In Memory of Jacques Coursil (1938-2020)

By: Natalie Melas, 
Wed, 09/16/2020

 In Memory of Jacques Coursil  (1938-2020)

Le cri de l’esclave, de l’opprimé, s’étouffe dans sa gorge.  S’il crie, on le bat, il est mort—le cri à pleine voix est le privilège de l’homme libre.  Dans la langue des poètes, le cri noué se mue en écrit.

The slave’s cry, the scream of the oppressed, strangles itself in his throat.  If he cries out he’s beaten, dead—the scream is a free man’s privilege.  In the language of the poets, the knotted cry is transmuted into writing.

Jacques Coursil, Liner notes, Clameurs (Universal, 2007) 

With deep sadness and renewed gratitude for the time he spent amongst us, we mark the passing of Jacques Coursil who died (or, as the French say it, ‘was extinguished”) on June 26, 2020 in Belgium, in the arms of his wife, the linguist Irene Mittelberg.  Scholar, thinker, jazz trumpeter and experimentalist, arranger and impresario, our brilliant friend and erstwhile colleague’s passions and pursuits fell into three broad categories:  Music, Linguistics or the Philosophy of language, and Literature.   Jacques taught at Cornell from 2002-2005 as visiting professor of Francophone Literature and Cultures and Postcolonial Critique, coming to us as a result of a chance encounter with our colleague Jonathan Culler at a conference on Ferdinand de Saussure.  He had previously taught French literature as well as Linguistics and Semiology at the University of Normandy in Caen, and Sciences and Philosophy of Language at the French West Indies University (U.A.G. Martinique).  His courses at Cornell covered topics such as “Francophone Literatures and Cultures,” “Empire and Decolonization in Francophone Literature,” “Postcolonial Discourse Theory in Francophone Texts,” “Women Writers in Francophone Literatures.”   During his second year at Cornell he won a teaching award for contribution to feminist studies for his course on “Women Writers in Francophone Literature.” 

Most of us here first encountered Jacques as a probing and deeply erudite scholar of Antillean literature and philosophy, with particular attention to the writings of Édouard Glissant.  While at Cornell he published a number of scholarly articles.  Amongst them are discerning essays on Négritude, on Wole Soyinka, on Maryse Condé, but the essay that most pointedly exhibits the trace of his passage through the US academy on his thought is “Le Paradoxe Francophone” published in an English version in collaboration with Delphine Perret as “The Francophone Postcolonial Field” in Postcolonial Theory and Literature in a Francophone Frame : Intersections and Re-Visions, eds. Murdoch and Donaday, (University Press of Florida, 2004).   Through the different and somewhat broader prism of postcolonial critique as this strain of inquiry developed in the US academy, Jacques re-visited the texts of foundational Martinican poets and thinkers (Césaire, Fanon, Glissant).  He put together a collage of extracts from Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks that was to find its most famous outlet in the third and last cuts of his celebrated oratorio Clameurs (Universal, 2007) in the process of teaching the text in his “Postcolonial Discourse” class at Cornell (he circulated a text by email titled “Fanon en poème” in May of 2006).  This whimsical assay may have been the dry run for the method of creative collage through which he shaped the texts of the oratorio.   At his death he was finessing a book he had been working on a long time, once titled La Tragédie du Soleil: Poétiques d’Auteurs : Césaire, Fanon, Glissant [The Tragedy of the Sun: Poetics of the author in Cesaire, Fanon, Glissant ]and more recently, Le Paradoxe Francophone.  With luck, we can bring it to light one day soon.  Elegant, concise, carefully reasoned and seeded with clarifying insight, Jacques’s critical writings are a profoundly original contribution to our understanding of the philosophy of language and of Antillean thought and poetry in the broader context of  the decolonial condition. In his writings and in conversation and no doubt in his teaching, Jacques could softly blow windows open in your mind in walls you didn’t even know were there.

His stay in Ithaca was brief but pivotal.  It was here that he returned to performing music, after a 40-year hiatus.  He recorded Minimal Brass in a studio in the woods near Ithaca with our colleague Barry Maxwell in attendance and Ramez Elias photographing the session.  The success of Minimal Brass led to the contract for what would become the oratorio Clameurs, heralded as “a masterpiece” (Libération), and placing Coursil “in the company of the mythical figures in the world of music”(Vibrations).  Intellectually, poetically and politically, Clameurs is in many ways the fruit of his thinking and teaching at Cornell.  Jacques’ Cornell colleague Natalie Melas translated the texts for the liner notes into English, with help from Salah Hassan on the Arabic.  When Jacques returned to Cornell to perform Clameurs and give a lecture on improvisation in the spring of 2008, it was the homecoming of a new departure.

Jacques went on to pursue a lively career in performance and recording, while also publishing a brilliantly heterodox study of Saussurean linguistics, Valeurs pures: le paradigme sémiotique de Ferdinand de Saussure (Lambert-Lucas, 2015).  In line with his work  on Clameurs he put together a project over the last few years he called a “Cine-Slam-Ballet” for a dance film built around a narrative extracted and collaged from the great Haitian writer Franketienne’s book-length poem-novel, L’oiseau schizophone for which Jacques was also to compose the music.  Titled L’Oiseau schizophone: La Tragédie du Marron [Schizophone Bird: The Tragedy of the Maroon] it conveyed through words, music and dance a plot in which the maroon or escaped slave determines to leave the heights and return to the city.   Promoted through Glissant’s Institut du Tout Monde, the project nonetheless failed to attract sufficient funding to be realized.

Jacques returned to Cornell in August 2018 to give a lecture on Edouard Glissant for the Institute for Comparative Modernities.  We asked him if we could interview him about his life and work to produce a scholarly document of it. He laughed and refused categorically:  Ah non, non, non! Absolument pas!   Reflecting on this now that his physical life is ended, it comes clear that he didn’t conceive or live his life as a story, an autobiographical narrative, with a protagonist moving through the ages of life in linear time and with cause and effect endowing meaning and form.  Jacques lived and thought poetically, seizing the moments as they occurred, following possibilities as they opened, taking inquiries and ideas and forms wherever they lead him.  Chance, objective or otherwise, played an expansive role in his life’s turning points. And improvisation measured a counter linear rhythm in time.  He would sometimes say, “I used to think that way, but I was older then.”   His work remains an esquisse, a sketch and our conversation with him incomplete and ongoing.   A conversation perhaps echoed in the piece he composed upon the death of his friend and collaborator the Egyptian-American photographer and designer, Ramez Elias, Trois esquisses pour Ramez Elias.

Image Credit:  Ramez Elias (2007)

Jacques Coursil