Notes toward the definition of nothing Editorial
Stabroek News
February 27, 2003

Related Links: Articles on the Caribbean
Letters Menu Archival Menu

What does it mean to be a West Indian, divided to the vein, in the margins of history? Are we old enough to talk about traditions and authenticity? (Perhaps three Nobel laureates do not a culture make.)

These are not new questions, nor ones that permit many answers beyond generalities about UWI and Caricom, calypso and cricket; for the hard truth is that the West Indies has never become the federation dreamed of at its birth. Our cricket team is an anomaly, our common entertainment (except for a few festivals) spreads through networks created for imported culture. We are a painfully derivative species, prone to the "narcissism of minor difference" which Freud observed in groups with few genuine differences upon which they could construct hierarchies. A sense of impotence and obscurity has always pervaded the Caribbean psyche and been part of our collective refusal to acknowledge our confused beginnings, our cultural roots - albeit as underlings - in Britain's empire, our suppressed histories and mixed fusions. We have always been slightly scared of the loss of slipshod categories which the occupiers left behind.

So, instead of asking the questions this way, perhaps we may ask what a West Indian is not, as theologians used to define God negatively, to avoid the infinite tedium of enumerating His qualities.

We are not philosophers or artists as Europe would understand those words. We must read Kant and Hegel, see Poussin and hear Bach as strange messages from a world beyond our lived experience - the way Arab scholars absorbed Aristotle (whom they would save from oblivion in the Dark Ages and pass on to Thomas Aquinas so that he could revolutionise Christian belief). The Enlightenment reached our plantations late, except in its debased form as an apology for the cruelties enacted there. When it really arrived, it was bundled with the Romantics, and Marx and the Existentialists in a daunting, resonant libretto from which we have improvised ever since. Our artists and writers have known from the start that we were in a Borgesian labyrinth of overlapping eras and cultures and have sometimes wrestled brilliantly with the spectral presences within our "reality." Making sense of our hidden legacies is a Sisyphean task only if you are trying to roll the historical burden back to the point where Europe rolled it down on us. But our best thinkers have always tried to build catapults for that boulder, or sculpt new shapes out of it.

Derek Walcott has reanimated Coleridge and Homer; Leroy Clarke and Wilson Harris have painted and written what Heidegger meant to them; Aubrey Williams put colours to Shostakovich, and Stanley Greaves has Caribbeanised elements of Magritte. These strange fusions are the serious play of liberated intelligence, much like the Wandering Jew-cum-Odysseus Joyce wrote into the million poetic details of the Dublin he had left behind. Like our artists, he had watched the master culture sceptically, grown tired of its orthodoxies, and set out to show how its parts could be altered and rearranged to greater effect. That is our genius too: impatient with received forms, always willing to pick the locks of our cultural past and modify the master's property until it is ours. We make steelbands from discarded oil barrels, we use a pace quartet in Test cricket when all the traditional thinking says that is wrong. (Surely it is no accident that Sri Lanka - coming from a similar point of inferiority in the sport - should have revolutionised the one-day game after us.) We are perennial mixers.

Politically this gift for innovation has served us less well. Our economic union is laughable; our armies threaten nobody; our regional disputes, and the politicians who argue them, have more of the parish quarrel than a clash of sovereign wills about them. On the other hand, we have never bought into the madness of the arms race; we have committed no genocides, started no wars, bullied no other countries (despite our proved willingness to threaten and exclude parts of our own populations).

We have never Balkanised over religious or ethnic differences (though the temptations have been there) and we have improvised a generally peaceful way through three decades of post-colonial birth. So far, we are strangers to civil war and terrorism. We have not disinvented the family into the alienated bureaucracy of the welfare state, like Western Europe and North America. We have no doctrines of purity like those which overran Europe sixty years ago. We have not blockaded the children of Iraq and we will not be bombing them.

In fact, there are many bad things which we are not and many good things which we might be. But our dream must be forged against the nightmare of history, in "traditions" born of the confusion of older, foreign ones. We must be wary of the haughtiness of words like tradition and authenticity; words and categories with a history of belittling and effacing us. Writing about the difficulties of developing a Caribbean sensibility, an earlier editorial mentioned three stages of development: self-contempt, contempt for everything, contempt for nothing. Here, in the words of our own great poet Martin Carter, is a glimpse of that transition, from the article "A Question of Self-Contempt" in the independence issue of New World magazine which he co-edited. "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 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 . . . it is possible always to effect self-change in the midst of all-reducing squalor, and, like a gifted lizard, make skin turn cloak like a smile." Note carefully the sequence: first kneeling, then inevitable identifications, self-change in the midst of squalor and the achieved smile of the wise chameleon.

Site Meter