Transformative reading

by Nicholas Laughlin on September 22, 2010

C.L.R. James

. . . it is appalling to learn that the C.L.R. James Library in Hackney (a borough of London) is going to be renamed the Dalston Library and Archives, after the neighborhood in which it is located. James was there when the library was christened in his honour in 1985. The authorities insist that, in spite of the proposed change, they will continue to honour James. But this seems half-hearted and unsatisfying . . .

Some have denounced the name change as an insult, not just to James’s memory, but to the community in which the library is located, since Hackney has a large black population. I don’t know enough to judge whether any offense was intended. But the renaming has a significance going well beyond local politics in North London.

C.L.R. James was a revolutionary; that he ended up imprisoned for a while seems, all in all, par for the course. But he was also very much the product of the cultural tradition he liked to call Western Civilisation. He used this expression without evident sarcasm — a remarkable thing, given that he was a tireless anti-imperialist. Given his studies in the history of Africa and the Caribbean, he might well have responded as Gandhi did when asked what he thought of Western Civilisation: “I think it would be a good idea.”

As a child, James reread Thackeray’s satirical novel Vanity Fair until he had it almost memorised; this was, perhaps, his introduction to social criticism. He traced his ideas about politics back to ancient Greece. James treated the funeral oration of Pericles as a key to understanding Lenin’s State and Revolution. And there is a film clip that shows him speaking to an audience of British students on Shakespeare — saying that he wrote “some of the finest plays I know about the impossibility of being a king.” As with James’s interpretation of Captain Ahab as a prototype of Stalin, this is a case of criticism as transformative reading. It’s eccentric, but it sticks with you.

Scott McLemee on the campaign to stop the renaming of the C.L.R. James Library in London. He includes a link to an online petition, which your Antilles blogger has already signed.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Maboula Soumahoro September 22, 2010 at 1:37 pm

The name of CLR James must remain on this library. Please…

Vahni Capildeo September 29, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Agreed: this would not be a change for the better.

Idara Hippolyte October 2, 2010 at 3:38 am

I don’t know the undoubtedly distinguished history of Dalston, but a name should tease the imagination and curiosity (so I hurried to wikipedia ‘Dalston’ at the first opportunity). Keeping the name ‘C.L.R. James’ would inspire a little wikipedia expedition for new library users that would take them on a more satisfying jaunt than the dead end of wondering whether ‘Deorlaf’s tun’ was named after a medieval Bishop of Hereford (To be fair, if it were being renamed ‘Deorlaf’s Tun Library’ I may, perversely, have been unable to resist the charm of the ironic return of the Anglo Saxon to what is frequently represented as a Caribbean stronghold in London). I hope the C.L.R. James name can be retained, with due honour to Rose Stiefel Lipman, whose renamed archives join the library’s collection in what appears to be a rather unequal merger at the new premises. Ms. Lipman doesn’t inspire such a vigorous campaign, but the renaming to Dalston Library and Archives seems to me to reduce the odds of her legacy being retained.

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