Look homeward

By John T. Gilmore

An Intellectual History of the Caribbean, by Silvio Torres-Saillant
(Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 1-4039-6676-1, 304 pp)

The title of this work is something of a misnomer, as the reader who is looking for a systematic, chronological history of developments in Caribbean thought, or a history of representations of the Caribbean, whether by people from the Caribbean or by outsiders, is likely to be disappointed.

For one thing, Silvio Torres-Saillant appears to assume a considerable degree of previous knowledge on the part of his readers: for example, C.L.R. James is mentioned or quoted nearly a dozen times, and at one point Torres-Saillant quotes approvingly George Lamming’s description of James as ‘“the greatest’ of all Caribbean teachers.” However, the only background information we are given on James is the statement that “a Marxist who was, above all, an advocate for the human dignity of Caribbean people, he remains most reverently remembered as the author of the compelling study The Black Jacobins . . .” While most readers would probably be willing to agree with this, some at least of those from the Anglophone Caribbean may feel that it does not tell the whole story — Torres-Saillant does not mention Beyond a Boundary, which some might consider to be an equally important part of James’s oeuvre. (Nor, for that matter, does Torres-Saillant make any mention of cricket, a topic which, for some readers, can hardly be classed as extraneous to the subject matter of his book.) The student, or the general reader looking for an introduction to the subject, will probably be better served by a work like Gordon Lewis’s Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in its Ideological Aspects, 1492–1900 (1983), or the three volumes of A History of Literature in the Caribbean edited by A. James Arnold (1994–2001).

What Torres-Saillant does give us, however, (arguing as he does that “the Caribbean experience does not lend itself to treatment as a lineal [sic] narrative”) is an extremely stimulating and at times provocative interpretive essay which examines and criticises a number of ways of looking at Caribbean history, society, and literature. His introduction, titled “Caribbean Unity in Nature, History, and Prospects”, argues for the specificity of the region and its culture, as opposed to the outside forces that have sought to dominate it since 1492. While he shows an impressive knowledge of the diversity of the Caribbean, and a wide-ranging awareness of literary production from all of the cultural areas which remain differentiated by the languages imposed by colonial powers — and, indeed of literature in “minor” languages like Sranantongo and Papiamentu — he argues strongly for the existence of a Caribbean identity shared by all these areas, and including not just the islands of the Caribbean, but also the Caribbean coastal regions of mainland countries such as Colombia.

Considerable space is given to the way in which Caribbean music has become a popular subject of academic research, and Torres-Saillant dares to ask some shocking questions. Yes, he agrees, different forms of Caribbean music have become very popular with audiences in other parts of the world, and not just with those of Caribbean descent, but does the successful commercialisation of these musics actually bring any real benefit to the region? Are performance cultures in the Caribbean, and music in particular, truly forms of resistance, or only what he calls “musical consolation” for the continued powerlessness of the majority of Caribbean people before the pressures of forces largely external to the region? Are academics who claim that singing “songs of freedom” actually makes a difference simply deluding themselves? Torres-Saillant tells it how he sees it:

In a climate marked by political scepticism and doubt about the possibility of real social change, the attention of the learned tends to gravitate toward those social fields that promise some psychological gratification . . . Not every performer who rises to the top is politically a Bob Marley. A good many in fact use their access to the limelight to propagate recalcitrant ideas that work against the goal of inclusion, social justice, and equality for all. We glorify the rise of Caribbean music in large measure because the phenomenon soothes us, enabling us to cope with the anguish of defeat.

A chapter on “Caribbean Migration and Theoric Awakening” is partly autobiographical, tracing the author’s development from his childhood in the Dominican Republic, as the son of a father of Haitian descent who possessed an enthusiastic knowledge of European literature, to his arrival in the United States as a teenaged labour migrant who gave himself a college education by working his way through evening classes, and eventually to graduate school and an academic career. This is an interesting and inspiring story in its own right, but the importance that Torres-Saillant assigns to it is the fact that it led him to question accepted interpretations. Working in a shoe-factory in the Dominican Republic while attending night school meant that he was not subjected to the propaganda of the Trujillo dictatorship in the same way as supposedly more fortunate teenagers who enjoyed a conventional schooling. Later, in the United States, his background and his experiences of discrimination caused him to reject views of the Caribbean and of people of African descent that he found enshrined in academic texts.

Today, the same outlook leads him to question the dominance of postcolonial theory in academic interpretations of Caribbean literature and culture. He recognises that some of the leading practitioners of this approach are themselves, at least originally, of Caribbean origin (though it is puzzling to see Paul Gilroy referred to as “Jamaican-born”), but he argues that they have integrated themselves into a Western academic and intellectual system which, ultimately, gives space and prestige only to its own ways of looking at the world. Torres-Saillant suggests that constructs such as Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic” are too sweeping to do justice to the specificities of the Caribbean. Furthermore, he contends, Caribbean people should not need to steep themselves in theories of French philosophers and other exponents of Western European intellectual traditions in order to understand themselves.

It may be necessary, he notes regretfully, to familiarise oneself with such things to survive in the Western academic system, but Caribbean academics, in searching for models and ideas drawn from the reality of the Caribbean in order to further their understanding of the region, should be doing more to follow the example of thinkers such as Kamau Brathwaite and others he names. Aspects at least of this argument have been put forward before, perhaps most memorably by Derek Walcott in “Caligula’s Horse”, his address to a 1988 conference at UWI Mona (“When French poetry dies the dead fish of French criticism is sold to the suckers . . . It convinces one that Onan was a Frenchman, but no amount of masturbation can induce the Muse”), but it is refreshing to read it coming here from within the academy, and, for this reviewer at least, this is one of the most interesting and exciting parts of the book.

Other chapters show that there are still new ideas to be got out of the discussion of what one might have thought to be well-worn topics, like the plantation in Caribbean history, and the figure of Caliban. While there is, for example, a longish section on the history of the plantation which is little more than a summary of secondary sources (including that standby of Caribbean secondary schools, Claypole and Robottom’s Caribbean Story, which it seems strange to find being referred to as an authority in this context), there is also a fascinating discussion of Cynthia McLeod’s historical research into and fictional reconstruction of the life of Elisabeth Samson, a free black businesswoman and plantation-owner in eighteenth-century Suriname — a liminal figure whose extraordinary life-story offers some fascinating insights into the complexities of life in slave plantation societies. There is also some erudite and thought-provoking advocacy of the possibilities of viewing the history and culture of Hispaniola as paradigmatic of the wider Caribbean.

An Intellectual History may be a little heavy on the academic jargon for some readers, and there are far too many typographical errors, even by the lax standards of today’s publishing. These often affect proper names; to give only two examples, the eighteenth-century economist appears more than once as “Adams Smith,” and I lost count of the number of times the former president of the Dominican Republic, Juan Bosch, became “Juan Bosh.” But these are relatively minor criticisms of a book which, as whole, deserves a warm welcome.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2007

John T. Gilmore is a lecturer at the University of Warwick, where he teaches at the Centre for Caribbean Studies and the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies. He is a former lecturer at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, and former managing editor of Caribbean Week.