Contempt for nothing
February 22, 2003
“Home is where we start from. “...and the end of all our exploration will be to arrive where we started and / to know the place for the first time.”(T.S. Eliot) We are not born with an ‘authentic Guyanese (or any other) sensibility: that can only emerge over a long period of years spent discovering who we are. A Guyanese sensibility (like a Caribbean sensibility) is yet to emerge, and it will come out of all the strands that make up the complex womb of Caribbean life: social, ethnic, political, religious and artistic, both ‘at home’ and abroad. It is an act of exploration and self-discovery. The sensibility that finally emerges to lay claim to the word “home” will come, after arduous exploration and self-searching, from both loss and re-discovery.
And the writer’s act of claiming this ground as his or hers will be either an act of re-possession or of re-membering. But it is an act that must finally be grounded in generosity of spirit. For us there is no ‘safe’ place free from the wounds of history. For the growth and development of the Guyanese sensibility within the deeper, encompassing Caribbean sensibility, there is only a long and often lonely road ahead. Our writers and artists are in the forefront of that difficult journey, and the way forward is marked by three stages of development: self-contempt, contempt for everything, contempt for nothing.”
Those were the last two paragraphs of our editorial captioned “Sense and sensibility” (28.1.2003) which sought to explore the concept of an authentic Guyanese artistic sensibility. Let us return briefly to the three stages of development referred to in the last sentence - self-contempt, contempt for everything, contempt for nothing.
In a now famous article captioned “A question of self-contempt” in the Guyana Independence Issue of the New World magazine the late Martin Carter, one of the joint-editors of that issue, said:
“Being not either historian, sociologist, anthropologist or psychologist, I depend only on the tool of imagination to examine and probe a condition which, since I remember myself, has oppressed me and led me into action not immediately perceivable either as reasonable, in the social sense, or as useful, in the sense of expected function. Concerned with certain forms of self-denial and with the demanding presence of crowding faces scarred by what living time has prescribed as real, and has authorised as the actual minimum for survival, I have not always understood the nature of the sacrifice heart must make to ensure continuity. For, given remains the world. Place to enter and have place within. Brutalities of nonresponse. Assaults on sensibility. Wayward indiscipline. Contingencies which contain the least meaning in a world of fantasy dominated by new intentions, badly expressed in repeated proposals for any kind of revolution.
In this condition of unawareness I came into a contact of different character with the spiritual facts of the life I had lived. Encountering them, I recognised their phenomenal relevance and symbolic challenge. Self was here in visible location, aware of the datum and exigence of land and community. But, who was my? Who self? On black knees before the great white names of civilization and human power, I claimed my own humanity in terms of flesh and blood; in the endurance and the suffering, the defeat and achievement I discovered written inside the abstractions of European philosophy and experience. I made inevitable identifications. Homeland is everywhere. All skies are blue. The green, and world of the freedom of feeling is, by definition, accessible. And whenever, as so regularly, real shadows loom too close, the wild whore-houses of irresponsibility are available, where it is possible always to effect self-change in the very midst of all-reducing squalor, and, like a gifted lizard, make skin turn cloak like a smile.
Out of these swirling confusions I stepped into a world of action. I became a member of an organisation formed by Cheddi Jagan, friend of great days. And every Sunday night a meeting in an unpainted hutch with grey dust like history’s night-soil between the creases in the floor. Sometimes no more than five of us. Five bewildered creatures on a Sunday night repeating overselves like desperate obeahmen. Outside the world. Dog dung in the street. A black man in South Africa. Love beneath the gay stars. Firelight in the cane-pieces. Degradation, absolute vomit. Bed. Same tomorrow. Tomorrow again. Tomorrow always.”
Self-contempt is a familiar condition to all who have emerged from the colonial experience. It is, despite forty years of independence, almost certainly still the dominant mode of consciousness, expressing itself for example in the often unconscious mimicking of the authoritarian behaviour of the former overseers, down to riding
horses on a plantation, the harsh tone of speaking to each other verbally and in writing, and other behaviour patterns inherited from the plantation.
Contempt for everything (except or including oneself?) though conceptually a step forward is essentially a rebellious reaction, the other side of the coin, where one’s own overwhelming insecurities translate themselves into a sort of generalised and almost indiscriminate aggressiveness, where nothing is sacred, there are no rules and everything is rejected without anything necessarily being put in its place. That state of consciousness has become increasingly familiar.
Contempt for nothing, the highest state of consciousness, despite its semi-religious overtones, is an achievable, humanist objective which enables one to contemplate with both love and understanding the often abject state of humanity. One can perhaps see this quality at work in some of the greater novelists like Dostoyevsky. It comes from a profound insight into the desires, failings, weaknesses and dreams of man. In that ultimate sense, a fully achieved Guyanese artistic sensibility will have much in common with that of the greatest writers everywhere though it will at the same time clearly show the influence of its own history and evolution.