Desimone’s near-irrational hatred for the expression “crystal clear’’ preambles a reconsideration of Martiniquan poet-philosopher Édouard Glissant’s musings on “the Right to Opacity, le Droit à l’Opacité’’
What in purgatory do they mean, when they say “crystal clear?’’ or “Allow me to be crystal clear on this matter?’’
It shows that these denizens of purgatory have seldom glimpsed raw crystal, unearthed from the rock or dirt mounds, un-hewn: crystal is foggy; crystal is smoky.
Some of these semi-precious gems are nearly opaque to the unaided eye, like white or brown or rose quartz. “Crystal clear’’ refers to the fine crystal cups for champagne and chardonnay, sitting in a dining room cabinet where they collect dust awaiting some occasion for mirth or celebration, perhaps a wedding, or a lawsuit won. Crystal clear implies the love of “clarity,’’ transparency, and light, the evasion of obfuscations, a love for straight answers, directness. “Crystal clear’’ reveals a faith in the finished product at the end of refinement, a blissful unawareness among those who never saw the extraction of this raw material in its original state, so they can continue to live as if their fine glasses for cognac and liqueurs like amaretto or blue curaçao were plucked that way on trees, and taken to their liquor cabinets by gnomes.
Does the cliché “crystal clear’’ represent liberal Enlightenment values? Or Reformation values? In daily political discourses, “transparency’’ is the term oft-invoked by those who seek an end to corruption.
Societies of the subtropics — whether just below/sub the tropics of Capricorn or of Cancer — typically are associated with corruption and money laundering, as if the way the light falls around those tropics makes it easier to hide the money, or to dry it after laundering. Nationalities of the North-Atlantic typically receive more praise for their “crystal-clear transparency”. Denmark, Sweden, Canada: all cast as incorruptibles, exemplary beacons, their praises on the beaks and truth-loving lips the world-over, by lips singing in self-praise or syncing in self-criticism on all sides of the Atlantic.
Unearthing the etymology of the word “crystal’’ might provide an allegory for the ideological views that the Northern and Western part of the world has towards itself, and towards its South. Crystal, from Greek “Krystallos” originally “Kryo”, meaning “frost”, illustrates the ancient cryogenic theory of the origin of crystal rock. Today, an elementary knowledge of geology proves that crystal owes its existence to volcanic activity, but the ancients believed crystal minerals were a sort of fossilised ice, a prehistoric permafrost. (It is no accident that the ancient natural scientists of Greece, the physiologoi, were also the pre-Socratic Poets.) They believed it came from ice, and that hell was underfoot. Later science proved the contrary, and identified Fire as the true Mother of crystal. The mineral is to be found even in the topsoil of islands worn by the planetary equatorial belt, islands like Aruba and Tuvalu.
Take this early misconception as an allegory for the geographical zone that European and Western conversations typically associate with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was infamously thwarted in Europe. The Corsican Bonaparte’s usurpation of the French revolution and the return to imperialism caused Beethoven’s depression after composing the 9th symphony, the “Ode to Joy.” As a result of his fury and disappointment with the Liberal revolution he had supported, Beethoven from then on feigned deafness. Should Ludwig Von Beethoven have oded to a force other than Joy in Enlightenment? Perhaps to opacity?
20th century philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant (Saint Marie 1928-Paris 2003) from the island of Martinique, wrote on the praiseworthiness of opacity, and on a “right to opacity”, the right to that right’s indelibility and ineffaceable status.
We clamour for the right to opacity for everyone!
When Glissant first famously stated this, it led to his outraging entire conferences and befuddling audiences and scholars of opinion. As Glissant retells in a recent documentary shot before his death, the same audiences who took offence at his defence of opacity later celebrated the right they had discovered thanks to his showing them the way.
What could this mean? And in a time of jargon everywhere, obscurantist and unpoetic jargon, could this clamour for a right to opacity possibly be healthy? And if the bankers and the financial echelons encamped on Caribbean islands like Tortola near Glissant’s Martinique actually read poetry and philosophy, what would they think of such “clamour for a right to opacity?” Would such a right, especially if legislated, not then befit those very administrators of darkness, those expat signatories who use invisible ink in the sinewy amphibian banks of the Cayman and the Bahamas and the financial world seated in tempest-afflicted US and British Virgin Islands?
The philosopher Glissant, in his book The Poetics of Relation (English translator Betsy Wing) and elsewhere, clarifies (*but never “crystal-clear”) that opacity and obscurantism, for him at least, do not signify the same thing. Such an important distinction requires, and finds elaboration in Glissant, one of the poets who, along with Aimé Césaire stood at the forefront of the literary vanguard movement of “Négritude” in the early 20th century.
“The thought of opacity distracts me from absolute truths whose guardian I might believe myself to be. Far from cornering me within futility and inactivity, by making me sensitive to the limits of every method, it relativizes every possibility of every action within me. Whether this consists of spreading overarching general ideas or hanging on to the concrete, the law of facts, the precision of details, or sacrificing some apparently less important thing in the name of efficacy, the thought of opacity saves me from unequivocal courses and irreversible choices.”source
Négritude encompassed a search by poets writing in French, Spanish and even Dutch, seeking to alloy vibrant sounds and visions of the Americas and the African in a new vanguard poetics. Négritude occurred during a time when composing an identity — before the days of DNA testing for all — involved a more artistic act of connecting inspiring symbols, visions and sounds, rather than submitting oneself to (pseudo)scientific scrutiny. Later on in the postwar period, when Aimé Césaire attempted to narrow down and specify the Afro-Caribbean identity long after the cooling of that volcanic poesis of the birth of Négritude, Glissant challenged Césaire with his concepts of creolité. Glissant’s insistence that Caribbean islanders should not reduce themselves to the diasporic shadows of Africa, criticized a self-petrifying looking back at that continent while neglecting or denying the presence of other elements in their mixture, and the strength of being a new culture and society, the Creole, perhaps a unique model for future civilization, a society composed of the shipwrecks of intercontinental history. Perhaps Aimé Césaire’s vision having apparently crystallised and rigidified, led Glissant to once again praise opacity. Perhaps the Renaissance Christian and Liberal imaginary’s exaltation of the color white, the blank slate and the notion of white being race, also came hand in hand with a preference for clear, idealized reality and a notion of clarity, rather than mystery, being preferable.
Part of Glissant’s right to opacity, revealed in a recent documentary series of interviews on the “Poetics of Relation’’ by film-maker Mantha Diawara.
“Death is the outcome of the opacities, and this is why the idea of death never leaves us.” Here, the poet, talking about death, is at his most clear.
“A formidable prospect, less dangerous perhaps than the erring ways to which so many certainties and so many clear, so-called lucid truths have led. The excesses of these political assurances would fortunately be contained by the sense not that everything is futile but that there are limits to absolute truth.” Such a statement by Glissant resonates against today’s mainstream media’s insistence on its status as Ministry of Truth, and the constant resort to “scientific opinion”, oft-invoked by elites who understand little of science.
Perhaps the praise for opacity relates to a suspicion of statistics and apparent “evidentiary based arguments” that shield themselves from ideological or aesthetic challenge. Such a suspicion, famously encapsulated by Mark Twain’s “lies, damned lies and statistics” also finds its elaboration in Glissant, the poet-philosopher who often writes about the after-effects of colonial history, and his belief in “creolité” or a society of mixture and vibrant inter-cultural cross-pollination representing the only viable political future for the world. With Mark Twain, Glissant shares the belief in travel being “fatal to prejudice” in his philosophy. He muses on the forced travels of his ancestors, from Africa to the Caribbean; and the quest by the jazz musicians, using a cavernous and melancholy soundscape to seek out, to sonogram-map the cartography of the lost and distant African homeland, to remember by re-imagining. Without endeavouring darkness, or opacity, how can we arrive at real answers to our complex problems?
Compare Glissant’s explanation of jazz, to the paintings of Cuban painter Belkis Ayón (1967–1999) who made paintings and drawings suffused with imagery from her experiences in an Afro-Caribbean mystery cult in Cuba. These works of creolité and of originality, stand out in sharp deference and in an opacity that nonetheless communicate to us, in whispers and in thunder. Artworks that revere mystery, like Ayón’s, despite obsidian opacity of a palm-wine-dark sea, communicate on a level far surpassing more didactic statements found in much contemporary, sociologically-driven Latin American art on the market today. The bulk of contemporary curators and artists favour an aesthetic opposite of Ayón’s opaques: they want the sociological determinism of post-Cold War established art, the academic conceptualism that favours an empirical language of the social and “governmental’’ sciences, hostile to the human appetite for beauty and religious experience.
Glissant iterates “How can one point out these limits without lapsing into skepticism or paralysis? How can one reconcile the hard line inherent in any politics and the questioning essential to any relation? Only by understanding that it is impossible to reduce anyone, no matter who, to a truth he would not have generated on his own. That is, within the opacity of his time and place.” Here we can read in Glissant a defence of the act of appreciatively reading writers from the past whose societal viewpoints or shortcomings might run counter to our ethical norms better-informed by history after the fact. “Plato’s city is for Plato, Hegel’s vision is for Hegel, the griot’s town is for the griot”.
“Nothing prohibits our seeing them in confluence, without confusing them in some magma or reducing them to each other. This same opacity is also the force that drives every community: the thing that would bring us together forever and make us permanently distinctive.” Glissant in The Poetics of Relation.
Many would accuse a philosopher’s praise for opacity as Sophistry, the crime of itinerant “false philosophers”, poets denounced by Socrates for their beguiling ways. In his handy How to Philosophize with a Hammer Nietzsche insisted that Socrates only decried the Sophists because of envy, for the Sophists were better writers, and Socrates a failed poet, sour grape made vinegar.
But is Glissant’s poetic call for opacity in his Poetics of Relation the right remedy for insanity in our time of encryption, of guilds, of incomprehensible academic jargon, of technocracy and of a lack of democratic accountability?
Perhaps opacity — if distinguished from obscurity — nonetheless fulfills a subversive role today. Opacity can substitute answers requested by the online questionnaires of power. Cambridge Analytica has farmed our data, our candour and eagerness to answer Silicon Valley’s constant psychological pop-up questionnaires on social media. Perhaps the secret is not to “go offline” as Luddites, or to unplug all communications technology. Perhaps by exercising the right to opacity, we can hit back with an opal shard, an obsidian mallet, (Obsidian, an opaque rock, was once used by the Aztecs both as a mirror as well as a material for carving weaponry.) Resistance to regimes since antiquity and the middle ages often occurred by communication using a “veiled language”, as the Iranian poet Rumi called it, referring to metaphor and poetry. Poetry’s shield of opacity, its apparent nudity of feeling, thwarts Artificial Intelligence — our survival hinges on this gambit. The veiled language wields the greater candour.
Today’s politicians and systems of power — whether operating from within the centrist establishment or among the extreme right’s amateurs of violence — all promise tremendous accessibility, simplicity and menus of options. Rage arises when the promised results do not deliver. Therefore, as Glissant argues, “Widespread consent to specific opacities is the most straightforward equivalent of nonbarbarism. We clamour for the right to opacity for everyone”.
Whether or not he is the right poet-conjurer and thinker for our current junction of historical crisis and neo-barbarism, the poet-philosopher’s Poetics of Relation is in any case available in an English translation by Betsy Wing.
first published by medium.com: Re-published in herri with kind permission of the author.