BACKGROUND OF THE VOID
“In the background of the liberated slave was a cultural void.” (RAMCHAND, THE WEST It DIAN NOVEL ETC. p. 38)
The two key chapters of Dr. Ramchand’s book, one headed THE NEGRO, the other THE ABORIGINES counterpoint one another. The rest of Parts One and Two, only reinforce, brick by brick, hint by hint, the insinuated conclusions of these two chapter,. It is here that we get most clues as to Ramchand’s handling of a theme central to the Caribbean novel; the theme of the black man in the twentieth century. It is a theme impossible to ignore. But the Creole eye sees It through a peripheral focus; marginalizes it, and this so subtly, that the casual reader. will finish the book, accepting at its face value, one of the ingenious masks of Dr. Ramchand – that of a Fanon-disciple, Third World radical.
The distorting focus carefully arranges that The Negro, unlike the Whites and the coloured is not the subject of a chapter in Part One; is not examined as an ‘objective’ factor. The conclusion that is therefore drawn is that due to the failure of the Whites and the Coloureds to ‘create’ literature, the life lived in the Caribbean was, and still is to some extent, a life lived ‘without fiction’. Because of this lack of a ‘cultured class’ to set the tone, to provide models there was ‘in the background of the liberated slave, a cultural void’. That is to say, the failure of the two minority classes, is seen as the cause of the blacks’ cultural deprivation.
This focus on the majority class, which presents them as passive objects, 1s first noted in Part One, where the blacks appear only as the objects of a process known as Popular Education in the Nineteenth Century. The deficiency of the colonial system of elementary and secondary education, are insisted upon. So deficient was and is this system of education that the ‘darkness’ of yesterday is still here today. The ‘ underprivileged masses’ are still unable to read enough to constitute a ‘reading public’ for the novels, whose ‘ imagined worlds’ might have ‘released their smothered capacities’.
The ‘civilizing agent’ of education, according to Dr. Ramchand, failed ultimately, because of ‘administrative incompetence, unimaginativeness, lack of purpose and conflicting interests with in a social and economic de pression’. The planters wanted labour for their estates, not educated citizens. The teachers tried their best. But as one Inspector complained, the influence of the home life of their students undid all the schools’ ‘civilization’, The failure of ‘civilization’ i.e. the education system, meant, according to Dr. Ramchand, that,
“some of those who had parroted their way through the reading test had lapsed easily back into their untutored states.” (17)
Education having failed to accomplish its civilizing mission — the new Liberal manifest -· destiny that replaces the former Christianizing mission ·· the poor objects fallen from grace, lapsed back into a void.
Those who did not, had to face the fact, that
“The unrelieved factualness of approach to Reading books prevented both pupils and teachers from even the suspicion of the pleasures and possibilities of the imagination.” (18)
Education having failed them, they dwelt in an outer darkness, either as ‘discontented recruits to the teaching profession’, or as self ‘important clerks’ with office jobs ‘holding on jealously to their limited privilege’; or as ‘the depressed and inarticulate masses.’ The void was deep and wide. Only a ‘handful of minor poets’ wrote, and “their poetry reveals the alienation of the insecure and embryonic blade middle classes from the uneducated and illiterate groups to which they or their parents ‘had belonged.”
The void was wide and deep. The underprivileged lived ‘a life without fiction’ the fault of the ‘deficiencies of popular education.’ That the Whites and Coloureds also lived this life without fiction was due to an ‘absence of nationalism.’ All was lack, deprivation, absence. The problem with the under privileged was that ‘they just ain’t got no culture’. The trouble with the others was they just didn’t feel rational enough. That the problems were interrelated does not occur to Dr. Ramchand, since he suffers from his education in the same way that the Whites and the Creole Class in the nineteenth century suffered from theirs. The great myth of a colonial education in the Caribbean was, and is, that the people, – the blacks were a ‘tabula rasa’; that they dwelt in the darkness of a cultural void.
This concept of the cultural void is central to the Creole world view; to Dr. Ramchand’s criticism. The role that the culture of the people plays in the creation of any literature; and, in particular, of Caribbean literature remains a side issue for Or. Ramchand, where it is not entirely negated. Yet 1t is his prophet, Dr. Leavis, who, in a penetrating essay, attacked this very concept of the void which Dr. Ramchand posits. Dr. Leavis traces, in an essay, Literature and Society, the process by which, in a still unified seventeenth century English culture, the popular culture, ‘a rich traditional culture’ , could, as in Bunyan’s great classic, ‘merge with literary culture at the level of great literature’. He shows how this fusion between the popular and the literary culture was later disrupted due to the economic process which lead to the Industrial Revolution. What had come to an end was:
“the old organic relations between literary culture and the sources of vitality in the general life. By Wordsworth’s death, the Industrial Revolution had done its work, and general life. By Wordswotth’s death, the Industrial Revolution had done its work, and the traditional culture of the people was no longer there, except vestigially.” (19)
But this popular culture which has been destroyed in England, was transported to the New World; and Cecil Sharp went to the remote valleys of the Southern Appalachians to discover what had been lost. He brought back not only a ‘fabulous haul’ of folk songs but something more – a new concept of culture. Dr. Leavis puts it in this way:
“More than that, he discovered that the tradition of song and dance (and a reminder is in place at this point of the singing and dancing with which the pilgrims punctuate their progress in the second part of Bunyan’s Calvinistic allegory) had persisted so vigorously because the whole context to which folk song and folk dance belong was there , too; he discovered in fact, a civilization or ‘way of life’ .. that was truly an art of social living.” (20)
In Sharp’s description of the people who had preserved and extended this ‘culture’, we read that the majority were illiterate. Yet, Sharp argues:
”That the illiterate may nevertheless reach a high level of culture will surprise only those who imagine that education and cultivation are convertible terms.” (21)
It is clear that in spite of the absence of a ‘cultured class’ as Dr. Ramchand defines it, these mountaineers did not live in ‘a cultural void’. They shared in ‘the supreme value of an inherited tradition’. (22)
The same economic process – the Industrial Revolution which disrupted the ‘organic’ culture of England, earlier created our societies as plantation societies. The folk culture of England, transported to Jamaica, was to be largely exiled by the plantation system, which disrupted the earlier small farmers of England and Scotland. But, as we shall show later, the African folk culture was able to reroot itself in Jamaica; and to become ‘the sap of the living indigenous tradition from which the writers would create their novels. That this folk culture is not ‘objectively’ examined as a living and pervasive cultural dynamic of the society; that in fact, Dr. Ramchand assumes that without education in the Western sense, there was a void, is a misconception and a distortion so fundamental that the entire concept of the ‘background’ of the West Indian novel has been betrayed. That is not to say that here and there – and later on through the subjective approach of certain selected novels – Dr. Ramchand does not discuss this tradition; but either it is tacked on as afterthought — as in the Chapter on Language – or it is recognized only to be determinedly denied.
Dr. Ramchand here follows the tradition of Caribbean criticism. As Dr. Edward Brathwaite complained in 1967:
“Our folk tradition, however, and the urbanized products of this tradition … has been largely ignored; and where it has been examined, the examination has been usually cursory, uncritical, sometimes patronizing. The assumption has been that these are debased forms; hybrid forms; peripheral forms.’ (23)
Dr. Ramchand is not unaware of Brathwaite’s observation. Indeed Brathwaite figures among those critics who get a slyly severe treatment from Dr. Ramchand. We begin to be confirmed in our opinion that the refusal to analyse the ‘folk’ background of the West Indian novels as an ob1ective factor is part of that escape which is endemic to Dr. Ramchand’s view of Caribbean reality-the evasion of Africa
With this evasion, Dr. Ramchand misses the fact that the West Indian novel, like West Indian nationalism, was born out of a process in which the Creole blacks and Browns, (and a white, here and there) who had hitherto despised and ignored the folk culture, turned back to that folk culture, to the people or at least, to the idea of the people. It was at that moment when a new literary tradition, until then an imitative Western tradition – in technicolour · turned back to function, however gropingly and ignorantly, as the literary tradition to an indigenous popular culture recognized as such, that the beginning of a national feeling and a national literature, exploded. Dr. Ramchand quotes George Lamming significant declaration yet avoids its implication. Lamming wrote:
“Unlike the previous governments and departments of educators, unlike the businessman importing commodities, the West Indian novelist did not look out across the sea to another source. He looked in and down at what had traditionally been ignored. For the first time the West Indian peasant becomes other than a cheap source of labour. He became through the novelists’ eye a living existence. living in silence and joy and fear, involved in riot and carnival. It is the West Indian novel that has restored the West Indian peasant to his true and original personality .” (24)
Lamming looked down, away from the mono-crop export complex and its imported and imitative super-structure of culture to the only living trad111o n in the Caribbean . that of the peasants. They were now for the writer not a source of labour, but of culture, of a way of life, of an art of social living battered, tormented, assaulted, dispossessed, ignored, despised, but alive the culture of the peasant, of the landless marginal man; of the indigenous man. For it was only by drawing from, by feeding from him that a tru1y national literature could begin. As long as the literate class turned its back on the source of its vitality, there was no writing. Writing began when the ‘ High Tradition’ emerging from the popular tradition turned its gaze back; and that complex inter-action which is at the base of all creative national cultures began. The turning back of the novelist, to the popular tradition was the movement of return, the long passage back from the exile of alienation. The future of Caribbean literature .and of the Caribbean people, whose psychic journey it structurally parallels, will depend on that disputed and almost impossible passage.
If the West Indian novelist’ restored the West Indian peasant to ‘his true and original personality ‘ via the written word, it was the West Indian peasant, tenaciously preserving, stubbornly re-inventing that personality through the re-invention of its culture against impossible odds, that made the Wen Indian novel possible.
The cultural void concept for Dr. Ramchar is more than a critical oversight. It is a psychic necessity. If the cultural void of the liberated slave is broadly accepted, ,t means that the African origin of his folk culture can be trivialized. The attack, on the ‘African connection’ reaches its climax in Part 11, in the two chapters we have cited; but it began long before. Indeed we shall see that the final betrayal of criticism by Dr. Ramchand takes place with the choice not only of his authors; but of their particular works. Those who are condemned by Dr. Ramchand, are condemned more for dealing w11h the themes that he wants to avoid, or negate, than for the fact that their novels are bad. Those to whom he extends salvation, both books and authors, are those which can seem to confirm his preconceptions . Dr. Ramchand uses, manipulates and exploits West Indian literature in order to sustain his own stage scenery view of it; and his own role. It is this that we consider unforgivable.
In the Introduction, with that subtle sleight of hand which distinguishes his method, he chooses authors to praise, in order to condemn others; themes to exalt and themes to denigrate; and always underlying, is the threatening theme of Africa and its connection with the Caribbean. The pervasive African-descended cultural dynamic which offended Naipaul was dismissed boldly. ‘Nothing, said – Naipaul, ‘had been created in the West Indies’. The West Indies had no history. A new myth of the Caribbean past has been built; not by the colonizers this time; but by their Creole inheritors. Dr. Ramchand repeats the myth, but insinuatingly: among the ills of society to which West Indian novelists apply themselves are, he tells us:
- a) the lack of a history to be proud of.
- b) the absence of settled or traditional values.
The void is rephrased. As we shall see later, Ramchand also paraphrases Naipaul as far as (b) is concerned This is an extension of the abyss. Having no culture, the folk can have no values; nor can the society. For, where could they have got them from? Western education betrayed them.
Writers like Lamming, in Dr. Ramchand’s interpretation of Lamming’s explanation of how writing began, came and took them out of a void. As Orlando Patterson the Jamaican writer once said:
“The writer in the West Indies is like God. He creates out of a void”. (25)
As Naipaul, quoted by Ramchand early in his introduction, has it:
“Living in a borrowed culture, the West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him who he is and where he stands”. (26)
It is Naipaul who consciously lives most in the borrowed culture. The part of him with which he writes, is fed by the culture of that very folk whom he affects to despise; now that like most of us, he has made the one generation passage away.
For Dr. Ramchand, it is only with the writer that the black man comes into the centre of the picture. The fact that the black man, the folk, the people took the centre of the stage and initiated a national movement which made the writer possible remains largely unnoticed. Dr. Ramchand sees only the problem of the writer faced with this void:
“.. the challenge of articulating the hitherto obscure person has affected characterization in other ways”. (27)
It is far more than ‘characterization’ that is affected. Now that the peasant masses, the majority of the world’s people, are erupting into the centre of the stage, the writers who come from these masses – mainly all Caribbean writers and critics, are faced with the problem of whether they can use the novel form at all. For the novel form is the literary form of the European bourgeoisie and its colonial extension. The novel was born with the bourgeoisie and structured its rise· as it now structures its fall. In using the novel form, the writer who must formulate in a written context, the articulate but largely oral dreams and aspirations and new dispossession of the peasant, uprooted from the land, flung into the urban ‘yards’, is face to face with a complex of problems in which the concept of characterization taken by itself has become inadequate. As we shall see, the problem of formulating in a written language the articulate spoken and oral language is the problem. As Heidegger points out, ‘language is the clearing in the forest in which man has his being. ‘But it is in the question of language that Dr. Ramchand is most confronted with the African presence; we shall see how he disposes of it.
Dr. Ramchand is never clumsy. His confrontation is never head on. In the introduction he chooses for praise Michael Anthony, a black Trinidadian writer, of considerable merit. Here the Woolworth Glass Bead Game begins. The praise of Anthony is to be selective: Dr. Ramchand, all objective stance, proclaims Anthony the ‘good guy’ as opposed to nameless villains:
“Some writers seek ancestral inspiration in ‘African traits’ or an African personality. Others, notably Michael Anthony (Trinidad b. 1932) ignore such imaginary but unimaginative props.” (28)
The game has been marked. We crawl, crabways on. Without being conscious of having been indoctrinated, we are comfortably aware that ‘African traits’ in -a West Indian writer involves a fanciful unimaginative exercise, in which one dreams to find African ancestors in the Caribbean bush. A quick and low-keyed flicking of the knife. Out, in… As if it had never been. The impression is made. But no scars. How cleverly done!
If Michael Anthony is, for Dr. Ramchand, a gifted acolyte, it is Wilson Harris who is the high priest of that Manichean literary cult, whose principle of evil is the search for imaginary and unimaginative African traits. It is Dr. Ramchand who has created the cult; it is he who assigns roles; and interprets the Sphinx -like pronouncements of Harris to suit the particular ritual. The ritual takes place against the void-like backdrop that Dr. Ramchand describes as, “the formlessness of West Indian society and the existential position of the individual in it.” (29)
In such a society, the West Indian, lacks once again ‘character’, the kind of character we get in English novels. Lacking this character, one would have thought, that since he existed, he had something also to put in his place. But no such luck. What he has, is not a positive but a negative’ – an ‘instability’ of character. Michael Anthony, Dr. Ramchand assures us, displays ‘fidelity’ to the ‘open consciousness’ of his ‘youthful characters’; he shows their instability, and all of this, “adds up to a genuine exploratory attitude to the person.” (30)
On reading this, one may be tempted to reach for the Jamaican expletive. Anthony’s novel deals with adolescents and the youthful, and he shows the formlessness of their characters narrowing and being channelled into shape and pattern by the forces of their Trinidadian society. All this is very well and sensitively done, and Anthony has no quality of mystification that deserves his being involved in cult terms like ‘open consciousness’ and the ‘person’. Dr. Ramchand willy nilly inflicts his literary mania on his helpless authors. Wilson Harr is, lends himself to this interpretation; 01 rather to the possibility of misinterpretation. His complex groping to a new approach in the writing of the novel, lends itself like Mark Antony’s Roman ears, to a cunning and one-dimensional interpretation.
The negativity of this West Indian non-character, Dr. Ramchand argues, is itself a positive; if not in real life, then in literature. Out of the void, the black void, the magic wand of literature can bring universal salvation . Wilson Harris, Dr. Ramchand assures us,
“sees the obscurity of the broken individual in the West Indies as the starting point for a creative inquiry into the question, “What is man”? (31)
‘Obscurity’ and ‘ broken individual’ are by now cult words. These are parallel terms to the concept of the void. One remembers Lamming’s angry decision to write ‘ In The Castle of my Skin.’ a West Indian classic, primarily to prove to Walcott that the black man of the Caribbean did not live amongst ‘the swine.’ He was not interested in finding out ‘What is Man?’ Perhaps if the cockroach survives the bomb and takes over what is left, he will be able to do that. But this ‘false universality’ the liberal ideal that denies the liberal reality, is a part of the Creole complex · a worked-out humanist vein borrowed at second hand to ‘help weave the veil.’
The more urgent question for Caribbean man, a man at the crossroads of almost all the world’s cultures, is not to find a new identity, but to formulate, articulate that which he was, is, and is in the process of becoming. The very articulation of what is, at once posits the choice of what can be. Novels of the search for identity, tend to be engaged novels, novels rejecting even more than they accept. In search for new possibilities in the future they engage with reality; usually on behalf of ·he majority who are economically and culturally exploited by the minority. The search for a revaluation of the African roots is therefore connected with ‘engaged’ writ mg, which can be good or bad writing . But in Dr. Ramchand’s criterion, this kind of writing is a dangerous nv1tation to heresy; a temp at1on all the more threatening in in the wilderness of the void:
“In an area of deprivation , longing and root lessness where so many people are inarticulate, the novelist may find himself tempted into passionate documentaries, or criticized for not adopting prescribed stances.” (32)
The key word is ‘ tempted ‘. The Creole cult has its literary orthodoxy of form; but it is an esoteric ortho doxy, on guard against the vulgarity of ‘prescribed stances’.
Who ‘prescribes the stances’ we are not told although Lamming is here sorrowfully accused of sharing in the banned prescription. For Lamming, had accused Hearne of not ‘being identified with the land at a peasant level’ among other things. Now this fear of identification is the prescribed stance for excellence of Creole society. Lamming’s and others’ attempt to break away from this prescription was the revolution. The defence of Hearne which Dr. Ramchand puts up against this charge does Hearne an injustice. For he writes about the Creole society in which he has his being; and in those novels where he is aware of the irreality and tension inherent m his position in this aspect of the society, his choice of theme is justified. But Dr. Ramchand defends. only to attack. Hearne’s least valid novel · the Land of the Living, is praised by Dr. Ramchand. This technically accomplished novel whose truth content 1s almost nil, is useful to Dr. Ramchand because it appeals to his own Creole sentimentality; above all because he can interpret its theme to peddle that fraudulent multiracialism, which is the greatest barrier to the negation of racism.
In Land of the Living, Ramchand tells us, Hearne celebrates ‘ love as a positive force’ and ‘distressed Negro, displaced Jew, and disorientated female are seen as equal subjects for love’s reclaiming and responsible clasp.” (Sic) (33)
To be fair to Hearne, nowhere does he degenerate into this kind of soap opera. All his novelist’s skill, however, fail to persuade that in the Jamaica of today or yesterday a Jew, a white Jamaican Upper class woman, and a Ras Ta Fari cult leader are equal in anything · except a common alienation in a world in which love itself is alienated. At a higher creative level, Hearne’s novel, like Dr. Ramchand’s criticism, fails because of the failure of its trutj content; its Creole evasion of black reality.
With Naipaul, Ramchand shows his potentiality as a critic when there are no black axes to grind. But even Naipaul must take second place to Harris. Indeed, Naipaul does not lend himself to cultism. His black repulsion is too openly expressed; his prose too explicit for misinterpretation. Harris however is the escape. For Harris’ technical and philosophical approach to the problem of writing in the novel form, in a society where its structural underpinnings do not exist, can be narrowed down to the Procrustean bed of Dr. Ramchand’s preoccupations. Harris ‘technique’ of the novel allows Dr. Ramchand not only to evade the black centrality; but to justify this evasion in the guise of a literary theory. The escape can be intellectually rationalized, even if it means a pollution of Harris’ meaning. Naipaul is compared, impartially but unfavourably:
“And whereas Naipaul’s relentless accumulation of realistic particulars from the social scene persuades us and the character t ha t that society has an ‘ inevitable existence’, Harris’ fiction suggests a particular society only to deny 1ts overpowering reality.” (34)
When Naipaul tells us of the black woman wanting to buy flesh-coloured stockings, being given black ones by the East Indian sales girl; flouncing out angrily, while the girl remains amused, bewildered, we are offered no possibility of escape. In one telling and cruel moment Naipaul has revealed a soc1etY’s intimate and psychological alienation; its interpersonal cruelty, its smouldering resentment; its ignorant innocent indifference; the potentiality of a blind whirlwind in which both the black and the East Indian pawn will be caught in a confrontation they didn’t really make, for which they are not finally responsible. These are the kind of confrontations that Dr. Ramchand 1s at pains to evade.
The difficulty of Harris’ prose helps. We are told, helpless to dissent, that ‘the Far Journey of Oudin is a ‘witty analogy of slave history.’ The wit escapes us; and, trapped in our intimate relation to this slave history, we can neither catch the joke; appreciate the wit nor understand the analogy. Nor can we even glimpse the possibility of another view of a ‘conventionally deprived character ,’ which Harris is supposed to offer us, according to Ramchand ; since the society in which we exist, standardizes, stereotypes us all; depersonalizes not only our possible selves, aborting their fulfilment, but deforms our ‘real’ ones, derealizing us. Dr. Ramchand’s view of Wilson Harris ‘ novels offers us, on a cheapback tinsel tray, a shoddy justification, wrapped in rhetoric, of our daily and common mutilation. Oudin, analogue, we suspect, of that slave, whose witty history we are to puzzle out, may be a slave apparently. But let him take heart. As Dr. Ramchand tells it:
“Two versions of Oudin’s life take shape; there is the socially realistic figure who suffers as a slave in an o pp1ess1ve social order, and who dies having covenanted even his unborn child to the grasping Ram, and there is the godlike inheritor of the Kingdom who fulfils destiny by abducting the virgin, a bride and prize, coveted by Ram.” (35)
Let Ram grasp on. His grasping may deform the ‘real’ Oudin, but the ‘ideal’ Oudin escapes him. The virgin and the kingdom.
That Dr. Ramchand banalizes Harris’s intention is clear. Harris is too serious a writer, to be so nakedly involved in this ancient liberal escape hatch. Even where the failure of his intention can make it appear so. For Harris tries to achieve in his Guyanese novels, what the Cuban Alejo Carpenter manages to do in his novels. Carpenter contrasts the ‘rational’ world of the European experience in the New World with the ‘magical realism’ or ‘lo real maravilloso’ of the world of the Indians and the blacks; explores two different kinds of reality stemming from two different kinds of cultures. In his novel The Kingdom of this World, for example, Carpentier shows a black slave who coexists in the world of his master at the same time as he lives the full fiction of the imaginative world, peopled by metamorphosing heroes and demons of his African-descended Haitian culture. But then this slave is an illiterate. according to Dr. Ramchand, a man living a life ‘without fiction!’ According to Alejo Carpenter the slave in his world of ‘magical realism’ apprehends the world differently. And he shows this apprehension as being perfectly ‘logical’ within the structure of his beliefs. Harris’ failure stems from his inability to portray ‘the logic’ of this other world, by his refusal to anchor this world firmly in its own reality. All his verbal fireworks are not enough to disguise an essential vacuum.
Dr. Ramchand on the other hand is determined to deny this rich imaginative other world, so long as its source is Africa; determined not to make it exist at all. In the two key chapters he uses literary criticism to achieve his wish fulfilment. With delicate strokes he cuts the Caribbean’s navel string with Africa, burying it under a non-question about a non-issue.