Sartre’s and Oyono’s Black Orpheus: Returning (to the Question of) the Gaze in Une vie de boy

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,149 words

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[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, Reis explores the relationship between Christian missionary work and colonial subjugation as the two are presented in Houseboy. He suggests that in the novel, the Church’s “mission of salvation” paves the way for colonization by placing Europeans in a position of unquestionable authority.]

In Orphée Noir, Jean-Paul Sartre invokes the mythic figure of Orpheus to introduce an eminent group of black poets in Léopold Sédar Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (1948).1 Comparing these poets’ soul-searching to Orpheus’s descent into Hades to rescue Eurydice (xvii), Sartre reaffirms the role that poetic or literary agency plays in the struggle for human rights and civil justice. In opposition to Sartre’s efforts to Hellenize these black poets, Fanon would remark four years later that the average black man could not afford “cette descente aux véritables Enfers” (6) nor could he represent “les autres,” that is, “[c]eux qui n’ont ‘point de bouche,’ ceux qui n’ont ‘point de voix’ …” (151).2 Contradicting Fanon’s claims, the boy—the stereotypical black manservant who becomes the grass-roots representative of the colonized African—would incarnate the figure of Black Orpheus four years later in Ferdinand Oyono’s Une vie de boy (1956).3 Unlike its Sartrean counterpart, however, who emerges from Hell unscathed and triumphant, Oyono’s Black Orpheus descends into Hell as he succumbs to the sadomasochistic structure of the colonial system.4 In the context of this novel, Hell represents the vicious circle of colonial alienation, coterminous with what Fanon called “ce cercle infernal qui [le] renvoie à [lui]-même” (176), before it becomes a question of a real self-redemption or a true return to the self.

The Colonialist Gaze vs. the Sartrean Gaze in Une vie de boy

Under the pretext of resisting the influence of Western epistemology on the cultural specificity of what is essentially an anticolonial Cameroonian novel, critics have tendentiously dismissed the Sartrean gaze as a means of purchase on Oyono’s representation of colonial relations in Une vie de boy.5 The Black Orpheus, who irreverently returns the gaze back to the colonial master in the beginning of Orphée noir, may have contributed to the critical undervaluation of the Sartrean concept of the gaze on the interpretation of the colonial relationship between the commandant and the boy. While Black Orpheus’s reversal of the gaze may have been instrumental to the anticolonial movement in the early 1950s (Majumdar 92; Masolo 29; Watts 194-95), Oyono demonstrates in Une vie de boy that the subversion of the colonialist gaze was part and parcel of colonial relations. In the chapter of L’être et le néant (428-84) dealing with the gaze (le regard) and its hellish effect on the concrete interpersonal relationships we engage with others in life, rather than in the after-life (as in Huis clos),6 Sartre sets forth the key concepts of the phenomenology of the gaze that shed light on the chronically ignored hellish aspect of the colonial relationship in Une...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100121827