CREOLE CRITICISM – A CRITIQUE

Reading Time: 52 minutes

“Critique is concerned with the truth

content of a work …”

(Walter Benjamin)

 

” …’stylistic criteria’ are being advanced to give an impression of objectivity while the author pursues a more subjective hypothesis and one that has little to do with literary criticism.”

(RAMCHAND in CARIBBEAN QUARTERLY) (1)

 

The central distortion of Dr. Ramchand’s criticism is a reflection of the ambivalent Creole eye with which he views his society, its literature and himself . The Creole eye is part the eye of the native, part the eye of the stranger. It is deceptively lucid A confusion of self-image haunts its most illuminating discoveries. It looks out upon the world with a myopic brilliance. It pins the facts down in a precise analytical stare. But the searchlight of its gaze is directed by a grid of misconceptions prepackaged in the cornflake5 of a colonial education; patterned by a ready mix Western-Liberal weltanschauung. The Creole eye is thereby the eye of the evader. The mirrors of its criticism are trick ones. Nothing is ever what it seems. Or. Ramchand’s comment on the German scholar Jahnhein Jahn, the comment quoted above, can with precision be applied to his own critical method. This aptness is even more acute when he speaks of Jahn’s ‘ peculiar circularity.’

For when he calls that autochtonous English critic, Dr. Leavis, into the balance, in order to use him as a stalking horse against Gordon Rohletr’s critical essay on Naipaul – one of the essays included in the collection THE ISLANDS IN BETWEEN 21 – he · reduces Leavis to the narrow dimension of his own neurosis. Yet, if one applies the formula of close textual analysis to Ramchand’s criticism one can find no better description of his critical circularity, than Leavis’ assessment of an essay by T.S. Elliot. This essay, Leavis wrote, is

“…notable or its ambiguities, its logical inconsequences, its pseudo-precisions, its fallaciousness and the aplomb of its equivocations and specious cogency Its technique in general for generating awed confusion help to explain why it should not have been found easy to deal with ….”(3)

I have not found Ramchand’s criticism easy to deal with. Leavis, faced with Elliot’s stance of ‘impersonality’ as critic, is suspicious,

“…because it suggests not the true expression of an exploring consciousness, but the play· ing of an already calculated part …” (4)

I have had to come to terms with a more complex mimicry; with Dr. Ramchand’s imitation of an impersonal and objective critical stance The role that Dr. Ramchand plays, is at second-hand. I must try to seize hold of a reality of which the borrowed mimic gest is but a multiple mask; must grapple with subtle indirections, camouflage, with an apparent 1mpart1ahty expressed in ‘above the battle’ cliches, with radical liberal posturing, false universalism, texts misinterpreted with such sleight of hand that the texts confirm the prejudices of Dr. Ramchand; with the misuse of quotations to fit them on 10 the Procrustean bed of his central obsession. What is this obsession?

Under the mask of ‘concern for criticism’- the title of his article in Caribbean Quarterly — under his preoccupation with ‘stylistic criteria’, Dr. Ramchand wages quite another battle. His mission is to negate, destroy, diminish, disguise the African centrality in the cultural dynamic of the Caribbean peoples; to obscure the cultural, social and political consequences that spring from any recognition of such a centrality.

In his Caribbean Quarterly article, Ramchand has this to say about Gordon Rohlehr’s ambitious’ [sic] essay on Naipaul:

“Rohlehr precludes any real discovery of his author through the critical performance itself by beginning with a conviction: ‘Naipaul is a Trinidad East Indian who has not come to terms with the Negro-Creole world in Trinidad, or with the greyness of English life or with life in India itself where he went in search of its roots.’ (5)

Dr. Ramchand rejects this statement on the grounds of ‘stylistic criteria’:

“Because Rohlehr does not work towards this sweeping pronouncement, and does not seek to convince us by the methods of literary criticism, the reader who does not already agree with the judgement of Naipaul the man, finds the essay as a whole difficult to accept.”

The above exemplifies Ramchand’s critical method; his multiple mask.

Rohlehr’s article is the best in the collection of essays *The Islands In Between. He, has in general, an acute critical intelligence. His high opinion of Naipaul’s talent is not in any way negated by his critic’s desire to explain the naked neurosis displayed by Naipaul in ‘The Middle Passage! To explain this neurosis, the critic must pinpoint the problem of being a minority in a majority culture to which one is doubly marginal as man and as writer. To explain this neurosis in the specific Trinidadian context is to explore the ‘resentful consciousness’ of a Naipaul — or a Ramchand – growing up to find himself despised by a brown and Creole middleclass, who, as successful mimics of Western culture, looked down on East Indians as ‘coolies’ who lacked ‘culture.’ However, once the latecomers, the East Indian immigrants, began to enter the educational system, to take their place in the Creole class. they not only claimed their full share in Western ‘culture’. but also pointed to the ‘high’ culture of India to give them one more point in the game oneupmanship between themselves and the blacks. Yet the real counter in the game, was, and is, the ability to ‘acquire’ Western ‘culture’. The high culture of India was comparable to Western culture; the Indian nose and hair were ‘Aryan’. Africa, in the Creole consciousness, black, brown, white, East Indian, Chinese, remained vague; a place which Western culture designated as a land of savages; the heart of darkness.

The rise of the new-Negritude/Black Power Movement in the Sixties has begun to change the name of the game. The revaluation of Africa, of the African connection, the search for African ancestral roots, real and imagined, the attempt to forge an Afrocentric myth to counterbalance the Eurocentric reality are new factors which change the ground rules of the game. The formerly privileged players are disconcerted. The Jack threatens to devalue the King. And the Jack in the Caribbean is mainly black. As ‘culture’ has been used as a weapon against him, so many of his Black Power advocates are prepared to use ‘culture’ as a weapon against others. In claiming his black identity Jack can seem to refute the claim of minority groups -or, at least to ignore the claim – to theirs. Yet there are two aspects to Jack and his black quest for identity. One aspect of this quest is imitative – the mere negation of ‘white power’, the claim to have this power take on a black face. The status quo of privilege and injustice is not to be changed; only the masters. This quest is the quest of ‘blackism’. It is no less sick than its white counterpart. In the final analysis both are allied against the other aspect of Jack’s quest; the quest of nativity. This creative aspect of Jack’s quest is at once particular and universal. It asserts that the dynamic agent of the cultural matrix which provides that id of communication that pattern the national identity of the Caribbean people — black, brown, white, East Indian, Syrian, Chinese – is to a great extent, a legacy from Africa. It is the African heritage which has been the crucible of the cultural deposits of the immigrant peoples, transforming borrowed elements of culture into something indigenously Caribbean.

Yet, this assertion, imperfectly formulated, can also seem to exclude, It is in reaction to this feeling of exclusion that Dr. Ramchand assaults and batters the concept of central African element in Caribbean culture. Whenever he touches on things African and the African connection, one is startled by a rancorous animosity, all the more distasteful, because, unlike Naipaul’s, it lacks the courage of its conviction. This animosity calls for our attention. Unlike Naipaul, Ramchand does not reject the West Indies. It is his attempt, as a Trinidadian Indian to claim his full place in the Caribbean context that informs his rancour. Where his confusion comes about is in his concept of what this place should be; of how this context should be defined in the past and the present; of the directions in which these definitions should transform the future. His resistance to the African connection is political rather than a merely compartmentalized and critical one. His political position is one of ‘creolism’ – that is, the Liberal ideology translated into a neo-colonial structure. Creolism is essentially the politics of rhetoric. It is the politics of those who want the appearance of change without its painful reality. Rhetoric is the weapon with which it obscures the areas of conflict; and creates a verbal consensus which seeks to dam up new directions in the dry river bed of Creole custom.

In his Book, The West Indian Novel and its Background, Dr. Ramchand uses a quotation from Wilson Harris, at head of a Chapter, labelled ‘The Aborigines’. Harris writes, Ramchand quotes:

“It’s all so blasted silly and complicated. After all I’ve earned a right here as well, I’m as native as they, ain’t I? A little better educated, maybe, whatever the hell that means.” (6)

This is the real question that informs Dr. Ramchand’s criticism. What Dr. Ramchand asks repeatedly, under many ‘critical quises’ and ‘literary pretexts’ is:

“I’m as native as they, ain’t I?”

This question, and the resentful consciousness which it implies, is the organising principle of Ramchand’s criticism. It determines his approach to criticism which in turn determines the arrangement of his material. It determines the selectivity of his exploration of the background to the West Indian novel; his choice and evaluation of books and authors above all, his interpretation of the works of West Indian writers. I make no apology then for crittc1zing his criticism in a wide context. Here one

” …. a real literary interest is an interest in man, society and civilization, and its boundaries cannot be drawn; the adjective is not a circumscribing one .” (7)