CREOLE CRITICISM – A CRITIQUE

II

THE APPROACH TO CRITICISM

Given the central preoccupation, Dr. Ramchand’s arrangement of his material is both logical and necessary. The book, The West Indian Novel and Its Background is divided into three parts. In his introduction, Ramchand implies that Part I IS to deal with the ‘objective’ background to the West Indian novel. He posits the thesis that in this part:

” ….although a distinctive body of fiction has emerged from the West Indies in the twentieth century, life the islands is still what It has been for over three hundred years­ a life without fiction “

 Arranged under this fictionless background are five chapters headed:

(a)      Popular Education in the West Indies in the Nineteenth Century.

(b)        The Whites and Cultural Absenteeism

(c)        The Coloureds and Class Interest.

(d)        New Bearings.

(e)        The Drift Towards the Audience. This Part, ad Or. Ramchand tells it,

” … takes in general a deterministic view of the effect of social factors upon the growth of a literature.” (9)

Part II, labelled Approaches carries the main burden of the argument of the book. It is well over.

Part II, labelled Approaches carries the main burden of the argument of the book. It is well over half in length. The Chapters in this part are headed:

(a)        The language of the Master

(b)          The Negro

(c)        Aborigines

(d)        The Commonwealth Approach

(e)        The Achievement of Roger Mais

(f)        The World of Dr. Bisaas

(g)        Novels of Child hood

(h)        Terrified Consciousness

 

This part, Dr. Ramchand says is to “deal with the background of Language, Race and Empire”. This is a tall order. It is not made any easier by the fact that the powerful conditioning factors of Empire with its conditioning attitudes to Race and language, is not to be dealt with in the more ‘objective’ Part I, but in Part II. In this Part II as Ramchand informs us, ‘ the emphasis is different’, This Part ‘drives towards a view of the autonomy of art’, This concept of the autonomy of the work of art is central to Creole criticism,. Art for Art’s sake; criticism for criticism’s sake, politics for politics’ sake are all fallout cliches of the metropolitan liberal et hos. And the phrase ‘the autonomy of the work of art’ is the rhetoric which disguises the cliché. Yet, as we shall see, there is an underlying method in Or. Ramchand’s arrangement.

Part Ill of the book is headed ‘Professor’. Here Ramchand restores the neglected Claude Mackay to his more central place in Caribbean literature. This is the most successful part of the book; the part in which the critical function takes precedence over the neurotic obsession; even if the latter does not entirely disappear. But in this part Ramchand at least reminds us of the critical capacity he displayed in his editorship of the West Indian Anthology. Indeed, at one’s first reading of Part III, one might be tempted to agree with Rex Nettleford when he writes:

“The future may well be with Samuel Selvon who writes with the soul of a Trinidadian, or Kenneth Ramchand, the creolized East Indian, who can write passionately land with scholarly integrity of the work of the black Jamaican poet Claude Mackay.” (10)

On a second reading, one bites on the worm in the wood. Nothing is ever quite what It appears on the surface of Ramchand’s criticism. The useful and valuable restoration of Mackay is there; and not to be denied. But even with Mackay, one sees that in the Ramchandian obsession, an author is there to be operated on not only for the ‘autonomy’ of his own purpose; but as a weapon of attack, through disparaging comparison, against those authors whom the critic has set out to negate It is only with Mackay however that the second becomes subsidiary.

In the very act of pro claiming the ‘autonomy’ of the work of art, Dr. Ramchand allows his authors little. West Indian literature, through the filter of his interpretation is reduced to a ‘Ramchandian Theory about Society.’ It is in the rare moment that Ramchand goes about the true business of the critic; that he reveals to his readers how literature ‘operates on us.’ All too often, scalpel in hand, Dr. Ramchand is busy ‘operating’ on West Indian Literature in order to reduce it to the cut and finish of his own psychic necessities. This private utilitarian view of West Indian literature is extended to a more banal plane. West Indian writing gets the final accolade. In his preface, Ramchand assures us that even after his d1scuss1on of individual authors,

“there is enough relevant and interesting material left to justify the establishment of a School of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies ” (11)

Writers at one stroke have become the folk. They exist only as raw material to be quarried by critics; as worker bees to provide texts for the supremely important academic exercise.

This glorification of criticism at the expense of the creative impulse is a persistent thread in Ramchand’s book and article. We begin to suspect that Ramchand ‘s rancour is directed not only against the ‘African’ centrality, the indigenist apologia, but even more at these as the source of creativity; that Dr. Ramchand’s resentful consciousness is directed against the act of writing itself. Nowhere are we persuaded that Ramchand enjoys the reading of literature. Yet, on literature is used as an instrument, it loses its magic. Susan Sontagg describes this loss of magic as ‘literary pollution’:

“Ours is one of those times in which the project of interpretation is above all, reactionary and suffocating. In the same way as gases from cars and heavy industry pollute the urban atmosphere, in the same manner, today’s effusion of interpretations of art, poison our sensibilities. Ours is a culture whose now classic dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capacity interpretation is the vengeance of the intellect against art. It is the vengeance, even more, of the intellect against the world.”(12)

It is in this context that we must see, Ramchand’s refutation in his Caribbean Quarterly article of a previous statement that I made about the 1mplicat1ons of the writers’ exile from the Carib bean. I had argued that one of the effects of this exile was that whilst the critics functioned at the University, using the ‘products’ of the writers, the writers were cut away from the living tradition of the reality of their own societies. And that their societies suffered from this decapitation; from this historical disjuncture of the literary and the popular tradition. Dr. Ramchand replies to this obvious fact with an assault on those who are not respectfully mindful of the critic’s priest like role. With the dramatic question,

“Who cares about literary criticism in or for the West Indies? ” (13)

as the opening shot, Ramchand goes on to accuse me of writing with ‘contempt and unawareness of its (criticism’s) potentialof underestimating’ the gravity of the Situation, and the responsibility it imposes upon literary criticism in these islands.”

Having accepted the writers’ exile as a given fact- the status quo of the society’s structure that arranges this exile is not open to question · Dr. Ramchand goes on to assert that it is critics who must play the writers’ role in the society. Yet, he argues, critics do not displace the creator. At the University critics are employed to function as pedagogues. It had been my assumption that the teaching of literature at a University, implied an involvement, with one’s students, in the critical activity . Indeed, that the more learned articles of criticism one wrote, the more one climbed the ladder of promotion. That in fact the critic-cum-pedagogue has never had it so good. Yet, Dr. Ramchand views himself as critic as a martyred man with a mission:

“I doubt very much whether our creative writers could survive long in the conditions that the critic has to put up with in our society. By his teachings and by the fanatical practice of his craft, however, the critic at the University can help spread the belief that literature matters; primarily, in the sense described by Dr. Leavis’s “What is Wrong with Criticism”; and only secondarily in the senses to which the socio-political commentators like Mr. Moore and sometimes Miss Wynter herself have too often reduced it.” (14)

Ramchmd here shows no awareness of the fact which constitutes the difference. The fact that Leavis functions as a critic in a metropolitan society in which his English writers are firmly rooted. Ignoring the difference, he adopts the Leav1sian role. And betrays the craggy, if limited originality of that Messiah, by borrowing his scheme for redemption for a society whose sins are hardly washable in the blood of an English Lamb; or for that matter an English solution. Striking a Leavis stance, Ramchand absurdly declaims, by implication that it is his mission to labour:

” .. successfully to create a consciousness throughout their society that literature matters as literature and not as something else; and that literary criticism is a craft calling for maturity, intelligence, and sensitivity to the organization of words on a page.” (15)

The critic’s organization of words on a page is all that matters. The organization of society which encourages the hypertrophy of the critical activity at the expense of creativity, would of course be dismissed as ‘socio-political analysis!”

Again Dr Ramchand merely reflects a world wide trend in the long dying of literature and its attendant, literary criticism, in an essay, ‘The Language Animal’ George Steiner writes:

” Literary criticism and literary history are minor arts. We suffer at present from a spurious inflation of criticism into some kind of autonomous role…. a plain view of the dependent secondary nature of literary aitic1sm, literary and historical comment is more than a necessary honesty. It may, in fact, open the way for a legitimate future for criticism and rescue it from some of its current megalomania and trivia.” (16)