By Anu Lakhan
Transgression, Transition, and Transformation: Essays in Caribbean Culture, by Gordon Rohlehr
(Lexicon, ISBN 978-976-631-049-3, 507 pp)
“Now I’ll tell you something that will blow your mind,” he says to a small group of students who look abstracted and unlikely to survive such assault. Since the 1960s, he says, international meteorological offices had been tracking the thing we now recognise as Sahara dust. “And,” he says, ready to release this magnificent joke of literature, history, and weather patterns, “the man responsible for all of this was called Joseph Prospero. Prospero is still controlling the weather!”
At the time — a decade ago, in one of his UWI classes — Gordon Rohlehr may have thought it best not to notice the imperviousness of the nineteen-year-old mind. But after forty years of teaching, his is still an unjaded, enthusiastic mind.
Transgression, Transition, and Transformation is Gordon Rohlehr’s sixth book, which doesn’t sound like many, unless you know the books. They cover the works of, among others, Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, Martin Carter, C.L.R. James, A.J. Seymour, Eric Roach, V.S. Naipaul, Walter Rodney, and Eric Williams. Calypsonians, reggae and dancehall singers, jazz musicians. Literature, music, cricket, culture, society, lack of society, Trinidad Carnival, history, present, future. And at least one review of a musical featuring a character that looked like a giant head of broccoli. Perhaps “cover” isn’t the right word: “uncover” would be more accurate. Rohlehr’s zeal for the interconnectedness of all things and his near-pathological cross-referencing gets under and in between every line — of text, lyric, or one bowled down the pitch — that comes under his scrutiny. To hear about an American dust cloud expert in the middle of a lecture on Brathwaite (which inevitably leads to Shakespeare) is not remarkable.
One of the facts Transgression calls to mind is that, whatever else he may be, Rohlehr is a teacher of no small talent. Consciously or not, he can unearth an amusing or curious illustration that renders an idea memorable; memorable in the sense of one’s being able to commit something to memory, and hence useful for examination purposes. Sadly, in the case of the Prospero story recounted above, the students seemed rather more confused than amused.
In October 2007, after forty years of lecturing at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies, Rohlehr retired. Now emeritus professor of literature, he was honoured to within an inch of his life. The university’s farewell conference, “From Awakening to Apocalypse” — three days of all Rohlehr, all the time — was, on several occasions, highly appropriate to the man. Academic retirement bashes are typically dull affairs: a bit of deification, some clumsy well-intentioned jokes, an agonising after-party. Not so for Rohlehr. Participants were given the choice to present papers or personal tributes, or appear on panels. It seemed that almost everyone wanted to deliver a tribute. Even the panels and papers — and remember, most of these came from academics, not a group to waste an opportunity for self-promotion — often took to praising. There was a calypso event and a jazz night. If this had just been so much genuflecting, it would hardly have done. When his Queen’s College mates recalled his secondary school days in Guyana, it almost amounted to a roast. Curiously, the piece of his recent work the QC boys seemed most keen to discuss was a short reflective essay on his favourite cricket memory, published in the magazine Caribbean Beat. Instead of getting weepy over the current state of the game or recounting any one of too many down-to-the-last-ball West Indian victories, Rohlehr had chosen to write about two matches he played as a youth. As only people who have witnessed the ongoing embarrassment that is our adolescent self can do, his old schoolfriends dropped the reverence. They giggled. They snickered. They shook their heads in amazement. From whence did this alleged memory arise? Of all the brilliant things they could say about him (an excellent student, a wonderful singer), no one seemed to remember him as an especially gifted cricketer, and certainly not one of the match-saving variety.
In 1994, when Brian Lara became the Prince of Port of Spain or King Lara, musician David Rudder commented that he believed the young cricketer had “the strength to survive the worst excesses of Trinidadian adulation.” Lara himself, besieged by adoration on all sides, begged: “Please, please, give me a little room to be human.”
Like these heroes of two of his most beloved and anatomised subjects, calypso and cricket, Rohlehr will, I think survive the worship: first by appreciating it and then by neatly storing it so he might get on with his work. And, with the help of his luminous high-school friends, his humanity (and humility) is safely in check.
Rudder’s undervalued 1999 song “Shango Electric” presents the Orisha of thunder in a twenty-first-century setting. Ignored for eons by his children, Shango seeks the new media of the super-synthesised, frenetic dancehall as a way to re-enter, and hopefully reclaim, our lost and wandering selves. For this, even the big guy himself must invoke Legba, god of the crossroads, doorways, and portals. Taking “journeys to the other side” (Rudder, “Permission to Mash Up the Place”; Rudder, like Rohlehr, is keen on doorways) is, in many ways, what Rohlehr and Transgression, Transition, and Transformation is about. The book’s title itself suggests Legba. These are essays about the rites and rights of passage, and about discovering how we arrived at wherever we — post-colonial, post-modernist, Caribbean, West Indian people — were trying to get to.
Rohlehr has been lobbying for Legba for years: through his own work and by pointing out how the work of others serves the same function. But Legba is a subtle, wily deity; unlike Shango, who can slap you about the head with his power, he will simply deny you entry until you prove yourself worthy. And he is not above caprice. Sometimes you just didn’t make the cut, and there’s no reasonable accounting for it. Rohlehr sees manifestations of Legba in anyone who has tried to take the Caribbean across thresholds of thought (political, social, academic), culture (calypso and its spawn, mas, dance, literature), mastery and strategy (cricket, cricket, cricket):
Our folk Muse is Legba, Dahomean and Haitian keeper of the crossroads, a crippled deity whose hunched back and ruined leg are the stigmata of centuries of journeying, of terminality. Yet, such is the paradox of our situation, Legba is the god of both survival and beginning. Thus he appears in our literature as Naipaul’s Kripalsingh and Leroy Calliste’s South Trumpeter, both ambiguous terminal figures; or as Carter’s old woman in “Bent” who is cripple and angel of light. In Rudder’s songs he is the music itself which opens the door to our other side, one of Legba’s functions. He is there in Brathwaite’s X/Self, whose very title signifies the cross and crossroads; the intersection or confluence of histories, cultures, and possibilities in the making of the New-World person.
Rohlehr is the first to admit that the essays in this volume, might, at first or even second glance, appear arbitrary. To group them under the book’s title is a fairly successful attempt to rein them in. Despite the want of any obvious connection between the subjects, here, in the figure of an ambivalent gatekeeper, is one of the links. A sense, not so much of order, but of divine order.
What do we forget and what do we choose to forget? When does amnesia happen and when do we call it to us? The essays in Transgression have a great deal — have everything — to do with mapping and building. The building of nations and self-definitions. The erosion of imperfect pasts of injustice, unfairness, and blindness, and the creation of an “us.” In his work, Rohlehr never fails to show that there are no new stories. If you think you have a new story, chances are it’s in the Bible, in C.L.R. James, in Norse mythology, in Shakespeare. And those are the easy ones. If you don’t care to read this book, read The Tempest. Transgression is peopled with Calibans, Prosperos, and Ariels. Of all his works of demystification, here is the easiest, most obvious and accessible one. Whose islands are these? Who controls them? What are the trade-offs that had to be made for us to become “smaddy?” We had to cast off colonial strictures and structures in order to deconstruct and reconstruct. Fine. But there is something almost frighteningly inorganic about all of it. In our desperation to put as much distance between who we might have been and who we could be, in asking every hero and thinker to accept the roles of both Atlas and Sisyphus, what have we done to them and ourselves? What does this have to do with the book? Nothing. Everything. Above all else, this book is a conversation within itself and an invitation to further ones.
The essay “Between Literature and History: A Personal Encounter”, while not the only place in which that conversation occurs, allows the reader to participate in or eavesdrop on some of the questions raised above:
A smattering of West Indian history began to be taught around 1957; but it was Hall, Augier, and Gordon and later Parry and Sherlock, all worthy scholars, yet historians whose writing seemed as uniformly dry as the Sahara; factual, objective, and boring, confirming the suspicion that we lacked a real history. It was possible at the time to read those texts and feel that they were about some other people.
A few pages later, he quotes from a letter he received from Walter Rodney in 1968:
For our generation too is adding its quota to the frightening sterility of the society . . . Right now I am grappling with the problem of the approximate revolutionary line within a Jamaican context. I doubt whether the situation is explosive and I doubt whether I will be here long enough to witness the explosion; but as a matter of integrity, I must address myself to that question so long as I am here. Otherwise what will distinguish me from the Philistines?
Four pages on, he describes a poem, “To Walter Rodney”, by Guyanese folklorist Wordsworth McAndrew (who Pauline Melville marvellously reincarnated as Shakespeare McNab in her equally marvellous story “I Don’t Take Messages from Dead People”):
McAndrew tells Rodney that he has allowed himself to be seduced by the ideas of “home” and the responsibility to his people when neither home nor a people exists anymore.
No. There are no new stories.
This is perhaps an odd introduction to Transgression, Transition, and Transformation, and an introduction is really what this is. A précised review must make mention of James, Naipaul, and Williams, and what their days at Trinidad’s Queen’s Royal College meant. It must talk more about Rohlehr’s appreciation for the frontiersmen and -women of West Indian culture, and how we have under-appreciated them. About early novels that tried to show that innocence and good intentions are no match for racism and elitism. A proper review would need to get into what cricket and cricketers mean to the region. Rohlehr is not an excessive man: he is always, astonishingly, cool. But when cricket meets apartheid, there is an anger that reminds you he has a heart that runs as deep as his mind. And then there is that seemingly never-ending review of Geraldine Connor’s Carnival Messiah in which he seems to do everything in his power to make coherent a rather bewildering piece of theatre. One in which I fancied one of the major god characters to be a dancing broccoli.
This is a book about spaces. About getting to them, into them, and out of them. The title projects no false advertising.
Anu Lakhan writes about books and food. She lives in Trinidad.