerged a remarkable wave of worldwide acclaim for the literary talent of the 2021 Prix Goncourt laureate, thirty-one-year-old Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.
Through a South African lens, the Senegalese government’s instrumental role in fostering secret negotiations in Dakar during the late apartheid years that contributed mightily to the eventual transfer of state power out of the apartheid government’s hands may be ‘news’ to Born Frees but is another poignant example of the country’s longstanding soft power influence in Africa and beyond.
A singular aspect of Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s genius lies in his ‘bundling’ of the intellectual energies of a profoundly religious culture with a concomitant Senegalese zeal for universal values, for a respect of the human person. In this, he draws upon both classic Senghorian inspiration and Sufi Islam. In African Art as Philsophy, Diagne’s touchstone is the French-Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), classmate of Jean Jaurès and Émile Durkheim at France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, where Diagne also completed his philosophical studies.
Though seminal amongst some philosophers, Bergson was a somewhat forgotten figure after the Second World War in the larger academic world, until Gilles Deleuze revived interest in his work with the 1991 publication of his Bergsonism. Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s Postcolonial Bergson (2019) extended Diagne’s ideas from African Art as Philosophy. ‘Bergsonian philosophy’, he had written in the earlier work, ‘has truly marked the end of a paradigm’: namely, the model of a ‘closed world’ impervious to the flux of time that had governed Western thought since Aristotle. Impervious, also, to ‘the eye’s reason’, as Senghor framed it. Bergson’s Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1989) opened new vistas for Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who sought and found, in the linkages between Senghor and Bergson, a ‘rehabilitation of intuition’ anchored in Bergsonian conceptions of time. Diagne opines that this took on ‘crucial importance in Senghor’s thought’.
Diagne proceeds to survey a vast horizon of critical readings of Negritude, from Sartre (‘Black Orpheus’ [1948, a preface to an anthology of Black writing in French, edited by Senghor himself]) to Teilhard de Chardin, and running through the likes of Paul Valéry, and the art critic Pierre Schneider, whom Senghor had quoted approvingly to the effect that
‘[a]rt founded on intelligence identifies things; art founded on emotion identifies with things. The work of art is no longer a discourse on its object, rather, a dialogue with it’.
For all of his contradictions both as a politician and as a thinker, it is indisputable that Léopold Sédar Senghor was – and is – one of the most important African philosopher-artists in modern times.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne writes with exhaustive erudition and an alluring verve. Here in African Art as Philosophy, he lays bare, through the uncanny intimacy of a philosophical method he seems uniquely born to have perfected vis-à-vis of a national (even Pan-African) hero, the fundamental symbiosis between art and philosophy that is unseen by most.
Translated by Chike Jeffers. Seagull Books, University of Chicago Press, 2011