Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325
SOURCE: “Symbols Ahoy,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,693, December 15, 1972, p. 1,521.
[In the following review, the commentator voices his displeasure with Lamming's circumlocutory writing style.]
Ostensibly, Natives of My Person is about a voyage undertaken by a slave ship, the Reconnaissance, which sets sail from Europe during the seventeenth century in defiance of the law and with a few ulterior motives rankling in the breasts of captain and crew alike. Beneath this story—and not all that far beneath—lies an historical lesson, a political theory and a network of emotional paradigms; and the notion of those barely hidden depths is given substance in George Lamming's style—a prose of discovery which is effortful, uncolloquial, and almost always mannered, especially in the case of dialogue:
FIRST VOICE: The South is not the North. That is a fact.
SECOND VOICE: Give us another fact.
FIRST VOICE: The East is not the West.
THIRD VOICE: You are a man of facts.
FOURTH VOICE: He allows no contradiction when he speaks.
It's a pretentiousness which spills into straight narration, too; when the ship's boy laughs, Mr Lamming records that he “… gave sound to his delight”; it sounds rather like a crossword clue, circumlocutory and strangely systematized like much of the dialogue.
The effect of this is to reduce those on shipboard to mere mouthpieces in the author's philosophical costume drama. To speak, as the blurb does, of “the tortured introspection” of the ship's officers and crew is to grossly understate their capacity for self-examination and sheer loquacity. They talk and talk with the tireless efficiency of loop-tapes: formally organized conversations broken only by a muscle-bound narrative style which invests love scenes with a ripe, incantatory prose and turns meals into acts of deliberate carnage. If the book's real intention is, as seems likely, to be radical in its approach to both politics and personal emotion, it is difficult to see how Mr Lamming could have better obstructed his task.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1290
George Lamming 1927-
(Full name George William Lamming) Barbadian novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of Lamming's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, and 66.
Lamming is one of the most highly regarded contemporary Caribbean writers. His works about the decolonization and reconstruction of the West Indies following the end of British colonial rule are commended for their nationalistic spirit and poetic prose style. Lamming's writing focuses on finding new political and social identity and the long-lasting effects of early colonialism on the minds and actions of the Caribbean people. His use of allegory and metaphor give deeper political meaning to stories of people newly freed from the oppression of colonial rule. Lamming's writing style is experimental, often containing circular plot structures and abrupt shifts in narrative. Through his direct confrontation of old colonial rule and his inventive writing style, Lamming has become a groundbreaking writer who has paved the way for younger Caribbean authors.
Lamming was born in Barbados in 1927, and has witnessed and participated in much of the social and political upheaval that has taken place in the West Indies during his lifetime. Throughout the 1930s, rapid population growth, widespread economic depression, and the shift from a primarily agrarian economy to an industrial one profoundly altered traditional Barbadian village life. Trade unions became an effective political force and organized labor led the drive for political reform, ultimately resulting in the Barbadian independence movement. All of these factors had an impact on Lamming's life and are reflected in his works. As a child,...
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Lamming attended Roebuck Boys School and earned a rare scholarship to Combermere High School. In 1946, he left Barbados and traveled to Trinidad, where he worked at El Collegio de Venezuela as a teacher. During this time, he met several important Trinidadian writers including Clifford Sealy and Cecil Herbert and published poetry in literary magazines. In 1950, Lamming moved to England where he worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation and as a journalist while pursuing his own literary career. He quickly established himself as a writer and an intellectual. His first two novels,In the Castle of My Skin (1953) and The Emigrants (1954), were successful and well received. In 1955, Lamming visited the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship, serving as a writer-in-residence at the University of Texas. In 1956, he was a participant in the first international Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris. In 1957, In the Castle of My Skin received the Somerset Maugham Award for Literature. Lamming returned to the Caribbean and became involved in various political causes, including the movement for Barbadian independence, which was achieved in 1966. He published two novels, Of Age and Innocence (1958) and Season of Adventure (1960), and a book of essays, The Pleasures of Exile (1960), in rapid succession. In 1962, he received a Canada Council Fellowship; in 1967 he was a writer-in-residence at the Mona, Jamaica, campus of the University of the West Indies. After a twelve-year hiatus, he published two more novels, Natives of My Person (1972) and Water with Berries (1972). In 1975, Lamming was a writer-in-residence at the University of Dar-es-Salaam and the University of Nairobi. In 1976, he was awarded a British Commonwealth Foundation grant, a traveling fellowship that took him to major universities in India and Australia. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Connecticut, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and the University of North Carolina. He has also acted as the director of the fiction workshop at the University of Miami's Summer Institute for Caribbean Creative Writing. Lamming remains associated with educational and cultural projects of the Barbados Workers' Union and the Barbados Labour College while dividing his time between England, the Caribbean, and the United States.
Lamming's first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, is generally regarded as an important novel of decolonization and a national classic of West Indian literature. Set on the fictional island of San Cristobal, the story follows a male protagonist, identified only as G., from childhood to adolescence. The story concludes with G., at the age of eighteen, preparing to leave San Cristobal to pursue his education abroad. Drawing heavily on his own childhood experiences, Lamming relates the story of G.'s growth into manhood amid the political and social upheaval of the 1930s and 1940s. In Lamming's second novel, The Emigrants, he explores the massive post-World War II migration of West Indians to Great Britain. His story focuses on a group of emigrants who travel by ship from the Caribbean to England, a place they have been taught to believe is culturally superior to their native islands. Once settled in their new environment, the emigrants discover a lack of welcome, disillusionment, and a feeling of alienation; they subsequently long for home. Lamming's next novel, Of Age and Innocence, features characters who return to San Cristobal after living in England. Two of the protagonists, Mark and Isaac, react differently to being reunited with their homeland. Mark has difficulty readjusting to life in San Cristobal and is confused, whereas Isaac becomes obsessively involved with overthrowing colonization and establishing a new political and social structure. Of Age and Innocence shows race and age relations on the island and the long-lasting effects of colonialism. In his fourth novel, Lamming furthers his writing of rebellion and social change, as well as adding a cry for West Indians to reclaim their African roots in order to restructure their society. Lamming's next work, The Pleasures of Exile, is a collection of essays that gives further evidence of his nationalistic sympathies. The essays challenge both the values and beliefs that colonizers have imposed on the native populations, and the assumption that European colonization is superior and brings civilization to indigenous cultures. In 1972, Lamming published two novels almost simultaneously: Water with Berries and Natives of My Person. In Water with Berries, Lamming uses plot elements from Shakespeare's The Tempest as the basis for a profound examination of the colonial experience. In the novel, three artists, Derek, Roger, and Teeton, leave the West Indies and travel to England for enlightenment and opportunity. Like the exiles in The Emigrants, their quest for fulfillment ends in failure, disillusionment, death, and imprisonment. The false affection for colonization gives the exiles a misplaced trust that leads to their downfall. Natives of My Person focuses on slave traders of the sixteenth century. The novel reconstructs the voyage of the ship Reconnaissance, which is led by a character known as the Commandant. To atone for his past cruelties and barbarism, the Commandant plans to establish a Utopian society on the island of San Cristobal. The enterprise fails for many reasons: fighting amongst the crew, loss of interest, greed, and an inability to erase the past. The novel argues that an ideal society cannot be built by those who have committed moral atrocities and unnecessary bloodshed in their past.
While In the Castle of My Skin was considered an immediate Caribbean classic and was highly praised, Lamming's succeeding novels have met with mixed reviews. Most critics find Lamming's novels to be important postcolonial literature, but some have difficulty with Lamming's writing style. The use of multiple characters and abrupt shifts in narrative have been derided by some as a sign that Lamming's works lack form and cohesiveness. However, others have praised this and see these shifts as a form of allegory for the confusion and upheaval in the lives of the West Indians. Generally, reviewers agree that Lamming is most successful with autobiographical themes, citing In the Castle of My Skin as an example. Lamming continues to be lauded as one of the most important literary voices of the postcolonial West Indies.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5853
SOURCE: “The Tyranny of History: George Lamming's Natives of My Person and Water with Berries,” in Ariel, Vol. 10, No. 4, October, 1979, pp. 37-52.
[In the following essay, Tiffin examines the underlying themes of enslavement and empowerment in Lamming's Natives of My Person and Water with Berries.]
I had felt the wind rocking me with the oldest uncertainty and desire in the world, the desire to govern or to be governed, rule or to be ruled forever.
Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock
In the West Indies a concern with the slave past and the disorienting effects of colonialism on contemporary man's individuality underlies works as different in tone and technique as V. S. Naipaul's novels and Derek Walcott's poems. This literature of disorientation has developed from simply registering the state of being “divided to the vein”1 to investigating the fundamental nature of the human personality and its legacy from the historical traumas of slavery and colonialism, and has gone on to explore ways of reintegrating the colonized personality. Escapes to a European autumn pavement,2 or even to an African homecoming3 are being rejected in favour of careful re-examination of the roots of individual and collective personality behind the phenomena of slavery and colonialism in order to confront and interpret the West Indian present. Wilson Harris's analysis leads him to regard the division within and between individuals positively. For Harris, the diversifying forces of the colonial and slave past inherently contain a richer creative potential for the future than is offered by monocultural societies. But Naipaul is more pessimistic, and in Guerrillas even the possibility of personal revolution as an answer to the West Indian dilemma is rejected, since a pattern of history has already been established which makes militancy and violence only part of the repetitive cycle of the past.
George Lamming's works also have been from the beginning concerned with West Indian history, and his method of writing has been governed by what he has termed “the informing influence of history on the imaginative rendering of character.”4 Even in In the Castle of My Skin, where Lamming is concerned to reproduce at random the experiential present of a child, one of the most important structural thematic devices is the recurrent allusion to the colonial and slave past. “G,” the half-boy, half-adult narrator concludes, “A man's memory, it seemed, was the penalty he paid for his own existence.”5 For Lamming, history is the collective penalty all men pay for their present and future; it constitutes a debt which is never cleared. In later works, Creighton's Village of In the Castle of My Skin is transformed into the West Indian collective of San Cristobal. Here, even where political independence is imminent or achieved, the ties of the past still bind. Fola's personal revolution, a rebellion against the class attitudes imposed by the past, is the most hopeful prognostic in Lamming's earlier writings of the efficacy of personal revolution in paving the way to a future unshackled by history, but it is only a beginning. The Emigrants and The Pleasures of Exile point the way to the expatriated West Indian world of Water with Berries, though The Emigrants clearly explores that older West Indian tradition of escape to an autumn pavement which proves to be no real rebellion against the West Indian past, and no escape at all.
It is however in Natives of My Person and Water with Berries that this pervasive theme of West Indian fiction receives much closer scrutiny, the two novels forming complementary parts of the same analysis. Natives of My Person dissects at source the strands of personal and political power that underlie slavery. The back-to-Africa journey of West Indian literature becomes here an investigation into the root cause of Caribbean history, a journey for the contemporary black into the white seventeenth-century mind which initiated the dilemma. Yet at the same time at which the root cause is examined, the nature of one of its potential antidotes, revolution, is also considered. What seems to promise some hope in the present is thus intrinsically interwoven in Natives of My Person with that very past from which present personality hopes to escape. This linking is thematic as well as methodological. Like Naipaul Lamming is cautious about the possibility of defiantly wrenching free from history's legacy. Indeed, in Water with Berries the contemporary West Indian is still deeply enmeshed in the toils of that history, still acting out the black slave stereotypes that were the nightmare products of the white European mind.
Superficially Lamming's two latest novels are quite different. Natives of My Person traces the unauthorized voyage of seventeenth-century Europeans to the African slave coast and thence to the West Indies, while Water with Berries deals with the experiences of three West Indians in contemporary London. However, the novels share an overriding concern with the past, with the meaning of enslavement, with the struggle for power in imperial as well as individual terms. Both novels see colonizer and colonized as inevitably tied by bonds of past violence in a “blood knot” which issues in death or life in death, and in personality disintegration. Consequently the novels share a stream of imagery of imprisonment, corpses, disease, mutilation, violation and aborted resurrection. With past and present so tightly bound, what escape route is offered? Both novels also explore the potential of idealism and individual rebellion in resisting the tyranny of history.
This is not a naturalistic account of events and character, but a quasi-allegorical exploration of that early slave and colonial history which produced the twentieth-century West Indian present. Through the motives and minds of these seventeenth-century white slavers and colonizers, Lamming attempts to penetrate to the root cause of that history, the innermost “native” or ancestor of the contemporary person.
Under charge of the Commandant, the Reconnaissance leaves the Kingdom of Lime Stone to voyage to the Isles of the Black Rock via the African coast. The Commandant has undertaken such voyages before, and under the auspices of the House of Trade and Justice, the governing body of his native Lime Stone, he has taken part in the capture of slaves on the African coast and the virtual extermination of the native tribes of San Cristobal. The Reconnaissance has her necessary complement of crew, most of whom are designated in the novel by function alone. This separation of man and function indicates the degree to which personality tends to disintegrate in the struggle for power, fame or fortune. The human being is lost behind his mask and role. The general crew are overseen by the officers, Surgeon, Priest, Boatswain and Steward, with the enigmatic Pinteados and the Commandant in control. In their particular roles, the officers in the microcosmic world of the ship cater to the physical, spiritual and governmental needs of their populace. In the general populace, or crew, are to be found the better integrated personalities, men with a function but also with a “private” name, such as Marcel the fisherman, Pierre the carpenter, Ivan the visionary painter and Baptiste the powder maker.
It is, however, no routine voyage of slaving and empire building on which this crew is engaged, for the voyage is in effect an attempt to escape from history. The Commandant seeks to “reverse”7 his own atrocity-ridden past and to set up an “ideal” colony free from such historical violence on the Isles of the Black Rock. “I would plant some portion of the Kingdom in a soil that is new and freely chosen, namely the Isles of the Black Rock more recently known as San Cristobal” (p. 17). Some of the officers consciously flee their own private pasts, while some of the crew are fleeing Lime Stone's domestic persecution and tyranny. Although others are drawn to the voyage by the promise of wealth, flight from the past is the most pervasive motive for voyaging. Collectively, too, the voyage is portrayed as a symbolic escape from history. Being unauthorized, the voyage goes unrecorded in the annals of the House of Trade and Justice. Moreover, by the absence of women and of slave cargo from this microcosmic world of the Reconnaissance Lamming symbolizes the attempt to avoid two of the most destructive examples of human domination which have been part of the experience of the men aboard. Unrecorded, and eschewing racial and sexual abuse, the Reconnaissance attempts to outsail her past.
Idealist and revolutionary, the Commandant would not only “reverse” that past, but also would attempt to erode the power structures that produced it. Refusing to recognize the power of the House of Trade and Justice, he also departs from hierarchical tradition by offering a share in the profits of the voyage to the general crew. Yet, for all the attempt at new beginnings, the power struggles and structures of the old order sail with the men: “A man's memory … was the penalty he paid for his own existence,” and it is memory which dominates the minds of the men as they witness the new wonders of the present and which inevitably governs their actions. Decisions taken, conversation shared, shaky friendships formed through discovering comparable experiences back in Lime Stone, all look backward for a basis from which to proceed. Even new and rich wonders are categorized and judged in the light of past experience, thus losing their potential for inspiring new interpretations and new scales of value.
Much of the novel is occupied with the flashbacks to the Commandant's colonial and slaving experience; with his memories of his mistress; with Surgeon's and Steward's bitter power struggles with their wives; and with the worry of Pinteados' ambiguous connections with the women in Lime Stone. Almost all actions and thoughts aboard the Reconnaissance are influenced by memory. It is after the Commandant remembers his mistress's accusations of murder that he orders that no slaves be taken: it is after he learns of the liaison between his mistress and Boatswain that he halts the voyage one day from its destination and precipitates mutiny and bloodshed. It is because Steward and Surgeon so desperately fear their pasts that frail bonds of comradeship develop between them, and it is when they are faced with a confrontation with this past in learning that their wives await them at San Cristobal that they attempt to escape this meeting by shooting the Commandant. Though Boatswain has waited all his life for this chance of command, his memory of his liaison with the Lady of the House, the relationship instrumental in achieving his goal, eventually drives him mad. In a world of wonders of new geography and races only the past is truly revelatory; only it can astound a crew most of whom have not seen such worlds before. And the men like Pierre the carpenter, who do find their sense of the marvelous excited by the slave coast, quickly force the wonder of a different race and custom into the straitjacket of Christian platitudinizing which then conveniently eases the conscience of the charge of violation of that wonder. When the slaves commit suicide by leaping overboard into the crocodile-infested river, Pierre explains that
this decision to leap was beyond our reason, so that we did surmise—and ancient wisdom confirms—how this blackness of hide which resembles skin must be nature's way of warning against the absence of any soul within, which is the clear cause of their ignorance, just as a true Christian countenance resembles the colour of the sun, thereby giving a power and beauty of light which adorns the skin and supporteth all pious reason; being yet further proof that there be nothing that appears by accident or indolent chance in the purpose and harmony of our Lord's creation.
This impossibility of man's ever escaping his past, however revolutionary or idealistic his intention, is given objective representation by the vessel appropriately named Penalty with her cargo of women who, like the men, have sailed from Lime Stone to San Cristobal. Pinteados, the Pilot, is the one man who seems to have at least partially escaped from history and the two sides of the destructive “blood knot” of colonial domination. He eschews national and personal loyalties for an independence of spirit that does not allow him to indulge in either domination or self-sacrifice. It is appropriately Pinteados who sums up the nature of the inability of the men to face their respective pasts:
Different in status and intention, the absolute deficiency they shared was a common failure to accept reunion with their women.
To be within the orbit of power was their total ambition. But real power frightened them … they had to avoid the touch of power itself. The women are absolute evidence of what I mean. To feel authority over the women! that was enough … But to commit themselves fully to what they felt authority over! Such power they were afraid of.
The women, on the other hand, commit themselves too fully to these men who own them, body and soul. Jeremy in Water with Berries is
presiding over the gravest of issues: how to be responsible to others without any servile abdication of interest in oneself. He had no praise for those who had made courage an act of demolishing the individual self … these mercenaries of the soul … poisoned by the vapours of sacrifice. Self-sacrifice was the most fatal narcotic of the soul.8
Both Steward's wife and Surgeon's wife are guilty of the “servile abdication of interest” in self, and thus bind themselves to their husbands in a complicity of servitude. The same is at least partially true of the Lady and the Commandant, though their superior courage, the depth of the Lady's passion, and her consciousness of the true nature and meaning of her relationship with the Commandant give their love a status beyond the more squalid power struggles of the two officers. It is the meaning of this relationship, its direct parallel in the wider political context of slaving and imperialism, that forms the central equation of the novel—that between sexual politics and colonial/slave politics. To the Commandant, the Lady is “a colony of joys given over entirely to his care” (p. 65), and like the women of the slaughtered tribes she is violated and abandoned to a life-in-death where she literally practices dying. For her, as for the African slaves, “the middle voyage was the worst” (p. 62) and the necklace the Commandant brings her as a souvenir of his adventures is like a slave collar round her throat. The Commandant himself is cursed by his past with an inability to experience the immediate present, even in love-making:
There was a treasure of naked flesh in his arms, heaving and sobbing like the wind. But he couldn't feel her legs grow tight and quivering between his thighs; his desire had taken root elsewhere. An imperial joy had shipped his pride over the ocean seas … She was kneading her hands down the root and testicle of his strength; his sperm, however, was nurturing a different soil, his star was ascending a foreign sky.
Yet it is this imperial design, a kind of giving and loving however thwarted and distorted, that elevates the Commandant's passions, in the private and public spheres, above the level of those of Steward and Surgeon. In a series of brilliantly sustained imaginative comparisons between white women “slaving” and the trade in African blacks, Lamming expresses the gross appetites and sickness of the men who engage in both, and the petty personal fears and weakness behind the political expression of that fear in the horror of slavery and empire building.
Surgeon's sadistic appetites, so obvious in his relations with his wife, are also expressed as appetite for the trade in flesh:
Surgeon wore that blissful, remote look of a horse chewing in sleep. He had a habit of soaking dry prunes in his wine; then he would suck for a moment before grazing on the acrid, black flesh.
Steward, Priest and Boatswain also participate in this ironic Christmas Communion of the black coast, and like the lesser crew who trade in black flesh they risk the sickness it sometimes causes. Madness claims victims among slaves and slavers alike, and Surgeon's wife, driven mad by his sadism, is incarcerated in Severn Asylum where the victims of the black coast sickness also are housed. Madness, too, is the fate of Boatswain.
Lamming continually reiterates that the taint of any power relationship falls upon both slaver and enslaved, and indissolubly links them. In a recent radio broadcast he declared: “There is no continent, white or black, which today can be said to be free of the consequences of [the force of imperialism and the legacy of colonial rule].”9 Here, too, the ties that bind slaver to slave are explored. Surgeon fears a devotion in his wife which he cannot comprehend. He is the master who fears that beneath the Uncle Tom passivity of his slave lies the potential for the blackest treachery. Escaping from the power of his wife, Steward carries the persisting memory of her with him in the gold ring he wears on a chain around his neck and which has “become a prison round his flesh” (p. 190). Steward's unwitting incestuous relationship is a further instance of the insidious tendrils a power relationship puts out. So cloyingly intimate, so madly deadly, these family power struggles and liaisons are apt expressions of the colonial situation where two races are bound together in a violent yet seemingly indissoluble embrace.
Boatswain boasts in his madness of being “a man of parts,” and feels these “parts” have been defiled and polluted in his relationship with the Lady of the House. Yet the “parts” he cites are already contaminated by the atrocities and defilements of history, “San Souci, Belle Vue, the Demon Coast” (p. 269). Boatswain is initially prepared to violate his soul for commercial success, and the monetary motive behind the private power struggles between the sexes and in the trade in “black gold” is characteristic of a Lime Stone where the relative values are appropriately set forth in the title of the governing body, “The House of Trade and Justice.”
SURGEON'S WIFE: How do they survive it without going mad? Husband and wife in the role of whores? And the keepers of whores? How? How?
LADY OF THE HOUSE: Because their whoredom is also the whoredom of the House of Trade and Justice. It is the National principle of the continent of Lime Stone. What safer consolation or protection can a citizen have than to know that his private vice is the nation's religion?
From this “religion” of Lime Stone's past there is no escape. “Never,” says Priest, “can the shepherd of the coast of black cargoes be born again” (p. 329). The penalty of that violent history whose springs are the petty weaknesses of the individual soul is inability to be liberated from that history into an uncontaminated future. The wives wait in vain for the Reconnaissance, whose voyage reconnoitered nothing in spite of its idealistic aims and rebellious character. Their experience of San Cristobal, the new Promised Land, is a reliving of their pasts of waiting for the men. Men in Lime Stone, says Priest, “could not be sure of the ground they stood on” (p. 120), and this metaphor of instability has already been given actual expression in the Tribes' retaliation. The Commandant has lost soldiers in a San Cristobal where men literally could not be sure of the ground on which they stood. The leaves of the forests which the Lady collects are also the leaves of the San Cristobal forests, and there the Penalty waits with its cargo of the past. This cargo is also that of the accumulated atrocity of all human power struggles whether sexual or colonial, and the weaknesses out of which such struggles arise. Against such native, such indigenous human weakness, Lamming sees little hope of escape from the tyranny of a violent repetitive history. Even idealistic visions and rebellious acts become perversely involved with the perpetration of man's weakness and violence. The selflessness of the women is a more hopeful prognostic, “the future” that the men “must learn” (p. 351): yet paradoxically, as Natives of My Person demonstrates, that very selflessness is both product of and continuing reinstigator of the very native weakness that produces the deadly slave/master syndrome.
The twentieth-century successors of the crew of the Reconnaissance are the three West Indian exiles of Water with Berries and the English and American characters with whom they are involved. Teeton (a painter), Roger (a musician) and Derek (an actor) have for political or personal reasons left their native San Cristobal for permanent exile in London. All three are attempting to escape the San Cristobal past and establish a creative relationship with the London present. All three find, like the characters of Natives of My Person, that the past, the island, is “a nerve”10 their exile cannot kill, a history from which there is no eventual resurrection. In choosing three artists, Lamming has chosen three men who might be expected in their individuality and creativity to escape their respective pasts. Teeton is an artist and a revolutionary and shares the idealistic plans of the Gathering for the future of San Cristobal. Yet all three end by disintegrating into false stereotype and self-destruction.
Since his arrival in London, Derek has had one particularly successful season at Stratford as Othello, the jealous Moor. Since then, however, his career has suffered a decline, and his habitual role has come to be that of a corpse. As his life in London gradually comes to emulate his stage roles, his satisfaction in life narrows to playing peacemaker in the Roger and Nicole estrangement. Feeling himself responsible for the final catastrophe, he “resurrects” himself from his usual role of corpse in A Summer's Error in Albion to rape the white heroine on stage. In this cruel parody of his Othello success, and in frightful and abortive “resurrection,” Derek plays the “role” his history has assigned him. As a kind of racial scapegoat the corpse rises to act out the monster stereotype of his white colonizer's imagination.
Roger Capildeo has come to London to escape from the influence of his father, and from a land with which he has no ancestral sympathy. Presumably the descendant of Indian indentured labourers, he finds San Cristobal an isle “full of noises,”11 but of the wrong kind. There is no ancestral harmony, only a cacophony of history, imposed from outside.
Roger could never recognize any links between him and San Cristobal. It seemed that history had amputated his root from some other human soil, and deposited him, by chance, in a region of time which was called an island. He had never heard any music stir in his hands when he climbed the rocks in the Cockpit country. There was only sound; a fury of noise conferred on the landscape from outside. That's how he had always thought of his childhood. It lacked some melody that was native to the rocks.
Yet this very sense of amputation anchors him firmly in the West Indian past with its “rootless” population sprung only from slavery and the indenture system. Never at home in San Cristobal, Roger cannot find a home in exile either. It is significant that he is rescued from despair by a white American girl, Nicole, yet the rescue in the end proves to be abortive. Through Roger's inability to face the possibility of Nicole's bearing him a child, Lamming is denying that any recombination of the colonized West Indies and the new giant of America can produce a creative liberation into the future. Teeton too has been abortively “rescued” by America in the past, only to reject that rescue and with it all he has formerly lived for and believed in in San Cristobal: his wife and his revolutionary comrades. After rejecting Nicole so violently, Roger, like Derek, disintegrates from person into stereotype. In a series of fires, reminiscent of the slaves' most characteristic act of retribution, Roger destroys himself and his creative potential as man and as musician. He is left at the end facing trial for arson and murder, a prisoner of his colonial past and its San Cristobal-England nexus, after a fruitless attempt to escape to “America,” the new land of West Indian hope.12 The past has, as in Derek's case, converted creativity into destruction and stereotype. Like Derek he resorts to the retaliations, real or imagined, of his ancestors.
Teeton, on the other hand, has two possible avenues of escape from his past: his painting and his political activity. Yet neither is proof against his growing relationship with the Old Dowager, an insidious “colonial” relationship which inevitably ends in tragedy.
The Old Dowager rescues Teeton from his interminable room-hunting in a London of racially hostile landladies. She appears to Teeton as a stroke of luck, sudden, unexpected and beneficient—like magic.
… When thou cam'st first Thou strok'st me, and made much of me; would'st give me Water with berries in't.(13)
The seduction of this latter-day Caliban is however a much more subtle process than was Prospero's wooing and eventual sovereignty. When the novel opens, Teeton's departure from the Old Dowager's care and his return to San Cristobal are imminent, and though technically he owes the Old Dowager nothing, he is reluctant to sever ties with her. In San Cristobal a future, free of the political and personal past, awaits him, but he is reluctant to tell her of his departure. He knows the depth of the hurt she will feel and is unable to face her accusatory disappointment. The complex web of relationship that has evolved between them and which is expressed in their rituals of speech and significant silences has a tenacity that their great differences in age, race, history and life style would seem to preclude. But their long association has made him sensitive to her moods and obligated to respect them. The power struggle which issues from this association is gentle and subtle, yet it has its underlying mutual tyrannies. Almost without recognizing it, Teeton has become enslaved to the Old Dowager's moods, while she has become enamoured of him.
Nicole's death changes the nature of the relationship between the Dowager and Teeton. Their complicity in the burial of Nicole's body leaves the innocent Teeton a prey to the Dowager's protective instincts. On the eve of his departure for San Cristobal, he is taken by the Dowager to a cold, bleak island in the North Sea and on a journey into the Old Dowager's past which is, by historical association, also his own. Again it is impossible to ignore the wider political implications of the personal history. Teeton, anxious to keep his appointment with a San Cristobal future, is borne back instead to the past by the Old Dowager (Mrs. Gore-Brittain), whose protection he needs but for which he forfeits his potential personal and political history. Colonizer and colonized are bound in a blood knot, whether vicious or apparently benevolent, that will curse their futures. The Pilot, the Old Dowager's lover, puts this idea bluntly:
I know what I've learnt. That experiment in ruling over your kind. It was a curse. The wealth it fetched was a curse. The power it brought was a curse … And it will come back to plague my race until one of us dies. That curse will always come back. Like how you've come here.
The Pilot is killed by the Old Dowager, who shoots him to prevent his killing Teeton. Her act puts him even further in her debt, for his life is now doubly owed to her at the cost almost of his physical identity:
Teeton remained nailed to the chair. He hadn't moved at all; as though his feet were still in chains. He couldn't move. He didn't know whose air he was inhaling: whose lungs were in charge of his breathing. But he felt he was a stranger to his body. He was squatting in some foreign shelter of flesh and bone that could never be his own. He didn't know what sound his tongue should make; what language he could make his own … And he continued to stare at the Old Dowager as though he wanted her to find some cure for this impediment; this total speechlessness which had now made him prisoner in his own dark and distorting consciousness.
Once again Teeton and the Dowager are involved in a death, though this time the burial is carried out by Teeton alone. In shooting her lover, the Dowager buries her own past, and in so doing loses all connection with, and interest in, the present. Destroying her own kind leaves her life without meaning and continuity. Teeton, who has enjoyed her protection, can't grasp that “their partnership was at an end” (p. 233). Though this is the end for the Dowager, Teeton finds that
He was drifting finally out of her care. But he was still within her power. She was free to defy his wish, free to refuse her favours. He felt a brief thrust of rage at the thought that his future was dependent on her mercy.
Her power is the power of their combined past. His feet are “still in chains.” Resentment urges Teeton to apprise the Dowager of his intended “defection,” offering as a kind of consolation prize the restoration of her daughter long lost on, and betrayed by, San Cristobal. In the sudden shock of Teeton's admission and of his offer, the Old Dowager reverts to the stereotypes her race has created of the colonized in fear of retaliation for past violation:
She discovered some animal treachery in his secretive ways. She saw the ancestral beast which possessed his kind, a miracle of cunning and deceit, forever in hiding, dark and dangerous as the night.
The accusation is a denial of the complex web of understanding that has been built up. Too brutal, far too simplistic, it nevertheless expresses the violence inherent in any colonial or quasi-colonial relationship. It is the outward expression of the underlying violation of one human being by another—the verbal equivalent of the denial of humanity and individuality implicit in the colonial situation and explicit in the slave one. Deserted by the Old Dowager and betrayed into stereotype, Teeton “knew he would have to organize his own escape” (p. 234). That “organization” now involves the revolutionary act of murdering the power that holds him back from the future, and out of a complex of hate, love and desperation he kills his former benefactress. Now it seems he has severed the ancient blood knot that tied colonizer and colonized, and is ready for his appointment with the West Indian future. But out of a too-complex and too-conjoined history he too has now acted out the stereotype, the black slave who murders his white mistress. A “new” San Cristobal, as in Natives of My Person, remains “unreached.”14 Teeton is apprehended and, with Roger, awaits trial. Derek, escaping trial after his abortive “resurrection,” lives only to see his life “assume the mantle of a corpse” (p. 219). His act of rebellion against the corpse-like role into which the colonial past has cast him issues not in revolution, but ironically in reversion to racist stereotype, the self-fulfilling prophecy of white hate.
With the exception of the six-line ending, only two sections of Water with Berries are not divided into subchapters; and these sections, which describe Teeton's encounters with the girl on the heath, are central to an understanding of Lamming's purpose. Seemingly these are casual encounters, of sudden recognition and understanding, superficially quite unlike the slow-growing, tenacious relationship between Teeton and the Old Dowager. While in the Teeton/Dowager relationship, Lamming anatomizes the subtle ties that bind person to person or race to race through long association, the story of the girl on the heath, so shocking in its violent intensity, expresses the dark underside of the violent West Indian past which eventually will erupt into the apparently civilized English present. The Miranda/Myra of San Cristobal is here in Lamming's rewriting of Shakespeare's The Tempest, seduced by her own father and then raped by a vicious band of Calibans and their animals in retaliation for similar violence committed by Myra's sadistic guardian on his own servants. Vividly evocative of that past, Myra's tale, told on a gentle rainy night on a London heath to a native of that past, literally “brings home” the ties of violence that bind Teeton's, Roger's, and Derek's San Cristobal pasts to their London presents, and exposes the real nature of those ties, however much the subtle conversion of centuries has softened them.
The Commandant's revolutionary ideals in Natives of My Person were ultimately thwarted by the unrelenting tyranny of history. The rebellious gestures of the three central characters of Water with Berries prove similarly ineffective and destructive. Worse, they precipitate the characters directly back into that violent past, and ironically into those white racist stereotypes of rape, arson and murder that provided the fear-motive for atrocities committed by whites on blacks and then inevitably the justification for such crimes. In his latest two novels Lamming seems to find the past shackling the future in a repetitive cycle, empty of any possibility of resurrection. The revolutionary impulse may seem promising but inevitably it fails before the petty viciousness of human nature which, expressed as the slaving and colonial impulse, ensures a continuation of the atrocities of the past. In the latest novel, the Lady of the House offers the first glimpse of hope. Although Lamming has not arrived at any sort of coherent theory of salvation from the colonial impasse, he does seem to endorse the idea that the Lady might provide “a directive for the future.”15 At this point such a hope is embryonic, but it is clear that Lamming believes that the colonized rather than the colonizer has a better chance of escape.
Derek Walcott, “A Far Cry from Africa,” in In a Green Night: Poems 1948–1960 (London: Cape, 1962), p. 18.
Andrew Salkey, Escape to an Autumn Pavement (London: Hutchinson, 1960).
E. R. Braithwaite, A Kind of Homecoming (London: Muller, 1963).
“Guest of Honour” Broadcast, Australian Broadcasting Commission, September 19, 1976.
In the Castle of My Skin (London: Longman Caribbean, 1970), p. 248.
“Revolution and Literature,” Semper Floreat (Brisbane), 46, No. 13 (28 September 1976), p. 13.
Natives of My Person (London: Longman Caribbean, 1972), p. 72. All subsequent references cite this edition by page numbers.
Water with Berries (London: Longman, 1971), p. 97.
George Lamming, “Guest of Honour” Broadcast. My italics.
Water with Berries (London: Longman, 1971), p. 110. All subsequent references cite this edition by page numbers.
The Tempest, III, ii, 133.
Lamming in The Pleasures of Exile and in Season of Adventure had already touched on the West Indians' ambiguous connections with the Americas. They seem to offer hope of a homecoming that never really eventuates as in the journey of Chikki Crim and Powell to Virginia in Season of Adventure.
The Tempest, I, ii, 334–6.
A. Boxill, “San Cristobal Unreached,” WLWE, 12, No. 1 (April 1973).
Gloria Yarde, “George Lamming—The Historical Imagination,” Literary Half-Yearly, 11, No. 2 (July 1972), 36.
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In the Castle of My Skin (novel) 1953
The Emigrants (novel) 1954
Of Age and Innocence (novel) 1958
The Pleasures of Exile (essays) 1960
Season of Adventure (novel) 1960
Natives of My Person (novel) 1972
Water with Berries (novel) 1972
Conversations: George Lamming: Essays, Addresses and Interviews, 1953-1990 (essays and interviews) 1992
Coming, Coming Home: Conversations II: Western Education and the Intellectual (essays) 2000
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3882
SOURCE: “Freedom after the Fall: Renaissance and Disillusionment in Water with Berries and Guerrillas,” in Individual and Community in Commonwealth Literature, University Press, 1979, pp. 90-8.
[In the following essay, Tiffin explores the interactions among characters in Lamming's Water with Berries and V. S. Naipaul's Guerrillas.]
In A House for Mr. Biswas V. S. Naipaul in what now seems to have been an aberrant moment of optimism, pointed the way to a West Indian self acceptance and hence a personal freedom to legitimize the achieved political one. As Robertson has observed, in post-colonial literatures the pattern of the Edenic myth is generally inverted and the attainment of freedom, the true creation of new man, is a post-lapsarian condition.1 The post-lapsarian freedom indicated in A House for Mr. Biswas was a posture of compromise; the acceptance of a less than paradisal condition in the West Indian present after the rejection of compelling imaginative ties with worlds elsewhere, particularly with Britain. Biswas' house was evidence of the attainment of that individual psychic freedom which the politics of decolonization had, perhaps prematurely, assumed. In In the Castle of My Skin George Lamming showed how, as the old plantation village structures were slowly and painfully eroded, the boy, ‘G', moved out of his safe but claustrophobic colonial enclosure of ‘Little England’ to embrace the wider world of the Caribbean and the puzzling new concepts of Black Power. The childhood concerns with the shadow King, and the self-denigrating images which empire imposed on the colonial, seemed at the end to be receding in favour of a more positive local self-concept, and more adult political concerns.
A parallel development in politics and in the individual is axiomatic in In the Castle of My Skin, yet later works like Season of Adventure betray Lamming's growing concern that such individual freedom has not in fact been achieved. The characters of Season of Adventure strain rather desperately to prove a point which was, in G's development, taken for granted. For Lamming, unless individuals are truly freed from the sinister legacies of slavery and colonialism, political freedom is a Pyrrhic victory; worse, it perpetuates and exacerbates an ancient slavery, whatever the contemporary disguises. The very title of The Mimic Men indicated both the hollow centre of the post colonial politician (and his politics) and the historical source of that emptiness.
Obviously both writers felt that the destructive historical bond of Empire persisted in spite of the promising political prognostic, and in their most recent works Lamming and Naipaul have intensively anatomized the nature and effect of this seemingly indestructible ‘blood knot’ on contemporary West Indians and Britons. Instead of being able to proclaim its demise, both novelists have been forced to re-examine the colonial relation in what is perhaps a final attempt to exorcise the beast; an exorcism worth performing since both novelists see the continuing connection as stifling individual creativity, warping or annihilating political purpose, and resulting, for both ex-colonizer and ex-colonial in rape, suicide and murder.
It is ironic that the hard facts of postcolonial politics should have led both novelists away from the more naturalistic styles of their early works, in Naipaul's case towards symbolic incantations of repetition and futility; in Lamming's towards what he has called an ‘allegorical interpretation of experience’.2 In both Water with Berries and Guerrillas portrayal of character is subservient to a depiction of the relationship between characters and its implications, and the protagonists become less individuals in their own right than parts of an historical equation. Yet it is significant that characters shaped by such a history have definition only in terms of their Empire alter egos. Either they are essentially hollow men, futile creations of other voices, other rooms, or they find that for all their seeming freedom and personal integrity, they are trapped by history into the old stereotypes and roles; victims either way of the continuing colonial consciousness.
Water with Berries does not present a watertight allegorical system, yet its general political and historical symbolism is clear. The central situation involves Teeton, San Cristobal artist and political exile, and his landlady whose name, ‘Gore Brittain’ conjures both an empire and its bloody history. Much of the early exposition of the novel concerns these two characters, yet it is the relationship between them which is being exposed.
As the novel opens, Teeton's departure from England for San Cristobal is imminent. As a member of ‘The Gathering’ he will assist in (belatedly) revolutionizing post-colonial politics. From the outset the artificiality of the Gathering's projected enterprise is evident, in the self-conscious adoption of San Cristobal place names, the theatrical secrecy and stilted political exchanges. The texture of the daily lives of the members is obviously of different stuff, and for all the ‘M1.5’ seriousness of the operation, is more compelling. Teeton is more worried about apprising his landlady of his departure than about the political implications of that revolutionary involvement. During the seven years of his residence with the Old Dowager, ties stronger than oaths, secret codes and place names have evolved. The politics of their relationship is intricate, subtle and binding and the current power play of would-be revolutionaries in exile is no match for this long-term association based on deep knowledge and apparent mutual respect for personality. For Teeton real power lies with the Old Dowager and the ties of consideration and effection by which he is bound to her; she is similarly enmeshed in the complex web of their relationship.
While Teeton is thus torn between the reality of his continuing psychic connection with Mrs Gore Brittain—the old politics of Empire—and his loyalty to the Gathering—the promise of the new politics which will effectively destroy such shackling long term associations—Nicolés death catalyses the situation. Though innocent, Teeton is now placed irretrievably in the Old Dowagers' debt, and at her insistence on the necessity of flight for his own preservation, he is whisked off to a more remote exile on a ‘cold bleak island in the North Sea’.3 His participation in the Gathering's projected assault on San Cristobal is thus effectively precluded, and instead of the new politics of revolution, Teeton is left with the old imperial relation, now vastly strengthened by his new debt and his utter isolation. His feet, he feels are ‘still in chains’. (Pg. 230). The historical and political implications of the parable are obvious, but the sinister underlay of the apparent affection and respect is not yet fully exposed. When the Dowager finds that her recent affection for Teeton has led her to kill her ‘own kind', her brother-in-law, her view of Teeton as an individual worthy of individual respect changes rapidly. ‘She discovered some animal treachery in his secretive ways. She saw the ancestral beast which possessed his kind, a miracle of cunning and deceit, forever in hiding, dark and dangerous as the night’. (Pg. 234)
From one point of view, Teeton's subsequent murder of the Old Dowager is a step towards personal liberation from a history that produced both the powerful ties of empire and the powerless theatricality of political organizations like the Gathering, whose, members, while they plot the overthrow of empires, continue to enjoy living within them. Teeton has come to know that ‘he would have to organize his own escape’ (Pg. 234). But the escape is still part of the future, and, ironically, his killing of the Old Dowager has precipitated him back, in the view of the English public, into the old role of black murderer of white women; a view only suppressed, never eradicated. Typically too the Gathering, without Teeton fails to ‘liberate’ San Cristobal, and all its revolutionary seriousness is reduced to a ‘furious arguing that Teeton was innocent’ (Pg. 249). The members remain in Britain, shackled like the whites to the stereotypical images and fates dictated by their combined history.
Roger Capildeo,4 a musician, and Derek, an actor, have also come from San Cristobal to the land of Prospero5 to seek artistic freedom; yet like Teeton they learn that escape from history is impossible. Significantly it is again Nicole who is the unwilling catalyst in their destruction, and again they destroy and are destroyed by and through the roles cast for them in the guilty imaginations of their white colonizers. Derek rapes the white heroine of A Summer's Error in Albion on stage, and Roger attempts to burn all the haunts of West Indians in England; the flats, the Mona Pub, the Old Dowager's house. While on one level these acts are revolutionary blows against the continuing colonial relation, they represent on another a deadly connivance with it. The tolerant twentieth-century English theatre audience becomes a potential lynch mob and the Old Bailey waits to exact legal retribution from these latter day slaves who have murdered and burned.
The only section of Water with Berries not divided into sub-chapters is that concerning Teeton's co-incidental meeting on the heath with the long lost daughter of his landlady. As an exercise in Dickensian coincidence the episode seems absurd, but given Lamming's ‘allegorical’ purpose, the meeting is the essential core of the novel. Myra's horrific tale told to Teeton on a rainy night on a damp English heath literally brings home the sinister tragedy of their shackled histories. Both Teeton and Myra Gore Brittain are its unfortunate legatees.
Teeton and the Old Dowager were presented less as individuals than as aspects of a shared past, and Lamming emphasizes the generally complementary nature of his characterization by dividing his Miranda equivalent between Randa, Teeton's wife (tragically abandoned in San Cristobal) and Myra her English counterpart, whose horrific San Cristobal experience has maimed her emotionally. Trapped in the web of the Caliban—Prospero past, both Mirandas choose suicide; one a swift demise, the other a slow and painful death. Race hatred, suicide and murder remain the issues of slave and colonial history whatever the contemporary disguises, and whatever the promise of the politics of independence.
Teeton, Roger and Derek had sought, and at first apparently found, freedom to expand as individuals in the territory of Prospero. Yet each found himself in the end acting out the old roles in which history had cast him. Jimmy Ahmed of Naipaul's Guerrillas has apparently been given a new role by Prospero; yet what his limited vision sees as the creation of new man is only a re-enactment of the old historical fall.
The character of Jimmy Ahmed is to a large extent based on that of Abdul Malik (Michael X). In The Sunday Times Magazine May 12th and 19th, 1974,6 Naipaul published two articles on the Malik murders and the conclusions he drew from his study of Malik's life obviously shaped his purpose in Guerrillas.
It was in London that Malik became a Negro … He was shallow and unoriginal but he sensed that in England, provincial, rich and very secure, race was, to Right and Left, a topic of entertainment. And he became an entertainer. He was X, the militant, the man threatening the fire next time; he was also the dope-peddler, the pimp. He was everybody's negro and not too negroid …7
Eventually the role, or series of roles, defines the man. A personality designed for and by a particular audience militates against any consistency or integrity. Of Malik's ‘autobiography’ Naipaul notes:
It's not the story of a life or the development of a personality. The narrator, from his London eminence as the X, the reformed Negro ponce who is now the Negro leader, assumes that the events of his life are well known; and he is concerned only to present himself in all his Negro roles. Events accumulate confusedly around him; he is without personality; he is only a haphazard succession of roles.8
Malik murdered a young Englishwoman, Gale Benson, at his ‘Commune’ in Trinidad in 1972, and it is what Gale Benson's presence represented for Naipaul, rather than the details of her own life or character that make her the model for Jane in Guerrillas. The tragedy of Gale Benson, according to Naipaul, ‘is contained in an African story of 1897 by Conrad … An Outpost of Progress [is] a story of the congruent corruptions of colonizer and colonized … [Benson] was part of the corruption by which she was destroyed’.9Guerrillas anatomizes these congruent corruptions and like Water with Berries, demonstrates the mutually destructive effects of the persisting English—West Indian connection.
As in Water with Berries, the central situation through which this relation is exposed is a relationship between a West Indian man and an English woman. And the result is again murder. Here however it is not the slow evolution of a relationship which binds two people, but their mutual need for an audience for their particular ‘displays’. As Naipaul's assessment of Malik suggests, Jimmy Ahmed exists for himself only in the eyes of an audience, and that audience is necessarily white.
Malik was, in the Trinidad phrase, ‘a fair-skin man’ but in Guerrillas his fictional counterpart is a hakwai. The shift allows Naipaul to retain the irony of the ‘black’ leader's real isolation, racially and socially, from the community he is ostensibly leading, and the Chinese connection, and Jimmy's affectation of the Mao shirt, makes even more pathetically irrelevant his revolutionary role playing in a Caribbean setting.10 His pretensions to agrarian reform, like the billboards that advertise his commune and line the roads (Black is Basic. Don't Vote) are not legitimate or convincing directives on an island with a black government and an urban oriented large scale cane growing population. They are, like the Mao shirt, the inappropriate bric-a-brac of revolution elsewhere; and they depend for any effect they have, on the unthinking response of an audience whose personal and social definitions come from ‘abroad', whose conditioning as an outpost of empire has led it to see itself exclusively in alien terms.
Even within this context Jimmy's display finds no genuine audience. His revolutionary roles are convincing only to those whose financial interest might be threatened by his revolution. Those who might effect such a revolution, people like Stephens, are soon disillusioned. A creation of England, Jimmy finds his self-definition not in terms of real revolutionary politics, or by frightening local financiers, but by impressing an imaginary English audience. He lives among his ‘English mementoes’. The therapy which maintains what little integrity of personality he has is his writing to Roy in England, and his fiction of the deep impression he has made on Clarissa, an English character of his own invention. Away from the fantasies of an adulatory Clarissa and an approving Roy, Jimmy fitfully acknowledges his true reflection in the ugly and futile Bryant. His run-down commune, ‘a parody of nineteenth-century plantation prints’ (Pg. 20, 21), is called ‘Thrushcross Grange', and in his own literary fantasy-therapy he sees his English heroine redeeming his ignominious antecedents and his ugliness with Catherine's words to Heath-cliff: ‘Your mother was an Indian princess and your father was the Emperor of China’.
It is Jane of course who has provided the model for Jimmy's Clarissa, but Jane does not share Clarissa's awe of him. The power he can exercise in terms of Clarissa (and this in itself is an indication of the only direction he sees his assertion of power taking) is not available to him in his relationship with Jane. She humiliates him in the sexual arena in which their power game is played out. Jane and her kind, those who ‘continue to simplify the world and reduce other men—not only the Negro—to a cause, the people who substitute doctrine for knowledge and irritation for concern’11 have produced Jimmy. But having created him, and having titillated their own sense of excitement and need for distraction (the former colonials will perform and threaten and so redeem the youth of the aging mother country) they abandon him to the contempt which was always implicit in their adulation. The slave performs a new role created by tired masters to assuage guilt and revivify an historical middle age.
Ultimately, out of the frustration of his fantasy world of sexual and political power, Jimmy, like Frankenstein's monster, kills his creator (who is also the source of his torment) and offers her in appeasement to his true alter ego, Bryant. The murder does not satisfy his need for power nor fulfill his drive towards survival as an integrated personality. In killing the English Jane, who would not be the Clarissa or Catherine he craved, he has destroyed his available English audience, and thus himself. Like Dorian Gray, he has stabbed Jane to find that the only surviving self reflection available to him is the pathetic Bryant.
The title of Guerrillas refers not just to Jimmy, or Stephens or the unfocussed eruptions of revolt in the city, but to the society as a whole, and to a twentieth century way of life which, lacking in local integrity, is increasingly bombarded with the inappropriate cultural and political products of other places. It is a world too in which serious political toles are created for people by foreigners who wish to enhance their own sense of security, or who enjoy the entertainment. The very action which seems to mark Roche off from the other characters in Guerrillas as the ‘doer’ rather than the role player, turns out to have been a conditioned response to a sinister audience, its ‘heroism’ a creation of the so called ‘concerned’ like Jane, who involve themselves (at a safe distance) in the politics of other nations. In the global village of Guerrillas a vast gulf exists between surfaces and realities; between true heroism and a schoolboy reflex; between the Arrow of Peace and the real sources of power in the community.
Like Jimmy's commune, or Jane's sexual adventures, or Sablich's patronage, Meredith's politics are in the end only the neo-colonial ‘games people play', locally dangerous only when they become the fantasy by which individuals live. The Arrow of Peace, the commune, Meredith's party are, like Jane's or Jimmy's ‘displays', the mere shows of power. The more astute characters, like Stephens and Harry de Tunja know that in such a society the real message must be sought between the lines. The surfaces must be worked like a crossword puzzle, scoured for ‘clues down and across’ if the nature of the society and the true sources of power are to be assessed. While everyone fights his own insignificant little war, lives out the old and persisting congruent corruptions of colonizer and colonized, the real power centre has shifted. Acknowledging that for most of the population the old days of slavery and colonialism have not passed, Harry observes of the ‘guerrilla activities’:
‘Those guys down there don't know what they're doing. All this talk of independence, but they don't really believe that times have changed. They still feel they're just taking a chance, and that when the show is over somebody is going to go down there and start dishing out licks. And they half want it to be over, you know. They would go crazy if somebody tells them that this time nobody might be going down to dish out licks and pick up the pieces’.
It is no surprise that after the ‘show’ the licks do come; but they are administered by the Americans, the new imperial power in the unobtrusive business suit and the depersonalized helicopter.12
Nicole remains a problematic character in Water with Berries. It is stressed from the beginning that she is American, and though she seems to be the general dispenser of sweetness and light, Teeton has reservations about her. Initially she saves Roger from self-destruction but is later the unwilling agent of his disintegration. As Derek's personal life is lived vicariously through Roger and Nicole it too is devastated and this precipitates his suicidal stage performance. Teeton's ‘capture’ by the Old Dowager is a result of Nicole's death. Earlier in the novel, Teeton reflects that
the ocean was too narrow a stretch between San Cristobal and her northern neighbour. There to the north, a nightmare away, the stupendous power of America sent a shiver through every nerve; shut every eye with fear. The ocean was innocent, an amiable killer beside those urgent executioners who kept vigil over the fortunes of that hemisphere.
The American Ambassador was instrumental in Teeton's release from San Cristobal prison; but this involved the ‘prostitution’ of Randa and his revolutionary ideals. Given Lamming's allegorical purpose in Water with Berries, it is not too fanciful to suggest that Nicole's role is the demonstration of the deadly catalytic effect of the apparently benign politics of the new imperial giant.13
While the Gathering, Jimmy and his commune and the guerrillas play at power games that are the expression of, rather than a release from the old imperial slave history, the new empire has quietly arrived. The addictive enclosure of colonial history binds Briton and West Indian in old ties with new disguises of affection or adulation or ‘Anger', but the new American power, cynically commercial or offering apparent sweetness and light (foreign aid?) has taken the real reins of power.
Somehow it sounds familiar. A new empire begins, and the changed names will not protect the innocent.
R. T. Robertson ‘Form into Shape: His Natural Life and Capricornia in a Commonwealth Context’ in Commonwealth Literature and the Modern World ed. Hena Maes—Jelinek (Bruxelles, 1975) p. 138.
Lamming has described his fictional mode as moving from a ‘naturalistic rendering of society’ towards an ‘allegorical interpretation of experience’. UMKC, 22 June 1973.
George Lamming, Water with Berries, first published 1971 (Norfolk, 1973) p. 175. All references are to the paperback edition.
Obviously there is a little literary and biographical ‘in joking’ here. The Tulsis of A House for Mr. Biswas were drawn from the Capildeo family, and even in Trinidad, Capildeo is not a common name.
Lamming has said that Water with Berries is his ‘rewrite’ of Shakespeare's Tempest.
V. S. Naipaul, ‘The Killings in Trinidad’ Sunday Times Magazine, 12 May 1974 and 19 May 1974.
V. S. Naipaul, ‘The Killings in Trinidad’ Sunday Times Magazine, 12 May 1974, pp. 30; 33.
———. p. 34.
Sunday Times Magazine, 19 May 1974, p. 41.
Though Naipaul makes a half-hearted attempt to dissociate the action of Guerrillas from a Trinidad setting, the geography, as well as politics are obviously Trinidadi an with a dash of Jamaica here and there.
Sunday Times Magazine, 19 May 1974, p. 41.
During the political unrest in Trinidad in the early 70's, the period when there were allegedly outbursts of guerrilla activity, ‘licks’ were ‘dished out', but not by the Americans in helicopters. The American intervention is Naipaul's ‘fiction', and his introduction of it indicates its significance.
In an interview with George Kent, (‘A Conversation with George Lamming’ Black World 22, (1973) pp. 4–14; 88–97). Lamming said of the House of Trade and Justice in Natives of My Person:
I was thinking of the House as a symbol of our contemporary situation, of the post-colonial world like that of San Cristobal. Today, it's the international corporation. That is the stupendous body that now rises above what ordinary people and their leaders imagine to be the domestic authority of the land. A country becomes what is called ‘independent', attempts … to set out on a journey of very serious breaking au ay, but discovers instead the international corporation—that gigantic arrangement of modern life that has the capacity to control or redirect decisions democratically decided by people and their leaders.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4550
SOURCE: “The Myth of the Fall and the Dawning of Consciousness in George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 30-43.
[In the following essay, Brown studies the autobiographical aspects of the character “G” in Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, giving special consideration to the effect that Lamming, writing as an adult with an adult perspective, has regarding the awareness and experiences of a child.]
In 1958 George Lamming wrote that the modern black writer's endeavor is like that of “every other writer whose work is a form of self enquiry, a clarification of his relations with other men, and a report on his own highly subjective conception of the possible meaning of man's life.” A writer's self-inquiry constitutes his first world—“the world of the private and hidden self, the world hidden within the castle of each man's skin.” And if he is honest, he will bear witness to the impact that a second world, the social, has made on his consciousness. Finally, because a man cannot escape “the essential need to find meaning for his destiny,” the writer must confront his third world, his “definition of himself as man in the world of men.” When he looks fully into these three worlds of his self, he finds a “very concrete example of … the human condition … a condition which is essentially … originally tragic.” The contemporary human condition, writes Lamming, involves a “universal sense of separation and abandonment, frustration and loss, and above all, of man's direct inner experience of something missing.”1
All over the world and in different periods, that sense of absence has given rise to a myth of a past time of perfection from which man has fallen, a myth of a golden age or an Eden. In coming to terms with that archetypal sense of absence through the medium of the autobiographical fiction In the Castle of My Skin (1953), George Lamming revivifies the archetype of the Fall, now in Barbadian garb, as it touches each of his worlds. Not only is much of his personal life projected into the fictional character G, but the novel articulates the history of an entire village, as the protagonist individually and the villagers collectively come into historical consciousness and in so doing lose their innocence. “Archetypes come to life only when one patiently tries to discover why and in what fashion they are meaningful to a living individual,” wrote Carl Jung.2 A fascinating example is the particular manner in which the myth of the Fall as a metaphor for maturation infuses Lamming's narrative, dignifying with eternal human significance the life of a poor, black child struggling to adulthood in Barbados.
Calling the biblical Fall “one of the most essential symbolic teachings of the Christian religion.” Jung argued that the myth expresses the psychic fact that man experiences “the dawn of consciousness as a curse.” Adam—the primitive man, responding to instinct, innocent without self-consciousness of his impulses and actions—rested secure in his trust of nature. That things were the way they were was not problematic. But in turning away from instinct and opposing himself to it, modern man, recognizing his nakedness, creates consciousness and with it the inevitability of choice, doubt, fear. Eating the apple from the tree of knowledge marks the sacrifice of the natural man, of the unconscious, of the capacity to live in the world through simple response without judgments of good and evil. And modern man, fallen, in an “orphaned and isolated state where [he is] abandoned by nature and driven to consciousness,” aware of the insecurity implied by freedom to choose, said Jung, wishes he could avoid the problems thus engendered and may wonder whether the childlike, preconscious state were not preferable. He experiences loss and absence. Jung further argued that each individual reenacts the psychic history of the race in his emergence from preconsciousness and movement into the dualistic stage, characteristic of “youth” from puberty to mid-life, in which he experiences himself both as “I,” the innermost psychic self, and as “also I,” the self adjusting to making its way in the physical and social world.3
In the early chapters of In the Castle of My Skin Lamming frankly acknowledges his use of Old Testament metaphor, but only to mock its simplistic nature. Humorously he compares the flood which opens the novel to the biblical Flood. Only once does he overtly contemplate the Garden of Eden story, which he merges with Lucifer's rebellion against God. In chapter three the schoolboys, having been denied knowledge of Barbadian history by the colonialist school system, speculate as to how Queen Victoria could have freed them from slavery. They arrive at a composite explanation which, though naïve, articulates the assumptions underlying British rationalizations for colonialist rule. Though in origin different, the Garden of Eden or heaven and the empire are identified with one another. Because both are products of God's will and under His dominion, to rebel against either is to become a moral outlaw, a Lucifer, a rebel against God. Rebellion, while offering the exhilaration of new possibility, produces loneliness so terrible that the rebels repent, preferring bondage to freedom. And bondage to the empire will facilitate their return to the true garden in heaven. Thus in his only overt consideration of the myth of the Fall, Lamming blasts the colonialists exploitation of Christian theology in the interests of perpetuating economic and psychological enslavement. Lamming's analogy affirms that colonial Barbados was no paradise, except perhaps for the British.
Yet on a subtler level the myth does pervade the novel, and metaphorically Barbados is indeed a garden. A matured G, looking back, describes the house of the landlord Creighton as “a castle around which the land like a shabby back garden stretched.”4 While the shabbiness under the colonial regime is never in doubt, neither—it turns out—is its gardenlike quality. In considering how the regime impinges on his second world, Lamming never retreats from resistance; still, when that rule is replaced by the native bourgeoisie, bringing about the sale of the land and destruction of a way of life, then the loss of that simple, harmonious community—poignantly symbolized by Pa's removal to the almshouse—is felt severely enough that village life seems in retrospect like an innocent paradise. The verdure of the land is known only after the trees are downed, and the land's value becomes evident only when it is sold. G's mother voices this truth in an aphorism: “You never miss the water till the well run dry; / You never miss a mother till she close her eye” (294). Just as the child's lack of consciousness of being a person separate from the mother gives way before the evidence that he is himself not her, so man—the villagers—no longer in a monistic relationship with the source of sustenance, the natural world, becomes forcefully conscious of his separateness with profound regret.
While the villagers experience the social and political changes as disastrous, the novel's judgment of these changes is more complex. For although throughout most of the novel G's experience of the world is like that of the villagers, their fall is single. His is double. The sociopolitical narrative of social change in a Barbadian village deals with the single fall, which is, it appears, a fall only in part.5 Even desirable change involves loss: “Whether you were glad or sorry to be rid of [things,] you couldn't bear the thought of seeing them for the last time” (238). The narrator's fall, on the other hand, has a second part and a different quality, for he also becomes alienated from the village community. In gaining access to the narrator's double fall, we enter the writer's first world, the world of the innermost self, and perhaps not surprisingly find ourselves involved with issues of autobiography as a genre.
Of course Lamming, like G, was once a boy growing up in Barbados. But In the Castle of My Skin resembles autobiography more than superficially. First, its mode is self-reflective and so has a natural tendency toward irony. In autobiography the narrator is both the observer and the observed, and as such the genre can only be written after the writer has separated himself enough from living experience to objectify it. If the writer, now matured, tries to re-create experiences as he lived them (this Lamming does), his double vision characteristically produces irony. In Lamming's novel the double vision accounts for the humor in the early part of the novel, for he recounts events as the child and the villagers experienced them, but with the hind-sight of the matured observer. Naturally by the end, as the ages and perspectives of the observer and the observed converge, the humor disappears, and the ironic distance diminishes.
The novel shares with autobiography a second feature: the use of Edenic imagery to depict childhood. In “The Myth of the Fall: A Description of Autobiography” Martha Lifson explores the curious fact that many autobiographies—those of Augustine, Rousseau, Wordsworth and Thoreau, among others—invoke garden-of-paradise imagery in describing childhood: “The light, the peace, the friendly insect, the stillness, and particularly the timelessness, are all images that recur frequently in autobiographical scenes of childhood.” Later she adds to this list a “sense of order” and “abundance of nature.”6
Although “light” is not a prominent metaphor in his novel, Lamming sometimes uses light-dark imagery in crucial ways, as will be seen. “Peace” and “stillness,” while indeed appropriate to the chapters at the beach, would not seem to describe the raucous, often quarreling interchanges of village life unless we understand them as commotion which occurs within the context of the steady rhythms of that life, commotion which signals no disruption. The theme of Edenic harmony emerges strikingly in depictions of the land, the sky, the sea, the sand of the beach with its wondrous crabs appearing and disappearing. The crabs, vibrating with luminous significance, are the Barbadian equivalent of Lifson's “friendly insects,” emblematic of the eternal wonder of the universe, with which the child feels at one. It emerges in the fisherman, masterful and at ease in his element, who personifies man's harmony with the natural world and capacity for securing abundance from its unspoiled state. Though the village is poor and ragged, no one appears to be in real want. The rootedness of the village order and the unconscious assumption that the village will remain unspoiled are Edenic qualities too. G's friend Trumper alone voices what others only vaguely intuit.
When you up here [at the landlord's house] … you see how it is nothin' could change in the village. Everything's sort of in order. Big life one side an' small life a next side, an' you get a kin' o' feelin' of you in your small corner an' I in mine. Everything's kind of correct.
Still, as Lifson noted, it is the child's sense of timelessness which most emphatically evokes paradise.
In this novel chronological time belongs to the adult observer reflecting on how the village and he have changed. For the villager and the child, time does not exist. G is aware of time as sequence but not as progression. The villagers similarly cannot imagine the radical changes set in motion by Mr. Slime's formation of the Penny Bank and the Friendly Society. Thus the consequences, unexpected, shock them not just because of specific effects, but because they had not conceived that real change was possible. “This land ain't the sort of land that can be for buy or sell. … 'Twas always an' 'twill always be land for we people to live on,” protests a bewildered woman (264).
Thus a maturer Lamming joins in choosing Edenic imagery to transcribe his childhood. For G and the villagers, conflicts occur within the unexpected, natural rhythms of life and create neither alienation nor self-division. The paradise Lamming evokes is one of naïve inner harmony, based on the assumption that the world is what it is and everyone has a secure place in it, not on the judgment of it as good in itself. So also affirms the book of Genesis: knowledge of good and evil arises only after the apple is eaten.
Although Lamming's evocation of Eden is powerful, equally if not more forceful are the images of disappearance and destruction, of the Fall, which resonate throughout the novel. Sudden, mysterious, unexpected disappearances of objects, emblems of the more catastrophic loss of psychic grounding, punctuate the text. The humorous story of the drunk man's penny and cent—one rolled into the gutter in full view under a full moon, the other was carefully secured under a stone, and both vanished—echoes through the narrator's later, nearly frantic search for the special pebble which, having seized the narrator's attention, vanishes contrary to all logical causality through some strange, indecipherable intervention. In the midst of security, in the Garden of Eden, without source or explanation, without preparation, cataclysmically enters the serpent.
The novel tells of two falls: the simple sale of Eden itself (the village land) through the agency of the serpent Mr. Slime, and the more complex disinheritance of G, who loses his identity. Repeatedly, Lamming projects the predicament precipitating the fall as closed. Only two alternatives (they appear either as opposites or as identical—it makes no difference) are postulated, and the protagonist must choose between them. Although in the predifferentiated state G embraced both alternatives without conflict, yet with the coming of an unforeseen, intervening force he is compelled to choose between illusory alternatives. The refusal to choose places him in limbo; choosing leads him into exile or destroys him. Always he loses the harmony of his prelapsarian state.
The tales told by the boys at the beach rehearse G's later experience of this psychological predicament. Boy Blue tells the story of Bots, Bambi and Bambina, of a village man living contentedly with two common-law wives. Under external pressure he arbitrarily marries one of them. All continues the same until, without warning, the formerly warm and sociable man becomes silently morose, takes to drink and dies. The boys explain his enigmatic behavior thus: “Something go off pop in yuh head an' you ain't the same man you think you was” (131). The story is preceded by Trumper's tale of Jon, who, similarly coerced into choosing between two women, Sue and Jen, attempts to watch his wedding from a tree, waiting to discover what will happen as, simultaneously in facing churches, his two brides-to-be vainly await his arrival at the altar. Images of a duality which is no duality repeat elsewhere—two moods of the ocean on either side of the lighthouse, the oppositions of life and death, Creighton and Slime, god and dog in Pa's dream. Always frustration and loss follow choice.7
Such predicaments are emblematic of the narrator's situation near the end of the novel, when he finds himself separated from the village by his education and from his intellectual peers by his ties to village life.
I remained in the village living, it seemed, on the circumference of two worlds. It was as though my roots had been snapped from the centre of what I knew best, while I remained impotent to wrest what my fortunes had forced me into.
Repeatedly as situations necessitate choice between false, arbitrary or meaningless alternatives, the individual remembers that it had formerly been possible to have wholeness, to appropriate all alternatives and so avoid loss. Trumper explains Jon's perspective: able imaginatively to marry both women as well as observe from the tree, he accepts the psychic reality as primary and fails even to consider as problematic the failure of the three events to proceed simultaneously in actuality. Instead he waits patiently for the groom, himself or another, to arrive for the weddings. Trumper comments, “P'raps it ain't [logical] … but that don't make it not so.” When Boy Blue objects that living a contradiction makes wholeness impossible, Trumper responds, “I don't know. … P'raps you can if you feel you can” (142). In dream, in memory, in imagination, the mind contemplates and realizes multiple, in compatible alternatives. Since all perceptions ultimately must be subjective, the subjective projection can become more actual than the objective manipulation of physical matter. Eden is not just a folk village, a childhood mentality, but also, as in Jung, a psychic position.
Lamming contrasts archetypal the atemporal, paradisiacal Barbadian life and Slime's modern, analytical approach to it. In introducing the novel, Richard Wright, speaking of the clash of the folk and the modern worlds, focuses on its sociopolitical dimensions, highlighting the Third World cultures versus modern industrialism. Wright further argues that the clash occurs in the mind of every man who grows up in the one culture to find himself an adult in the other.8 For the atemporal, dream-fantasy mode which accounts for the label “poetic” so frequently bestowed on the novel arises from the child's preconscious mode of mental activity, and the temporal perspective of the matured observer is generated from the analytic, linear mode of mental life.
Lamming has embodied the opposed modes, the “atemporal folk” and the “linear modern,” within the novel's narrative strategy. The adult observer perceives the causality of events, analytically and linearly, revealing the dynamics of social change. But the villagers' and child's perspective is atemporal.9 Several narrative strategies create the impression of timelessness. First, the time lapses between chapters vary radically and indefinitely. Rarely does the reader know how old G has become.10 Second, the narrative voice ranges from primarily first person, to primarily third person, to—in the chapters which are dialogues between Ma and Pa—primarily dramatic. The voices narrate a whole unified by harmony rather than by logic. Third, images felt to be similar to one another in essence, though different in form, emerge at unforeseen points to create a narrative of mood subliminally felt to dominate the linear narrative of events.11 As in a dream where the insights of the psyche are disguised in symbols and meaning emerges from decoding the emotional reverberations (not from simply remembering the narrative of the dream), so the emotional content of the novel is structured by a process of freely associating images and symbols which resonate against one another, allowing the correspondences to surface.
When he juxtaposes atemporal and analytical narrative modes, Lamming gives concrete form to Jung's concept of the self in youth experiencing its own duality, itself as “I” and “also I.” Pa's enigmatic dream in chapter ten exemplifies this. The dream, voice of the unconscious function of the psyche and a balancing corrective to conscious thought, is here presented as the voice of the slave ancestors. It would seem to be a dream emerging from a kind of racial collective unconscious within the individual psyche. That voice describes the origins of Barbados through slavery as a terrible mistake, as the formation of an illusory duality between oppressed and oppressors which never should have been, one begun symbolically here by the sailor Christopher Columbus.
The only certainly these islands inherit was that sailor's mistake, and it's gone on and on from father to son 'mongst the rich and the poor: in Slime and Creighton, landlord and politician, those who play at ruling and those at being ruled, and those who are neither one nor the other. … The fate of these islands I do not know, but man must live like a god or a dog, or be a stone that is neither dead nor alive, a pool no wind will ever wrinkle. For there's always two worlds to one man if you're a man, two darknesses to one light, one light, one light. …
The very concept of duality, of alternatives at once opposite and the same, is illusory. The necessity of choosing between Jen and Sue, folk and modern, unconscious and conscious, is an illusion. Here especially images of light, typical of Eden, become relevant. In Pa's dream, darkness represents the fallen state of the present; and light at the end of the dream—Pa's vision for the future—seems to signify a yearning for a final reintegration and return to what long ago, before the fall, had been whole. The hope of reintegration is what prevents Lamming's novel from representing life as in essence tragic, his later comments notwithstanding.
Even though Eden collapses and G experiences consciousness as a kind of catastrophe, the novel's ending transcends the tragic view of human experience. The Old Testament is completed by the New Testament; the fall from grace ends with Christ's resurrection and the promise of grace and eternal life for the sinner. A higher, integrating consciousness follows Jung's dualistic state of “youth.” The quest myth of world literature describes the same progression. The questing hero, born under unusual circumstances, grows up in a protected environment; as a young adult he leaves home to seek a boon (an object; knowledge). After encountering perils, he finds it and returns home. The variations are legion, but the essential tale remains the same.12 G, hero of “virgin” birth—“My father who had only fathered the idea of me had left me the sole liability of my mother who really fathered me” (3)—and product of Eden, leaves the island with archetypal optimism. In the Castle of My Skin ends with a beginning—not an ending—as the hero, bound first for Trinidad, prepares to cross the magic threshold of the sea.
Lamming published the novel when he was twenty-six years old and very likely experiencing the “I”/“also I” dualism typical of that age. His comments on the tragic nature of life, appearing five years later (1958), perhaps represent the feelings of the quester who, in the midst of seemingly endless trials, begins to doubt the existence of the boon. Lamming's subsequent novels, each an adventure in the quest, consider the struggle to integrate the warring dualism and so create a broader, more encompassing Eden. The sociopolitical struggle to shape a Caribbean culture which will transcend the class conflict and racial animosity bequeathed by the colonial experience is a metaphor for the quester's search for the boon. In his major work of nonfiction, The Pleasures of Exile (1960), which elucidates the central issues of his novels, Lamming uses Shakespeare's metaphor to argue that the problems for Caliban the natural man arose when Prospero the colonialist gave him language, and so consciousness. Each of Lamming's novels questions how, without accepting Prospero's exploitation, Caliban can use the “gift” of consciousness to achieve a new Eden.
In The Emigrants (1954) a band of West Indians seeking a “return” to the nurturing motherland, England, find instead the disillusionment of reality. In the other novels successive protagonists attempt to transform San Cristobal. Lamming's fictional, quintessentially Caribbean island, into Eden. Of Age and Innocence (1958) explores the failure of the conquering savior, Shepherd, to join the races—black, Indian, Chinese and, to an extent, white—in establishing political freedom and justice. Fola of Season of Adventure (1963), who combines in her person black and white (she claims a “double fatherhood”), native and middle class, seeks integrity by rejecting her “also I” heritage and retreating into the native past. In Water with Berries (1971) Teeton must shed his attachment to the patronizing mother Dowager before he can hope to return. Natives of My Person (1972) addresses the obstacles to realizing Eden in an early period in San Cristobal's history.
Thus at the end of In the Castle of My Skin the truly autobiographical hero G seeks now in an immense universe, one which encompasses all human possibility and not just that in his tiny Eden, a new perfection of light, peace, order, eternity: he seeks harmony within himself and with the universe. Until he achieves that apotheosis, he travels with the memory of Eden and the current reality of strife—with his dualism—and with no certain knowledge of whether his alienation will be final, a tragedy, or just one stage in the journey back to wholeness. Although this quest journey represents psychological passage, for the Third World writer of that single generation caught in the interstices of two cultures, raised in the folk culture but adult in the modern world, expulsion from paradise has an additional, painful dimension.
In confronting his three worlds honestly, Lamming achieves a multiple triumph. For his second world, his sociopolitical life and time, he voices the dilemma and loss felt by that generation and expresses their double perception, as observers and participants, of the anguish and the possibility inherent in their predicament. For his first world, that of the innermost self, he articulates the Edenic joys and modes of perception of the child and villager living out of the unconscious impulses of the psyche. And finally, when he confronts those first two worlds in the fullness of his sensitivity, he discovers himself wrestling with his third world, his “destiny as a man among men”; he embodies and revivifies through Barbadian experience the knowledge of every questing hero who ever trod the Earth. And one hopes that, as with the hero at the end of the journey and with Pa at the point of death, the vision of grace, the reconciliation of the mistake of duality, in the end will also be Lamming's.
George Lamming. “The Negro Writer and His World,” Caribbean Quarterly, 5:5 (February 1958), pp. 109–15.
Carl G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1964, p. 96.
Carl G. Jung. “The Stages of Life,” in The Portable Jung, Joseph Campbell, ed., New York, Penguin-Viking, 1971. pp. 5–10.
George Lamming. In the Castle of My Skin, New York, Collier-MacMillan, 1970. p. 23. Future citations will provide the page number following the quotation.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o fully discusses this aspect of the novel in “George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin,” in Critics on Caribbean Literature, Edward Baugh, ed., New York, St. Martin's, 1978. Several other critics include political issues in their broader discussions. See especially Ian Munro. “The Theme of Exile in George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin.”World Literature Written in English, 20 (November 1971), pp. 51–60; and Kenneth Ramchand, An Introduction to the Study of West Indian Literature, Kingston (Jamaica), Nelson Caribbean, 1976.
Martha Ronk Lifson, “The Myth of the Fall: A Description of Autobiography,” Genre, 12 (Spring 1979), pp. 48–49.
Michael Gilkes discusses this problem of choice in terms of the individual's alienation from the group in his book The West Indian Novel, Boston, Twayne, 1981, pp. 123–31.
Richard Wright, “Introduction” to In the Castle of My Skin, pp. v-vi.
Critics have noted the schism in narrative mode with varying degrees of annoyance and comprehension. Ambroise Kom objects to Lamming's “difficulty in choosing between social analysis and character development” and to G's functioning as both hero and narrator; see “In the Castle of My Skin: George Lamming and the Colonial Caribbean,” World Literature Written in English, 18:2 (November 1979), p. 417. Ian Munro is more sympathetic to the division but treats the two levels as if they were unrelated.
Gerald Moore makes this point in The Chosen Tongue: English Writing in the Tropical World, New York, Harper & Row, 1970, p. 70.
Moore also addresses the issues of voices and of imagery as a structuring device but without examining how these strategies relate to the narrative's polarities (pp. 12–14).
The universality of the quest theme is documented in Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1968.
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Chukwu, Austin. “Mad-Men and Sane Boys: The Old and the New in George Lamming's Of Age and Innocence.”Commonwealth: Novel in English 5, No. 2 (Fall 1992):49-65.
In this essay, Chukwu explores the themes of age, race, and innocence in Lamming's Of Age and Innocence.
Jonas, Joyce. Anancy in the Great House: Ways of Reading West Indian Fiction. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1990, 150 p.
Compares the themes contained in the writings of George Lamming and Wilson Harris, giving special consideration to the problematic limitations of language and perceptions of the protagonists.
Kom, Ambroise. “In the Castle of My Skin: George Lamming and the Colonial Caribbean.” World Literature Written in English 18, No. 2 (November 1979): 406-20.
Examines the Afro-centric view of the maturation process the protagonist G. undergoes during social and political change in Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin.
Murdoch, David. “The Riches of Empire: Postcolonialism in Literature and Criticism.” Choice 32, No. 7 (March 1995): 1059-69.
Provides an overview of international postcolonial literature and culture criticism since World War II.
Additional coverage of Lamming's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Black Writers, Vols. 2 and 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 26 and 76; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125; Discovering Authors Modules: Multicultural;Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1 and 2; and Literature Resource Center.
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SOURCE: A review of The Pleasures of Exile, in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 307-08.
[In the following review of the reprinting of Lamming's The Pleasures of Exile, Dasenbrock laments that the book has not aged well and finds it to be bitter and illogical.]
I am a little perplexed as to why Allison & Busby, George Lamming's British publishers, would issue this reprint of his only work of nonfiction, published initially in 1960, for its has not worn well in the intervening twenty-five years. I hesitate to use a more precise term than “work of nonfiction,” as The Pleasures of Exile is, among other things, part autobiography, part travelogue, part literary criticism, and part a retelling of the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture. If anything holds this jumble together, it is not the title theme of exile but Lamming's recurring use of Shakespeare's Tempest as a myth of the West Indian situation he wishes to invert and overturn. Such an overturning can be a powerful artistic strategy, as Tayeb Salih's rewriting of Othello in Season of Migration to the North has shown. It isn't powerful here, however, at least for me, and Lamming's rewritten Tempest seems a grotesque oversimplification of what he wishes to represent. Even if Lamming (see WLT 57:1, pp. 38–43), as a black, wishes to identify with Caliban and see the excolonialists as Prosperos who have lost their magic, to represent the complex reality of the West Indies one needs many more roles not found in Shakespeare. Lamming neither supplies those roles nor shows any awareness of their necessity.
V. S. Naipaul (see WLT 57:2, pp. 223–27) has written that the great weakness of the black American writer is that his only subject is his own blackness. Whatever the truth of this may be for American writers, it has not been true for the best black West Indian writers—Wilson Harris, Roy A. K. Heath, Derek Walcott (see WLT 58:1, pp. 19–23, and 56:1, pp. 51–53 on Harris and Walcott respectively)—who, like Naipaul, have represented the rich mixture of cultures in the West Indies and found in that their subject. In The Pleasures of Exile Lamming attacks what he calls Naipaul's “castrated satires” precisely for ignoring the multiculturality of the West Indies. Lamming's critique is far more applicable to his own stance here, however. Despite some references to the East Indians, the Chinese, and the other peoples of the region, his real subject here is his own blackness, the role, as he presents it, of Caliban. This focus on blackness comes out in the long (and admittedly perceptive) tirades about racism in Britain and in the travel sections set in Africa and in the United States. The problem with it as a theme is that it is at complete cross-purposes with the announced aim of the book. Lamming starts out by saying that what he hopes to do is explain why his generation of West Indian writers all found it necessary to move to England; hence the “pleasures of exile” of the title. His use of The Tempest as a subtext, on the other hand, and his stress on black and white not meeting mean that, far from explaining this phenomenon, he has rendered it absolutely inexplicable. Why would Caliban accompany Prospero back to Milan? What pleasures would such an exile hold?
We need more accurate, more complex, and less divisive myths than Lamming provides to explain the West Indies, West Indian writing, and the phenomenon of expatriation as a whole. We need a perspective that would truly be able to see the pleasures of exile; despite his title, Lamming can show us only the pain.
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SOURCE: “George Lamming in Conversation with Frank Birbalsingh,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1988, pp. 182-88.
[In the following interview, conducted November 12, 1985, Birbalsingh and Lamming converse about African and Caribbean literature and the effects of national experience on a writer.]
[Birbalsingh:] Let me start with a general question about the place of Africa in Caribbean consciousness. In the 1950s we had many colonial hang ups, and Africa was a place that all West Indians—including those of African descent—were very mixed up about. Since then we've had many commentators, in particular Edward Brathwaite,1 the historian and poet, who have greatly illuminated the African past of the Caribbean. I'd like to ask you about the subject of Africa in Caribbean consciousness, and how it may have affected Caribbean literature.
[Lamming:] I think one always has to look at these influences as evolving forces. I would say that that African influence has deepened a little more in the Caribbean consciousness, not for literary reasons, but because there has been a greater awareness of Africa at the political level, in actual exchange. Up to about when The Pleasures of Exile2 was written, I would probably guess that no African leader had ever visited a Caribbean territory, or vice-versa. In the twenty years or so since then, masses of people in Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad have seen Nyerere, Machel, and Kaunda; and Zambia knows Manley.3 So, in a sense, there has been something more concrete than the previous romanticism. Masses of Caribbean people have actually seen and heard these African leaders. Then, getting nearer to questions of creative expression, I would say that we have also seen during that period about 1960 to 1980 African writers who visited the Caribbean. This is very important, because it used to be very much a one-way traffic, of the Caribbean man or woman going to Africa. We've had Ngugi4 who has been to Grenada and Barbados in recent times. There was also a Nigerian Omotoso5 who spent a rather long time in Barbados and in Jamaica, and I think in Trinidad as well. He was working on developments in popular theatre in the region. Then there was Abiola Irele; he was a Nigerian academic whose major work was on Césaire and the French-speaking Caribbean.6 I would say that there is a sense in which there has been a concretization of that Afro-Caribbean connection, and that will of course expand. It won't contract. From here on, it is likely to get wider and wider.
Now, in terms of creative expression, I would say that the most powerful influence on Caribbean literature by way of linkage between concepts of Africa and the Caribbean has been through the very rapid development of the Rastafarian movement. The Rastafarian movement7 is a most extraordinary and powerful phenomenon that started out in the '50s as almost exclusively Jamaican and has now become a regional, cultural force. Now there is no Caribbean territory where it does not exist, and where it has not had a strong influence. It has had its influence on Walcott in O Babylon!8 There is a very fine novel, recently published by Erna Brodber,9 a Jamaican; and I would think there are further influences in a variety of ways. Of course, in the music of the region, I think—by linkage—there has been that influence. It takes the form of people still searching for this African past and not yet being clear.
So it's a dynamic process.
I would think so, yes, because it still raises the question of what is the cultural base of Caribbean society. It raises the question of what forms of collaboration are to take place.
One might focus right there on one particular aspect of the African connection, namely the African oral tradition and what that has meant for Caribbean literature itself, for instance, in the structure of In the Castle of My Skin. I think critics tend to talk a bit loosely about the influence of an African oral tradition on any Caribbean narrative that is not structured in a strictly chronological way. Were you aware in your writing, in a formal sense, of an African oral tradition? Had you read about it?
No, I don't think so. Remember, In the Castle of My Skin was written very early. What I was aware of was a very powerful oral tradition, in the village of Barbados, but I wouldn't think that there was any conscious linking of that to Africa. Not that aspect. I think that there is a very conscious linkage with Africa through the old people, and what I would have been aware of would be the image of Garvey10 which would probably have had something to do with my awareness of Africa. Also the Italian invasion of Abyssinia provoked much bitterness in Barbados during the '30s and afterwards.
When I was writing In the Castle of My Skin, which would be 1951, what had happened was that I had become very aware of Africa in the flesh. The first time I met Africans was in London,11 and I think there was a lot of influence there. I was a regular visitor to the West African Students' Union, and we had a lot of discussions. The discussions were very largely about the common predicament of colonial peoples and the kinds of struggles, cultural and otherwise, that had to be put up with. But there is a lot of such influence. And one of the things that Brathwaite has been trying to identify—and later Maureen Warner Lewis12—is that there is indeed a lot of African behaviour in Caribbean society, of which the people practising that African behaviour are not themselves aware.
While you are on the subject of attitudes toward Africa, you speak with great admiration of C. L. R. James13 as we all do. He is our first great intellectual, and there is no question about that even if we don't believe every word that he says, or every analysis that he makes. Very recently, in the Third World Book Review, when an interviewer asked him about the African past and Caribbean culture, he said something to this effect:
I don't know what you are talking about, Africa. My past has to do with Thomas Arnold and the British, public school tradition, and the values of that tradition. I have a black skin but I am not African.14
It seems an astonishing statement for the author of The Black Jacobins. Do you know about that aspect of James's thinking? It's not an unknown opinion in the West Indies even now in the '80s when there are still people who try to reject the African past, despite all the analyses and the illumination that we have had of the historical African reality.
There is a lot of complexity in James's situation. There was another occasion, much earlier, when he was describing what we would call his intellectual physiognomy, that is, how his mind worked. It is true that James came out of a region whose literate classes would have been shaped by a Victorian ethos, of the gentleman as scholar. That was then radicalized by the politics of skin, which was unavoidable if you lived in Trinidad in the 1920s and the 1930s. What he is saying is that there were seminal, critical ideas within that European tradition that enabled him to understand what he understands about Africa and its relation to the world, and that those ideas were his guide. He did not find those ideas in Africa; he found them in that particular social mould in which he grew up.
But those ideas would have projected a misguided view of Africa as being a dark place of non-achievement.
I don't think he believed that.
He has never said that. I'm not saying that. But I am pointing out the danger of that kind of educational process whereby he would have been influenced like that as a black Caribbean intellectual at that time.
Remember, there is a lot of complexity in James, because James also is going to be a pioneer among non-Africans. He is going to be a pioneer figure in arguing the case about the African capacity for ruling his world. It is that idea too which influences the organization of The Black Jacobins. James finds a way in which he equates that struggle in Haiti with events which have been taking place there [Africa], with the Kikuyus who have been fighting against British colonial rule since the '20s. I don't think he has any doubt about that. What I believe he missed out on, and I think he explained this, is that it was much later when he got to reading about and trying to understand the content of African civilizations before any contact with Europe; that part was not on the agenda when he was growing up.
On a more personal level, I followed your career from In the Castle of My Skin in 1953 to Season of Adventure in 1960, and observed the steady growth of an important Caribbean writer. Then I noticed a gap between Season of Adventure and Natives of My Person in 1972.15 Could you tell me a little about what happened in that period? Were you engaged in journalism and travel, and, if so, why not fiction during that period?
I think people, critics and teachers and so on, are inclined to see a career in terms of publishing events, but the fact that there is not publication does not mean that there is not working going on: it might take time. There is an interval and I might have to speculate about that myself because I am not at all sure that I have the answer to that.
I do remember that from the '60s, and as we move further into the '60s, my career was involved in a lot of travel, the kind of travel that had a lot of involvement in the Caribbean. I was going back to and fro and getting involved in what I call extra curricular-activity. For example, I think it was '65 or so that I went out and spent a year for the New World group to be the guest editor of the two issues around Barbados and Guyana Independence. There was that movement. To the best of my recollection I had started, probably before '65, to write Natives of My Person. It had a long gestation and a long organization. That probably took longer than any other book. I remember that when I was Writer-in-Residence at the Mona Campus [Jamaica] of the University of the West Indies, in 1967, sections of Natives of My Person were written then. So there is a long period of Natives being worked on.
This long gestation period might be related to what was said about Africa before. Is it possible that the genesis of this novel is a matter of your wrestling with the African past, and ordering it in your own imagination? A later critic did say that in Natives of My Person you are studying the etiology of the causes that hinder present-day Caribbean social development. The causes or things that hinder such development are surely to be found in the historical relationship of the Caribbean to Africa-slavery and so on.
I think there are different approaches in looking at my published work. That work has a very strong thematic base. There is a sense in which, from In the Castle of My Skin to Natives of My Person, you can read my work really as one book. If you see In the Castle of My Skin as the recreation of a colonial childhood and adolescence, it applies not only to Barbados, but really to the whole region. Already that book has a regional character. At the end of it, what is happening is that the boy is leaving for Trinidad, and then the next book picks up on that stage of movement in our history which is the migration to England. These long speculations and so on between the men on the deck [in The Emigrants] are really an extension of the long speculations of the boys on the beach in In the Castle of My Skin. The groupings are almost similar, this talking about a world which only exists as an idea in your head, and where you can see the men on the deck as the extensions of the boys on the beach, that movement out, people searching and feeling and so on. That was stage Two. Then we get the first explicit political novel Of Age and Innocence16 which is really looking at the kinds of struggle that would be taking place in what were the last stages of the colonial experience. This is about people getting ready to rule their countries, and the problems that are going to come up. The terrain that is really at influence in that novel is Guyana with that close relation between the two leaders, the African and the Indian leader which is very close, and the arguments that go on around that, and the whole subplot of the secret society in which the Indian boy, the African boy, the Chinese boy are, in fact, living out the future that the adult world is talking about. Then Season of Adventure brings us to the predicament of these peoples after the fall of colonial rule; that is, that independence is going to collapse because the base of the thing is not there. I say all that to suggest that from the re-creation of the colonial childhood to the fall of the first independence government, the novels took care of a whole era of experience. Being a thematic writer, the question was, what was the next stage in that cycle, and the next stage in that cycle—it came up logically when I look back on it—was to find a metaphor that rounded the whole thing off, a sense in which, in one way, Natives of My Person might have opened that cycle, although I would not have had the intellectual experience or the skills to organize that kind of book at the time I was writing In the Castle of My Skin. So the end is the beginning in that sense, and Natives of My Person is not about the period of 16th-17th century age of reconnaissance, but it is a critical exploration of what was happening in the twentieth century post-independence period. You would interpret the commandant in Natives as a composite figure of the Caribbean boss leader. The commandant could be a composite of Williams, Burnham, Manley,17 that figure who came up, chosen, but once in the seat of authority, ruled in that kind of way. What I'm really saying is that the democratic process never got internalized in Caribbean society. Structures that might be called democratic were established, but there was not an internalization of that process.
Edward Brathwaite was born in Barbados. He read history at Cambridge University and lived in Ghana for eight years. His trilogy The Arrivants published in the late 1960s (collectively, London: OUP 1973) provides a comprehensive treatment of the relationship between Africa and blacks living in the Caribbean and the Americas.
The Pleasures of Exile is Lamming's fourth book: London: Michael Joseph, 1960.
Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; Samora Machel of Mozambique; Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia; Michael Manley of Jamaica.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan novelist wrote a critical work, Homecoming (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972), based on his experience of the Caribbean and Caribbean literature.
Kole Omotoso is a Nigerian scholar, novelist and author whose The Theatrical into Theatre (London: New Beacon, 1982) is a full-length study of drama in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Professor Abiola Irele of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.
Rastafarianism is a fundamentalist religious philosophy linked to social protest. It has its roots in Jamaica in the 1930s, but did not become popular until the 1960s and 70s. The name “Rastafarian” signifies one who believes that the former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie or “Ras Tafari” is Christ reincarnated. Rastafarian beliefs are based on the biblical account of King Nebuchadnezzar who ruled the kingdom of Babylon, and who sacked Jerusalem. Rastafarians regard themselves as living in captivity in Babylon-present day Jamaica.
Derek Walcott's play O Babylon! portrays members of the Rastafarian community in Jamaica. The play was written in 1975, revised in 1976 and published New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
Erna Brodber, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, London: New Beacon, 1980.
Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) was born in Jamaica. he established the Universal negro Improvement Association in Jamaica, in 1914. In 1916 he moved to the U.S.A. where his black self-help movement became widely known through his many speeches, editorials, essays, manifestoes and petitions.
London, in the 1950s, was an international centre especially for Commonwealth students, writers and scholars. As a West Indian, Lamming would have had his first opportunity of meeting Africans or Asians in London.
Maureen Warner Lewis teaches at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. Her critical writings explore Afro-Caribbean connections especially in the field of linguistics.
C. L. R. James was born in Trinidad in 1901. Since the 1930s when his first writings appeared, James has established himself as a prolific novelist, essayist, author, lecturer and general commentator on all aspects of West Indian history, culture and society.
“An Audience with C. L. R. James,” Third World Book Review, 1, 2, 1984, p. 6. Among other things, James said “I am not aware of the African roots of my use of the language and culture. I pay a lot of respect to Africa. I have been there many times. I have spoken to many Africans. I have read their literature. But we of the Caribbean have not got an African past. We are black in skin, but the African civilisation is not ours. The basis of our civilisation in the Caribbean is an adaptation of Western civilisation.”
Between 1953 and 1960, Lamming produced four novels. It was another twelve years before his fifth novel appeared: Natives of My Person, London: Longman, 1972.
Of Age and Innocence, London: Michael Joseph, 1958.
Dr. Eric Williams (1911–1982) was Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1956 to 1982; Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (1923–1985) was Prime Minister of Guyana from 1964 to 1985; Michael Manley, the son of Norman Manley, was Prime Minister of Jamaica from 1972 to 1979. He is currently Leader of the Opposition.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6159
SOURCE: “‘Within the Orbit of Power’: Reading Allegory in George Lamming's Natives of My Person,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1987, pp. 73-86.
[In the following essay, McDonald examines the symbolic representations contained in Natives of My Person.]
In the last few decades there has been a resurgence and re-evaluation of allegory both as a practised form in creative writing and as a critical technique in literary theory. To use a current cant word, the valorization by Goethe and Coleridge of symbolism over allegory signalled, if it did not cause, a long eclipse of allegorical writing. At least in critical writing this eclipse is over. Any attempt at a critical reading of a contemporary allegory must be prefaced by some consideration of ambiguities and, indeed, paradoxes in current conceptions of allegory and allegoresis, of allegorical writing, allegorical reading, and the reading of allegorical writing.
We recall, first, that allegory (allos + agoreuein = speaking other than openly, as in the market-place) has commonly been defined as expressing “one thing in words, and another in sense.”1 This definition runs us into immediate difficulties. Northrop Frye notes that allegory is “a structural principle in fiction” and, he says, “it has to be there and is not added by critical interpretation alone. In fact, all commentary or the relating of the events of a narrative to conceptual terminology is in one sense allegorical interpretation.”2 Indeed, a text that is in fact allegorical limits allegorical interpretation by dictating its form, while a non-allegorical text allows an indefinite amount of allegorical reading. The re-discovery of allegoresis by the Yale Derrideans: that is, the discovery in deconstructive criticism of the infinite possibilities of allegorical misreading of texts can, in these terms, be set in contrast with the possibilities of a resurgence of allegorical writing and suggests that, logically, reading allegory will be fundamentally different from allegorical reading.3
Maureen Quilligan has admirably spelled out the inadequacies of some commonly held views of allegory, including the traditional view that begins with the belief, in typology, that history itself is the decodable text of an allegory written by the Author of all. In her view, there is an allegorical genre, and “it is a genre beginning in, focused on, and ending with ‘words, words’.”4 She attacks as a misconception the view that the horizontal surface of the allegorical text—the “one thing in words”—carries with it vertical levels of interpretable meaning—“another in sense.” She declares, rather, that allegory works horizontally through the text, accreting meaning serially. It is not that the absurdity of the surface signals other levels of meaning, but rather that the absurdity forces the reader to become aware of how he or she serially creates the meaning or meanings of the text. The text becomes its own commentary, its own investigation of itself, and therefore does not need allegoresis; and this is not to say that it does not need close and energetic reading. The allegorist teaches the reader how to read the text, and confounds sophisticated allegoresis—confounds, that is, a vertical, structural (mis)reading by serially contradicting it.
Specifically, Quilligan condemns the “pernicious facility”5 of the four levels of sense—literal, historical, tropological and anagogical—described, so authoritatively, in Dante's “Letter to Can Grande.” In context, this vertical scheme assumes typology, with history itself as the literal level, and purports to find these interpretations layered on it like Neapolitan ice cream. If, indeed, this were the way allegory generally works, we could expect to experience from it the gradual anaesthesia that Angus Fletcher illustrates as the primary effect of the fifteenth-century anonymous poem ‘The Ship of State', the official origin of that ancient cliché. Stanza by stanza, we are guided by the allegorist to identify King Henry and the members of his court with the timbers, the mast, the light, the stern of the ship, and so on.6
Interestingly, Quilligan argues that what we ordinarily mean by the literal level of the text is the level of imagined action, and that the lack of sustained literal level, in this sense, returns the reader to the literally literal level—the letter of the text—and to the relation of its signifiers to their polysemous signifieds. To insist that allegory does not carry its meanings in vertical layers is not, however, to suppose that historical, moral, and social interpretations of the text are not taught to the reader by the allegorist. Rather, it is only to insist that these interpretations are taught serially, by accretion, and even or especially by the way the text contradicts itself. Thus, in reading allegory, the reader's construction of meaning is directed by the text's deconstruction of itself, by the text's own denial of ‘presence'—of realized meaning.7
Since there is a danger that the preface will become the main argument, we must leave it incomplete and open-ended like a typical allegory and turn from theory to application. George Lamming, in his nonfictional work, The Pleasures of Exile, makes it clear that in the West Indies language itself has been a major colonizing agent but the inheritors of the language are “at liberty to choose the meaning of this moment.”8 As Sandra Paquet puts it, for Lamming “the writer's function and responsibility is to alter the pattern of values that came with the colonizer's language.”9
If all of Lamming's novels can be said to explore the relationship between colonizers and colonized, Natives of My Person (1972)10 reexamines the very roots of that relationship. For the purpose of this literally radical reconstruction, his text recreates the beliefs, attitudes and actions of Europeans of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The Reconnaissance, with its crew and the officers—Boatswain, Surgeon, Steward and Priest—with Pinteados the Pilot and under the orders of the Commandant, sets out on an unauthorized voyage from Lime Stone, making for the Isles of the Black Rock, newly named San Cristobal. They go by way of the Black Coast and the Middle Passage. At San Cristobal the Commandant hopes to rendezvous with another ship, the Penalty, carrying the wives of the officers and wives for the crew, on a similarly unauthorized voyage. The enterprise for the Commandant is to found a free state on San Cristobal, out of the control of Lime Stone's House of Trade and Justice, the recognized “source and agent of every national triumph” (p. 13). The voyage ends one day short of their destination, after two of the officers murder the Commandant, and are themselves shot by the ship's boy, while the ship is moored off Dolores, an island shared by Lime Stone and their maritime rival, Antarctica. Deserting the ship, the crew take to small boats and head for San Cristobal. Of all these names, only the Middle Passage represents a historical reality: the route for slave-ships from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean. Around this reality the action of the narrative revolves, without touching directly on it.
The narrative text is divided into three parts. “Breaking Loose” gives an account of the period of waiting off the coast of the white cliffs of Lime Stone for the pilot, Pinteados, to join the ship. “The Middle Passage” describes the voyage and its termination at Dolores, while the brief final part, “The Women,” is in the form of a dramatic dialogue of the wives of the officers as they wait in vain for their men in a cave on the island of San Cristobal.
Extracts from the diaries of officers and crew aboard the Reconnaissance intercut the impersonal narration and, at a number of points in the text, reminiscences “dissolve the floors of memory” and link narrative past and narrative present. In the extracts from the diaries, the text, with deliberate archaism, recreates the syntax and vocabulary of prose models from the seventeenth century, though not without certain liberties of style. Pierre the carpenter records his observations of the Black Coast with remarkable literacy:
for it be a fact reported widely by men of Lime Stone no less than of our rival Antarctica that the heathens transported across the ocean seas to the Isles of the Black Rock do rejoice in their new habitation, enjoying for the first time a great liberation from the terrible iniquities of their own rulers in whom there be neither truth nor fair dealings in the management of their subjects; which be yet another example of proof that no enterprise, however strange and extreme in present agony, does not accord with some larger purpose of our Lord, seeing how, as every true report does give, these heathens transported under the rule and law of Lime Stone do show a great improvement in their nature, which being slow to change, may yet if it be the will of God, approximate in time to some resemblance of a true Christian piety.
In this case, at least, the style is the man himself, and Pierre the carpenter sets down that same remarkable argument for slavery that can be found in Froude the historian.11 Such extracts are convincing historical reconstructions of the modes of thought of the colonizer and, in a variety of ways, the diarists stand condemned out of their own texts as unable to break loose from history because their history is their language and the crippling beliefs that it expresses.
The convincing literalness of the diary entries is contradicted by structural elements in the narrative that prevent it from being read as a historical novel in the naturalistic mode. It is no secret that Natives of My Person is an allegory. The object of the present inquiry is not merely to document this fact, but to examine in some detail the way in which the text comments upon itself and teaches the reader to read it. I will contend that, paradoxically, Lamming's narrative does this by offering the reader the scholastic four levels of sense, but not as vertical levels of decodable significations layered by the discourse on the horizontal surface of the story. Instead, the levels of sense become fragmented theses whose mutually contradictory character faithfully mirrors the past and present contradictions of colonial and post-colonial society. The allegory becomes an ultimate comment on itself by demonstrating its own inability to redeem and to reconcile.
Apart from the Middle Passage, which represents a reality, the remaining names suggest immediately the machinery of allegory and tempt us to attack them like clues in a cryptic crossword puzzle. San Cristobal here, as in Lamming's earlier novels, Of Age and Innocence and Season of Adventure, is the Caribbean island he has invented to represent the history and geography of the area. The legend of the Tribe Boys (about the historical indigenous people of the Caribbean) becomes in this novel the recent history of the military expeditions led by the Commandant against the Tribes on the Demon Coast of San Cristobal. Because of the extinction of the Tribes, he regards San Cristobal as “virgin territory” for free settlement. His idealistic quest is founded on a crime. The Kingdom of Lime Stone, with its reference to white chalk cliffs, invites the reader to identify it with Britain, but beyond this it is a dystopia with the character of Orwell's 1984—a dystopia, as defined by that curious back-formation from More's Utopia, that is, Nowhere.
The political and moral life of Lime Stone is authorized and controlled by the House of Trade and Justice, before which the Parliament of the Kingdom is, apparently, powerless. As the name of the House implies, justice and morality are subordinated to trade, exploitation, imperialism and power. The history of Lime Stone is the history of the commercial and colonial activities of the House, from whose authority no one can escape. The centre of power in the House of Trade and Justice is the Lord Treasurer, Gabriel Tate de Lysle. The unmistakable reference to sugar in his name is the only indication in the entire novel of a specific relationship of the House to the plantation economy that was the basis of slavery in the Caribbean. But the Orwellian overtones contradict any simple vertical layering of signification that would read Lime Stone as a historical Britain, or the text as purely a historical allegory. Indeed, the strong hints of 1984 in the operations of the House of Trade and Justice serve to de-locate the narrative in time, placing it equally in the past, the present and the future. We are thus ready to be unsurprised when we learn that the author, George Lamming, has told an interviewer that in creating the House of Trade and Justice he was thinking of the modern international corporation and the difficulties experienced by post-colonial nations in “breaking away” from its power.12
The attempt of the Reconnaissance to break loose from the power of the House is delayed because the Commandant's quest depends on the guidance of the pilot, Pinteados. We recognize in this fact an archetypal pattern. Pinteados' name echoes that of Columbus' Pinta on the voyage of 1492. While members of the crew are given proper names and some hints of individual personality, the Commandant and the other four officers, Boatswain, Surgeon, Steward and Priest are named only by a function. (Curiously, boatswains, stewards, and priests would not normally be counted among officers in a ship's complement, and a surgeon ranks as an officer only by courtesy.)
We note also that for some unstated and unlikely convenience of command the crew has been divided into four groups, each under the orders of one of the officers, an arrangement suggestively paralleled by the four regions of Lime Stone. The class divisions between officers and crew and the divisions of the crew into non-functional groups reflect in microcosm the non-functional class and regional divisions of Lime Stone whose North, South, East and West can be read as the “four corners of the imagined earth.” Class conflicts and regional conflicts characterize life in Lime Stone under the monolithic authority of the House. The reader can apply the simple eloquence of Marxist terminology, identifying these conflicts as the contradictions of capitalism in the colonial and post-colonial world, and find a symbol of the alienation of the individual in the fact that the officers are named for their functions. Thus the text successively contradicts readings of it as history, or as historical allegory, and thereby confronts the reader with the complexity of its commentary.
This complexity develops from that most conventional of allegorical pre-texts: the quest for Eden, a reversal of the Fall—a quest that fails. The central facts are that the Reconnaissance makes an unauthorized voyage to the Black Coast yet does not take slaves; that it crosses the Middle Passage without the usual “cargo” for that crossing; and that it stops short of the intended reunion of the men on the ship with their women, and short of the founding of a new, free society on the “virgin territory” of San Cristobal. An attempted escape from history falters and fails.13
At the two major turning points in the narrative—the refusal to take slaves and the refusal to continue to San Cristobal—the reader asks why, and with increasing self-consciousness searches for natural causality in operation, only to be finally confronted with the fact—the fact of the text itself. The Commandant's order, issued at the Black Coast, that the Reconnaissance “will receive no cargoes of black flesh” (p. 135), is given just after Boatswain has led an expedition to capture slaves who later leap overboard and are eaten by crocodiles. Earlier, during the fog in which the ship is becalmed for eleven days off the Black Coast, the Commandant retires to his cabin and enters a long reverie centred on his former mistress' accusations that his expeditions against the Tribes of the Demon Coast had amounted to the murder of thousands of innocent victims. Just after Boatswain's captives have chosen death before slavery, ships from Antarctica arrive on an expedition seeking “black flesh.” They bring news of the murder of the Lady of the House of Trade and Justice who, we learn much later, was the Commandant's mistress before her marriage to Tate de Lysle. We also learn later that the murder, to which Boatswain confesses to Priest, did not occur and that the Lady of the House is waiting for the Commandant on San Cristobal, with the rest of the unauthorized “cargo” of the Penalty. (It is notable that “cargo” is used for the slaves and the women.)
The reader may suppose that before changing his mind, the Commandant had intended to take slaves for the use of settlers in the new, free state of San Cristobal. Free—but for whom? One might conjecture that he changed his mind on learning that his former mistress, the Lady of the House, had been murdered: a conjecture which requires the further assumption that he had indeed received the report of the murder and had, wrongly, believed it. One might alternatively guess, since the text does not supply this information, that the Commandant was appalled at the death of Boatswain's captives. The reader might also interpret the Commandant's orders not to take slaves as springing from his recollection of his mistress' accusation. This recollection, however, precedes Boatswain's expedition. The form of the Commandant's order does not suggest that the expedition was unauthorized:
Contrary to your expectations, and notwithstanding the bold expeditions made by Boatswain among the natives of this coast, our vessel, Reconnaissance, will receive no cargoes of black flesh but proceed with its original crew for the Isles of the Black Rock.
The text then comments on itself by presenting, in free indirect speech, the reactions of the crew:
The orders were received with a mixture of alarm and regret. What other purpose could this hazardous passage to the Guinea coast have had if there were to be no capture of black cargoes?
Indeed, Baptiste reflects to himself that “the Commandant was simply a fact that he had to confront, like this perplexing decision to deny the Reconnaissance of its just reward in the cargoes of black flesh that had brought them to this coast.” (p. 136). The text thus directs the reader's attention back to itself, to a fact that the reader also has to confront. The decision should be understood, that is, not by stating its cause, but by recognizing its effect: an attempt at a magical undoing or reversal of the history of the Caribbean. The ship sails from the Black Coast on Christmas Day, signifying a new beginning and the birth of a redemptive purpose.
The structure of the second turning point resembles that of the first. The ship has crossed the Middle Passage and lies at anchor off the island of Dolores, within one day's sail of San Cristobal. The Commandant issues an order through Pinteados that the ship will proceed no further. Pinteados reflects that “knowledge of their return to Lime Stone would be like a law of doom deciding all their future” (p. 275), though such a return is not explicit in the Commandant's order. Shortly before this order is issued, Boatswain confesses to Priest that he was sexually enslaved by the Lady of the House and that he strangled her beneath the altar of the church at Little Aberlon where she had required him to be sexually involved with her. Priest feels that “the Commandant would have to be warned before they caught the first wind for San Cristobal. Reconnaissance would have to be prepared for the vengeance of the House.” (p. 262). When the Commandant learns of Boatswain's “scandalous revelations,” he tells Pinteados that as a result everything has changed and the ship will not go on to San Cristobal. At this point Pinteados admits that he had known of the sexual relations between Boatswain and the Lady of the House, and he recommends that the Commandant should condone her behaviour. He reveals that the Lady is alive and waiting for him, but the Commandant is neither surprised at the news, in view of Boatswain's claim to have murdered her, nor is he moved by it to cancel the new order not to continue from Dolores to San Cristobal.
The reader cross-examines the text for the answer to the question: why does the Commandant decide not to continue the voyage? It may be true that the Commandant no longer wishes to be reunited with his former mistress after her “criminal conduct” with Boatswain. It may also be true that they now have more reason to fear the vengeance of the House than the unauthorized voyage itself would call upon them. But again the puzzles of the horizontal surface of the story bring us back to the text itself, and we notice that, significantly, the Commandant reviews his own text and calls it into question. That is, in the segment of narrative that lies between the Commandant's definitive declaration “Tomorrow, with the earliest wind … we sail on San Cristobal” (p. 244), and his equally definitive “we will proceed no further” (p. 271), we repeatedly find the Commandant reading over his journal entries, “reading his own writing like a child new to the alphabet, forever on the lookout for some error … hearing each syllable arouse some echo of danger from the past.” (p. 246). So absorbed is he in his search that when Priest comes in to discuss a forced marriage between the crewmen and the women of the Penalty, the Commandant's head is continually hidden behind the screen of paper.
The Commandant finds his error, in a segment of his journal, written while he was waiting for the voyage to begin. This segment, appearing on pages 251 to 253 of our text, is a verbatim extract from a longer segment given as early as page 15. The reader is directed back to the pre-text, to search it, like the Commandant, for error; that is, to the Commandant's initial account of the motive for the quest:
More than twenty summers ago, it was this same isle of gold that gave me my first glimpse of the yellow metal. My very first Voyage it was, when I was eager and knew what it was to be a beast before the prey of great fortune; second to none in exercising the terrors that forced the Tribes to volunteer their services to us and all men who had brought them no less a reward than a knowledge of the true light. We had to drive them like cattle from the fields and pastures, leaving ripe grain to rot, and a mighty famine that would overtake even the unborn. …
(The conflation of “forced” and “volunteer” exposes the contradiction in the Commandant's thinking.) Here the narrative text breaks off from reproducing the Commandant's text, and interpolates the statement “He shook the moisture from his eyes and quickly finished his reading:
Now my ambition is in reverse; and I reckon it is a more noble preference to plant some portion of Lime Stone in the virgin territories of San Cristobal. This purpose I declare to be absolute and true. …
“‘Virgin territories.’ He was talking to himself as though he had suddenly discovered some error in his meaning” (p. 252).
The Commandant recognizes that San Cristobal seems suitable to him for the founding of a new, free state, only as a result of the extermination of the indigenous inhabitants. Thus the reader is brought back to the text, by examining its comment on the contradiction in the Commandant's text. And the central point is made that the undoing of history, represented by the voyage of the Reconnaissance across the Middle Passage, comes to a halt at the island of Dolores, a place name whose translation includes pain, sorrow, and repentance. The attempt to escape from or to reverse history ends in repentance for the deaths of the Arawak and Carib Indians. (The Commandant's discovery of his error contributes to a balanced perspective of history, and takes into consideration the individual response to entrapment by the larger social forces which control that history.)
There is further reason for the decision not to proceed to this visionary Eden. The refusal to continue to San Cristobal is also the refusal of the officers of the Reconnaissance to be re-united with their wives. Certainly Steward and Surgeon are not pleased when they learn that their wives are waiting for them on San Cristobal; and by an irony of poor timing they kill the Commandant before discovering, as Pinteados reflects, “their agreement of feeling. And he alone knew what was obvious. They could not find the courage to accept a reunion with their women” (p. 320). In fact, throughout the narrative, the relationship of power between colonizer and colonized is represented not only in the relationship between the Commandant and his men but also in the relations between the sexes. The refusal of the men to accept a reunion with their wives is the same as their refusal to accept a future in which the old power relationship is abandoned in favour of a new way of being—without exploitation, in a free state.
In different ways, the Commandant, Surgeon, Steward and Boatswain all illustrate this power relationship. To the Commandant, his mistress was “a colony of joys given over entirely to his care. Some tyranny of love had condemned her to his need” (p. 165). The ruby necklace he brought her from his expedition to the Demon Coast imprisons her throat: “He would allow her no respite from the tyranny of beauty that ordered her eyes to bless the treasures he had brought” (pp. 64–5). He leaves her easily when ordered by the House and she waits, recording the eventless days of his absence with leaves she collects daily in a crystal jar. The collecting and counting of the leaves is an ordered ritual supplying her with a degree of certainty and stability in a doubtful and uncertain relationship in which she is imprisoned by love. (Significantly, she too experiences the pain of a Middle Passage: “The middle journey bore the largest cargo of days. They were the bitterest leaves her memory could recall. He had been gone for one thousand and eleven days” (p. 74). At the same time, the record of the leaves is not an imprisoning falsehood and stands in emblematic opposition to the tendentious historiography—the recording of words on the leaves of their diaries—that imprisons the minds of the men. The Lady remains imprisoned by the tyranny of love until after his fifth expedition when she allows Tate de Lysle to rescue her by making her Lady of the House. Yet, on San Cristobal, waiting with the other women, she says of the Commandant that “his power of ownership over me has never changed. That's the limit of my certainty. That's why I am here” (p. 348).
Steward suffers the humiliation and challenge of his wife's superior connections. He hopes to make his fortune on the voyage, smash his wife's connections and imprison her in luxury of his own making. Surgeon attacks his wife's fidelity by recounting his own infidelities and getting his friends to attempt to seduce her. For Boatswain, the roles are reversed when he is enslaved in the sexual service of the Lady of the House. Each officer's recall of his own history is an attempt to free himself from its old burden and responsibilities.14 Ironically, this attempt involves a wish to destroy something in the woman in order to maintain his authority over her. The Lady of the House remarks that the whoredom of the relationship between husband and wife “is also the whoredom of the House of Trade and Justice. It is the national principle of the continent of Lime Stone” (p. 349). Whoredom, then, is an image of the exploitative relation between colonizer and colonized.
When Boatswain loses his reason, Priest reminds the others that “we are officers and therefore men on the inside” (p. 299); “as officers and therefore men on the inside, you must consider what you do” (p. 300); “it feels safer to be officers and therefore men on the inside” (p. 301); “as officers and therefore men on the inside, you have to stay there” (p. 302). For Priest, the phrase contains a sense of privilege, but slowly it becomes clear to the reader that it is privilege that imprisons them. After the deaths of the Commandant, Surgeon and Steward, it is Pinteados who picks up this phrase and turns it around on them:
They were only on the inside … no further. They were men who would settle for nothing else. To be on the inside was enough. To be within the orbit of power was their total ambition. But real power frightened them. To shine on the inside, within the orbit of power! There they were at home. But they had to avoid the touch of power itself. The women are absolute evidence of what I mean. To feel authority over the women! That was enough for them. But to commit themselves fully to what they felt authority over. That they could never master. Such power they were afraid of.
Authority without commitment; this is the core of the analysis of the relation between colonizer and colonized, as between men and women. And to be only “within the orbit of power” to be only “on the inside,” is to be in bondage also.
The voyage of the Reconnaissance, unrecorded in the annals of Lime Stone, and thus an attempted escape from history, is closely recorded both in the narrative text and in the various “extracts from the voyages” of the Commandant, Pinteados, Steward, Priest, Pierre the carpenter, Marcel the fisherman, and Baptiste the powdermaker. The parallel voyage of the Penalty is doubly unrecorded—a long ellipsis both in the history of Lime Stone and in the narrative text itself. But the women reach San Cristobal and it is they who speak the last words. For them there is the bondage of commitment without authority to their men who are, as Surgeon's wife says: “a piece of my person” (p. 333) and as Steward's wife says: “a native of my person” (p. 334). Home is where the women are, waiting for their men; and the feeling of home is the feeling of “absence” and “waiting.” The text gives the final words to the Lady of the House: “we are a future they must learn” (p. 351).
It may be true, as Frye states, that allegory limits interpretation by dictating its form or, more extremely, that allegory does not need allegoresis. Yet, it should by now be clear that Natives of My Person supports a great deal of allegoresis. In fact, not unusually, an exhaustive examination of it in these terms would probably be longer than the text itself. A more extensive study would treat, for example, such traditional allegorical elements in the work as psychomachia, symbolized by a disease. In this novel, a disease contracted by those who deal in black flesh, and causing self-mutilation, indicates a crisis in the soul of the European exploiters.
But perhaps enough has been said to indicate how the narrative text of Lamming's novel constructs a historical allegory of the roots of Caribbean society and then by contradictory reference de-locates the history so as to represent the past as immanent in the present. Thus, for example, the House of Trade and Justice can be the contemporary international corporation asserting a silent authority, like the Commandant's. And thus the Reconnaissance,15 named for all voyages of exploration and colonial conquest, goes beyond its fifteenth-century prototype and represents the ship of state of the entire post-colonial world, unable to sail out of its history of commercial whoredom and settle virgin territories. Thus the historical allegory, by de-locating itself, becomes contemporary political allegory. At the same time, by its identification of the politics of colonialism with sexual politics,16 the narrative follows a traditional tropological mode by making a radical examination of the morality of power.
Maureen Quilligan attributes the eclipse of allegory not to the authority of Goethe and Coleridge but to a change in the relationship between language and the world. Allegory belongs to a world-view in which signifiers have at least as much power as signifieds; it belongs to a pre-scientific world of theological typology, of the word as creative logos. As she sees it: “Language itself must be felt to have a potency as solidly meaningful as physical fact before the allegorist can begin.”17 The resurgence of allegory would then depend on what Vincent Leitch describes as Derrida's theft of the referent, so that “the world becomes an infinite borderless text. A cosmic library,”18 and thus the word regains its power. Alternatively, and more reasonably, it would depend on the understanding that language itself is a privileged device for the truth of the individual psyche and of human society, at least.
And these general remarks bring us to the anagogic function of Natives of My Person. The quest, like most allegorical quests, is for a return to Eden. The quest fails because those pursuing it are trapped in history, which is memory, which is the language in which they record their voyages. They are unable to question their assumptions, unable to read the error in their texts. Frye states that in anagogy, the meaning of art “is no longer a mimesis logou, but the Logos, the shaping word which is both reason and … praxis or creative act.”19 The narrative text of Natives of My Person records the inability of its own word to become praxis, because of error in the text. The title itself appears to contain a contradiction, since we read the narrative as an account of the ancestry rather than the progeny of the Caribbean, or of the post-colonial world. But here, as generally in allegory, the reader is driven back to the text itself and to its didactic purposes, to recognize, first, that the allegory—the shaping words of the text—constitutes natives of the person of its writer;20 and, second, that if the reader learns to read the errors in the text of history, the shaping words may become creative acts, as natives of his/her own person. Possibly, just possibly, through the power of fiction to change consciousness, San Cristobal can in deed be reached.
See, for example, Maureen Quilligan, The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 26.
Northrop Frye, “Allegory,” Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger, London: Macmillan, 1974, p. 12. Also Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957, 1971, p. 89.
See Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Interpretation: Theory and Practice, ed. C. Singleton, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969, pp. 179–90 and Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Also, for a neat, indeed almost too neat, modern mapping of allegory into its place among the “four master tropes of renaissance rhetoric”: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, see Hans Kellner, “The Inflatable Trope as Narrative Theory: Structure or Allegory?,” Diacritics, 11, 1981, pp. 14–28.
Quilligan, op. cit. p. 15. See also pp. 67 ff. and 277 ff. for related arguments.
Quilligan, op. cit., p. 102.
Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964, pp. 77–80.
It would have been possible to present the main argument of this paper as an explicit deconstructionist analysis, but it seems likely that the useful distinction between allegorical writing and allegorical reading would then be lost.
George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, London: Michael Joseph, 1960, p. 158.
Sandra Pouchet Paquet, The Novels of George Lamming London: Heinemann, 1982, p. 7. See also Avis G. McDonald, “Patterns of Exile and Bondage in Selected Australian and West Indian Fiction.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Macquarie University, 1986, Chapter 6.
George Lamming, Natives of My Person, London: Longman Caribbean, 1972. Further references are to this edition and are incorporated in the text.
J. A. Froude, The English in the West Indies, London: Longmans, Green Co., 1888, p. 50.
George E. Kent, “A Conversation with George Lamming,” Black World, 22, 5, 1973, p. 14. For a further discussion of power relationships in the novel, see also Michael Cotter, “Identity and Compulsion: George Lamming's Natives of My Person,”New Literature Review 2, 1977, pp. 29–35.
For a discussion of the voyage as “an attempt to escape from history” see Helen Tiffin, “The Tyranny of History: George Lamming's Natives of My Person and Water with Berries,”Ariel 10, 4, 1979, p. 40.
Kent, op. cit. p. 10: Here Lamming points out that the European slave traders “had a middle passage too … on the interior of their lives.” See also Paquet, op. cit. p. 100.
We may guess that the name of their ship is taken from the title of one well-known account of these early voyages: J.H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement 1450–1650, London: Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1963.
See Tiffin, op. cit., p. 43, for a discussion of this parallel.
Quilligan, op. cit. p. 156.
Vincent B. Leitch. Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction, London: Hutchinson, 1983, p. 118.
Northrop Frye, Anatomy, p. 120.
Kent, op. cit. p. 4: In the interview, Lamming states: “everything going on in the book was in a way a native of my person.”
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SOURCE: A review of Natives of My Person, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, p. 669.
[In the following review, Dasenbrock admires Lamming's attempt at the blending of historical fiction and allegory, but finds that Lamming's narrative fluctuates too often between the two genres to be considered a successful novel.]
Natives of My Person, a 1971 novel now reprinted by Allison & Busby, is certainly George Lamming's most ambitious and probably his most significant work to date. It is above all an attempt to come to grips with the peculiar history of the West Indies, peculiar not just because most of its inhabitants were brought there unwillingly as slaves, but also because though now in many ways a backwater, three hundred to four hundred years ago it was at the center of a world geopolitical struggle primarily between the Spanish and the English; the victors in the struggle—the English—no longer live there, moreover, even though they are responsible for the presence of its current population. Unlike the Spanish and the Portuguese, the English were also slow to intermarry and antagonistic to the creation of mixed races and populations, and for these reasons the “British West Indies” are, in population at any rate, no longer very British.
Lamming explores these paradoxes through the story of a seventeenth-century voyage of exploration and settlement, an attempt by the ship The Reconnaissance to settle the island of San Cristobal. The voyage Lamming depicts is not a synecdoche for the larger process, however, for this was not a typical voyage. It was an attempt at an alternative: it did not take on slaves, and waiting for it in San Cristobal was a sister ship full of women, some of them the wives of the crew of The Reconnaissance. Of course, some pattern of settlement such as this would have been necessary if the English were to have settled the West Indies, not conquer it and settle it with slaves; but the attempt fails, and this failure for Lamming helps—if only negatively—to define the essence of colonialism, the lust to dominate. The colonizers in this vision didn't want the equal partnership of marriage, preferring instead the hierarchical society of slavery and domination. Thus Lamming's critique of colonialism proceeds by depicting the failure of a promising alternative to the actual shape things took, and his particular interest is the psychosexual dynamics he sees operative in colonialism.
Now, I don't think Lamming has the whole story here; Protestantism in particular seems to escape him. Still, Natives of My Person is a serious, engrossing work that will make any reader reflect on colonialism and its heritage. However, I'm not sure this means that Natives of My Person is a totally successful work of fiction. It wavers uncomfortably between historical fiction and more allegorical modes of writing. This might be said to be the typical generic space of the literature of colonialism and exploration, as both Heart of Darkness and Moby Dick shift analogously between realistic and allegorical registers; but Conrad and Melville establish concrete, believable situations and characters as a basis for their allegories, whereas Lamming—with much less success—tries to combine the two modes, to write a narrative that is historical and allegorical at the same time. In attempting the narrative of a voyage that is more than just a voyage, Lamming encroaches on what has become, in Caribbean literature, the particular domain of Wilson Harris, and his book approaches—though it never reaches—the symbolic density of Harris's fiction. Lamming's gifts lie elsewhere, I think, and it is as an effort of the historical imagination that Natives of My Person should be read and admired.
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SOURCE: “C. L. R. James: West Indian George Lamming Interviewed,” in C. L. R. James's Caribbean, Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 28-36.
[In the following interview, conducted by Paul Buhle on November 25, 1987, Lamming discusses C. L. R. James's writing and the effect it has on other West Indian writers, including Lamming himself.]
[Buhle:] Can you describe [C. L. R.] James's influence on you and the other West Indians in England during the 1950s?
[Lamming:] I think that his friendships among West Indians in England were pretty general. He had a seminar thing, a generation who used to go to Staverton Road, and who were concerned with transforming the Caribbean society. In some cases there were people who had no political connections, and the importance of those meetings [was] in helping them relate to professions. It was a pervasive influence over a number of people. All that they had in common was the deep need to contribute to the process of change. It was not so different from James's relations to Africans in 1930's London.
This is really how I see James, not as a political man but as a teacher—in the old philosophical sense of teaching. The interesting thing about James—if you were doing him fictionally—is that in James's political history, there is a certain pattern. James has a consistent career of breakaway, breakaway, breakaway. I don't think of breakaway in a negative sense, but in which the teacher who does believe in the idea breaks away from groups the moment that group is not sharing the idea. James has no period of consistency with any organization for any length of time, right up to the PNM. We could analyze the reasons.
How I see him, really, is the predicament of the restless imagination, the imagination which cannot and does not settle, which is always driven towards opening and exploring new frontiers, making each frontier an unprecedented revelation. James has a way of speaking in superlatives about the particular thing—“Never in my life,” “Never before,”—which, in reflection, is not that extraordinary, but is made extraordinary in the moment of perceiving.
He met me when I had a very big reputation. I did not hold him in awe. Having hardly heard of him, apart from Black Jacobins, once I had picked up the translation of the Souvarine biography of Stalin. Even when I met him I would not have read Captain Cipriani, although I had heard of it. But as I got to know him I became very aware of a special quality [which influenced my writing].
If you read Age of Innocence and Season of Adventure, two things are working there. One is the creative power of mass, the central character is usually the mass more than the individual. The creative power of the mass, in Season of Adventure, that the drums bring out is not too far away from what James sees as spontaneous confrontation. There's another reference to him in Age of Innocence, a description, a reflection of the relation of the teacher to the artist. There is an element of James in that passage, too.
How was the West Indian left from the 1950s influenced by Nello [C. L. R.]?
I don't know if you can pinpoint it. You will have to think of James's influence really in terms of the way he has influenced a debate about the ways in which masses will organize themselves for the transformation of the society. There is a position of James which would not have met with widespread approval, but had in some ways to be answered all the time. You see, you can have an influence at work, not that the influence makes the person think in the direction but the influence works by making the person think how they're going to argue about it. So James's position is a position as a Marxist. James is a Marxist. And he's quite unapologetic, and calls himself a Marxist and Leninist. But James abandons the concept of a vanguard party, that the revolutionizing of a mass requires as a condition something called a vanguard party. That would have been the position of all of the Marxist parties in region with the exception of the WPA. The WPA never had a leader. There was some form of collective leadership, but not in the way that [Cheddi] Jagan was the leader of the PPP or [Trevor] Monroe was the leader of the WPJ. And to this day they have retained that sense of a collective leadership.
Were there others as influenced as Walter Rodney by James, personally?
Most of the generation of Walter Rodney, that whole generation, was reading James and arguing about Black Jacobinsand arguing about James's evaluation of what happened in Trinidad and so forth. It was very much on their agenda. I don't know about influence, but he was always on the agenda of [Eusi] Kwayana. I wouldn't be so much concerned with defining something called “influence.” I don't think any of them would see themselves or want to claim discipleship, but what one can very safely say, is that James has been a pervasive influence on the political thought and intellectual argument throughout the Caribbean. That could be said without any reservation.
James was being invited. He has spoken at mass rallies in the political parties of Barbados, on the platform (wisely I thought at the time) of the Barbados Labour Party because of some special interest he had, historical interest in Grantly Adams. James had a sort of Victorian loyalty toward Adams. And there is a very interesting document of James's, I haven't seen a copy of it for some time, in which they asked James to give an analysis of the condition of the party. There it is, as a document, in which he made very remarkable predictions that did in fact come true, either very early in the 1960s or late 1950s, when he had come back from England. It was not made generally available, it was a party document.
He'd given a series of lectures to campus audiences in Jamaica, he had spoken in Guyana. So apart from texts, James became a figure that aroused great curiosity, great intellectual curiosity, at a level much wider than just political action.
Was he a voice in the wilderness?
I don't think he seemed a voice in the wilderness at all. When James was functioning in that way, he was very inspirational. In Trinidad, there was a feeling at that time, had James in a way played that differently, he might have influenced the direction of politics during the PNM. I think James made certain tactical errors—this is my own view. James did not, in my view, give a correct assessment to the meaning of that twenty-five years' absence. He returned to the terrain as though he were out for a year or eighteen months. And therefore because of his old and close association to Williams, [he] overlooked, in a way, the meanings that this would have for people who were around Williams, that he would be seen as someone who was preempting other people. That was something that would have to be watched. James may have gone for too high a profile too soon, and might indeed have [had] more influence in shaping the underground subsoil of the PNM had he worked more from behind the scenes. Having worked in front of the scenes, he then found himself coming into collision with Williams's supporters. So that when he came into collision with Williams, he was really without support, because the supporters then closed ranks.
The other thing I thought was a mistake was that after the break with Williams, the open break without any possibilities of reconciliation, James automatically entered the battle of political rivalry with Williams. Challenging Williams to election, contesting election, turning this matter into a gladiatorial contest between himself and Williams, which he could not win. But which also [was] fundamentally in contradiction to James's position that what was more important was the building of movements, not getting parties ready for election. You do not build a movement in six months, you do not build a movement in three years. Without the base of movement, but just with this notion that by some magic of personality there will be a spontaneous response of something called a mass [movement]—that was a fundamental error. When the gladiatorial show was over, the next move was departure.
He answered my questions along the same line by emphasizing that up to this point Williams had always done what he said.
But this was also a misjudgment. What he didn't understand but should have understood was that the Williams, in the relation of disciple and mentor, was not a Williams who exercised power. And the Williams he knew as the man who exercised power would not have the same relations that he had before. That was a misjudgment. But I think that James embodied, in a way, an attribute of a certain type of intellectual, that James believed in the force of ideas. If you were able to communicate ideas, ideas had the force of moving mass. And he had the overwhelming confidence in his capacity to make ideas function as a force. But you would find people in Trinidad who thought perhaps that had it been worked in a different way, the possibility existed that a serious left within the PNM could develop to challenge the authority of Williams, not on an individual basis of leadership but on a mass basis of what is to be the direction of this movement. Today the PNM is not a movement. It just became a party, came to office, supervised over the deterioration and demoralization of people, over the largest scale of corruption in the history of the country. Nobody really knows what will happen to the PNM after that sort of rejection.
What about C. L. R.'s influence on Michael Manley?
The influence in the case of Manley, who again could not be described as a Marxist, would be intellectually, of a Marxist persuasion, persuaded in some ways by the central ideas. James at that time [the late 1950s and early 1960s] was moving more and more back to his original base. James was arguing, almost evangelizing, about what he sees as the uniqueness of a Caribbean civilization having taken shape in this archipelago. That appeals to everybody in a certain way. And while this has not really been explored, the basis is there. You can follow the nature of the struggle for survival, to see how from point A or point B it is Cuba we are talking about or Guyana or Puerto Rico. You are going to find these correspondences between men who are trying to define the reality. It is unique in the history of human society, this is the point that is going to be, the uniqueness of something created here, waiting to be realized, to be elaborated.
That kind of message went home both to, on the one side, a political figure like Manley who does not only want to speak for Jamaica but to speak to the region, and that sort of message would have gone home on the other side to a certain type of academic who wants to give more than a provincial or parochial dimension to his area of inquiry of the Caribbean waiting to be explored and elaborated. I think that is what I mean by a pervasive influence. He did that, was able to do it, because of this range of curiosity. He was unusual.
James had a synoptic vision that was not exclusively based on the politics of victory. It was also concerned with what James thought was a unique sensibility in the Caribbean that would have to produce an unusual kind of literature, a unique sensibility that, if men started to work, would produce an unusual social science. It would not be the social science of metropolitan conventional institutions. It would [also have] a different kind of creative artist, a different kind of political activist. And that would come not by nature or by special gifts of God, but by the uniqueness in composition and formation of the society itself. That here was a society that probably did not have a precedent.
He has a view on the Caribbean and the Non-Aligned Movement that you have to have reservations about. James never really abandoned, to this day, in spite of all that has happened, the idea that the supreme good fortune of the Caribbean was its link to European civilization—that was the thing—and its link to what he would regard as the major languages. This is the problem of what we would call the Euro-centered James. And related to that, James believed that [link] gave the developed intellect in the region a very special advantage vis-à-vis something called the Third World, in the sense that it was universalized by the very nature of the European influence upon it. What he would mean is that if you had a Caribbean as one, a federated Caribbean as one, that region would have had the intellectual resources that could have been very decisive in its influence on African leadership. He means of course the case of [George] Padmore and [Kwame] Nkrumah, and that would multiply with whomever would be the Martinican equivalent of influence on French Africa and so forth. This is one of the things he would have in mind. There are people who would not buy that. People who say that the evolution of the African intellectual has its own interpretation of Europe was inevitable. There would be an African sensibility and an African mold of perceiving reality that would find serious deficiencies in the Caribbean.
That vision of Pan-Africanism is still there, it depends upon how you interpret it. Common historical experience links Africa and people from African descent, and that fundamental experience has been the European colonization, the experience of imperialism, and the struggle to dismantle it. Whether they come from English- or French-speaking Africa, English- or French-speaking Caribbean, there is that continuity as long as imperialism survives, a struggle that is qualitatively similar. They talk a common language, they are in that sense Pan-Africans. They have a lot of pooling in the exchange, [such as] the great influence that [Amilcar] Cabral had on Rodney's interpretation of Marx within the context of an underdeveloped society. Those linkages were there. Certain Afro-Americans have come to see the colonial dimension of their experience through their encounter with West Indians speaking about the colonial problem vis-à-vis European experience. I think that the concept of Pan-African movement of ideas is still very seminal.
James's influence, not directly but indirectly, seemed to reach toward a new potential at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s.
Between 1979 and 1983, there was an extraordinary idealism and enthusiastic boldness of commitment right through the region. Those four years did something to ignite and activate people in all kinds of fields. But the tragedy that [the Grenadan] Revolution took such a fall, it traumatized the left—and we have not yet quite recovered the meaning of that event.
And what about the force described as the New Culture movement? How does it relate to James's political interpretations, over the years, of music and culture generally?
Some of the most progressive responses to the neocolonial situation have come through the creative expression of music, from Jamaica to Trinidad. The dominance of Sparrow, Marley in the Eastern Caribbean. And the Rastafarian movement. Now that can be interpreted as a very conscious rejection of the established structures.
There are two forces at work in James, not only the mold of the Victorian. The point James used to make from time to time has now passed into general currency. Because of the size of islands, we did not have an experience of the kind of social distance that isolated any one element from the other. James was growing up as a middle-class boy, a schoolmaster's son, but he was looking out the window at working-class boys playing cricket. They were not five hundred miles away. This reciprocal influence across class lines was permanent and continuing. The greatest cricketers were the poorest boys. But there was an enormous reservoir of gifts of all kinds, locked up and fighting to break out of this artificial package. It's breaking out in the Marleys, breaking out in the Sparrows, breaking out in the Rastafarians, and then you see in a sense it's breaking out within the middle class, with the sons who are going communist and who don't want that whole bourgeois thing. I don't think it's a contradiction, there's an area of experience always influenced by the gifts of those from down below, whether in the area of sports or other areas of entertainments. And this was also capable of demonstrating itself in various forms of political leadership if the lid could be blown off.
What seems to be new is that there is an increasing awareness that the cultural act exists not only in the old petit-bourgeois sense, but united with a very strong force of liberation. Increasingly you find in the trade union movement, in political parties, that a political struggle—if it is really going to have a continuing vitality and sustenance—has always to have a cultural base and cultural expression. I don't know where you pinpoint “new,” but it's stronger today than it would have been twenty-five or thirty years ago, and very much on the rise.
It is tied up with what is older. If you were speaking of nationalism, then you were speaking of some spirit, some distinctive quality, of the people, that could not really be respected if it were just a replication of political institutions and political forms which they had inherited from the imperial power. It would have to have an expression more distinctive than the political institutions were.
Even in the 1950s there was going to be among writers of a certain kind, [certain critical changes in] … what they call the novel and so on. They were not interested in the novel as such but a very different organization of narrative. You are writing prose narrative but it is not really connected to those established forms with a central character. For people like myself, [the novel] has no central character. It may be the place and not the person. There is a movement of presences and so on. What you have to deal with now is the pattern of that organization and not the old conventional forms of finding the point of causality from beginning to end. They may not be able to formulate it, but that conscious breakaway is even more evident in the verse, the poetry. So you have recently what is almost an abandonment of the text. (In dub poetry, the poet is performer to a large audience, to music.) Then in the theater, a very outstanding example, the Sistren Theatre [in Jamaica] which actually uses theater to document the domestic circumstances of workers, to document the workplace whether it is agriculture or these new branch plant industries and so on. There is a sense, a concept of the organic function of cultural expression. The intuitive link between this and the political ramifications is being worked out, and what is coming. So that is, I would say, very very much on the agenda.
I think that the immediate task is to regionalize that struggle, that cultural struggle. And to deal with what we have now. This is topic number one, even among people not thinking at the same level that we're talking at. People are becoming aware that the overwhelming dominance of North American mass culture will destroy the society if there is not what one would call a force of cultural resistance to that. A lot of cultural expression is now informed by that need to be a force of cultural resistance to that dominance. How do you capture the heads of people who become quite mesmerized by the images coming out. Today, 50 percent of Caribbean television is North American. There's not anything wrong with that but the nature of the product. It is stupifying its victims and, more dangerous, it creates a concept of consumerism and standard of living that is actually in conflict with the productive capacity of the society.
I think what we're trying to do is multidisciplinary. The compartmentalization has to be broken. What we do is to bring together those coming from very different occupational and intellectual experience to address a central one. We can bring together an economist and a theater person and ask, In what ways can theater serve strategies of national planning? You may do it with theater and the historian, In what ways can theater be put to the history that you are doing? These are the linkages we are seeking to make. My contribution has been to bring this kind of discussion into political organizations, to address political party conferences raising this theme. Bringing them onto the terrain of how do you conceive of sovereignty, how does your party conceive of cultural policy.
And James's role in all this?
I would say that the totality of James's life and work, as it came to be known in the Caribbean, assumed the role of a pervasive influence on all aspects of intellectual and social activity in the region. You then, perhaps, have to ask individual people in what way did that work. One is on quite safe ground to speak of it as a pervasive influence, there is no discussion within social science and so on: What you are going to do, what would be the new relations, what kind of social order, all of these discussions, how do you deal with the structures and institutions of a political movement in terms of leader and led since the political culture will not accept a concept of an elitist vanguard which is a head with a belly that is somewhere else. What is the university doing restructuring the intellectual environment—I don't think you could have a discussion on any area of this seriously in which he would not be quoted, without a reference to him. Not necessarily agreement, but how do we deal with the problem. That would be true of people whether they were right or left.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7780
SOURCE: “Carnival Strategies in Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin,” in Callaloo, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 346-60.
[In the following essay, Jonas examines the essence of the “Trickster” and shows the instances of this imaginary creature presiding over Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin.]
West Indian novelist George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin takes its title from a couplet in Derek Walcott's juvenilia:
You in the castle of your skin I the swineherd.
Walcott here invokes a conventional romance situation—unattainable mistress and infatuated, self-denigrating admirer—with the added pungency of racial overtones suggested by “skin.” Lamming, however, changes the possessive pronoun, thus reversing the entire situation and seizing the castle for himself. By this sleight of hand, the naked (black) skin, with its connotations of exposure, shame, and deprivation, is transformed into an image of impregnability, strength, and self-sufficiency. By changing the joke, Lamming slips the yoke.
Indeed, the technique of turning deprivation into plenitude is the strategy of the entire novel. Lamming's fiction stands on the threshold between two worlds facing both ways at once. For while one view of Castle shows a tragic mask of deprivation, failure, and exile, the other reveals a triumphant comic grin. Tragedy requires a scape-goat, but comedy, though it may permit the victim to be bound to the very horns of the altar, always allows him to evade the sacrificial role and escape to the sound of echoing laughter. It is on this very margin between tragic sacrifice and comic reversal that Lamming's first novel is situated.
Universally, cultures have recognized the power and danger of the margin or threshold by identifying a trickster-deity1 who shall preside over the rites of passage. In the West Indies, as in Afro-America, folk-tales are told of the Trickster Anancy—half spider, half man—who, though perennially in tight situations, is singularly adept at turning the tables on his oppressor and emerging more or less unscathed. His ability to extricate himself lies in his gift for “spinning yarns.” In African mythology, Anancy is a god, responsible for creation itself, though his kindness to humans has brought about his fall from the favor of Nyame, the supreme Sky God. Rejected from the heavens, he finds himself positioned between earth and sky. Trader par excellence, Anancy enters the world to make things happen, to recreate boundaries, to break and reestablish relationships, to reawaken consciousness of the presence and the creative power of both the sacred Center and the formless Outside. Then he returns to that hidden threshold which he embodies and makes available as a passage to ‘save the people from ruin.’”2
Not surprisingly, given his capacity to hide in rafters and weave his web in any nook or cranny, Anancy survived the Middle Passage, and still spins his yarns throughout the Caribbean. His survival in folk imagination surely has to do with his capacity to transform disruption, discontinuity, brokenness, and defeat into triumphant new configurations of possibility. His perennial rebellion, and his use of comic trickery and deceit to expose the inadequacies of authority figures must surely have endeared him to the imagination of an oppressed folk. For it is the triumph of the Trickster to so deconstruct and invert the given “text” of authority that the destined scapegoat of tragedy turns the tables and emerges laughing in a comedy of ironic reversal—the castle of MY skin!
As symbol for the “limbo dance” of the West Indian novelist, Anancy is without peer. Poetry may well find its inspiration in jazz, blues, and calypso, but West Indian narrative, I contend, owes its beings to another Muse—Anancy. For, as Wilson Harris has argued, the West Indian artist is working in a limbo—a void between two worlds.3 Surrounded by and exiled from the structures of an alien world view, he must create his own world in this absence, or else be forever a negative, an exiled scapegoat. The very form of his art must be redefined. It is precisely here, in the interstices of structure, that the Anancy artist creates a world that describes its own center, thus marginalizing the oppressive structures of the Great House. Anancy re-creates the world—weaving a universe of relationships from the very substance of his being as he narrates his story in his way. For it is by way of his verbal ingenuity, his “yarn,” that he can escape nonentity and strategically relocate the center of the cosmos.
Lamming, as an Anancy artist, confronts the world view of “Mr Hate-To-Be-Contradicted,” exposing the arbitrary nature of its premises and denying it the fixity and permanence it wishes to claim. He draws our eyes away from the structures of European domination to the folk themselves, to the spider weaving in the unswept corners of the house as it were. His strategy posits the possibility of a multiplicity of centers, and insists on relationships, connectedness, and pluralism as a necessary corrective to the inside/outside, above/below polarized hierarchies implicit in the Eurocentric expression of Great House/exploited tenantry.
Boundaries, thresholds, crossroads, and the marketplace of symbolic commercial intercourse are omnipresent in the rigidly structured Eurocentric landscape of Castle. They express a tragic world view in which hierarchies are inevitable, and principles of inclusion and exclusion are final and ultimate. High on the hill are the landlord's house and garden surrounded by a brick wall topped with broken glass, while below in the valley is the “tenantry”—the folk defined in terms of their relationship to the landlord:
To the east where the land rose gently to a hill there was a large brick building surrounded by a wood and a high stone wall that bore bits of bottle along the top.4
At night the light poured down through the wood, and the house looking down from the hill seemed to hold a quality of benevolent protection. It was a castle around which the land like a shabby back garden stretched.
Yet another wall encloses the school yard:
In one corner a palm-tree, and in the others three shrines of enlightenment that looked over the wall and across a benighted wooden tenantry.
The three “shrines” are the church with “dark stained hooded windows that never opened” (35) and an interior that is “dark and heavy and strange”; the head-teacher's house; and the school itself “with windows all around that opened like a yawning mouth” (35). It is not without significance that a language of sacredness is used for this structured landscape in which the folk stand pro fana, feeding their children as human sacrifices to the yawning mouth of the system.
The landscaped village with its lighted Great House on the hill overseeing the tenantry in the valley, and the sacred middle ground between them of religion and education, is a microcosm of the novel's broader landscape in which Big England and Little England co-exist in the parent-child relationship typical of colonialism. “Land-lords” of authority—England, the Great House, the School, the Church—all “look down” disdainfully across their boundary walls at the folk of the tenantry.
The Great protect their interests by means of a system of overseers, supervisors, and inspectors, but the folk, by contrast, are without protection; they experience invasion of their fragile defining boundaries at every point. The frail walls of the village suggest a corresponding frailty of the walls of personhood for those who live there:
The village was a marvel of small, heaped houses raised jauntily on groundsels of limestone, and arranged in rows on either side of the multiplying marl roads. Sometimes the roads disintegrated, the limestone slid back and the houses advanced across their boundaries in an embrace of board and shingle and cactus fence.
The villagers lack a clearly marked “road” of purpose. Defined by others, they are yet to define themselves. Their lack of identity, their constant experience of being “overseen,” is symbolized in the incident of G's bathtime. As the neighbor's son Bob balances on the paling to watch, his weight causes a fence to crash: “the two yards merged. The barricade which had once protected our private secrecies had surrendered” (18). A crowd is attracted to the scene:
On all sides the fences had been weighed down with people, boys and girls and grown-ups. The girls were laughing and looking across to where I stood on the pool of pebbles, naked, waiting. They looked at Bob's mother and the broken fence and me. The sun had dried me thoroughly, and now it seemed that I had not been bathed, but brought out in open condemnation and placed in the middle of the yard waiting like one crucified to be jeered at.
The scene recurs in different forms throughout the novel: shame and degradation consequent on the breaking down of defining boundaries, ritual beatings, ritual purifications. Mocking eyes rejoice over the trembling naked figure of another's embarrassment, glad to find a scapegoat for the shame they fear to confront within themselves. G's naked skin is his sole protection—his frail counterpart to the landlord's “castle” on the hill.
Boundary walls define the Great, then, but merely marginalize the folk, categorizing them as expiatory scapegoats for the Great. G and his friends transgress sacred boundaries when they secretly enter the grounds of the landlord's house to see what goes on at a party, and they witness the seduction of the landlord's daughter by a British sailor. Later, the story given out by the landlord is that his daughter was raped by the village boys. Here the “penetration” of sacred domains—the rape of class interests by the military—is projected onto the folk. Similarly, moral corruption within the ranks of those bonded together by a common “skin” is denied. Moral and economic problems are univocally displaced into simple racial hatred. Villagers conversing in the shoemaker's shop sum up the landlord's relationship with the folk with more acuity than they realize when one of them says: “He couldn't feel as happy anywhere else in this God's world than he feel on that said same hill lookin' down at us” (97).
Ritual projection of guilt and shame onto an innocent victim is the recurring motif of the novel. Wilson Harris has already pointed to the number of ritual beatings and washing ceremonies in Castle.5 Repeatedly a scapegoat is singled out to bear the burden of another's disgrace. At the school's celebrations marking the Queen's birthday, the Headmaster, anxious to impress the inspector, is enraged when the ceremony is interrupted by a loud giggle. His response is dramatic. On the departure of the inspector he addresses the school in a voice “choked with a kind of terror” (42). Punishment falls on the first available victim in ritualistic sadism: the innocent lad becomes a “human symbol of the blackest sin,” is bound hand and foot, and a leather strap brought down repeatedly on his buttocks until his clothing is ripped and the “filth slithered down his legs.” Like a sacrificial victim, the boy makes “a brief howl like an animal that had had its throat cut” (43). Asked why he didn't run, the boy replies, “He had to beat somebody, and he made sure with me” (43). Like the men in Foster's shop, the boy understands the human need for a sacrificial scapegoat. As his school-friends bathe away the filth and blood, the victim relates information about the Head teacher that fully explains the man's insecurities and his need to protect his image at all cost.
The pattern is repeated at a wayside revival service. Once again an authority figure humiliates and denigrates a victim while worshippers and onlookers alike exult in projecting their own shame onto the chosen scapegoat. Watching the preacher's tactics with a reluctant convert, G comments, “I was sure they were going to sacrifice him, and I wanted to see how it was done” (166). The words “born again” disturb him: “There was something very frightening about them, and particularly the context in which they were placed. The hymn had been started in order to control the tittering of the spectators. … The preacher was a kind of spiritual bailiff who offered salvation as a generous exchange for the other's suffering” (167). Experience eventually teaches the lad that the circle of worshippers with the preacher at its center is a structured world akin to that of the landlord's walled houses on the hill; to enter it is to accept castration and assume the eternal role of child before the controlling authority of the Great.
When her pumpkin vine is trampled, G's mother has a sense of loss and futility that is wider-reaching than the immediate waste of the plant. Her voice “spoke as if from an inner void beyond which deeper within herself were incalculable layers of feeling” (17). Her deprivation vents itself on G. The boy, completely innocent, stands naked in the center of a circle of spectators who rock with laughter as his mother engages in a ritualistic beating. A scapegoat is needed, and the naked boy serves the role. The innocent boy in the school, G in his mother's yard, the youth at the wayside service—all naked, all innocent, all chosen victims. The vulnerability of the naked self is evident.
Lamming's key metaphor for the invasion of boundaries and absence of defining walls of selfhood is the flood with which the novel opens. Water seeps through ceiling and floor into the house where G lives with his mother. Outside, a lily is uprooted from the soil by the force of the rain. Invading floodwaters anticipate the later “flood” of worker riots that will invade the boundaries of privilege but leave in their wake a muddy residue of bourgeois profiteering personified in Mr Slime, founder of the Penny Bank—an organization that, despite its promise, yields no benefits to the village. At an existential level the floodwaters provide an image for the novel's exploration of ways to build defining walls around the self. For repeatedly the self experiences invasion by the Other: “Deep down he felt uneasy. He had been seen by another. He had become part of the other's world, and therefore no longer in complete control of his own. The eye of another was a kind of cage” (73).
Release and freedom are found only in the darkness—in the darkened cinema, in the school lavatory. To embrace the light is to lose one's freedom. Light from the landlord's house dictates the lifestyle of the villagers; light at the wayside revival service calls the people to forsake their manhood and be “born again” into submissiveness; and Ma calls Pa away from his dreams of silver, pork, and weddings, away from his ruminations on existence, away from his gaze through the open doorway into the freeing darkness and back to the circle of light thrown by the lamp in their home—a lamp that obediently takes its cue in unquestioning piety from the light on the hill. Lamming consistently inverts the Judeo-Christian metaphors of European tradition and associates light with exploitative control, darkness with freedom. The lad at the open-air meeting confesses his fear of the candles his aunt burns to “keep away the spirits” (162)! In Lamming's revision of the European text, it is only when one has the courage to step out of the light—beyond the narrow circle of the known into the unknown, undreamed-of realm of darkness that a new order of things is made possible. The alternative is to be “a prisoner in the light, condemned to be saved” (163).
Subtly Lamming inverts the conventional hierarchy of images. To be born again now appears as acquiescent auto-castration, and what Eurocentric authority calls enlightenment is discovered to be confinement within the denigrating oversight of an alien world view. By the end of his novel, Lamming brings us to the final inversion when the black skin itself, far from being a mark of shame and frailty, is revealed as a strong-hold—a mask behind which the self is safe from invasion; “The likenesses will meet and make merry, but they won't know you, the you that's hidden somewhere in the castle of your skin” (261), G exults. To be held in “le regard” of the other is to be mis-defined. One moves into Being when the defining process is from within. G's drama is an existential taking-possession of the boundaries of the self; he converts the cage of the already-defined into the fortress of the ever-signifying.
Sacrifice of this essential being is a kind of castration and, indeed, the image of a broken phallus haunts this novel. Discovery of their sexual potential by the boys in the public bath is checked and punished by the supervisor. Insistence on monogamy creates havoc for Jon and Bambi, producing a dilemma in which any attempt at choice (one means of self-definition) would result in auto-castration. G and his friends discover manhood stirring in them as they stumble upon a sailor making love to the landlord's daughter—“As there was a God in heaven I was going to do something with a girl” (173)—but when they return to the wayside revival meeting, they are urged to be “born again.” Ma invites Pa to leave his dreams of wealth and freedom and to repeat a child's prayer (90). But while the imposed culture, through its religion, requires childlike submission, those who fail to assume the responsibilities of manhood end up being defined by others, as Trumper realizes when he describes a man who refuses to be involved in the process of political decision-making as being like “a monk with a rotten cock who ain't know how he come by the said same infirmity” (293). Obedience to the rules of the game as dictated by the colonizer's cultural forms is like taking a vow of celibacy, but the colonized finds that his submission itself leads to impotence and worse. “One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene,”6 is James Baldwin's stark rendering of the dilemma.
The broken phallus motif is supported by the story line. G begins from a point of deprivation, “an almost total absence of family relations” (12), and a past that has sunk “with its cargo of episodes like a crew preferring scuttle to the consequences of survival” (11). Like his past and present, the boy's future, too, with his fears and ideals, seems destined to go down the drain in the same way as the flood waters that have washed out his ninth birthday (10). Like the uprooted lily in the flood, G will be removed from the village to attend high school, and the novel will end on the point of his departure for Trinidad at the age of nineteen. Uprooting, deprivation, discontinuity, absence of relationships, painful loss—these characterize his (and his people's) forward movement in time.
Behind him the villagers' experience echoes his own. Any hope for improvement of their lot through assumption of political or economic power seems destined to fail. Slime's Penny Bank scheme and the workers' riots alike seem to leave the folk rather worse off than they were under the landlord's feudal overlordship. Exploitation and dispossession are the story of the folk—under slavery, under the colonial landlord, and now under the emergent national bourgeoisie.
Just as the story is of brokenness and fragmentation, so is the plot. If it is seen as depending entirely on chronology for its unity, the plot discovers little meaning or purpose in either G's story or that of the community. For mimesis—though interesting—fails to provide the connections, fails to reveal signifying relationships. Even Trumper realizes that historical narrative fails. He says: “Don't ask Hist'ry why you is what you then see yourself to be, 'cause Hist'ry ain't got no answers. You ain't a thing till you know it” (297).
Yet though the forward linear movement of the novel is pessimistic, though imitation leads to ignominious failure and mimesis fails to uncover meaning—though, in a word, read as a conventional bildungsroman, Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin seems almost without hope, there is an alternative way of interpreting the text that emphasizes not hopeless sequence, but connection—and the key to such an alternative reading lies in the oral tradition of Anancy stories. For Lamming's “grotesque” scrap bag of incidents, anecdotes, folk tale, and memory is, in fact, a trickster-like assembling of the dismembered. Like a novitiate contemplating the sacra of the tribe, the reader must consider the connections between parts, the relationships that provide ironic meaning. In such a strategic re-reading, the village landscape signifies an alternative ideology. Its disintegrating road, the “embrace of board and shingle and cactus fence,” and houses advancing “across their boundaries to meet those on the opposite side” (10), speak eloquently of a universe of relationships, of connections, of wholeness set over against the divisive structures that dominate. This is a place where community is a reality.
Context, then, is all-important in Lamming's work, and the reader who ignores the ironies of juxtaposition is betrayed into over-simplifications. James Ngugi, for instance, suggests that Lamming's solution to the problem—“the united struggle of the dispossessed”—is communicated by Trumper. But the inadequacy of the racial ideology that Trumper declaims is exposed by its ironical context, for even as Trumper enthuses over his newly-found sense of racial identity, black bourgeois politics is moving in to dispossess Foster and send Pa to the Alms House.
Ironic play on the boundaries between juxtaposed episodes in the novel is common. The castrating role of the church (represented by the wayside meeting) is made evident because, sandwiched between two visits to this meeting, is the episode in which the boys “trespass” on the landlord's garden. The episode is vibrantly sexual, and, of course, evokes earlier discussion of the Fall, the Garden, and the Empire. Skillfully, Lamming draws together concepts of rebellion against political and religious control within a Freudian framework of patricide and rape of the sacred. Clearly just as Ma, with her puritanical views, discourages Pa from thinking of wealth and pleasure and freedom (instead he must pray like a child at her knee), so the Mother country, through its cultural superstructure, seeks to persuade the colonized that appropriation of wealth, freedom, and responsibilities is tantamount to a “rape” of the privilege that belongs to the Great alone. That G has learnt something from his experience in the Landlord's garden is evident, for on his first visit to the meeting, he is nervous and awed. When he returns, though, it is to play the trickster: he responds to the invitation to be “born again” merely in order to escape punishment by the overseer. Never again will he be imprisoned in the colonizer's “light.”
Though threatened with castration, Trickster has the capacity to reassemble his broken phallus. Despite the pervasive castration motif, there is an ebullient phallicism in this novel. The small boys who play with pins on the railway tracks look forward to the time when their “small blades” will be exchanged for the real weapons that the bigger boys brandish. Crabs, dogs, frogs, humans—all copulate in the region beyond the boundaries of the village—beyond, for it is in the margins of social premises that power resides: it is the “dung” that social perspectives reject that Trickster converts into “medicine” for the healing of the Tribe.
Frequent references to food in the novel also tie in with the concept of the Trickster. There are mouthwatering descriptions of Savory's (apt name!!) cakes and pastries, and of the elaborate preparation by G's mother of the meal of cuckoo, flying fish, and ice cream on the eve of his departure for Trinidad. Food preferences parallel the sexual imagery to suggest Trickster's vast appetite—itself a mythic projection of the longing for a share in life's pie.
Certainly the folk figure begins outside the castle of privilege, in its “shabby back garden.” But at the novel's conclusion, he is inside the castle of the self. For Lamming does not give us G's history, nor his diary, but a novel—a re-writing of the past in which context provides significant and illuminating connections. For Castle's form is not linear; it is an Anancy web of signification in which one divines meaning from relationships between fragments that, standing alone, seem meaningless. The G who writes the narrative is other than the G who is contained in the text. G as textual character has limited perceptions, but when he steps outside his history, his vision is enlarged. The trickster artist is able to use his perspective of distance and exile (temporally and spatially removed as he is from events) to weave threads into new configurations. Situated, godlike, at the interstices where juxtaposed fragments reflect upon each other, he divines significance; for the spider's web is, ultimately, a “system of signs.”
The process of stepping outside a containing metaphor of life into a position from which one can survey oneself in ironic appraisal is latent in the maturation process as described by French psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget identifies four stages7 in the development of the child that shed light on our discussion of the adult G's exile. The stages are as follows:
|Birth to 18 months||sensori-motor (pre-speech)|
|18 months to 7–8 years||representation (post speech, but preoperatory)|
|7–12 years||concrete operations|
|12 years onwards||propositional/formal operations|
Until 18 months, Piaget argues, the child lives in an “egocentric space,” and the objective world exists for him only as his senses record it. Later he moves to “general space,” and is aware of all objects, including his own body, as existing in that general space. This “total decentration in relation to the original egocentric space” Piaget describes as a “Copernican revolution.”8 The point here is that the infant is contained in reality, yet is unaware of being so contained. The advent of speech accompanies his movement outside himself, providing, as it were, the ability to represent himself to himself. From 7–12 years of age, he apprehends reality through concrete metaphor, and not until he approaches 12 years is he able to reason in the abstract, weighing one proposition against another—standing outside his metaphors in ironic contemplation.
Piaget implies that speech is the first stage in self-discovery (an issue discussed at length by the boys in Lamming's novel). For the psychologist, speech involves stepping outside “reality” into a space in the mind where reality (including the reality of the self) can be contemplated. At a later stage of growth, where formal operations replace the concrete, the child achieves a capacity for ambiguity—for irony.
The difference between the G within the historical text and the G who narrates that history from a point outside is akin to the difference between the pre-speech and the representational stages of childhood, or the difference between concrete and formal operation. In the first case, the child can move outside reality and represent it by words; in the later experience, development is marked by a release from concrete structure into the space of the mind where ambiguity is possible. Juxtaposing the paradoxical and the contradictory in a kind of limbo, the mind proceeds from the known (concrete) to the unknown (imagined) and this, in essence, conditions creative potential. In each case the movement out of reality into a reflective mode permits new dimensions of maturity. In the later stage, paradox becomes the ground for invention.
Unless he represents himself to himself, unless, in addition, he can stand outside structure and embrace paradox and ambiguity, the child fails to develop. Returning to Castle, we could draw the parallel that merely to exist in time is not enough, nor is a mere mimetic representation of events sufficient. For mature understanding to occur, there must be a movement outside of structures so that the reality lying somewhere between the always-partial structured perceptions can be investigated.
Restated in terms of our Anancy model, the argument is that there is need for a web of fiction to juxtapose fragments of experienced event in ways that reveal significance hidden in the interstices. Time moves in one direction through the novel, but counter to that flow is the reflective movement of memory, of the mature G narrating the fragments of his life, revising, reversing, juxtaposing to provide the relationships that reveal meaning. In this reflective movement, contradictions and paradox are held in skillful balance.
The twin movements—forward in time, and backward in revisionist reflection—are captured in the early pages of the novel in a passage that will serve here as an introduction to our discussion of the function of written narrative as self-creation:
The clock shelved in one corner kept up its ticking. My mother retreated to another part of the house where the silk and taffeta designs of her needling were being revised and reversed. I soon followed. …
As if in defiance of the oppressive linearity of history, the mother engages in a creative drawing together of fragments into something of use and beauty.
At many points in G's narrative, as here, the “clock” of historical sequence is abandoned, and a timeless moment of harmony and pattern shapes itself as the people group together at the telling and hearing of tales. One such moment occurs when G's mother, Miss Foster, and Bob's mother gather. Harmony, meaning, and fecundity take the place of deprivation and loss as the women re-create their world within a landscape where divisive boundaries are lost, and a spreading cherry tree suggests vibrant shared life:
They sat in the shade under the cherry tree that spread out over the fences in all directions. The roots were in one yard, but its body bulged forth into another, and its branches struck out over three or four more. … They sat in a circle composed and relaxed, rehearsing, each in turn the tale of dereliction told a thousand times during the past week. … It seemed they were three pieces in a pattern which remained constant. … In the corner where one fence merged into another, and the sunlight filtering through the leaves made a limitless suffusion over the land, the pattern had arranged itself with absolute unawareness. … The three were shuffling episodes and exchanging the confidences which informed their life with meaning.
The full meaning, however, is not clear to the women. As the narrator explains: “Their consciousness had never been quickened by the fact of life to which these confidences might have been a sure testimony” (25). For greater self-awareness there must be a further distancing. It is only when Trumper leaves the island that he is able to see with any degree of clarity what it means to be a Negro and to “proclaim himself the blackest evidence of the white man's denial of conscience” (299). Similarly, G perceives that, painful as it is, withdrawal into a no-man's land of exile—outside history, outside the defining relationships of society—this alone makes gnosis possible. In fact, Lamming transforms the negativity of dispossession—which finds its ultimate expression in exile—into a positive ground of self-knowledge. The mature narrator, from his perspective of exile from the folk he reflects on, infuses into the fragmented life of the village the existential overtones, the ironic juxtapositions, and the key words evoking rich associative links to produce a web of meaning where linear narrative yields only purposelessness and despair.
Speaking from his vantage point within history, G is limited by the puritan frame of perception that determines and prefigures all he sees. Both his own tone and that of others of the folk is often condemnatory: the boys are “vagabonds,” “disrespectful varmints,” “hooligans,” and “grinning jackasses.” The natural world beyond the boundaries of social structure teems with life, but it is described in morally derogatory terms. There is a puritanical, awed revulsion before forces that are seemingly both powerful and dangerous. In the woods, an old woman stumbles on copulating dogs “shaggy and obscene in their excitement,” and human couples “gross and warm in frenzied intercourse” (33). The boys observe the couplings of crabs on the beach and are “fascinated and terrified” in the woods by the ferocity of mating cats and the “hideous posture” (171) assumed by a pair of frogs. Their revulsion at this country on the margins, a landscape which defies and threatens their sense of order and structure (they are, we recall, adolescents) is concretized in the viscous “ooze-like jelly” from the mating frogs into which Trumper inadvertently puts his hand. Conditioned by a puritanical society, they consider the natural, the sexual, the procreative a nasty and distasteful business.
But this is the attitude of youthful immaturity. Despite the mental castration suggested in their reactions, a current of laughter surges through the novel, celebrating sexuality, denying responsibility, and revealing the locus of corruption, not in the marginalized folk and their nature, but in the very heart of authority's sacred constructs. This laughter is the sure manifestation of the trickster. It is fully and pervasively evident in the tales and anecdotes related by the folk in Castle. For every repressive statement made by authority, there is a counterstatement made by the folk, inverting, parodying, punning, and generally laying bare the hollow sham at the core of all authoritarian assumption. Far from being digressions, the “interpolated” tales are crucial to an Anancy-reading of this novel.
A fine example is the story of Jon. Western authoritarian standards enter Jon's life when he runs into the “free-for-all Brethren.” Deliciously misinterpreting this nomenclature, he freely takes Brother Bannister's daughter for himself and impregnates the girl. Required by the good church man (at gun point) to marry the young lady, lest shame come on both church and Brother Bannister himself, Jon is faced with the problem of Susie, the mother of his children. Jon's solution is to agree to marry both girls, but on the appointed day he sits in a tree in the church yard, choosing neither, while the two congregations wait in vain.
A sympathetic reading might at best see here a disruption of rural mores by an intrusive moral code, while a harsher view might find in Jon's sexual behavior an irresponsibility matched only by his helpless vacillation before the need for mature decision-making. There is, however, a key to an alternative “reading”—the three times repeated “like a feather in the wind” which links with the “cock-of-the-yard” motif running through the novel. Jon finds himself outside of structure, threatened on one hand by Brother Bannister with his gun representing European values, and on the other by Susie with her bottle of arsenic representing the folk institution. “Poor Jon was betwix' the devil an' the deep blue sea,” Trumper comments. But Jon evades castration. Refusing to shift from his ambiguous position, he assumes the role of trickster, facing both ways at once and making ambiguity his strength. Symbolically positioning himself up a tree in the cemetery—suspended between heaven and earth, life and death—he waits, Anancy-like, for the hater of contradictions to contradict himself: “He stay there quiet as a mouse an' he see all the commotion, an' he hear all what they sayin' 'bout where he wus, an' he just look an' listen” (125). And his wait is rewarded as the priest and Brother Bannister reveal, in their angry interchange, a great deal that they would have preferred to have kept hidden. Trumper captures the glee of the trickster in his words: “I never know there wus so much to tell 'bout the clergy, an' only 'God in heaven knows if it's all true, but we here in this earth can only hope it ain't true, the things I hear about the clergy” (125). From his liminal position, Jon—trickster-god of the market place—provokes an “exchange” that frees him from the power of assumed authority, exposing the sacred premises of a dominant, repressive culture to re-examination, if not ridicule, while skillfully evading all responsibility himself (a denial of responsibility duplicated in the narrative strategy of using the child-mask of Trumper to recount the tale). The triumph of the trickster's phallus is exuberantly celebrated by Trumper: “Some say this, an' some say that, but no matter what some say or not say, everybody started to refer to Jon as the cock in the yard. An' some say cocks wus gettin' scarce. What a scandal it wus, an' I hear things about cocks I never hear in all my born days. 'Twus a hell of a mix-up, an' I hope never to hear of such a thing again” (124).
Another tale about “cocks” is related by Miss Foster; it is the incident of Gordon's “mannishness” in attempting to enter the white man's world of economics by selling a fowl cock (and ah how intentional is the pun!) to a white man standing at the bus stop. Trickster, of course, is god of exchange, and we can expect to find his antics here. As Gordon turns the fowl around for inspection, the expected happens: the bird messes in the man's face. Gleefully the boys relate to an investigating police officer how the man fled because he had “messed his pants,” while children around immortalize the incident with a song, “look what fowlcock do to you.” Folk tale joins here with calypso tradition to expose and humiliate the oppressor.
Responsibility for the incident lies, of course, with the fowl-cock, not with Gordon.9 Wearing a mask of childlike innocence, he initiates an “exchange” that will expose the “shame” of the authority figure—the white man, who throws coins for the boys to dive for, hands out pennies on public occasions, but denies economic independence to the folk he exploits. Any liaison with the landlord's daughter would, after all, constitute a “rape” of the privileged class.
And so, despite repression and attempted castration, the phallus of the Trickster is omnipresent. Outside the margins of history, Trickster reassembles his fragmented phallus; he draws together meaningless threads of experience, and so creates himself anew—weaving not only a web of meaning, but a mesh in which he ensnares his prey. Trumper describes his own experience of such a creative moment:
I wus sittin' under the cellar at home, I don't remember why I went under the cellar, p'raps I wus searching for eggs. But anyway, I wus there, under the cellar, an' it seem I wus all by myself there, under the cellar, jus' looking at the dust and dirt an' rubbish under the cellar.
The whole world, so an African creation myth tells us, was born from an egg. It is under the cellar, amidst the rubbish and dirt swept outside the house of structured premises, that Trumper begins the process of creating his world anew.
In the same way as Trumper, G salvages his life from the “rubbish” that is excluded from Eurocentric perceptual framing. Looking at his diaries, he realizes that, like the “cargo of episodes” on the scuttled ship of his family past, the records of his own past are destined to be “put away on the shelf and … never heard of again except someone rescues them from the garbage” (258). That is, unless they are “re-read” and “revised” as they are in the novel itself. The written word, as Derrida points out, is infinitely iterable, renewing its life constantly through repeated recontextualizations that are independent of the author, indeed that are premised on his absence. For the author is indeed “absent.” He is neither the G within the text, nor the G who narrates, but someone else, somewhere else. Thus the notion of exile creates ever-widening ripples of signification. The Anancy-artist, then, escapes oblivion by means of his thread—the narrative thread spun from his own historical being. He draws that single spun thread, though, into a multiplicity of relationships and configurations to reveal his divining powers—his ability to search between events for the meaning that lies in the interstices. The novel's discussion of “getting into history” is, thus, resolved in the act of artistic creation.
All attempts at climbing into history ultimately fail. Man does not define himself by epic heroism, for the big fisherman on the beach is a man only when he ceases to be godlike. Nor is a man made by his actions, since “stoning” either headmaster or landlord results only in the replacement of one authority by another. Assuming the responsibility of choice, too, is meaningless in a society that does not offer valid choices. Self-definition, as Lamming describes it, is not measured by material gain, and, indeed, it is not achieved in time. It consists, instead, in reflection, in stepping outside time into inner spaces of the imagination where fragmentary threads are woven into a relational web.
One aspect of the trickster remains to be discussed—his handling of “dung” which he converts into “medicine” for the tribe. On the way home from a farewell party held in honor of his departure for Trinidad, G is intercepted by a prostitute. At the party he had been “cock of the yard”; now he has the opportunity to “prove” his manhood in the time-honored way. But he chooses instead to tell the girl a story. The tale in full reads as follows:
When I was a little boy I knew another little boy who was in the habit of accumulating birds' shit. When he got the right quantity he cut a stick and painted it with the birds' shit. He hid the stick till it was dark, and when he went out, unseen and hardly seeing, he would make conversation with another boy. Then he would ask the boy to hold the stick, and when the boy held he pulled the stick through the clenched fingers, and the paint came off in a solid little pile on the other's hand.
The boy in the story epitomizes the impulse to project one's darkness onto another, to use another's humiliation and shame to prove one's own manhood. Unwittingly the prostitute is acquiescing in this process, allowing her body to become a “hide of darkness” (to use Brathwaite's phrase) for another's guilt. G refuses to win “manhood” so cheaply.
Like the boy, the trickster-artist takes the accumulated “shit”—the shame of the folk—and (like G who appropriates his childhood acquaintance's scatology for his own storied didacticism) converts it, through the ritual of his text, into “medicine.” Healing is made possible through his exposure of the process by which human beings, black and white alike, project their own shame onto others and refuse to confront their inner darkness. The discovery that the shameful, defiling “shit” is, in reality, the “blackest evidence” of another's denial of conscience, gives wisdom and power, as Trumper has realized.
Manhood—maturity—is attained, not through sexual conquest, but through mastery of the word as a vehicle for both critical self-discovery and the existential projection of that self onto the landscape. By means of the narrative act, G and his creator escape the colonization of being held in the perceptual landscape of an exploitative Other, and break into the freedom of writing themselves into the landscape.
Writing, Jean-Paul Sartre has suggested, is a dialectic, “a pact of generosity between author and reader,”10 in which the writer and reader collaborate for their mutual freedom. The creative writer presents his reader with a landscaped perceptual world within which the reader freely roams, reconstructing that landscape according to his personal vision. When Lamming permits G to substitute story-telling for sexual exploitation, he sets up a paradigmatic alternative to all forms of exploitation. For the freedom of essential being enjoyed by both reader and writer in the unimpassioned narrative act is the complete antithesis of acts of exploitation and colonization—whether literal or metaphorical.
For Lamming has entered the carnivalesque world of Anancy—the Trickster of the margins. His task as creative West Indian writer is to mount a perpetual assault on the word of assumed Eurocentric authority, to resist any and every world view that colonizes him and to assert, in place of the sacred “shrines” of Western cultural imperialism, an ongoing narrative activity that invites us to step outside the “given” into a limbo where imaginative new connections can be made, and where acts of reconstituting reality hold infinite possibility. The rhythm of this novel—its dialectical movement between chronological event and moments of laughter-filled story-telling—implies the need that society has for carnival. Not, perhaps, the costume-band variety, but all those carnivalesque moments when the group steps outside the metaphors in which it is contained and not only discovers new ways of seeing itself, but grasps the pen and inscribes that new self-image on the landscape. So that the self in the castle of my skin can at last be defined from within—not confined and colonized within the perceptual landscape of the Other.
Literature on the Trickster includes: Barbara Babcock-Abrahams, “‘A Tolerated Margin of Mess’: The Trickster and his Tales Reconsidered,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 11 (1975); Norman O. Brown, Hermes the Thief: the Evolution of a Myth (New York: Random House, 1969); Laura Makarius, “Ritual Clowns and Symbolic Behavior,” Diogenes 69 (1970): 44–73; Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight (Berkeley: U of California P, 1980); Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1956); Barre Toelken, “The ‘Pretty Language’ of Yellowman: Genre Mode and Texture in Navaho Coyote Narratives,” Genre 2.3 (1969); Victor W. Turner, “Myth and Symbol,” in International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan, 1968); and Joan Wescott, “The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu Elegba, the Yoruba Trickster,” Africa 32 (1962).
See, for instance, his “History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and the Guianas,” in Anagogic Qualities of Literature, ed. Joseph Strelka (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1971).
George Lamming, In the Castle of My Skin (London: Longman Caribbean Ltd., 1970). All subsequent references are to this edition.
Ian Munro and Reinhard Sander, eds., Kas-Kas: Interviews with Three Caribbean Writers in Texas (Austin: U of Texas, 1972), 45.
James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son,” Notes of a Native Son (London: Corgi, 1965), 94.
Jean Piaget, The Child and Reality (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1973), 10.
Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Daedelus 15 (1972): 1–38. In examining the elaborate system of conventions observed in cockfights among the Balinese people Clifford Geertz comes to the conclusion that the cockfight provides metasocial commentary, and that its function is interpretative: “it is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience, a story they tell themselves about themselves.” It is interesting to note, too, in connection with Gordon's story, that Trickster's genitals may act independently. In Radin's account, mischief is done by Wakdjunkaga's ambulatory genitals, while the Trickster himself remains at home. Narrators of Anancy stories customarily conclude with a disclaimer, exonerating themselves from any blame that might attach to their social commentary.
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Why Write?,” in What is Literature?, translated by Bernard Frechtman (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5501
SOURCE: “The Strains of Apocalypse: Lamming's Castle and Brodber's Jane and Louisa,” in Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 28-40.
[In the following essay, Cooke studies the effect gender has on the tone of a “coming of age” novel written by a Caribbean writer. In the Castle of My Skin is written from the male standpoint, whereas Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home is written from the female point of view.]
George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin is self-consciously built around three apocalyptic scenes: the opening flood; the prolonged episode of the heroic fisherman at the “other side” of the island, beyond the lighthouse and the pivotal “needle” of land; and the closing demolition of the village houses on land from which a secret expulsion has been arranged. The first house to come down is that of the shoemaker whose study of things and concern with principles proves of no avail. As the demolition begins, Pa recalls the flood while the narrator recalls the scene and the episode on the “other side.” Thus we experience a congregation of the three scenes of apocalypse which take on an overwhelming force.
It is tempting to treat them as progressive and decisive for the novel. They go from natural (the flood) to personal (the fisherman) to social (the evictions), and they reveal in turn (a) the total helplessness of humankind, (b) the fact of loneliness, the possibility of success, and the need for independence, and (c) the possibility of a new social identity, a new philosophy, and a new power of concerted action.
Put another way, the three scenes of apocalypse give increasing play for the will, the discovery of thought, and the efficacy of action. The flood allows for little will, and that little is comic: “Foster swear he won't leave the old house, and went sailing down the river on the roof.”1 The fisherman episode is full of will and thought and action, but it is all random, from Bob's re-enactment of the legend of King Canute to Boy Blue's rescue and on to the disconcerting notion the boys share of
a thing [that] go off in yuh head pop pop, an' you's a different man. You ain't the same sort of person you wus, an' the next thing you hear, you ain't the same sort of person everybody is. … Though it sort of frighten me … I'd like to see … everybody get that big bad feeling that he different from everybody else, an' nobody don't know what to do, 'cause you don't know what the other fellow would do. …
The groping will and thought and action of the fisherman episode come into focus and take on a sense of mission in the demolition scene. Here the condition of being alone and having no secure footing stems from ignorance and victimization. These can be fought against and G and Trumper, in education and in politics, seem at least poised to begin the fight.
But even while the word “revelation” chimes through the closing pages of Castle (see pp. 289, 307, 308), along with talk of “another world infinitely more vast” and a way “to be a different kind of creature” (pp. 305, 307, 308), there are signs of deep-seated resistance to any genuine breakthrough in G as a character, and in the very design and style of the novel. Indeed, In the Castle of My Skin appears fairly typical in this ambivalence, for while a certain impulse toward apocalypse occurs widely in English Caribbean literature, there is also a strain of resistance to it.2 Thus, it will be of use to put Lamming's Castle, the consummate text of growing up male in the Caribbean, side by side with Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home3 the consummate text of growing up female in the Caribbean, to study the dimensions of apocalypse, and its strains, in our literature.
Whatever conviction the main trifoliate pattern of apocalypse might inspire in Castle is weakened by the fact that the ordinary action is pitched so high, so close to hysteria and the sense of ultimate things. The novel is steeped in a crisis mentality compounded of Biblical tradition, parental excitability, and social portentousness. In Selvon's hands, the fight between Sheila and Baby Parker would have been both hilarious and interwoven with the rest of the action; in Castle, it comes as a wild and alarming eruption. It is another sign of a sheer capacity for extremism, and thus without a point or connection or measuring stick.
By the same token, the story of Jon up a tree in a graveyard between the churches where Jen and Susie are each waiting to marry him is at least as painful as it is funny, because the graveyard remains an ominous but undigested detail. The story is flirting with another extremism. This literal version of the metaphor “up a tree” is fetching enough, but the graveyard wants to go away from the literal, into ghost-story or death-wish or black comedy. No wonder that the “laughter”4 it occasions “was lost in the wash of the waves.” The laughter is too small for its environment, or the story in its portentousness too large for the boys. But the boys are only unconsciously chiming with an environment where grotesque magnifications abound.5
Three boys sneak in to catch sight of a posh party and almost catch the landlord's daughter at some sexual play; and the next thing you know the whole village believes the boys had come to rape her, and the landlord is contemplating pulling up stakes in view of such flagrant disrespect. This kind of sub-apocalyptic spin on the event, contributing neither to the boys' intellectual/moral development, nor to the substance of the action, manifests itself again in the Bambi story, in the Riot story, and in the story of the misdirected letter: “Something big, something that undermined the roots of life.” (p. 63)
It seems quite another matter, though, when the order of apocalypse arises out of the innocent need of G and his boyhood friends. As he first enters upon the unfrequented beach on “the other side,” G remembers his mother's voice, in a scene where she is chastising him, as having the quality of “an unexpected resurrection” (p. 111). In counterpoise, when the fisherman rescues Bob, it is a resurrection with an unexpected chastisement. And it is a resurrection because the fisherman has been divinized as the father-figure to end all father-figures in a universe lacking in adequate fathers, or fathers at all:
You might have liked to have a look at his face, but not for him to know. … He could kill another man if he wanted to do so, and he could save a man from death if he wanted to do so. … He was stronger than all of us put together. Perhaps he was stronger than all the village. It made no difference. He was only big and strong. … He was like one of us. … A man.
(pp. 149, 154)
But where everything borders on apocalypse, where it becomes an article in the neighbourhood, the mere fall of a fence would produce apocalypse; whereas Castle shows that the fall of fences and of woods only makes for uninterrupted vision of very little.
The would-be-apocalypse of the everyday in Castle is in keeping with a pattern of spectatorhood. The novel cites “poverty,” “adventure,” and “boredom” as key motivations for whatever happens, and whatever happens becomes almost evidence rather than genuine event. Things in Castle tend to be rather seen (or else protected from sight)6 than fully incorporated into the system of conduct and belief. Indeed, spectatorhood verges on voyeurism, even with the opening episode of the boy being bathed outdoors; and its counterpart, concealment, seems to be practised at times gratuitously, as by Bob in the King Canute scene, and by the fisherman on the “other side” of the island.
The question of spectatorhood and concealment takes on peculiar interest in relation to G, the narrator who takes such a spectatorial attitude toward the life of the village. He presents us with set pieces about the difference between village and high school, or about the perennial sameness or “pattern” of life in the village (pp. 16–17); in his view, “the pattern has absorbed them” (p. 25). We have to be curious about his position as analyst. It is he who conceals from us the machinations and motives of Mr Slime's economic and political triumphs. It is he who has Pa provide the last controlling word about Slime. Above all, it is he who shifts the text from an apocalyptic to an elegiac focus. He starts this early: “I knew that somewhere in my heart, already riddled with fear, ambition and envy, there was a storage of love for the sprawling dereliction of that life” (p. 228). That “dereliction” is already preparing us to tolerate the demolition of the village houses, just as the head teacher's lost coins prepare us for the narrator's lost pebble that signifies the villagers' life. The narrator takes us wholly away from resentment and the revolution of principle and feeling Trumper advocates, with the concluding appeal to “remember Pa, 'cause you won't ever see him again” (p. 312).
“The earth where I walked,” he intones, “was a marvel of blackness, and I knew in a sense more deep than simple departure I had said farewell, farewell to the land” (p. 318). If that “marvel of blackness” suggests an apocalypse void of content, then that redoubled “farewell” indicates no likelihood of pursuing any content. The novel arrives at apocalyptic possibilities in the socio-political sphere that G, its central consciousness, does not properly grasp. G has nowhere to “walk” in the marvel of blackness, no action or direction except what resides in a slightly bilious nostalgia: “I had said farewell” to “a storage of love for the sprawling dereliction of that life.”
Some might be quick to say the “dereliction” is the narrator's, cleverly transferred onto the outer scene, but the Caribbean imagination has proven slow to heal the rift, embodied in G, between the unfolding intellect in the self and an enfolding love of “that life,” or between a mastery of words and a concrete engagement with what the very words collect and imply. Lamming himself has declared that “the West Indian novel … has restored the West Indian peasant to his true and original status of personality,”7 but this seems at best an equivocation.
It is not the status of personality but the status of status and of something even less static, the status of aspiration and worthy empowerment that Lamming's own Castle (1953), The Emigrants (1954), and Season of Adventure (1960) are all exploring in vain. The prescription for success offered at the end of Season of Adventure remains an idle one because it is so cryptic and tenuous: “to find a language which was no less immediate than the language of the drums.”8 This summons does not tie language to the basic life and dreams of the Caribbean. Instead, it declares the absence of such a tie (except for the emotionality of the drums), and it does so by the very emphasis it puts on language.9
The disjunction between language and “that life” appears all the more sharply as the determination to heal it grows stronger in West Indian literature. In Neville Dawes's Interim, a particular, all-embracing political consciousness is reduced to a state of suspension. In Selvon's “Basement Lullaby,” a potential political consciousness remains locked away, and Selvon himself declares the practical and spiritual difficulty of making words do any particular work: “Often, it was as if I had never spoken, I heard my words echo in deep caverns of thought, as if they hung about like cigarette smoke in a still room, missionless.”10
This amounts to an environment of trapped and milling political and linguistic concern, in which, as Lamming has it, “the command of language” means an avoidance of even the reality of one's own experience: “you don't have to feel at all. You could do away with feeling. That's why everybody wanted to be educated. You didn't have to feel” (Castle, p. 155).
In such an environment, Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980) comes as a breakthrough because, in the female—i.e., typically circumscribed—person (“boys could go outside”), it dramatizes the release of Caribbean language from the interment of feeling, Caribbean feeling, from rejection and Caribbean politics from dogmatism or fatalism.
Brodber recapitulates much of the content of Castle: song tags, a social hierarchy, the segregationist privilege of education, social hardship and upheaval, and even the sense of sex as physical nastiness or immobile mystery. But Brodber's protagonist is ceaselessly involved, inquisitive about meanings and connections, unlike Lamming's young hero who is so often distant. Brodber's world, like Lamming's, is full of secrets, but in hers secrets will out: “Nancy kill Tumbletud oh” (p. 38).
Lamming's novel records the male Caribbean story in the house, in the yard, on the street, in school, in the community, in nature, history and vision. It records the transition from a passive, superficially accommodated colonialism to a pre-active pre-independence, from British colonial composure to Caribbean post-colonial challenge. But it remains a record, in “storage,” embalmed. Brodber's novel breathes and embodies the female Caribbean story less systematically, but no less completely, not as memory or knowledge, but as life. The essence of Nellie's power resides not in what she knows, but in what she becomes, in the fact that she so fully, so painfully belongs, as G never does.
The difference between Lamming and Brodber can be represented by signs great and small. For example, America, which is rumour for Lamming, is reality for Brodber. In Brodber, traditional wisdom and individual conviction collide with experience and all are tested, revised, and reviewed. Lamming adopts an aloof descriptive stance with a marked explanatory vein11 which, in the standard narration as well as in the embedded dialogue, shows a confident naïveté that could turn nostalgia toward irony or patronage.
Thus, while the explanation of the head teacher's victimizing the boy who asks “if the queen's bloomers was red, white and blue” seems valid, the dialogue of the boy's resentful classmates about “making hist'ry” or about “the law” governing teachers' conduct or about other qualities of parents gives information without impetus to the action (p. 35 ff). The scene is emotionally charged and at the same time politically inert, so that we are in awe of Lamming's deployment of so much socio-political “stuff” in the scene, and still left in suspense about its impact for social or personal development.
Lamming is superbly retrieving from “storage” the milling details of his early world, as a kind of preface to socio-political change. But none of the characters within the frame seems equipped or inclined to enact that “hist'ry.” It is going abroad that makes Trumper an activist, and even the all-remembering G seems slow on the uptake to his message. In keeping with the lack of any concerted thrust, the men in a mood to punish Creighton fail to act and they fail to reflect on their impulse so as to make it a stimulus to any larger corrective action.
Pointing out the dissipation of the revolutionary socio-political energy that the text gives rise to must not be taken as any dispraise of Castle. Lamming's achievement is stunning. He magically pulls out of the hat, with formidable structural and verbal gifts, an intricately thorough image of the real terms of life in that time. That was in itself revolutionary. And it may be said in his defense that even today full-fledged revolution against the landlord on the hill is not a feature of our literature. Neither Neville Dawes's Interim nor Earl Lovelace's The Dragon Can't Dance does more than signal toward the path of revolution. The striking thing about Brodber, in this light, is that she points to a need for a prior revolution in the self.
This prior spiritual revolution is what Lamming does not engage with. Even Trumper is adopting, rather than inwardly achieving, a posture of revolution. If there is a temptation to think that masculinity helps to account for Trumper's posture, there is also a need to see that masculinity causes G to take a position of reserve and spectatorhood regarding the village. The society of the 1950s still favoured the boy over the girl, as well as the paler over the darker. G has both these advantages, and when his prowess at school is factored in, it becomes clear that he is taken up into, in fact taken in as a success by the society whose dangers and distortions he recognizes. Maleness makes him, and somewhat hems him in.
By the same token, Brodber's Nellie Richmond cannot count even on the signs of her success; she remains a woman, implicitly disparaged and vulnerable to disgrace in a flash, by reason of rape or pregnancy: “what an abominable scrap heap thing is this thing womb” (p. 143). Writing for the 1980s, Brodber is dealing with a society much changed from that of Castle: independence has come to the English Caribbean islands, and federation has been essayed, and travel and education are as common for women as for men. It is Brodber's genius as a woman not to wed herself to such success, but to press on for the roots of performance in her own being and in the community. Thus, while Nellie ends reaching for community, G leaves it, consigning it to things he will not see again.
If we take custom to be what we collectively do and continue to do in a fairly thoughtless, self-encased way; and if we take tradition to be what we do with intention, energy, relationship and change, then we can say Lamming gives us more custom than tradition in the Caribbean of the 1950s. As Lamming puts it: “Three, Thirteen, Thirty. It does not matter. They come and go to perpetuate the custom of this world” (Castle, p. 25) By contrast, Brodber offers more tradition than custom in the Caribbean of the 1980s.
We need to note one special thing about tradition: as gesture and concept, it implies a risky reach involving two hands, or two prepositions. What gets passed on is passed on from one hand to another hand, and between “from” and “to” much that is unpredictable can happen. The two hands are not the same, in strength, in dexterity, in desire, in need, in content. The thing passed on takes on a certain vulnerability—it may slip, or be held awry, or used amiss, or come impaired.
All this holds true in groups and societies of impeccable consistency, in what we might even call homogeneous frames.12 How much more precious must be the state of tradition in the West Indies, essentially made up of imported societies according to principles imposed or invented to meet a practical socio-economic need, not a communal purpose. The West Indies today represent the aftermath of four “interrelated and sometimes overlapping orientations,”13 to use Kamau Brathwaite's resonant phrase: the European, the African, the Indian, and the Chinese, unevenly thrown together, and with the trauma of dismembered limbs. The shape may be correct, but the vital connections are severed. Not re-sewing, but Brathwaite's interculturation must occur, with this proviso: that interculturation has a chronology to deal with, and not just a variety of geographical origins. For Brodber, as Joyce Walker-Johnson makes tellingly clear,14 our past functions really as our pasts, the involved forms and freights we grow up with as West Indians.
It is not by accident that Brodber and Lamming write about childhood and a kind of self-development in the world. Tradition always puts a heavy burden of expectation and sustenance on children, but a tradition in the very process of forming, as in the West Indies, leaves everything in wild conglomeration for the children to pick up and order and shape. Thus both a bewilderment and an exhilaration of opportunity appears in the West Indies. That is why the protagonist in Lamming's novel lives in the instant cliché of his skin as castle. G in sequence looks to Mr Creighton (cretin) and to Slime for substance and leadership; they decay and betray.
In Castle's most striking and most mythic scene, the boys are in danger from rough seas, and one has to be saved by a fisherman. This saviour figure, mythic to the boys, is in an everyday guise lashed by material need. He saves, then lashes out at them for drawing him away from his work. The rescue thus refuses to be symbolic, though the fisherman remains so; it is a spontaneous gesture preventing an accident, and will not become part of any understanding or value, no matter how much the language tries to infuse the episode with (a) heroism in describing the fisherman, (b) infinite promise in making a “diamond” of both the morning star and the shape the boys stand in on the beach, and (c) mystery in calling the episode one that shuts out all that pertains to Slime and “the politics” (p. 160). The scene reaches for greatness and permanence and sinks back into adventure.
When tradition is always adventure, it cannot properly become itself. When it hardens into mechanical custom, it cannot remain itself. The genius of Erna Brodber is to take the hardened custom and display it as a temporary shell, and to take the flow of adventure and show its capacity for crystallization.
The two works are complementary, but Brodber is not just catching up on the female side after more than a quarter century of a masculine head-start. She advances beyond Lamming's vision and range, advances the English West Indian story well beyond Lamming's tentative and sidelong concern with the “wide, wide world,” and his slightly baffled sense of his own. This she does because she also goes back deeper and farther into the commonplaces of our experience. Who would have guessed, singing and dancing “Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home,” that it condensed so much, and resonated so far? As O.R. Dathorne has noted, “the subjects [of children's play songs] are trivial and amusing; these are perhaps the two main qualities that assured their survival.”15
Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home takes its title from a common children's song, the basis of a ring dance performed some evenings by little boys and girls in the yard or at the beach, anywhere outdoors, usually with adults helping out. Brodber takes the words and makes them into social commentary, then into talismans, then into mythic concentrations of the whole complex of Caribbean experience: childhood, city and country, the extended family, social mores and biases, sexual emergencies, political structures, and travel and study abroad (with all that these entail of culture shock and culture clarification and culture enlargement and culture reaffirmation).
Three special manoeuvres contribute to this effect. First, Brodber brings the action within, into the mind and experience of her protagonist. The place called “storage” in Lamming is the innermost gut and mind in Brodber. To illustrate: in the children's song, the garden is promised and untroubled (“will soon come home, into this beautiful garden”). It is courtly and, if sexual, very delicate and preliminary and oblique (“waltz with you, pick a rose”). In the novel, the garden is besieged and defensive, its sexuality still oblique but fierce, menacing (as in the imagery of the Blue Hole). The island of Jamaica becomes a version of the garden, made up of “mossy coverts, dim and cool,” and the speaker's brain becomes a covert, garden-like space, with its “brick” that is too cool, needing the sun to penetrate and melt it (p. 20). It is not hard to contrast this dynamic with Lamming's description of the landlord's house as “a castle around which the land like a shabby back garden stretched” (p. 21).
The text is replete with images of enclosure, refining, revising, compounding, enriching one another and the mind of the central speaker. We find enclosure as imprisonment (“I was being choked. … I needed out” [p. 70]), and as potential site of germination and growth (“immaculate egg” [p. 70], and the image of menstruation as a thing in its own space).
The kumbla is the ultimate image of enclosure in Jane and Louisa, and it is used with structural brilliance to resolve the contradictions and anxieties of the garden—the claustrophobia and paranoia and disgrace (since menstruation raises the danger of sexual capture and pregnancy, with its terminal confinement). The kumbla is the space of the self and space for the self, and is as versatile in form as our needs may be various: beachball, eggshell, light bulb, calabash, shell, parachute, womb, and, of course, the omnipresent ring of the title song. Where the garden gives space, the kumbla goes one better by giving both space and time—its only requirement is that one not stay in it too long, for fear of turning albino from lack of sun. The kumbla is the space-time for an apocalypse that is not yonder and happenstance in character, but the sum and product of experience that is illumined in our embrace.
The proliferation of images around the garden, and about the kumbla, leads to the second key Brodber technique for packing Jane and Louisa's children's-song garden. She is endlessly allusive and analogical. Thus the custom of the song becomes the vehicle for exploring unstated quasi-traditions (banana leaves dance like rag effigies of politicians), and the exploration becomes an adventure in composing, literally putting together, the shape and freight of Caribbean life. The raw material for forming conscious relationship and choice, which amounts to the beginning of tradition, occurs as the image of the spying glass:
You see red, you see green, you see purple flowers. Shake it and get hibiscus, shake it again and you get roses. People say it is the crystals that form flowers. Well I am flowers too. I am home to find myself in this changing emerging mass of crystals.
Here is the spectator getting into the action as object of the gaze, and then arising reformed as full participant in the “changing, emerging” action. Here is the classic formulation of tradition as adventure, where external forms and individual character meet, and where form is always implicit but never rigid or dictatorial. As Brodber says, “no paths lay before us. We would have to make them” (p. 146). Moreover, the person who must make the path must first be put together, hand and foot (pp. 146–147). The novel recovers many routines and rigid designs in familial, social and political dealings, but its basic energy goes toward recovering, and eventually escaping, from routine.
The third Brodber technique for capturing the innermost reaches of an idle children's song involves the remaking of the female role in the very edifice of language. What others try to cover over with language—let us recall Lamming's anaesthetic definition of “educated use”—Brodber insists on naming plain, and she does it with wicked irony: “the pee-pee chin tree in dem front yard, it don't name so no more. Is spathodia, if you please” (p. 40). Her men and women stand in the kitchen “staring past each other. Waiting. Perhaps for a language.” And men sit at a bar “staring in the direction of the road. Wordlessly … waiting. Waiting for what? Perhaps for their women” (p. 41). If the women they are waiting for are all around them, perhaps the language is all around too, to recognize and to use. But instead of recognition and use, there is the double tableau of kitchen and bar, and silence besets the characters in the novel because of various looming customs.
But Brodber has one pivotal scene where the customary silence is broken and the female speaker explodes with expletives. This gives her the full diapason of national modern speech, unprecedented for a woman. It is a moment of some discomfort for Nellie: “Am I a fishwife?” (p. 71). It works, though, because it is logical, just, and expert. She has been manipulated and provoked. She could remain proper, but not if she is to become herself. She has used Barry's slang term, “bull shit,” and apologized for it (p. 50). Now she uses her own curse words, with no apology. To curse can be proper for anyone not the mere property of custom.
Whether in vernacular rage or in sophisticated excavations of a children's song, Brodber enters into fresh territory for growing up, for adventure, and for tradition in the West Indies. What had never been dared or imagined stands suddenly integrated into the cultural scheme. The novel ends with an image of a complexly metamorphosed pregnancy, where the woman's belly is a goldfish bowl, and the child a parrot fish that “no amount of bearing down could give birth to” (p. 147). That the “bearing down”16 cannot be completed is true to tradition and its adventure, and so no wonder: “I felt neither sadness nor frustration” (p. 147). Besides, by the recurrent imagery of the spying-glass and of the fowl brooding its eggs in December, Brodber makes it clear that, beyond the customary (the spying-glass) and through it a new life of the understanding may be reached. For the thing seen is not just a momentarily fetching object but also a subject that grows within us (the egg), even in the least favourable season (December). She does so without exaggerating the power of Brathwaite's great traditions (the sun is weak). Under our edifices, under our very bodies, a new state of being emerges.
This looks close to what the West Indian situation demands, with so much flung together and altogether unclear. But this is also what the West Indian situation still rarely gets. A V. S. Naipaul may claim that “in West Indian towns history seems dead, irrelevant. Perhaps it is because the past is so unimaginable; perhaps it is the light; perhaps it is because so much is makeshift and new and the squalor so wholly contemporary.”17 But a writer like Brodber brings out of “storage” into new light and new life what Wilson Harris has called, in Tradition, the Writer, and Society, “a profound and difficult vision of essential unity within the most bitter forms of latent and active historical diversity.” Such a vision we may call a writer's adventure as surrogate, bearing the strains of that apocalypse which opens unto the true potentiality of emergent tradition in and of the society. This is what lies behind Brodber's shift from the lonely “I” of G in the fifties to the indefinite plural of the last words in Jane and Louisa: “We are getting ready.”
In the Castle of My Skin, with an introduction by Richard Wright (New York: McGraw Hill, 1955), p. 5.
In Naipaul, Walcott and Mittelholzer, for example.
Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (London: New Beacon Books, 1980).
The graveyard and the tree come back together in the shooting down of Po King during the riot scene (p. 192 ff, see especially p. 201). If anything, the confusion and pathos of the scene reflect discredit on the laughter here.
It is also a world of grotesque substitutions. The copulating frogs substitute not only for a rock the boys are seeking on the ground, but also for the sexuality the text is uneasily displacing or, as in the late episode between G and the prostitutes, evasively replacing with words (p. 267).
“The eye of another,” Lamming writes in Castle, “was a kind of cage” (p. 69). This fear of being seen in Caribbean literature is nowhere sharper or more mysterious than in Wilson Harris's The Far Journey of Oudin (London: Faber, 1961), p. 91.
The Pleasures of Exile (London: Michael Joseph, 1960), p. 39.
Season of Adventure (London: Allison & Busby, 1979), p. 363.
This emphasis is widespread. The politician Baako undertakes to “try to find a language which might explain that the magic of medical science was no less real than the previous magic of prayer” (Season, p. 363).
“My Girl and the City,” in Ways of Sunlight (Longman, 1985), p. 169.
This explanatory vein goes hand in hand with the spectatorhood of the text, and can get into disturbing reaches. In one case Lamming invokes a shaft of sunlight to explain the tears that come to the mother's eyes (p. 112) in a great fit of laughter (but the tears would do so in full dark). He seems to be laughing at the mother and her warnings about Trinidad (pp. 286–287). Indeed, ambivalent laughter runs through the late treatment of the mother in Castle.
See Edward Albert Shils, Tradition (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1981).
Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean (Mona, Jamaica: Savacou Publications, 1974), p. 25.
“Autobiography, History and the Novel: Erna Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home,” JWIL 3.1 (1989), pp. 47–59.
“Toward Synthesis in the New World: Caribbean Literature in English,” in William Luis, ed., Voices From Under (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984), p. 102.
“Bearing down” is a phrase for tradition: trying one's hardest (bear down) to bring into being (bear) for those to follow (down, as for generations).
The Middle Passage (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 132.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4158
SOURCE: “George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin: Finding Promise in the Land,” in Ariel, Vol. 22, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 43-53.
[In the following essay, ten Kortenaar discusses his displeasure with In the Castle of My Skin, finding fault with Lamming's wordiness, insufficient character development, and lack of plot cohesiveness.]
Sandra Pouchet Paquet in her authoritative book on the novels of George Lamming analyzes In the Castle of My Skin as a sociological and political study of Barbados. She finds that the narrative reproduces the historical process whereby a feudal mercantilist economy gave way to a capitalist market economy. But in treating the novel as a sociological study, Pouchet Paquet ignores what is distinctive about the book: its ungainly style and its erratic narrative, aspects that longtime students of Caribbean literature no longer see but every undergraduate coming to In the Castle of My Skin for the first time notices.
The novel occupies a special place in the hearts of many early West Indian readers for whom it represents that greatest of miracles: the naming in literature of what had previously gone unnamed. In it, they saw their own experience given the dignity of literature for the first time. But a younger generation with access to a large and flourishing West Indian literature often compares Lamming's novel unfavourably with other, later texts. However, Lamming's pioneer work deserves to be studied and not with the condescension accorded lesser writers. Lamming's bulgy, ungainly style is not the work of an apprentice; it reveals the travail that gave birth to something new. This formless novel, raw in feel, is an ideal locus for studying the struggle that went into expressing the inchoate, into conceiving the hitherto unimagined.
The narrative that Pouchet Paquet identifies, the progress from a feudal to a capitalist economy, is evident only to the reader who has finished the book. But for the reader still reading, still not finished, the direction of the narrative is by no means clear. The text abjures all narrative hooks, all novelistic techniques that arouse the reader's interest in what happens next. The reader is not allowed to get interested in the personal story of any of the characters; rather, as soon as the reader's interest is piqued, the scene shifts and the characters he has met are dropped.
The text refuses to satisfy our traditional expectations of the narrative: the pleasurable build up and release of tension. There is something that can be identified as a beginning (the flood that marks the narrator's ninth birthday) and there is an end (the moment when the narrator at age eighteen makes ready to leave the island) but there is a puzzling lack of direction in the middle. The flood with which the book opens would in another book have been the climax, the moment when the waters of narrative tension, fed by swollen streams of unresolved conflict and torrents of water imagery, would burst through the restraining walls in a violent, cathartic release of emotion. Such a climax would overflow with significance and the reader would think of death and rebirth and baptism and regeneration, of The Mill on the Floss and The Virgin and the Gypsy. But Lamming puts this scene at the beginning of his novel when there are as yet no expectations demanding to be fulfilled and no pattern of imagery promising significance.
One episode that does produce narrative tension is the violent riot in town. The violence is reported to be coming to Creighton's Village; the villagers take refuge behind their barred doors; they come out and take a look around, scurry back behind their doors, peep out, see some suspicious characters, and pull back their heads. The build-up is drawn out to such a length that the scene almost becomes comic. And in the end, nothing happens: the only violence is to our expectations. A much older Lamming, looking back on his first novel, has said he should have had the white landlord killed at this point in the text (Introduction xiv), but his change of heart is based purely on political considerations and not on narrative exigencies. Presumably, he still has no qualms about the narrative slackness of the text.
The text introduces a first-person narrator, a young boy, whom rather mysteriously his friends call G, and who after the first two chapters disappears for a hundred pages or so, replaced by an omniscient narrator who recounts what happened at the community school on Empire Day. It is not clear where the young boy, our original narrator, has gone to. He is presumably at school when the school inspector arrives, but we see nothing of him and it is not his consciousness that processes events. The narrative at this point tells us things the young boy could not possibly know, such as what is going on in the mind of the head teacher, who has discovered compromising photos of his wife in the possession of one of his subordinates.
But the narrative centre does not merely shift from first to omniscient third person. At one point in the long third chapter, set in the schoolyard, the omniscient narrator himself disappears. All narrative mediation is replaced by the dramatic presentation of a group of boys sent to wash off their bloodied schoolmate at a tap. In the dramatic dialogue, these boys are labeled First Boy, Second Boy, Third and Fourth Boys—as if they were secondary characters in a play. The boy narrator, G, or even the omniscient narrator, if either of them had recounted this scene, would surely have used the boys' names.
The young boy returns to his narrative duties just when we expect not to see more of this truant. (We never do see him at the school but we cannot be sure he was not there all the time.) The rest of the text continues the inconsistency established in chapter three. Some chapters are recounted by the boy G, sometimes he disappears altogether, and some chapters present the dramatic dialogue of an Old Man and an Old Woman who call each other Ma and Pa. The text is a veritable anthology of narrative modes. Late in the book, we are given excerpts from G's diary—as though Lamming had suddenly remembered a narrative mode that his encyclopedia did not yet include.
In later scenes, the young boy is present but he might as well not be. Chapter Six presents the long philosophical discussions that the boy's friends, Trumper, Boy Blue, and Bob, engage in on the beach. The boy is present—we saw him arrive at the beach with Bob—but for dozens of pages he says not a word; not to his friends, not even to us, the readers. We have no idea what he thinks of Trumper's and Boy Blue's epistemological speculations. It is as though the G of the boy's name stood for Ghost: he hovers around the scenes he describes, not taking part and even going unseen.
The formlessness of the novel requires explaining, and it can, I think, be explained. In the Castle of My Skin is balanced between two poles, the self and the community, which correspond to the two economic systems Pouchet Paquet finds are at work in the novel. The feudal world of the village seems to its members to have a wholeness; everything is in its proper place. This is a peaceful, ordered world based on paternalism: those in power protect and care for those who depend on them; those below work for and accord respect to those above. The hierarchy that characterizes the community (Mr. Creighton in the Great House at the top, the overseers below him, and the villagers below that) assures a stability and a comprehensible order. The symbol of this organic whole is the cherry tree that spreads out over the neighbours' fences in all directions: “The roots were in one yard, but its body bulged forth into another, and its branches struck out over three or four more” (16).
The reader will have no trouble judging the paternalistic ideology of Mr. Creighton; it is intended to mask and make tolerable the unjust relations between the classes. But there is something attractive about this feudal world nonetheless. There is an alternative father figure, the old man Pa, from whom the narrative does not withhold its admiration.
We have in this unself-conscious community part of the explanation for the inconsistency and the lack of direction of the text. Paul Ricoeur argues that narrative has validity as a mirror of human experience because we human agents emplot our experience in narrative. There is a hermeneutic circle whereby life is configured as narrative in art, artistic narrative is read and interpreted, and we readers then prefigure our own lived experience in the form of narrative. Ricoeur does not say, though we can conclude, that where people do not emplot their lives and do not see their lives in terms of narrative, no narrative can be told of them. A novel requires a narrative agent with a narrative project (a quest or an ambition or a hope or a fear) who self-consciously emplots his own narrative. He is not free to make his own life; on every side he must wrestle with a world that would frustrate his desire to be author of his own life. But it is because he imagines himself as having a story that a story can be told of him. Creighton's Village, on the other hand, does not have its own narrative because the villagers do not conceive of themselves as narrative agents. A novel cannot be a valid configuration of lived experience where that experience is not emplotted in the sort of narrative one finds in novels.
In portraying the unself-conscious community of Creighton's Village, Lamming displays a disorienting lack of commitment to the characters and their unfolding stories. In the organic community where individuals are interchangeable—“Three, thirteen, thirty. It does not matter” (24)—there are no individuals to be the centre of narrative interest. Characters go unnamed because their individual selves are of no importance; they are just the head teacher or the shoemaker. The narrative takes up a character, establishes who he is, and then abruptly drops him. After seeing the head teacher agonizing over the evidence of his wife's infidelity, we do not see him again for another hundred pages and we never hear more of his relations with his wife. Despite the care with which he was described in the schoolyard scene, we learn that he is not of any real interest to the narrator and should not be to us.
Yet, In the Castle of My Skin has in the boy G a character as self-conscious as any anywhere. How can this extreme self-consciousness be accounted for, given the unself-conscious environment in which it finds itself? As Sandra Pouchet Paquet established, the village may appear stable, but change is coming. The strike of the dock workers and later the riots in town disturb the old order. Mr. Slime's Friendly Society and Penny Savings Bank marks the first, apparently beneficent, appearance of capitalism in this otherwise feudal world. The Friendly Society encourages a new attitude to wealth; wealth can be amassed as capital and invested. As capital, money becomes a source of power. The empowerment brought by new conceptions of wealth is a double-edged sword, however. Some are given power; some find themselves in the power of others. Capitalism brings with it a new attitude to the land. The land is no longer where one lives and what one works. In the feudal system, the land belonged to the owner but it was worked by the villagers and it was inconceivable that Mr. Creighton could ever take the land from them. Under the new dispensation, land is a commodity to be bought and sold. Mr. Creighton sells to Mr. Slime with the result that the shoemaker and Mr. Foster are dispossessed and Pa is sent to the almshouse.
Colonizer and colonized in the feudal system never saw each other objectively and apart from their roles in the system, and there was something reassuring in those roles. Everyone had a place. The young boys and their teachers, however, feel differently. The fixed roles in an organic system do not provide security but are cages that threaten to imprison. To be seen by another is a threat. The boys and their teachers never meet each other's eyes; when one of them is seen,
[d]eep down he felt uneasy. He had been seen by another. He had become part of the other's world, and therefore no longer in complete control of his own. The eye of another was a kind of cage. When it saw you the lid came down, and you were trapped.
The boys' parents, living in a paternalistic feudal world, accept authority. However, the young boys live in a world that has altogether less stable foundations. The boys at school study the pennies they are given on Empire Day and wonder about the king's face on the coin. “Could you have a penny without a face?” Did the king sit while someone drew his face on each of the coins? “How would he find the time to sit till all those million pennies were done?” (45). Another boy throws all these suggestions in doubt by insisting that the king is never seen. The man that appears in newspapers or in newsreels is not the king but the king's shadow, a man whose duty it is to replace the king who can never be seen. Where is the authority that mints the pennies, that guarantees the currency on which everything in a capitalist economy depends? There is something unreal about money, and something unreal about the world. The boys cannot see the whole. They have no relation to the makers of their world; the world of authority, of money, of history, and of books is a shadowy unreal world. All that they can be sure of is the self.
Under the old dispensation, the community had a white father in Mr. Creighton and a black father in Pa. The young boys of the next generation are fatherless. G speaks of being fathered by his mother, but that is as much as to say that he has not been fathered at all. His mother belongs to an unself-conscious, natural world that as far as he is concerned exists only to serve his needs. The boy recognizes no authority outside the self and no past with claims on him. The flood with which the novel opens wipes away the past and cleans the slate.
We might call this existential solipsism the “island self.” Bob, in a skepticism worthy of Berkeley and Hume, denies that there is anything else in the world apart from Barbados (147–48). His father, a fisherman, has sailed far out to sea and has never seen other land. The skepticism is extended to include the whole of the world outside the self.
The community denied the possibility of history because it did not believe in change. What was and what would always be were the same. The island self too is timeless and outside change. Trumper and Boy Blue both have had an experience of leaving time behind them, which Trumper expresses thus:
An' sometimes sittin' here or there or anywhere for that matter, I feel that where I sittin' now I was sittin' all the time, an' it seem I was sittin' since I can remember myself. 'Tis as if time like the clock itself stop, an' everything you tell yourself is all right.
We have then two poles on which the text is strung. The island self is highly conscious, and alienated from others. Community is unreflective and based on interpersonal relations. Self is locked within the castle of its skin; community is anchored by the Great House. Community is represented by the organic image of the tree; self is an individual on the shore facing the sea.
What the two poles have in common is that they are both anti-historical and anti-narrative. Narrative involves a narrative agent acting on and being acted upon by his world. It involves interaction. But in Lamming's Barbados, we have either a fixed world without distinct selves or selves that are cut off from the world outside. Narrative is impossible.
Patricia Tobin has called the principle of order and continuity represented by the progression from father to son “the genealogical imperative” (5). In narrative, the plot, that is, the linear succession of events from a first cause, corresponds to the genealogical imperative and guarantees the proper respect for authority. Where the genealogical imperative has been subverted, as it has been among the boys in Lamming's novel, narrative progression, too, is derailed. Lamming presents two worlds: one a world with a father but no son—the static world of Pa and Ma—and the other the fatherless existence of G and his friends.
Patricia Tobin admires modernist novels that subvert linear plot and with it the patriarchal authority of the genealogical imperative. Lamming's subversion of narrative puts him in good company. But Lamming is not a postmodernist playing clever games with narrative expectations because he is out to subvert the cheerful, unthinking acceptance of authority that those expectations imply. When postmodernists subvert narrative sequence and with it causality and connection, they draw attention away from story, character, and theme, focusing it on the words themselves. This does not describe Lamming's novel. Lamming's text is repetitious. He can never say anything once, but must repeat it a dozen times in words that vary only slightly. But this is not the repetition of images, themes, and words that by setting up rhythms and establishing patterns allows the text to acquire a surfeit of meaning. Repetition in Lamming's novel does the reverse. Rather than suggest meaning, it drains everything of meaning. The novel seems to mean less than it says. Postmodernist texts demand reading—readers believe that if only they reread the text one more time they would be vouchsafed the significance that the text both promises and denies. Readers of In the Castle of My Skin do not have the same sense that they are missing something that another reading might deliver.
The colonial world depicted in the novel knows only an unthinking trust in a known world or a radical doubt that corrodes all possibility of knowing. There is no possibility of acting on the world or of making one's own world. This paralysis is reflected in the text's own unaccountability. Mr. Slime represents the new forces associated with capitalism. But for the larger part of the novel he is regarded sympathetically; he is the young man who cuckolds his superior; he is the energetic one who awakens the village from its slumber and calls it to self-determination. Lamming disdains the development of character: Mr. Slime the adulterer becomes Mr. Slime the hero who becomes Mr. Slime the villain—all without any concern for consistency or narrative logic. The radical changes we are supposed to make in our judgment of him are not prepared for: we have an infuriating sense that the author uses Mr. Slime only to fulfill whatever function his political intention requires at the moment. In the end, his Friendly Society is revealed to have evil consequences, but because Mr. Slime is never presented directly we cannot be sure if he has been corrupted by the ready profits he could make or if he was always a scheming, dangerous capitalist. We have real difficulty in judging him, in spite of his name that promises easy judgment.
Mr. Slime's name, with its Dickensian or Trollopian overtones, invites mistrust of him, and Sandra Pouchet Paquet does find him sinister. His name associates him with such Victorian characters as Chevy Slyme, Uriah Heap, and the Rev. Obadiah Slope, but paradoxically he has none of the oiliness of his precursors. This is yet another example of Lamming somehow meaning less than he says; there are also a Mr. Foster, a Boy Blue, and a Trumper, whose names are merely names, with no deeper significance. Lamming's colonial society is full of imported signs that do not operate as signs do elsewhere, promising a richness of significance that always finally eludes the reader. In another world, perhaps in the world of a Victorian novel, these signs would belong and fit into a larger pattern of significance. In Barchester Towers, Trollope introduces his Mr. Slope as the lineal descendant of Laurence Sterne's Dr. Slop (22). Mr. Slope was conceived within a literary tradition. Trollope's novels are not faithful mirrors of absolute reality—they advertise their fictional nature. However, as J. Hillis Miller has argued, their imaginative wholeness is a mirror of the wholeness with which the society which produced them has itself been imagined. Trollope and his readers have their imaginations shaped by a literary tradition; their understanding of the world they live in and their reading of novels are alike shaped by this tradition. Nor is it too far-fetched to imagine that a branch of Slope's family emigrated to America and became the Snopeses of Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner, too, has created a whole fictional world that testifies to the fullness that America has in its own imagination.
Lamming's Mr. Slime, in spite of his name, is not related by blood or its literary equivalent, intertextuality, to any of these. He is a black colonial, the descendant of slaves. His name has been arbitrarily given him and does not identify him in the same way that Flem Snopes's name identifies him. Rather than locate him in a literary tradition and in a thoroughly imagined world, Mr. Slime's name reveals his lack of connection and the hollowness of his world.
Signs in Lamming's novel do not expand by emitting rays of infinite significance; they are black holes that absorb meaning and do not let any of it escape. The colonial society Lamming writes about lacks imaginative wholeness: it was created by others and never had the reality in the imagination of its members that England had in the imagination of the English, or Dixie had in the minds of Southerners. The Little Englanders in In the Castle of My Skin have no conception of a history they are making, so Lamming cannot tell their story. Their landscape has not been endowed with significance, so Lamming cannot describe it. And they have not imagined themselves and each other sufficiently, so Lamming has trouble naming them.
The novel may have no direction and no narrative thrust, but, as I said above, it does have an end, and an end that seems to make narrative sense of the whole. In the final pages of the novel, G meets Trumper who has returned from America. Trumper has renounced all his ideas of the existential loneliness of the self; he has found a political purpose. Trumper has lost his debilitating self-consciousness and now sees that he has been shaped by the world and can only understand himself by understanding the world. He identifies with others of his race and class. And he is ready to act on the world that has made him. He has a narrative project he is engaged in. He now has a story.
Suddenly, at the end of the novel, Trumper's name, which had seemed vaguely comical but without significance, is revealed to have meaning. So too at the end of the book Mr. Slime's name, which had not really identified him in any final way, proves to have held his fate. He is a money-grubbing capitalist related to Flem Snopes after all. The capitalism which Mr. Slime represents will integrate Barbados into a world economy. So, too, In the Castle of My Skin, the text in which Mr. Slime is represented, integrates Barbados into a world literature.
Trumper has recognized the connections that in the modern world bind human beings together and bind some hand and foot. His response is a political one. He will resist the narrative imposed by others and he will make his own narrative. By giving Trumper the final word, the novel implicitly agrees with Trumper's vision. The novel's close validates a point of view that condemns most of the text itself. G is told to wake up and not lose himself in such introspection as pervades the novel. The novel stands self-condemned of sterility and paralysis, but in the end it affirms that the West Indies stands ready to make its own narrative.
Lamming, George. In the Castle of My Skin. 1953. London: Longman, 1987.
———. Introduction. In the Castle of My Skin. New York: Schocken, 1983.
Miller, J. Hillis. The Form of Victorian Fiction. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1968.
Pouchet Paquet, Sandra. The Novels of George Lamming. London: Macmillan, 1982.
Ricoeur, Paul. Temps et Récit I. Paris: Seuil, 1984.
Tobin, Patricia. Time and the Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
Trollope, Anthony. Barchester Towers. 1857. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11950
SOURCE: “Possession as Metaphor: Lamming's Season of Adventure,” in Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol. 5, Nos. 1-2, August, 1992, pp. 1-29.
[In the following essay, Rohlehr examines the political metaphors and instances of allegory in Season of Adventure.]
The tendency to employ ecstatic possession as metaphor of the descent into the unconscious mind of the individual and the group, has become quite common in both Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American literatures. Texts such as Brathwaite's The Arrivants, Scott's An Echo in the Bone, Toomer's Cane, Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Salkey's A Quality of Violence and Lamming's Of Age and Innocence and Season of Adventure illustrate the point. This essay seeks to explore Lamming's use of the possession metaphor in Season of Adventure.
The idea of interior descent is one of the most ancient in literature, stretching back to the time when the poet was vates or seer, prophet and singer, the strength of whose saying was authenticated by a capacity for being filled with the energy or enthusiasm of the god. Isaiah or Ezekiel or St. John the Divine are poets of this type; while Virgil is guide into the underworld, the Sibyl needs to become possessed before she can enter the dark and wide-yawning mouth—(“alta spelunca fuit vasto immanoque hiatu”)—of the deep cave of ancestors, within which Aeneas converses with dead comrades, lost loves and his father, Anchises, who reveals to him Rome's imperial destiny “to spare the submissive and to demolish the proud by warfare.”
Such use of the already ancient convention of descent into the underworld and its connection to the even older idea of ecstatic possession, strikes the student of West Indian literature with a sense of familiarity. One feature common to both the Virgilian predecessor and West Indian literature, is the connection between the ecstatic possession of the poet or Muse and the encounter of an archetypal hero with his and his nation's ancestry and destiny. The hero's descent is simultaneously an encounter with the past and a vision of the future, aided or engendered by a presence who is poet, muse, dreamer and spiritual guide, who is often conceived of as female (though Dante's guide to the inferno is Virgil, Melville's poet, muse and dreamer is Ishmael, and Harris's an androgynous blend of male and female presences: for example Dreamer and the Arawak woman in Palace of the Peacock.)
The convention of descent continued through forms such as the medieval dream allegory; the ideas of trance and exstasis in Romantic poetry; surrealism and its preoccupation with dream fantasy and the unconscious; and the renewed interest in mind-expanding drugs, extrasensory perception, psychology and para-psychology. Hence the continued interest in such literature as is concerned with doubling, the dialectic of self and Other, and the notion of a structure of mind which lies beneath the surface of exterior action and suggests the presence of an archetypal history older than, and often different from, the superficial doings of conventional academic historical record.
The purpose of this essay is to examine how Lamming enters this convention of ‘descent’ and ‘possession’. We begin with a description of his distinguishing features. We then explore his use of these features as structural elements in Season of Adventure.
Possession as it appears in Lamming displays the following features:
(1) It is inspired by communal rituals through which a marginalized lower class Afro-Caribbean community retains contact with a fading but still latent ancestral past.
(2) It is accompanied by tension which manifests itself in a rigidity of muscle, a transformation of the facial features and a fixity of the eyes of the person under possession.
(3) Such tension is an extreme psychic burden, which seeks its release through the transmission of energy to someone else. It is relayed from devotee to devotee: one person's possession serving as catalyst to another's. Hence, in Season of Adventure, Fola is possessed for most of the book, becoming free only when her personal possession is transformed into the communal quest of society for its energy spirit and artistic medium for the affirmation of its voice.
(4) The most important feature of Lamming's use of possession is the dialogue between the living and the dead, between the present and the past over their common future. Lamming has described this aspect of possession as a particular feature of the Haitian Ceremony of Souls, where the living must make amends for their neglect of the dead; the present must settle with the past by performing the rituals of reverence through which the past is laid to rest.
So important is this aspect of possession to Lamming, that one may say that it has become the major frame within which he explores the themes of history; the latter-day confrontation of colonizer and colonized; the question of their joint responsibility for the future growth of newly-independent former colonies. The idea of a dialogue between the living and the dead, and its concern with confession, reparation, bring into focus Lamming's ongoing perception of a drama which involves the unlocking of shameful secrets of the past, and a cleansing of the psyches of individual and group for healthier participation in what Brathwaite has termed a refashioning of the future.
In Lamming the dialogue between living and dead includes
(a) accusation of crime guilt, neglect
(b) acknowledgement of error
(c) confession in public
(d) assumption of the burden of reparation
(f) becoming whole
Achieving such dialogue on the level of international politics is a central feature of the humanization of historical process.
We first hear this dialogue between the living and the dead in the Old Man's descent into a memory of Africa and the beginnings of the slave trade in In the Castle of My Skin, where subliminal encounter with the past leads to oracular statements about the future. The present generation is warned against the dangers of sentimentalizing the idea of a literal return to the ancestral land. Diasporan Blacks should not “force a passage to where you won't yet belong.” Like all oracular statements, this one is tantalizingly ambiguous; the ‘yet’ suggesting that there may or will be a time when the breach between diasporan and mainland African will be healed; but that time is not now, not yet. The questions which the oracle leaves unanswered are “when then?” and “how?”
Mark Kennedy's fit at the Sabina Square meeting in Of Age and Innocence is another example of Lamming's use of possession as descent into, as well as release of submerged aspects of the psyche. Here, the conjuncture of present, past and future established through Mark's memory of the Tribe Boys' legend, a story of resistance and heroic struggle in the face of genocide. This legend encapsulated the history of New World conquest, bringing into focus the idea that the contemporary struggle against imperialism is really the most recent phase of a resistance movement which began with the first encounter of conquistador and New World person. Mark's vision seizes on the present moment as an omen of the future apocalyptic encounter of the worlds of metropole and periphery, as the now vocal and visible colonized seek a reordering of relationships between the two worlds.1
It is possible to interpret the Teeton/Myra dialogue in Water with Berries, and the catastrophic encounter of all the main characters in that novel as an elaborate extension of the Ceremony of Souls metaphor in which Caliban encounters Prospero on Prospero's home turf. In an interview with George Kent2, Lamming makes this claim for Water with Berries and suggests that even Natives of My Person may be related to the Ceremony of Souls. There is, however, a point where the metaphor loses its concrete context, its grounding in any particular ceremony, act or ritual. In Water with Berries, though the idea of the Ceremony of Souls survives, the actual ceremony is missing, and has to be mnemonically and melodramatically invoked. One therefore feels justified in focusing on Season of Adventure where act and idea, ritual and meaning are inseparably fused, and possession becomes not only metaphor but major structuring device.
Season of Adventure begins by establishing the link between possession and the ideas of instinct, naturalness and the capacity to affirm. Possession is the natural property of the poor and pervades their environment, consciousness and creativity just as it is forcibly excluded from the world of a rising but insecure class of new proprietors, for whom ‘possession’ is replaced by possessions. Music is both the vehicle and the corridor by which one descends to the bottom of the ocean of consciousness, makes connection with hidden or suppressed areas of the Self, and begins the journey towards wholeness. The antiquity of this process is suggested in the narrator's observation that:
It seemed this music had always been there, immortal as the origin of water swinging new soundings up from the sea's dark tomb of noise. And the women's voices chanted resurrection of two souls from the ocean's deep chapel of skulls.
The music is a blend of nascent steelband and vodun drum, that is, a fictional union of two distinctive Caribbean musical forms, one newly-born and the other ancient and ancestral, one secular and the other sacred. Through this fictional union, Lamming dramatizes an idea that there is a generic link between the African drum and the steelband.3 The music needs to be performed with fervour and energy in order to sound the bottom of the ocean of consciousness, and touch ‘Guinea’ the medium of water in which the spirits of the dead reside. This ocean with its “chapel of skulls” is also the Middle Passage in which so many Africans drowned themselves in that first sacrificial act of revolt.
The link between music, ritual, secular or sacred celebration and popular impulsion of revolt, was recognized by the ruling class throughout plantation societies of the New World, and led to the inclusion of clauses banning African dance assemblies in all the Slave Codes. Banning started in the French Caribbean on May 4, 1654 when the Conseil Soverain de Martinique issued an ordinance prohibiting African dance assemblies4 and continued in Barbados, Jamaica, St. Kitts, Maryland, the Carolinas5 and Hispanic Caribbean. It became a major feature of post Emancipation society in Trinidad where a proprietor class obsessed with the fear of “another Haiti,” constantly sought the abolition of Carnival, the Big Drum dances, and African Orisha religion. In Trinidad the censorship of African cultural practices culminated in Acts such as the Musical Ordinance of 1883 which forbade the playing of drums, chac chac and banza, and the Peace Preservation Ordinance of 1884 in which several acts against African music assemblies of the poor, Canboulay and Carnival were combined.
Lamming is therefore correct in his identification of the social, political and historical context of the music, whose metaphorical dimension is really a plausible extension of its historical significance. In Season of Adventure the music is part of an ancient religious ceremony revived by the poor in newly independent San Cristobal and tolerated by the new bourgeoisie in their suppression of both the Orisha religion and its music, the new incumbents, culturally and psychically insecure, are ambivalent. The sound and rhythm of the steel drums fascinate them, while the deeper detonations of the Orisha drums are at the start, comfortably ignored as the harmless, if mysterious practice of an unimportant sub-culture.
Fola's introduction to the tonelle and her possession by the drums, are clear proof that the gap between the arriviste class of new rulers and the subculture of the poor is less than skin deep. Fola—(Yoruba for “with honour”)—the flower of mulattitude, begins according to Powell, self-appointed protector of lower class purity, as a person with two languages and selves, one of which is superficial and educated while the other is real and subliminal.
‘She got open-air talk an' inside talk,’ said Powell. ‘Like tonight she go talk great with the stranger man. Grammar an' clause, where do turn into does, plural an' singular in correct formation, an' all that. But inside, like between you an' me, she tongue make the same rat-trap noise. Then she talk real, an' sentences come tumblin' down like a one-foot man. Is how them all is.
Powell has divined the divided consciousness of Fola and her class. Energetic apostle of the natural and genuine, he sees his dividedness as the curse of Fola's entire class, which he hates with a venom. Grudgingly, however, he does acknowledge in the class a buried capacity for genuineness, and his reference to the “one foot man” in Fola's “real” language is unconsciously prophetic of Fola's imminent possession by Legba, the one-footed cripple—loa of the cross-roads and vestibule of beginning. Later in the same scene Fola hears ‘the crippled swoon’ (p. 31) of the voice of a woman in the process of becoming possessed. It serves as a catalyst to her own possession by Legba, the cripple—loa of beginning.
Charlot is Fola's expatriate history-teacher, whose interest in ‘roots’ and self-discovery, along with his unarticulated desire for Fola, leads him to introduce her to the tonelle. He bears nearly the same name (Charlot Pressoir) as Charles Pressoir, to whom Maya Deren refers in Divine Horsemen as one:
who gave so unfailingly of his friendship in so many difficult situations in Haiti, which I doubt would have been favorably resolved without the presence of his sensitive intelligence, moral support and practical assistance.6
In Deren's case, Charles Pressoir is a local helper, guide and friend who facilitates the entry of a white American artist and anthropologist into the religion of the Haitian people. In Lamming's book, the situation is reversed. Charlot Pressoir is a type of the expatriate scholar/analyst who undertakes the task of understanding the folk activity of a totally different culture—that is, of imposing on it his own culture—biassed categories while he remains emotionally aloof from what he observes.
Yet in his own way Charlot finds that the tonelle is almost as traumatic an experience for him as it is for Fola. Representing the liberal consciousness of a well-meaning European patriarchy, he is nevertheless forced into a recognition of his spiritual emptiness and emotional deadness. Afraid of the explicitly sexual terms in which possession is taking place around him (p. 31),
Charlot hugged his jaws and blocked his ears as he stared, unseeing at the ground.
‘Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil’ is what his rational mind tells him. For all his fascination with the Orisha, they represent an evil which must not be permitted entrance into the consciousness. Charlot is mistaken about the fundamentals of the religion. The loa reside within the consciousness and seek release by means of the music and the dance; even though such release of the loa from the depths of the unconscious often appears to be a visitation or entry from outside the consciousness. Charlot's act of denial, then, is a rejection of the Other, the hidden Self and Double he had hoped to find via the music of the drums.
He had gone to the tonelle “because there are things that remind me of myself” (p. 26). But with his act of rejection he disqualifies himself as Fola's potential lover, the bearer of new life. Lamming makes this clear by spending three pages (pp. 36–39) exploring what Charlot remembers under the spell of the drums. A curiously cosmopolitan person, Charlot is a mixture of Spanish Jew, Chinese and French, born in West Africa and educated in England. Yet he seems not to have embodied the potential universality of his heritage, but to have emerged like Conrad's half-French and possibly Jewish Kurtz, as a representative of an Old World so dead that even its angry young people are depicted as corpses. For Charlot, who confesses to Fola (p. 26) that he doesn't really like the drums or the ceremony, the season of adventure is a quest for psychic rebirth; for authentic personhood which can come about only if he surrenders himself to all crucial stages of the inner journey—acknowledgement of past crime, confession and assumption of the burden of responsibility for reparation. Charlot, however, cannot surrender himself to the process of interior adventure and does not move beyond a vision or memory of his most immediate and spiritually sterile past. This memory bars his descent into deeper layers of circles of the self, and makes impossible encounter with and liberating embrace of the Double.
In describing what Charlot actually discovers as he looks into himself, Lamming is giving utterance to his own disillusioned encounter with an England of dead issues, dead voices, emotional and cultural stasis, in which the Arts are in the bitter words of the narrator, “a patient far gone in cancer.” Charlot realizes in the tonelle that his New World ‘adventure’ is an attempt to escape the burden of being a corpse in the Old World, rather than an assumption of the awesome responsibility for redeeming time and history.
Was this reason for bartering his future to a childish notion of adventure? Was it because the only England he had known was a kind of corpse in future argument with itself, a dead voice bearing witness to its own achievement, passionate in incest with its part?
Foreshadowed here are all the central images and ideas of Water with Berries: incest, the corpse, and necrophilia, which Lamming employs to pass final judgement on the stasis of Britain's petrified imperialism; her lingering love for the corpse of the past. Charlot, revolted (like Conrad's Marlow) by his role of culture-bearer for a dead world-order which ironically still exercises a paternalistic proprietorship over a New World urgently exploding into History and visibility, salvages some honour when he admits his unfitness to be Fola's lover and leaves the island. But he soon relinquishes even such scant honour when he sends Piggot correspondence relating to his private relationship with Fola. Such correspondence can only damage Fola's position at home.
Charlot's departure, like Mark Kennedy's, is Lamming's symbolic way of suggesting that the anti-heroic persona is irrelevant to New World self-discovery. San Cristobal, as a microcosm of that New World, will have to seek the centre of its energies without patronizing guidance from the dead Old World that Charlot represents, and to whose greyness he returns. An instinctive colonizer, Charlot still feels “great pride sometimes to think that any achievement of hers (Fola's) in this direction” (i.e. of scholarship, and particularly, history, which Charlot taught Fola) may be the result of his instruction (p. 124). Despite the clear bitterness of Fola's dismissal of him, Charlot still glories in the fact of his past proprietorship over her. Similar patronage will be displayed by the Old Dowager in Water with Berries, a novel whose central theme is the power of such patronage as a bond that ties the colonizer to the colonized after the formal relationship between the two may seem to have evaporated.
Fola's possession happens in clearly pointed phases. She first becomes aware of Liza, a little girl caught up by possession (pp. 26 & 29). This makes her remember her own girlhood, and in particular her most terrifying childhood experience; a fear of rats. Fola has begun her descent into the unconscious; and her fear has arisen to bar her further descent. Liza and Fola are doubles of each other, Liza representing Fola at the earlier stage of consciousness which she is trying to re-enter as she journeys towards wholeness. Liza too will later imitate Fola and thus underline her function as double.
The next catalyst to possession is the “crippled swoon” (p. 31) of a woman's voice behind Fola. Then Fola is made to drink a mouthful of gin from a bottle proferred by the houngan (p. 32). Alcohol serves the multiple functions of libation, communion, and inducing release from normal inhibitions. Fola as a member of the mulatto middle class begins with the class inhibitions of shame, colour and class prejudice, all of which would, along with her ordinary rationality, prevent her from surrendering to the frenzy of the tonelle. Powell and Crim recognize that the houngan has gone too far in allowing the step-daughter of the Police Commissioner to participate so fully in the rituals of the cult. Fola, they can see, is about to “panic.” While possession comes so naturally to Liza that she virtually dances in her sleep, is gently possessed and returns to her mother, possession for a middle-class neophyte will be a matter of panic. Liza, one notes, is in harmony with her mother while there is a discord between Fola and her mother Agnes, that will be increased by Fola's quest for herself.
So strong are her inhibitions that Fola's impulse is to run. She is, however, riveted by the eyes of Aunt Jane (p. 33) an old Orisha priestess who we later learn has knowledge of herbs, can restore fertility to Fola's step-father Piggott, and is variously regarded as witch, obeah-woman, oracle and wise woman. She is the spiritual mother of the tonelle. An essential aspect of Afro-Caribbean religious practice is that the neophyte upon initiation into the sect or cult, gains new spiritual parents from among the senior members, and is expected to consult the spiritual mother or father for guidance. What Fola confronts when her eyes make four with Aunt Jane's is the immense authority that a spiritual mother exercises in any of these congregations.
On the psychological plane, the device of eyes making four is a conventional symbol/signal of the encounter of Self with Other. Sometimes Self and Other are lovers, as in John Donne's dialectical exploration of the love relationship in poems such as “The Good Morrow” or “The Extasie.” Metaphorically, Fola's encounter with Aunt Jane is an encounter with an older “self,” a first self who takes the form of an old woman, grandmother or witch. Fola is caught between Liza who is youthful innocence, and Aunt Jane who represents the experience of age. The tonelle experience provides her with a new line of psychic descent to replace the ruptured line between Fola, her mother and her mother's mother.
Fola then helplessly urinates in an act that links her to both Powell (p. 12) and an old woman who appears later in the novel. This act moves her beyond the second emotional barrier to possession: shame, embarrassment. Powell (p. 14) views this shame as a central feature of middle-class life. It destroys “naturalness” or “nature,” fidelity to instinct and desire, acceptance of one's body, eros; replacing them with moral codes, inhibitions, hypocrisy. The Ceremony of Souls reveals that such shame can also be found among the poor. There is the case of the mother whose husband dies from syphilis which he has contracted from her. She grows ashamed and abandons her son who eventually goes mad after years of unsuccessfully searching for his mother and self-imposed celibacy. The woman's guilt and remorse are uncovered in the tonelle, and the discussion between Powell, Crim and Aunt Jane (pp. 46–48) again revolves around the opposing qualities of “shame” and natural behaviour. The boy's quest for his mother foreshadows Fola's quest for her father as well as her incomplete reconciliation with her mother later in the novel.
Breaking through the barrier of shame Fola becomes aware of “a new ideality” (p. 41) and will eventually term herself “Fola and other than.” She next experiences a feeling of rigidity and rootedness, a state of being drilled into the ground (p. 43). She is becoming the country, or the vessel of its reawakened spirit. This leads to a disconnection from the familiar. She only half-recognizes her hand, that is, her old self, and she cannot call her mother's name though she longs to do so (p. 45). She recognizes the need for reconciliation; for a healing of the ruptured line of connection between mother and daughter, but is unable at this stage to connect. “That fearful encounter with her forgotten self” (p. 50) also seals Fola from Charlot in a private silence which he can't penetrate. Though she had in the tonelle envied him his “safety” and his “detachment” (pp. 33 & 34) she now recognizes his emotional emptiness.
Fola remains in a state of being possessed for the greater part of the novel, and is released only when she fulfils the pattern of tonelle ritual by transmitting her possession to the entire community. The tonelle experience is the beginning of journey towards connection with and embrace of the Other, and a corresponding disconnection from the old world of Charlot as well as the unformed but already “new world” of her arriviste parents, where “cultural events” include such trivia as tea parties, cat-and-dog shows, beauty contests and elocution classes, while “social work” is a form of patronizing contempt practised by the idle well-to-do against the underfed.
The first phase of Fola's journey begins after she returns home from the tonelle and manifests itself in morning sickness and delirium (pp. 75–76) which signal Fola as a bearer of new life, while they indicate the confused state of her mind and stomach after the drums and alcohol. The first image and memory that surfaces is that of her grandmother, whom one would expect to be the kindly fostering if authoritative presence that the grandmother generally is in the West Indies. Here, however, Fola's grandmother is a witch. Two things are happening simultaneously: Fola is drifting off into a dream/nightmare in which she recalls her moment of childhood terror when her “deranged” grandmother, that “old witch of a mother” (p. 84) frightens her with a dead white rat. On the psychic plane she has begun a process of self-healing; a psychotherapy which involves the raising to consciousness of submerged moments of trauma trapped in the subconscious.
The secretly healing aspect of the resurrected witch/ grand-mother is signalled by the fact that the hand which holds out the dead white rat to Fola, is crippled. The grandmother is as much a Legba figure as the possessed woman in the tonelle, whose “crippled swoon” had catalyzed Fola towards her own possession. We earlier noted the grandmother's connection with Aunt Jane, healer, witch (pp. 111–112), herbalist priestess and spiritual mother of the community. If at the time when the incident occurred, the grandmother was an agent of malice, here her function is to strengthen Fola's resolve to sever ties with the old world order of Charlot, who is “the dead white rat.”
Fola measures her experiences of the trauma of return against his notion of what it involves.
She recalled the gentle hint of mischief in his voice when he had spoken of his American friends in Europe. Their return to the past seemed the opposite of her visit to the tonelle.
She then meditates on the difference between her confrontation with the past and that of white Americans, and she arrives at the fact of slavery and forced migration making her sense of the past more urgent and fevered than that of those who chose to cross the middle passage. She feels that her “history” is more real, personal and tangible than “their world of monuments and important graves” (p. 93) Her inner voice here blends with that of the omniscient narrator.
She further recognizes that “the aesthetic denial of … blackness” (p. 94) that she has been taught since childhood was
an insult she had learnt, an insult which all her infancy had suckled like an udder. And the udder was Charlot's history: the essential history of all Charlot's world.
Fola's journey, then, is in accordance with the structure of possession. It involves a profound realization of the past. Here, Charlot's history, the history of the “Mother Country” is “material”; an “udder” that suckles the black colonial mind with the poison of self-contempt. Charlot's history, then, is a kind of wicked step-mother, an old witch whose ultimate objective is to devour her step-child.
Fola's grandmother has reappeared as ambiguous witch/healer, to reinforce Fola in this task of making a break with Charlot's unhealthy historical proprietorship. Originally, the grandmother's malice had been directed against Fola as an illegitimate child of unknown, but probably white, paternity, who was being brought up by her brown-skinned mother Agnes, to scorn blackness. The udder/mother allusion applies to both Agnes's tutelage and Charlot's history. Fola now understands the symbolic meaning of the dead white rat. There can be no compromise with this deadness, and no easy reconciliation of ancestors until the inner truth of historical encounter is revealed, and there is open acknowledgement of guilt, and reparation, as in the Ceremony of Souls.
Recognizing this, Fola also identifies her mother Agnes as an agent of Charlot's history. In Fola's dream delirium, Agnes appears as a lost soul who needs to make contact with her daughter. This is obviously an inversion of Fola's own secret wish and need for connection with her mother.
Lamming is, however, not convincing when he ends Fola's dream with a vision of apocalyptic upheaval and destruction in the island (p. 95). Though true to the structure of possession in which the devotee becomes filled with a vision of both past and future, Lamming is being too insistently ominous here. The coming class confrontation in the novel, though fierce, is hardly apocalyptic; and Dr. James-Williams Baako's new and more competent, but still bourgeois leadership emerges at the end of the novel with what appears to be the author's stamp of approval.
Poor, black and ambitious as a constable, Piggot has risen to eminence in the Police Force by having been the perfect instrument of colonial authority. Early in the novel, we learn from Crim that Piggot had vowed to put an end to the tonelle. Piggott's rise has also been due to the secret he shares with Vice-President Raymond (policeman turned politician after Independence) and Lord Baden-Semper. These two men have risen to eminence by means of a cache of counterfeit money which they discovered during a police search for stolen jewellery, and appropriate for their own advance. The entire political hierarchy of the new republic—referred to in the novel as ‘the families' of Federal Drive—has been based on counterfeit. Counterfeit money is Lamming's metaphor of both the materialism and the fakeness of the new ex-colonial bourgeoisie. Lamming is the first West Indian novelist to have focussed with such severity on the elite that came into power with Independence; and he did this before Independence. Season of Adventure, then, is one of our great prophetic novels, whose thorough exploration of the pre-Independence present enabled it to project its enquiry accurately in the probable nature of the post-Independence future.
Piggott is partially redeemed from moral disgrace, when he heeds Agnes's warning that he should accept none of the counterfeit money. But by keeping Baden-Semper's and Raymond's secret he sins by omission, and partakes of the deep counterfeit that has overtaken their lives. Piggott, a Police Commissioner, can only continue the war against genuineness, instinct, fervour and nature that characterized the British post Emancipation effort to abolish African music, religion and folkways. This campaign gives him a sense of power; perfects the counterfeit authority that he exercises as the repressive instrument of the new political elite.
Piggott the man, however, is a pathetic figure. Sexually potent, but sterile, he cannot generate life. His dearest desire is to be a father, and his efforts towards this end have been monumental but fruitless. This personal frustration makes it even more necessary for him to wear the compensatory mask of an authority that is aggressively deployed against the tonelle; that is against the island's centre of spiritual, cultural and sexual energy. The tonelle is Piggott's double; the suppressed, ‘Other’ within him: and although Piggott perceives this ‘Other’ in terms of the criminals whom he relentlessly pursues in the tonelle, the tonelle really represents the feminine principle within Piggott's psyche. It is the creative softer side of him, which his function as hatchet man for the new regime, as instrument of untempered, counterfeit patriarchy, makes him hide, deny and suppress. Significantly, what he seeks and needs from the tonelle is the herb lore and healing wisdom of Aunt Jane, its spiritual mother. It is magic and miracle, witch and mother that he needs; and these are presented in the novel as feminine qualities. Piggott's deep sense of shame prevents him from returning to Aunt Jane and embracing the ‘Other’.
Part of Piggott's rise has been due to his marriage to Agnes, the fallen brown woman whose misfortune in bearing an illegitimate child and then refusing to name a father, has spoiled her own prospects of social ascension by any other means except marriage to an ambitious black man. Agnes has developed connections through her beauty and sexuality, which she uses to gain Piggott his rapid promotion. This aspect of Agnes's past is only hinted at by the omniscient narrator, though it has given rise to full-fledged rumours in the society, and eventually becomes a central feature of Fola's quarrel with her mother. Piggott, then, is doubly emasculated in his inability to reproduce, and the fact that his power and authority have been based on his wife's connections: probably her past high-level whoredom.
Piggott compensates for his sexual sterility by exercising an exaggerated paternalism towards Fola. It is the means whereby he evades the fact that his marriage with Agnes has failed as well as his bewilderment over the power which she exercises over him through her claim to having made him. In his domestic situation, Piggott lives the truth that Powell, the Frantz Fanon of the tonelle repeatedly asserts: that freedom, independence or power cannot be given:
“If ever I give you freedom … then all you future is mine, 'cause whatever you do in freedom name is what I make happen.”
Lamming feels, like Fanon, that one never recovers from an original act of patronage. His exploration of the way patronage inhibits is generally done at the level of man-woman relationships: Piggott and Agnes; Steward and the Commandant and their wives; Teeton and the Old Dowager who exploits the subtle emotional ties which have bound colonizer to colonized even in the post-colonial period; and Teeton and Randa, whose self-sacrifice earns Teeton his freedom. In each case, the man never recovers from the fact of the woman's generosity or self-sacrifice.
By means of these relationship Lamming explores a paradigm of the post-independence relationship of colonizer and colonized, where independence has been given by the colonizer rather than taken by the colonized. Yet even on the personal level he can propose no simple solutions. The giver exploits the fact of having given, using the act of patronage as a vehicle of control over the recipient. The recipient contemplates revolt—(Piggott threatens to leave Agnes)—but is kept in place by guilt, conscience, gratitude and the emasculating memory that he was once so powerless that he needed the patronage. What might redeem both giver and recipient is true selfless generosity on the part of the former and true humility—the ability to admit need and weakness without feeling self-contempt—on the part of the latter. In Lamming, the marriage of true generosity and true humility never occurs with the individual and never with the larger unit: the nation or state.
Piggott's paternalistic tenderness towards Fola is partly then an echo of Agnes's patronage towards him, and partly a means of forgetting his failed relationship with Agnes, by creating with the daughter an unconsciously incestuous replica of the idealized relationship he'd like to have with the mother. But by this token, Piggott cannot afford to allow Fola her independence as a woman—paternalism requires a child but
it had come to Piggott as a shock that Fola had acquired the troubled look and liberty of a woman in private conflict with herself.
Fola's quarrel with Piggott occurs in a carefully orchestrated scene which, as if to emphasize that Fola and Agnes are doubles, starts with a quarrel between Piggott and Agnes (p. 99). Between the two quarrels which begin the shattering of Piggott's domestic universe, we have witnessed Piggott's self-examination, his doubts as a step-father; his realization through knowledge of the contents of Fola's letter to Charlot (pp. 123–124) that she has grown up and perceives herself as a woman. She therefore has a different perception of men, including Piggott. His hopes of bribing her by an expensive present vanish and he has to endure her silence, the failure of the old kinds of dialogue.
After this we see through Fola's eyes. She has been pulling down the photographs of her friends and family from the walls in her room, in a first effort to erase the superficial elements from her life. Fola is still under possession, and as such transmits energy through the eyes of the tension of her body.
He could feel the tension which closed her fists. The tension seemed to burst every nerve in Fola's body, like the night she knelt in the tonelle, petrified with shame by the shock the ceremony had produced on her. Now she saw Piggott as she had seen herself: in hiding.
At this moment of severance, Fola objects most to being patronized. She wants to know about her past, a need opened up by the Ceremony of Souls. Agnes, who has vowed to explain that past to Fola when she “is old enough to hear” (p. 338) is unaware of the transformation that has taken place within her daughter. This transformation widens the rift between mother and daughter who, unaware of the truth of her mother's past, instinctively condemns. Piggott is alarmed at Fola's demand to know her past since this would mean an examination of his role as her foster-father, and a possible break with the paternalism which he has exercised over her.
Fola possessed becomes unleashed womanhood—a forerunner of today's feminist revolution which Lamming clearly foresaw. Thus she wants to know her story. She becomes a medium for the energy of ‘naturalness’ that the tonelle represents, and thus catalyzes Piggott's abortive journey of self-discovery. Just as the “crippled swoon of the woman's voice” in the tonelle had served to transmit the energy of possession into Fola or to release Fola's innate energy, so Fola's almost physical assault of Piggott's emotions catalyses his necessarily false quest for self. The false-hood of his quest is indicated by the collapsed image which he sees in the mirror when he looks at himself without his false teeth (p. 128). Loss of face, shame, is his biggest problem, preventing him from returning to the tonelle as the origin of his life.
Piggott and Charlot function as doubles in the novel. Both are paternalistic towards Fola for selfish ends. Both are sterile, though in different ways. The link is indicated by the fact that it is Charlot's letter which triggers off Piggott's quarrel with Fola. Both men also avoid the “season of adventure,” the journey back to firstness of self. Charlot retreats into his dead old world, while Piggott conceals his personal failure by transferring all his thwarted desire into a bitterly repressive campaign against the tonelle. He becomes like a ritualist whose possession has been interrupted midway in its process. The released energy, uncontained, becomes destructive. Such is also the fate of Piggott's opposite, Powell, whose clean, pure hatred is another example of energy uncontained.
The confrontation between Fola and Agnes (pp. 150–154) is also done in terms of the tonelle possession metaphor. The fact that it is a confrontation between Fola and her double is emphasized by the fact that Agnes is wearing one of Fola's dresses. Fola's rage at her mother is unconsciously the result of sexual attention that the newly awakened daughter feels should be hers. Like Piggott's entanglement of his dream of sexual fertility with the idea of Fola's sexual innocence, Fola's sexual jealousy of her mother is a wholly unconscious drama. Fola isn't consciously rivalling her mother for men's attention, but she is aware of a closeness between herself and Agnes (Self and Other) which makes her uncomfortable and resentful.
Tonight Agnes was wearing one of Fola's dresses … She looked beautiful. Fola knew that this would be so; and she was glad. But it was this sense of her mother's nearness to her own way of feeling which embarrassed Fola. She didn't like this feeling which her mother gave of being so near in years and physical attractiveness.
The Fola/Agnes scene is the climax of anger which begins when Fola confronts Dr. Camillon (p. 141) a newly returned member of the professional elite whose aim is to acquire vast quantities of land in the shortest possible time. Representative of what is most sinister, empty, rapacious, proprietorial in the new bourgeois ruling class, Camillon regards both Fola and Agnes as easy lays: two high class prostitute sisters on the look out for whomsoever they can pick up. Camillon gets a glimpse of the obsessed Fola—the intense tonelle persona—and retreats before her rage. He concludes that Fola is mad and like Piggott tries to prepare a face to hide his discomfiture. Camillon's (chameleon? lizard, reptile) is by far the most unattractive portrait of the novel. He is later revealed as both lecher and abortionist; irresponsible engenderer and terminator of life. His opposite is Dr. Koji James-Williams Baako, who is Lamming's “verray parfit gentil knight,” an idealized portrait of a man of culture and learning who eventually becomes head of state on a wave of popular acclaim. The novel leaves the question open as to whether what Baako represents (responsible and competent patriotism) will prevail over what Camillon represents (rapacious and even murderous proprietorship).
The rising current of anger is felt among the steelbandsmen, who smart at the unfair treatment meted out to a tonelle man. There is also Agnes's anger that Fola has embarrassed her by unceremoniously leaving the State Ball, and Raymond's bitterness against the steelbandsmen, one of whom has slipped broken glass into the pocket of his dinner jacket. Thus when Fola confronts Agnes, it is as if she is giving vent to everybody's rage.
A passionate resentment had released her from this bond of secrecy with her mother. They confronted each other in a similar state of rage, playing out their wild and spiteful opposition of interest which neither dared express, which neither could, in fact, explain.
Since water is the medium in which the spirits of the dead are released for recriminatory dialogue with the living, Lamming presents this possession scene against the background of rainstorm which Fola interprets in terms of tonelle symbolism.
She would have liked the rain to free them from this solitude of threats and dead recriminations.
Freedom can, however, be obtained only if there is openness in the confrontation between present and past, and this does not happen between Fola and Agnes. Release and cleansing acquire confession, admission of guilt and reparation. Here this a little more than bitter accusation on Fola's part and impassioned denial on Agnes's.
Fola also tries to harm or at least violently repulse the Double. In an act of disavowal she strips her dress off her mother. Release can come, however, only on embrace of, and final reconciliation with, the Double. This is difficult and painful because the Double usually presents itself as opposite to, other than; possessing and projecting all those qualities that we hate in ourselves. What Fola resents right now is her own awakening sexuality as mirrored in her mother's. She is somewhat like Sharon confronting Magda in Harris's The Whole Armour: the virgin in resentful accusation of the whore something of whose experience of the depths of life is necessary to the virgin's maturation.
Fola perceives her mother as “this woman,” a whore who only accidentally mothered her and feels:
taken beyond this moment by the nameless futures which were knocking in her head. Like the dead souls in the tonelle, Fola was beyond her past. She was free; dead to the accidents of her past; dead and free.
This is, however, a false epiphany. Despite the lights which Fola madly turns on, she is still going through the dark night journey of possession. She still hasn't heard her mother speak: but the Ceremony of Souls is a dialogue—defence as well as accusation. What has taken place represents only one half of the ritual, and the scene ends with Fola (Self) divided as far as possible from Other, Agnes. This is indicated by Fola's obsessive repetition of the command: “Don't you touch my things.” Fola has further to travel.
Agnes has so far been presented as a resourceful but somewhat superficial woman, aware of the advantages of her brown pigment, skilled at manoeuvring herself in the rather dubious social circle of Federal Drive. She is contemptuously confident of her ability to control Piggott, but unable to achieve any but a strained relationship with her moody and difficult daughter, who has grown up with the notion that she's been regarded as a burden by her mother, the unwanted child who spoiled her mother's chances.
We will learn towards the end of the novel (pp. 335–43) that Agnes has been the victim of a double raping first by the son of an English bishop and then by Chiki's brother, the black tonelle youth. She has thus experienced in the flesh something of the tangled brutal heritage of violation that has been West Indian and New World history; and Fola, the product of uncertain and now absentee paternity and violated maternity, is Lamming's representative Caribbean person. Agnes has never considered herself guilty for the circumstances of Fola's birth which, like Caribbean History, cannot be altered, and must be borne with honour. Hence Fola's name which as we said, is Yoruba for “with honour.” Agnes's attitude towards Fola is Lamming's attitude towards the terrible and bizarre history that has created the Caribbean person. Agnes bears with fidelity the burden that has been imposed on her by fate, and clings desperately to a hope that there will be “justice” somewhere in the universe. There is a strong suggestion that the ambiguous mixture of love, hate, violation, “anguish and horror and delight” (p. 434) which had characterized the conception of Fola, the Caribbean person, has placed Agnes guilt or innocence beyond normal categories of moral judgement. Though Agnes had once intended to tell Fola the truth, she finally wonders whether “it were better Fola did not see the darkness which her rebellion has so nobly sought to bring into the light.” (p. 343)
The new phase of Fola's journey begins almost immediately when she abandons her office job and tries to live in imagination the experience of working class women of her society. This is, in fact, an indirect attempt by Fola to work her way back to her mother. Her preoccupation is with the meaning of maternity in the context of colonial history. What, for example, was sexual experience and motherhood during slavery? Are sexual experience and maternity even now a type of slavery? Fola realizes that the women in the waiting room of the maternity ward are, for the nurses, nothing more than statistics - B532, A151, C36.
It is the animal docility of the women which hurts. Cowed and dejected in their waiting, these mothers look strangled by the charity of this room. ‘So they are like that!’ Fola thinks, as she hears them answer to their numbers in the Maternity hall. They carry the weight of their pregnancy like ordinary food; take their places with the same servile sureness of animals trained to their stalls, and wait for a nurse to announce their numbers
Fola wants first to empathize so totally with the women that she longs to feel “in the natural pulse of her own bowels the life which has increased their size.” She, however, soon recognizes that she is guilty of sentimentalizing their experience. The women's indifference suggests a vast depersonalizing force which has so nullified consciousness that they wait, “as though there were no memory to glance this moment back to another time “(pp. 172–173). Fola wants, therefore, to restore the women's individual personhood, the specialness of each experience, “to rescue each woman from the anonymity of her number.” (p. 173)
At this point Fola emerges as Muse, an aroused and sensitized imagination whose quest and burden are the same as Lamming's, the creative writer who as “a historian of feeling”7 has rescued the faceless from the anonymity of statistics in which both history and much of the contemporary writing in Social Science have trapped them:
She aches to know the origin of the life which each contains. She forces herself to see without any evidence at all the history of each face.
The idea here is that only fiction has the power to release the lineaments of the lived past where there is little documentary evidence apart from statistics. The creator of fictions must also rewrite history.
She would make her own history, give it life and motive which she herself might not understand.
Fola's notion of rewriting history is identical with current feminist rewriting of both history and myth. It is also identical with Lamming's idea of the fiction he is in the process of writing. Like lamming, Fola is dissatisfied with the history that the people at large have passively accepted as a true version of their experience.
They had all been deceived by their ignorant habit of knowing.
Lamming is, through Fola, indicating his dissatisfaction with those writers who have accepted superficial and stereotyped versions of Caribbean history and chosen to remain at these well-known surfaces. Like Fola, he intends to create more genuine fictions which they will be unable to recognize.
She would select the beginnings of a fact upon which she could build any fantasy that might cripple their recognition.
Here the terms of reference are suggestive of the tonelle; “beginnings” and “cripple” telling us that Fola as Muse is still possessed by Legba, the cripple—loa of ‘beginning', and that Lamming views Legba, the pathfinder to the underworld, as the Muse of Caribbean writing. Legba is Muse of both history and the future, guardian of all journeyings and of all directions.
What Fola describes here is her intention to be different; to be so new in what she creates through the imaginative interplay of fact and fantasy that the conventional reader will not recognize or understand what she is really making. Her aim is to undermine their complacent image of self by moving beyond conventional reality:
Fola thought that truth would be irrelevant for her purpose, if she could make people respond with the same intensity of feeling to her distortion of any fact. That is how she would begin. She was determined to offer an image of herself that would work like disease on their certainty.
That was 1960, year of Palace of the Peacock and A House for Mr. Biswas. By one of those fascinating coincidences Lamming was, via Fola, outlining Harris's aesthetic achievement. This could only mean that West Indian writing felt itself at the brink of new and strange explorations after the exciting realism of the fifties, whose climax was A House for Mr. Biswas. Lamming is somewhere between Naipaul and Harris in his approach to realism; his fictionalizing of fact, his bent towards allegory and metaphorical situation.
The next phase of Fola's journey requires the transmission of her knowledge to society. She has established a clandestine friendship with Chiki, the painter from the tonelle, and spends some time with him puzzling out the meaning of her experience and the problem of vocation. Chiki is the ideal person for Fola's need, since his situation resembles hers. Chiki is the lower class boy whose education has almost propelled him into a bourgeoisism he despises. Rejecting social ascent via education, Chiki chooses to cling to his tonelle roots. It is, however, not clear how his choice has helped alter the tonelle situation of poverty, crime and violence and Chiki, for all the genuineness of his choice of roots, has achieved little as an agent of social change. Fola's situation complements Chiki's. She is the bourgeois person who hasn't quite rejected bourgeoism, even though she feels the need to embrace proletarianism.
Chiki feels she should become a teacher, which would be one way of translating vision into useful social action. Fola is in the ambiguous position of having recognized the necessity to sever ties with her parents' world and continuing to enjoy the privileges and comforts of that world. It is some time (30 pages or more) before she resumes her journey, the weight of possession by Legba still heavy upon her:
She felt weakness and shame like crutches under her crippled arms. Yet some unfamiliar need was taking shape inside her; the need to cut herself off from their possessive concern.
Here the Legba imagery (crutches, crippled) is used negatively because Fola has lingered too long at the vestibule of beginning, and runs the risk of remaining fixed in Legba's state of age and crippledom. That is, Fola may be unable to move beyond the stasis of the old order, as represented by her parents and their milieu. She therefore resolves “to sever all loyalties from the past.” (p. 244)
Apart from the cripple/Legba image one has the childbirth image (“some unfamiliar need was taking shape inside her”), as well as the image of serving, which suggests the cutting of the umbilical cord that binds child to mother, in order to liberate the neophyte towards his or her own identity. The process of Fola's individuation will involve two apparently contradictory elements; first, separation from a fostering but possessive mother and second, reconciliation, spiritual reconnection with a mother who has herself undergone the transfiguring ordeal of the Ceremony of Souls.
Fola is in the throes of the first phase of individuation; that is the severing of the umbilical cord that links her to her mother. Given Lamming's wider purpose, Fola's urge to sever links with her mother's world may be seen as symbolic of the necessity for the emergent Caribbean mind or consciousness to cut the ties that bind it to the dying mind and world-order of the imperial “Mother.” Fola's final assessment of the world she is about to reject indicates its similarity to Charlot's dead world. Its cultural occasions are termed “intellectual seances”; the word “seances,” with its connotations of white people's dead necromancy, being deliberately chosen to indicate the difference from the vibrant Ceremony of Souls. The colonial derivativesness and mimicry of this cultural ethos is suggested in the devastating imagery by which the social elite is described: “a self-propelled circus of talking animals deprived of their original voices” (p. 246). Fola links them with the dead souls of the tonelle who can remember their past, but have no power to choose a future. Such choice is both the burden and the responsibility of the present, which she represents.
Her moment of true decision arrives during a police raid on the tonelle led by her step-father Piggott. He is looking for the murderer of Vice President Raymond, father of Fola's best friend Veronica, and though they lack evidence assume that a tonelle man is the culprit. The brutal reality of the police raid forces Fola to move beyond sentimental identification with cultural roots into political commitment. This necessitates confrontation with Piggott, not as her uncertain patriarchal step-father, but in his public role as Police Commissioner, the incarnation of sterile power, who transfers his aggression to the yard that bred him, and thus compensates for his sexual sterility and social inferiority. At this crucial moment Fola chooses to identify with the tonelle and life rather than with Piggott and Raymond and death:
Fola had been restored to that freedom which now ordered her to put an end to Piggott's authority.
Here Fola and Piggott are incarnations of two eras, two states or structures of mind, and two types of authority. Her confrontation with Piggott closes the cycle of her encounters with the Other in its two guises as double or opposite, and releases her from her possession. The authority she gains from choosing correctly is immediately evident. She becomes a type of Aunt Jane (p. 274) and focusses Piggott with her eyes8 in an act that severs for good her links with his dead patriarchy. Piggott's last contact with Fola will be later that night, when he at last becomes “possessed” in the sense of going berserk, and beats her murderously in a final transference of frustrated sexual aggression.
There are two other features of Fola's public emasculation of Piggott which merit notice. One: when she appears, the women who had gone indoors as the police advanced, reassemble in the yard. Fola's entry signals the emergence and liberation of the woman. Two: after the confrontation, she at last experiences a need for her mother:
She wanted to coil herself to an infant's size, and nestle calm and forgetful in her mother's arms.
This is less a moment of foetal regression to the womb; less a rejection of the harsh demands of maturity, than a desire to reaffirm the bloodline between mother and daughter, severed since her grandmother evicted Fola's pregnant mother:
Some old and dormant bond of blood had come alive. The darkness showed everywhere some promise of her return to her mother.
We never see this reconciliation, though it will clearly be the climax of Fola's personal journey. When we see Agnes for the last time, she too is longing for reconciliation.
Fola's public role is fulfilled in her planning and implementation of the revolt of the drums against Police prohibition. It is her final act in putting an end to her step-father's authority and affirming the tonelle as the centre of indigenous creative spirit. Though the focus in this scene is more on Gort than on Fola, it is the logical and lyrical climax of the novel, in that it brings together the major actors in the drama, Fola and the tonelle, in an affirmative act of defiance of the old order, and in a movement which acknowledges and releases the latent power of the people. What Fola has discovered through possession—a firstness of Spirit—has been transmitted, or rather, given back to the people.
It is, however, precisely after this climax that the novel, which has been working excellently on the levels of metaphor and complex allegory falters and denies the logic of its own structuring. Fola, bearer of the novel's poetic meaning, Muse and container of the new illumination, is allowed to fade into the background until she finally disappears from the last few pages of the novel.
Her importance, indeed, has been reduced since her confrontation with Piggott at the tonelle, and dwindles even further after she narrowly escapes being murdered by Powell in Chapter XIV. Even when she leads the revolt of the drums, she fades into the crowd; and the focus is, rightly, on Great Gort, who is high priest of this festival. Her role in the novel is supplanted by Dr. Kofi James-Williams Baako who comes to political prominence on the crest of the tide of revolt released by Fola's defiance of Piggott's authority. Baako's formulae are sufficiently plausible to be attractive as a manifesto. He advocates intellectual commitment to change. The university must “assume the burden of the bush” (p. 322). He recognizes a political function in all activity; art, science or education. The old religion of drum and energy needs to be both remembered and transcended.
Since he also believes that “it's bad to pass on dead memories to the generation coming after us” (p. 325) it is no surprise that Orisha faith wanes early in his regime (presumably as a dead memory); the steelband music and the drums continue to exist but, detached from the ritual function they had performed in the novel, lose their pristine fervour; Chiki the artist is in a state of paralyzing despair. Loss of energy is the apparently inevitable result of the transition from the primal vision of ancestral communalism to the secular rationalism of the new age.
It may be argued that Lamming is simply being a realist here. After all, almost every detail of popular experience in the novel may be traced back to a source in the social history of the Caribbean peoples. For example, the regeneration of the Ceremony of Souls ritual and the tonelle happened in Haiti immediately after the Haitian Revolution and several times in the twentieth century. The story of vodun is a story of continued resistance to both official religious and secular structures of authority. The people's resistance to the prohibition of the drums and steelbands resembles that of the Trinidad people during the century after Emancipation. The bloodless removal of a corrupt regime and spontaneous acclaim of what seems to be an enlightened, honest and capable leader, has happened on a number of occasions in the charismatic politics of the Caribbean. Even the petering out of revolutionary fervour into despondency and disillusionment is a well-known Caribbean phenomenon, too frequent to need illustration.
The question, however, is not whether the anticlimactic ending is true to fact, but whether it is true to fiction, that is, ‘true’ in terms of the particular fiction that Season of Adventure has been presented as being: a partly symbolic, partly allegorical rather than a wholly realist drama. Why are symbols—tonelle, vodun, the elaborately developed Ceremony of Souls ritual, the steelband, Fola's interior adventure in Spirit—which have been so carefully established and so poetically affirmed for nine-tenths of the novel, so suddenly devitalized and drained of their meaning to be replaced by the dry panacea of Baasko's “scientific” politics, technology and liberal minded agnosticism?
There are a number of possible explanations for this. The first relates to the fiction Fola invents to protect the tonelle from Piggott's rage. In this fiction, Fola identifies a face in one of Chiki's painting as being that of her father who, she says, has murdered Raymond. Since Chiki's paintings are mainly about the tonelle, the portrait resembles the houngan, who panics and goes into hiding. Fola has inadvertently destroyed both her step-father and her spiritual father, who never recovers his self-confidence or authority, and sees his failure to attract the loa as punishment for his desecration of the shrine, through permitting outsiders Fola and Charlot to its inner chamber. When the tonelle fails the entire community feels the loss in spirit. Great Gort whose music was a corridor for the ascent of the loa ceases to be chief acolyte at the Ceremony of Souls and shrivels to the stature of pan-instructor of an increasingly defunctive sound. This is the logical result of Fola's unintentional destruction of the houngan. Her honourable lie destroys what it was meant to protect.
But if Fola's season of adventure has meant the end of both honourable (the houngan's) and dishonourable (Piggott's) patriarchies, Lamming is unable to make it mean something positive and enduring in and of itself. He is thus forced to replace whatever Fola's journey may mean for the Caribbean future with yet another optimistically benevolent patriarchy, that of Baako, who, after his first presidential speech subsides into silence, his enlightened agnostic tolerance bored with the people's simple faith and honest energy.
Another explanation of the novel's anti-climactic ending is that Lamming, for all his engulfment in what Shephard in Of Age and Innocence terms self-redefinition through politics, is as fascinated as Naipaul with Sartrean states of acedia. Paralysis is the other side of politics. Mark is Shephard's double. Vortex may mirror void. Thus one finds recurring in Lamming either the paralyzed protagonist (Mark Kennedy; Roger Capildeo) or the politically committed man (Shephard, the Commandant, Teeton, Chiki). The problem arises when political commitment encounters personal trauma—guilt, emptiness, loss of motivation. Then one is faced with a central hopelessness that undermines an earlier energy of affirmation.
Chiki's despair at the end of the novel may be his response to the limitations of his artistic medium; paint, whose capacity to express the fervent soul of the masses can never rival the energy of Gort's tenor pan. But it is also due to Lamming's gloomy tendency to counterpoint commitment with paralysis, vortex with void. The artist's mind becomes in Lamming a trysting-place in which the collision between these mighty opposites takes place. In Season of Adventure the tonelle is the centre of life and movement and may be seen as the generator of the community's vortex of energy. It is so magnificently realized that it conceals its double, the other and more shadowy side of the Lamming spiritual universe. It may well be that Lamming stresses affirmation through a character such as Fola because he recognizes the possibility of greyness and negation.
When Fola's role in the novel is almost complete, Lamming presents us with the ‘Author's Note’ (pp. 330–332) in which a narrator who claims to be Powell's half-brother offers an explanation for Powell's transformation into a murderer who nurses an obsession to exterminate the new ruling elite. The ‘author’ of the ‘Author's Note’ disagrees with the explanations offered by historians or other novelists and poets, who view Powell as either an uncompromising rebel for whom freedom is an absolute and pure ideal, or as one who has nostalgically idealized and tried to grasp an unreal past, as for example, some Black nationalists have done.
The ‘author’ rejects these interpretations for one that is closer in spirit to the drama of Self and Other that has been the central concern of Season of Adventure. Powell is his half-brother and double. They are exactly the same age and have had exactly the same primary education. The ‘author', however, wins a scholarship at the age of ten and grows away from the tonelle—in much the same fashion as Chiki or “G” in In the Castle of My Skin. Unlike Chiki, who abandons the prospects of joining the educated elite when he drops out of high school, the ‘author’ embraces the privilege of the entirely different life-style which his intellect has opened up to him.
I forgot the tonelle as men forget a war, and attached myself to this new world which was so recent and so slight beside the weight of what had gone before. Instinctively I attached myself to that new privilege; and in spite of all my effort, I am not free of its embrace even to this day.
This separation from roots causes a division between Self and Other, the ‘author’ and his double. It creates a sense of class alienation through privilege on the part of the ‘author’ and a feeling of having been betrayed on Powell's; and is the real root of Powell's hatred of the new bourgeoisie.
Unfortunately, the novel can offer no way out of this dilemma in which education as an instrument of upward social mobility leads to the creation of a new uncertain class, guilt-ridden at having abandoned an old way of life, but unwilling to abandon the new one for which, after all, they have worked. If we consider the various ‘journeys’ of the educated people in Season of Adventure we would see why the novel ends in an ambiguity almost like paralysis.
Chiki, who like the ‘author’ of ‘Author's Note’ has won a scholarship to secondary school, and for some years receives the specially privileged treatment of one earmarked for liberation from the tonelle's ghetto, recognizes betimes the sterility of the new world of privilege and returns to the tonelle. This reaffirmation of the grass-roots helps neither Chiki nor the tonelle, and part of Chiki's despondency towards the end of the novel is related to the sense of stagnation that comes from his not having fulfilled his intellectual potential. Is Chiki's choice of returning to the tonelle a nobler or better one than that of the ‘author’ of ‘Author's Note', who remains in the new world of privilege but empathizes with his grassroots origins to be able to tell the story of the tonelle people?
How does one define ‘intellectual responsibility’ in this post-Independence period of startling transition, where the brilliant ghetto person is caught between such contradictory urges? One may like Baako, opt for enlightened change and obliterate what the ‘author’ of ‘Author's Note’ terms “the weight of what had gone before” (p. 332); the emotional and spiritual genuineness and primal vision of the tonelle. One may like Fola seek to rediscover and empathize with the tonelle, to serve links with an original life of privilege, and to commit oneself to action, awakening and leadership. Fola's role is the fullest and most hopeful, though even she is left with a dilemma of how to employ her education in the quotidian situation of change. As we have noted, too, her intervention catalyzes the destruction of the tonelle, and she's ostracized by Gort and bitterly blamed by Powell for intruding into their world. Only Chiki, whose ambiguous situation as we saw earlier, resembles hers, sympathizes with Fola.
No stance, it seems, is entirely satisfactory, though commitment is held up as a nobler option than indifference. Commitment involves the possibility of being misunderstood. It contains a sacrificial element, and may take the form of “bearing witness,” which is what the fictional ‘author’ does in his ‘Author's Note’. One may say that for the ‘author', writing Season of Adventure has been such an act of ‘witness’; the process of creation being its own Ceremony of Souls, in that it involves recall of the past life of an Afro-Caribbean grass-rooted origin; confrontation with the guilt of having abandoned those origins for a more superficial life ushered in by educational success; and reparation by means of the act of bearing faithful witness through telling the history of the tonelle.
As in the Ceremony of Souls, the novel seeks to suggest what future may emerge out of the dialogue between present and past. It is at this point that options lose themselves in despondency, and the tension between Lamming's equally powerful drives towards affirmation and negation leaves us with the ambiguity of vortex and void, commitment to action and disinclination. It is not certain that this ambiguity is what Lamming means to convey. He has termed his novels ‘open-ended’9, which seems to mean that the writer does not prescribe or impose an appropriate ending. He leaves the options for the future ‘open’.
Lamming's futures are, however, generally foreshadowed by catastrophe—fire, madness, murder and Shephard's death in Of Age and Innocence; arson, rape, murder and veritable holocaust in Water with Berries; madness, moral disgrace and the deaths of officers in Natives of My Person where, in a typically Lamming situation, the women waiting in their grotto of new beginning declare they are a future that their men (who are, unknown to them, already dead) must learn. Catastrophe in the present renders the future far less ‘open’ than the unresolved issues at the end of each novel may suggest. Such catastrophe is present even in the closing pages of Season of Adventure, Lamming's most triumphantly affirmative novel. The tonelle is destroyed by fire. While the perspectives for the future are not utterly closed off, the omens are far from reassuring.
Mark's vision is discussed in my essay “The Problem of the Problem of Form” in My Strangled City & Other Essays (London: Karia Press, 1988), and in Caribbean Quarterly (1988).
George E. Kent, “Conversations with George Lamming,” Black World, 22.5 (March 1973), 4–15.
J. D. Elder, From Congo Drum to Steelband (Port-of-Spain, UWI, 1969).
D. J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 27.
M. Deren, Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti (London: Thames & Hudson, 1953), 13.
Express, Friday, January 18, 1985, p. 13.
G. Lamming, Season of Adventure (London: Michael Joseph, 1960), 271.
George E. Kent, “Conversations with Lamming.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6905
SOURCE: “The Profit of Language: George Lamming and the Postcolonial Novel,” in Recasting the World: Writing after Colonialism, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, pp. 120-36.
[In the following essay, Hulme examines the reworking of Shakespeare's The Tempest in many of Lamming's works.]
The colonial situation is a matter of historical record. What I'm saying is that the colonial experience is a live experience in the consciousness of these people. And just because the so-called colonial situation and its institutions may have been transferred into something else, it is a fallacy to think that the human-lived contents of those situations are automatically transferred into something else, too. The experience is a continuing psychic experience that has to be dealt with and will have to be dealt with long after the actual colonial situation formally “ends.”
—George Lamming, in conversation
For political history the event that separates the colonial and the postcolonial is called “independence.” In that sense the United States has been a postcolonial society since the late eighteenth century, Haiti and most of the South American countries since the early nineteenth, and Cuba since 1898. Many of the British West Indian islands finally became postcolonial in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Martinique and Guadeloupe remain “colonial,” although formally they are not colonies but simply parts of France. Puerto Rico cannot be postcolonial since it is not independent: it is a colony, according to many Puerto Ricans, but to the United States it is an associated commonwealth. These rather crude divisions may not bear much analysis, but neither are they entirely dispensable. Like other ex-colonies, the United States went on to become a colonial power but one marked by its own prior status—as Melville's writing so clearly shows. And in the Caribbean, the focus of this essay, the very different patterns that colonial power has taken on different islands are always worth recalling.
Finally, though, the term postcolonial reverberates most within cultural history: it names something less tangible than the dates of a political independence ritually celebrated every year. Politically, most of the ex-British islands assert an independence that puts them on equal footing with, say, other member countries of the United Nations. Culturally, the term postcolonial carries the assertion of the end of an era and the name of that era, memory of which still marks its supersession. As George Lamming implies, the psychic experience of colonialism is as present in postcolonial culture as the word colonialism is in the term postcolonialism.
Almost all intellectuals and writers educated in colonial countries before independence were introduced to metropolitan values through reading the classics of European literature and have then spent most of their subsequent careers negotiating a relationship to this inheritance. In the English-speaking colonies Shakespeare was the embodiment of such “civilization,” and, as is now widely acknowledged, The Tempest was seen by many colonial and postcolonial writers as the key play in the canon, the one that came closest to articulating at least some of the questions about colonialism which were at the forefront of intellectual debate in the 1950s and 1960s. Four writers made pioneering contributions to the rereading of The Tempest from a colonial perspective. In 1950 Octave Mannoni, a French colonial official sensitized by the violent repression of the 1947 Madagascan uprising and about to begin analysis with Jacques Lacan, published a psychological reading of the colonial situation which named its “complexes” after the characters of Prospero and Caliban. Mannoni's efforts were soon severely criticized in two of the seminal books of anticolonialism, Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks and Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism, and were not paid serious attention in studies of Shakespeare until quite recently. Nevertheless, his analysis of the character of Prospero remains a landmark in the study of the colonial situation.
The other three writers are from the Caribbean, and all wrote to some extent under the influence of Frantz Fanon. In 1969 the Martiniquan playwright Aimé Césaire published his version of the play as Une Tempête, with Prospero as a much clearer exemplar of colonial oppression and Caliban as a devotee of African gods. Then in the early 1970s the Cuban writer Roberto Fernández Retamar wrote a series of essays that extended the use of Caliban as a cultural figure, drawing on the work of Fanon and Césaire but connecting it to a broader Caribbean tradition in which the figure of the Cuban radical José Martí plays a key role.1
In a recent essay Retamar regrets not paying more attention to George Lamming's 1960 essay “A Monster, A Child, A Slave,” published in his collection The Pleasures of Exile.2 Here Lamming reads the play from the position of Caliban, overturning the usual identification of the critical reader with the position occupied in the play by Prospero. But for Lamming the parallel is only secondarily a piece of literary criticism. What The Tempest offers Lamming is a model for thinking about his relationship as a writer to the past: in that sense the figure of Caliban permeates all the essays in The Pleasures of Exile, not just the reading of The Tempest. The past is on trial, and Lamming's language is openly inquisitorial. And yet the roles are not as simple as the model might initially imply. Lamming sees himself as both prosecutor and witness for the prosecution, defense attorney and judge. He is also guilty himself, since “this trial embraces only the living” and only the eternally dead are innocent. He speaks of himself, as one might expect, as a direct descendant of Caliban, but he also regards himself as in some way a descendant of Prospero (PE, II). So Lamming, according to his own analysis, has more than one part to play in the rewriting of The Tempest. And, of course, even the part of Caliban is itself by no means uncomplicated.3
There is one special complication that Lamming confronts in these opening pages of The Pleasures of Exile. He recalls Hakluyt's narrative of John Hawkins's first slaving trip in 1562. Hawkins, like Prospero, had a difficult voyage but was succored by “Almightie God, who never suffreth his elect to perish” and brought safely to the island of Dominica, “an Island of the Canybals”:
The Canybals of that Island, and also others adjacent are the most desperate warriers that are in the Indies, by the Spaniardes report, who are never able to conquer them, and they are molested by them not a little, when they are driven to water there in any of those Islands: of very late, not two moneths past, in the said Island, a Caravel being driven to water, was in the night sette upon by the inhabitants, who cutte their cable in the halser, whereby they were driven ashore, and so taken by them, and eaten.
(PE, 13, quoting from Hakluyt)
Part of the importance of The Tempest for West Indian history is the early date of the play (1611), after first English contacts with the island, as Hakluyt suggests, but before the first colonies were established. The Prospero-Caliban relationship has something of the pristine encounter between European and native. The complication though, for modern writers like Lamming who want to use Shakespeare's story is that Caliban is clearly related to Hakluyt's “Canybals,” the Carib Indians who lived on islands such as Dominica during England's early attempts at colonization. To identify with the figure of Caliban is inevitably, for a modern black writer, a move fraught with difficulties: the Caribs have disappeared from almost all the Caribbean islands, but the strong memories of them which survive, not least in the islands' toponymies, make it clear that there are three historical actors on this sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stage—a native population as well as the Europeans and Africans from across the Atlantic.
The story of the native inhabitants is told in allegorical form by Lamming in several places in his work. In the first chapter of The Pleasures of Exile, called “In the Beginning,” three young boys, Bob, Singh, and Lee, tell a Lady about the history of the Tribe Boys, their underground resistance to the arrival of the Bandit Kings, and their eventual heroic suicide from the top of Mount Misery (PE, 18–22), a story that also acts as an important rallying point for the resistance movement in Lamming's novel Of Age and Innocence and which returns again, in a different but particularly intense form, in Natives of My Person.
The founding genocide of colonial history is given its place in Lamming's work, with the figure of Caliban then extended to include the other victims, equally reviled, equally decultured by Prospero's discourse, and sharing equally the spirit of revolt which Prospero is determined to conquer (PE, 13).
Given the small size of the Caribbean islands and the relatively modest level of cultural life on most of them, the Caribbean novel has achieved an impressive reputation. The Lost Steps,A House for Mr Biswas,Paradise,Wide Sargasso Sea,The Ripening,In the Castle of My Skin,Macho Camacho's Beat—all have achieved the status of classics, widely read outside the region in which they were written. And yet the novel is a comparatively young form on the islands: of the major figures only Alejo Carpentier has a completed novelistic career. Others now dead, like Jacques Roumain and Jean Rhys, had larger careers of which novel writing was only one part, or they lived most of their lives out of contact with the islands.
From the English-speaking Caribbean a set of careers is now drawing to a close belonging to that generation of writers who left the islands in the years after World War Two and whose writings have bridged the independence of their countries: V. S. Naipaul, Sam Selvon, George Lamming. Naipaul's career is paradigmatic of a certain idea of the postcolonial: cynical traveler, at home nowhere, anatomist of the idiocies of the Third World. Lamming, like Edouard Glissant, the Martiniquan contemporary with whom he has much in common, has kept his writing more local, more concerned with the West Indies and West Indians. Lamming's first four novels were published between 1953 and 1960, and all are rooted in the experience of growing up and coming to terms with the political and cultural processes of West Indian life in the 1950s: education, emigration, prejudice, organization, and struggle. The mode is seemingly “realist,” the concerns seemingly “political,” in the sense of dealing with the changing topography of the years before and after independence. And yet, although conventionally seen as occupying the opposite political pole to Naipaul, Lamming's novels chart the complexities and difficulties inherent in those processes: there is no celebration and little obvious optimism about the future. Finally (to date), after a ten-year gap two novels appeared within a few months of each other in 1971 and 1972, Natives of My Person and Water with Berries, each of which offers a fraught meditation on The Tempest, the first a historical novel (or allegory) about the sixteenth-century Atlantic, the second a contemporary narrative that takes place mainly in suburban London. The settings are those established in Lamming's earlier novels—San Cristobal, a representative Caribbean island, and England—but the novels differ markedly from their predecessors. In the terms previously introduced it could be said that in these two books Lamming broke with the political sense of the postcolonial and set out to examine in quite radically different terms the psychic residue of colonialism's long history.4
Natives of My Person, although a deeply unconventional novel in many respects, is at least conventionally historical in its sixteenth-century setting. Some of the terms of its allegory are also familiar, those that allow us to identify Lime Stone as Britain, Antarctica as Spain, and the now familiar San Cristobal as an amalgam of various Caribbean islands. The principal characters, too, follow conventional lines, often named for their tasks and therefore representative of the kinds of Europeans who colonized the Caribbean islands.
The Commandant in Natives of My Person is in some ways a Prospero-like figure, although the relationship of the novel to The Tempest is by no means as close as in the case of Water with Berries. For my purposes here the most intriguing figure in the novel is the Lady of the House, daughter of Master Cecil, ex-mistress of the Commandant, and wife of the powerful Lord Treasurer, Gabriel Tate de Lysle. Her story emerges gradually from the pages of the novel, as the different “natives” coalesce as versions of the one “person.” She begins as Cecil's daughter, taken out to the Demon Coast of San Cristobal, where she observes the practices of colonial mining firsthand. The official story, related by the fisherman Marcel, is that she “went mad what with living so near the blasphemies of the savage Tribes under her father's command” (38), but it is, in fact, the sight of the butchery of the indigenous population which stays with her. The Commandant remembers bringing her back a necklace made from pearls and rubies left behind by the Tribes at Sans Souci when they fled underground; as they talked, his voice drove “every cry of the mines from her memory” (65). But not for long.
When the Commandant breaks his promise to her and accepts charge of another voyage, she remembers well enough what she saw with her father and knows just what it is he means by his “work”:
“Work, you call it. You will sail again, I know. So tell me, answer me now. What will you kill when all the mines are empty, when every offspring of the Tribes is dead and buried? Tell me. You will sail, I know. So answer me now. Whose women will you murder next? Tell me, answer me, before you sail. Whose children will you strangle next? … Go feed on your humans. That's your work. Like the vultures over the Demon Coast, you feed on humans. … Name any monster,” she cried, “and he is no match for you. He never will be. A human-eater is what you are.”
The accusation of cannibalism made against the natives of the islands—remember Hakluyt's “Island of the Canybals”—is here turned back in devastating fashion against the European colonizers, purveyors of death and destruction to the island Tribes. That Lamming should introduce a woman as a central character into a tradition of writing which from The Tempest to Robinson Crusoe to Treasure Island had been so resolutely masculine is a sign of his awareness of the connections between sexual and colonial politics. It is the Lady who sees through the duplicities of colonial ideology and the Lady who demands that the Commandant's new start should be a new start between sexual equals. She and the other women themselves sail to the Caribbean to await their menfolk, but the burden of the past proves just too heavy. The final chapter has the women sheltering in a cave, talking to each other about the men, gradually coming to terms with the fact that they are not going to arrive. The Lady speaks the last lines of the book: “We are a future they must learn” (351).
If Natives of My Person is a reworking of The Tempest's themes in its original sixteenth-century setting, Water with Berries is in some sense a continuation of the story of The Tempest, though with surprising twists. As in Shakespeare's play, although the action, when it comes, is intense, much of the earlier part of the novel moves slowly, with any “action” coming through exposition of what has happened before the present time of the fiction. In The Tempest Prospero tells Miranda with great deliberation and even greater anxiety the story of their exile from Milan and their arrival on the island. Later we also hear the slightly different versions given by Ariel and Caliban.5 In Water with Berries the story of the past takes even longer to arrive. The first part is given over halfway through the novel in one of its key scenes, Teeton's meeting with Myra, a woman so degraded that she gives herself to any passing man on the heath, “an empty port for anyone's pleasure” (WWB, 151). Teeton has just learned about his wife's, Randa's, suicide. He walks onto the heath, and his weariness pulls him down to the ground. Prospero had commanded Miranda's attention to tell her the story of her origins. Myra starts her story hesitantly, aided by Teeton's questions: “‘I was hardly three when we arrived on that island,’ she said. ‘Five thousand miles from home, and not a face that resembled our own. No native of intelligence to keep him company. Just the two of us. We lived alone until the day he died. The night the storm struck him down. We found his body in the lake next morning'” (145).
Teeton's urge to interrupt and ask her name is obliterated by her “astonishing burst of eloquence”:
“He taught me everything,” she went on. “Nature was familiar as my own hands. The island had become my only home. I could name every plant, every flower. Not a single bird or beast could escape Father's curiosity. The rarest creature, the moment he saw it, would soon be subject to his learning. Never showed any interest in personal fortune. No taste at all for possession. He must have been a saint. The estate would have gone to ruin if it had not been for the care his servant lavished on him. He was the only school I had ever known. Until the day he died.”
The parallels with The Tempest are close enough for us to recognize the story and to register the changes that Lamming is making to it. The storm, the island, the intense relationship between father and daughter, the absence of the mother, the hated servant, the arrival of a stranger called Fernando—the details gradually accumulate. But, as the parallels become undeniable, so Lamming subtly alters the story. For one thing it becomes contemporary: a sugar estate is inherited in compensation for a robbery borne gracefully by Myra's father (never named as ‘Prospero’).6 The father dies on the night of the storm, his body found in the lake, his death perhaps organized—so Myra suggests—by the malevolent servant. And Myra herself (clearly ‘Miranda’) tells of her rape by the servant and his men and by the dogs:
They found every crack in my body: operated through every opening in my body. I couldn't tell how many they were. But they seemed a whole army. Naked as wind they were. Not a rag to their skin. How many I don't know, nor how long. It seemed like eternity. They would rest and return, giving the interval over to the animals: Father's two hounds. It's as though they had trained the animals for this moment, put them through daily practice in this form of intercourse. They gave the animals the same privilege. Until I couldn't tell which body was the man's and which belonged to the beasts.
Fernando was tied up and made to watch: “They made him their witness. … I believe it drove him mad” (151).
Then, almost at the end of the novel, comes a second and even more startling set of revelations. The pilot who has taken Teeton and his landlady, the Old Dowager, over to his tiny and remote Orcadian island reveals to Teeton that he is Fernando, brother to ‘Prospero,’ that the Old Dowager was ‘Prospero's’ wife, that Myra was her daughter with Fernando, that ‘Prospero’ had abducted Myra, that Fernando had murdered his brother, that Fernando had told the Old Dowager that Myra had disappeared during the storm, and that the servants' rape of Myra repeated the actions they had learned from watching ‘Prospero’ unleash his dogs on their women. This second set of revelations reverberates backward through the novel, altering everything. It also works, like Césaire's play, as a “transgressive appropriation” of The Tempest, a deliberately “blasphemous” reworking of the “sacred” Shakespearean text.7
Revisionist readings of The Tempest are usually characterized as having placed Caliban center stage, thereby shifting the audience's perception of the relationship between Prospero and Caliban and giving greater weight to Caliban's own story, especially with respect to the title to the island. This is not wrong. But Mannoni and Lamming, independently it would seem, have also placed great pressure on those parts of the Shakespearean text which seem to suggest a deep sexual anxiety. Some of these could be regarded as aspects of Prospero's “character”; others are structural to the play itself—for example, the establishment of an intense father-daughter relationship from which the mother is totally absent. These undertones in the play are magnified and worked upon in Water with Berries. Miranda's question to Prospero, “Sir, are you not my father?” which provokes her father's anxious reply, “They mother was a piece of virtue, and / She said thou wast my daughter” (1.2.55–57), licenses the move in which Fernando (as ‘Antonio’ from the play) is the lover of ‘Prospero's’ wife and father of her daughter. In the novel ‘Prospero’ is as impotent sexually as he is in stately affairs, taking his pleasure through dressing his wife in a transparent black nightgown and watching her lie in a coffin. Miranda's judgment on Antonio (“Good wombs have borne bad sons” [1.2.120]) is in the novel turned by Fernando against his brother: “Sprung from the same loins as myself, it's true. But a monster” (WWB, 227). If Caliban was the monster in The Tempest, in Water with Berries that role is clearly played by the Prospero figure.8
In his essay on The Tempest in The Pleasures of Exile Lamming had openly discussed the possible sexual relationships that could result as Miranda reaches puberty, deliberately provocative sentences in which he speculated about how the outcome of Miranda's pregnancy would allow us to tell whether it had been Prospero or Caliban who had penetrated her (“for it is most unlikely that Prospero and his daughter could produce a brown skin baby” [PE, 102]). That hint of incest, a theme also seen as present in the play by other critics, recurs in a different way in Water with Berries. Fernando arrives on the island and is introduced by ‘Prospero’ as his partner, his status as father to Myra and brother to ‘Prospero’ denied to him. He speaks to Teeton in the tones of an outraged father, his daughter estranged from him by ‘Prospero's’ training and then raped by ‘Prospero's’ servants. But Fernando does not know that Teeton has spoken to Myra and that she, unaware that Fernando is her father, has spoken of him in terms appropriate to that named role in The Tempest, preordained lover of Miranda: “And then the stranger from home arrived. And she learnt, for the first time, what was the origin of these fevers which had started to roast her body in sleep. Her father seemed kind as daylight to the man he introduced as his partner. He had come to help in the management of the estate. And she discovered what could happen when you were a woman. And she was happy” (WWB, 146).
As the parallels mount, the obvious question concerns the part of Caliban in this continuation of The Tempest. Several answers are possible, indeed probably several are necessary in order to avoid too simplistic an identification of Teeton, the black West Indian, with Caliban. That connection is certainly present. When Myra parries questions about her mother, Teeton is said not to be surprised, “for he had endured a childhood's silence to questions about the absence of a father from his life” (WWB, 147), as if Lamming were going out of his way to reestablish the asymmetrical parallels between the half-families of Miranda and Prospero, Caliban and Sycorax. When Myra tells her horrifying story of gang and animal rape Teeton is tortured by guilt for what he hears: “For a moment he felt as though he had been the agent of these barbarities” (151). And the Secret Gathering to which Teeton belongs, plotting a political coup on San Cristobal, is a more serious, if ultimately no more successful, version of Caliban's conspiracy. The historical resonance of their plans is strengthened by their deadline of 12 October, presumably—though Lamming does not mention this—the national holiday of an island bearing the same name as Christopher Columbus.
Lamming's own comments on the novel open up two kinds of complications to this seeming identification. Teeton's friends, Roger and Derek, musician and actor, also represent “aspects of Caliban,” he says, and, in addition, they are all on a return journey “to Prospero's ancestral home—a journey which was, at the beginning, a logical kind of development because of the relation to Prospero's language. They then discovered the reality of Prospero's home—not from a distance, not filtered through Prospero's explanation or record of his home, but through their own immediate and direct experience.”9 In other words Teeton and Roger and Derek are in a sense Caliban, but Caliban several centuries later, the same but different, aware of the precedent but also aware of their difference from that precedent.10 One of the differences produced by that lapse of time is that “that power—that imperial power, that spirit of adventure, that extraordinary obsession with turning the earth into one's private garden—is now gone.” Prospero is long dead; the empire is represented by Mrs. Gore-Brittain, the Old Dowager, with her memories of the past: “Teeton lives as a tenant in her house, which is only another way of describing how he and people like him live in that country.”11 The imperial power has no “magic” with which to enforce the subservience of its subaltern peoples. Nonetheless, Teeton finds it extremely difficult to break the relationship that they have established, however necessary such a break might be to the success of his plans. Prospero's absent wife makes her appearance in Water with Berries as “mother” to the exiled West Indian, landlady rather than slavemaster, but, nonetheless, somebody with whom a relationship of interdependence is established—a postcolonial relationship but one that carries some of the psychic weight of the colonial within it.
The abiding problem of trying to read “Third World” literature from the metropolis is how to avoid the twin dangers of assimilation and exoticism. Critical reception of Caribbean novels such as those referred to at the beginning of this essay has gone through a number of stages, with regional variations that would connect some of the novelists to Latin America, others to the States, and others to a more generalized notion of the Third World. A broad historical survey would probably reveal that such novels were first appreciated for their “regional” qualities (local color), were then assimilated to metropolitan models and norms (realism), and have most recently been read in accordance with the supposedly “universal” category of postmodernism. In the different cases, of course, different novels have been valued—then devalued.
One of the few attempts to break away from the hegemony of these openly metropolitan standards is Fredric Jameson's development of the notion of “national allegory” as a way of arguing a different kind of relationship between the public and private spheres in Third World novels: “Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic—necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.”12 This article of Jameson's has come in for heavy criticism, much of it justified.13 Yet one of its main points, that we (in the West) might look again at some of the early postcolonial novels seemingly overshadowed in recent years by their more spectacular postmodernist brethren and find in these texts rather more than the derivative realism we once perceived, is far from unhelpful when rereading Lamming, who has described his own task as “the shaping of national consciousness.”14 To European literary critics that phrase might have the pseudoheroic ring of socialist realism, but there are no heroes in Water with Berries. If national consciousness is “shaped,” then it is through an imaginative reassessment of the relationship between metropolis and ex-colony. And central to that reassessment is precisely the issue of public and private spheres highlighted by Jameson. Indeed, Teeton is caught between the two: trapped by the essentially privatized nature of artistic life in contemporary England yet unable to return to what he clearly sees as his “proper” public role in San Cristobal.
Allegory, or something like it, is also a necessary critical term—until a more appropriate terminology has been developed—to discuss the mode in which the novel operates. The use of the word allegory at least suggests that the development of the novel takes place in accordance with imperatives that are not those of the “realism” to which its opening chapters seem to adhere. To spell this out: the establishment of Teeton and the Old Dowager as the central “characters” takes place within that mode of writing so deeply familiar as to be practically invisible. They seem to be “consolidating” as characters, to use Wilson Harris's helpful term.15 Yet the plot, when it comes, is complicated by “coincidences” that could have no “realistic” explanation—and which would seriously weaken the novel if it were read according to the criteria of realism: that Teeton should come from the island Mrs. Gore Brittain's husband and daughter had gone to; that Myra should meet Teeton on the heath. Similarly, the “characters” established seemingly in accordance with a recognizable “psychology,” begin to “act” in ways considerably in excess of any explanation that psychology might offer.
This is not to suggest that Lamming has some other perfectly formed set of narrative principles along which his book operates; it is difficult to imagine a reading of Water with Berries that would not run up against its inconsistencies and awkwardnesses of tone. My point is that the awkwardness is not a sign of a failure to adhere to a norm but, rather, a symptom of a breaking away from that norm toward a new way of writing (and reading) which has yet to be fully formulated, at least in the case of the Caribbean.16 Lamming himself has offered one model for a writer's relationship to history and, by extension, to writing, which can provide a template on which to set the structure of Water with Berries. At the beginning of The Pleasures of Exile Lamming recalls having witnessed a “ceremony of the Souls” in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. The celebrants are relatives of the deceased. On this momentous night the Dead return to offer a full and honest report on their past relations with the living. The Dead have to speak honestly in order to be freed into the eternity that will be their destiny. The living are looking for knowledge of the past and guidance for their future. The ceremony is sometimes disrupted by the arrival of the Law, in which case the rites are performed in the street. Where two or three are gathered together and lines are made in dust, the gods are present. If the police arrive, to get up to greet them is sufficient to erase the lines. The ceremony stands, then, for “religion” in the sense of African ways that are sometimes forbidden by Western Law but which survive, unseen if necessary. Lamming immediately relates the conflict of religion and Law to The Tempest. Prospero's magic is clearly the operation of an official Law, upholding his (self-appointed) authority on the island. Caliban has his own religious practices, but they have to be performed out of Prospero's sight.
Throughout Water with Berries the presence of the dead presses upon the living. Early in the book the Old Dowager tells Teeton that her husband had spoken to her twelve years after his death (WWB, 30). The scene prefigures much of what happens later in the novel, but its significance escapes the first-time reader because we do not yet know that this remembered figure is ‘Prospero,’ and, in any case, we are at this stage likely to read through the conventions of realism by putting the communication down to an old woman's imagination. Her husband's death-centered fetishism is also described: Fernando later says “He always trafficked with the dead” (228)—as Prospero famously admits toward the end of The Tempest (5.I.48–50).
The central scene in Water with Berries, in which Teeton meets Myra on the heath, is preceded by Teeton recalling, in what seems part-dream and part-memory, the Ceremony of the Souls from his childhood: “these mourners who by native custom had come to settle their final account with the dead,” presumably here assimilated to the Christian holy day of All Souls'. One year he had met Randa at this ceremony, and he tries to recall that meeting, but the face of Jeremy intervenes, “hovering like doom over the pond” (WWB, 107). The custom is here remembered by the character and thus becomes part of the fiction, motivated by Teeton's understandable concern with the death of his wife, just revealed to him by Jeremy. But it is after he has “opened his eyes,” after, in other words, the fiction seems to have resumed its course in the narrative present, that the ceremony of the Dead truly commences as the ghosts of the colonial past come to haunt Teeton. They come, in a sense, under the cover of realism, but they are governed from outside realist conventions, allegorical figures to the extent that they signify through their relationship to The Tempest, however much Lamming alters the detail of their stories: “The world in which one lives is not just inhabited by the living. It is a world which is also the creation of the dead. And any architecture of the future cannot really take place without that continuing dialogue between the living and the dead.”17
The last chapter of Water with Berries consists of four sentences:
The publican of the Mona died two days after the remains of the Old Dowager's body were found. Derek alone escaped the charge of murder. But the Gathering defied the nation with their furious arguing that Teeton was innocent. They were all waiting for the trials to begin.
This may in some sense parody the final chapter of the realist novel, but it offers none of the satisfactions of postmodernist fiction: there is no irony, no humor, no excess, no play with conventions, no dramatic refusal of the “ending.” Instead, there is a situated ignorance. We are placed at the end of the story but before the trials; we end before the conclusion.
These last sentences of Water with Berries imply a text that is never quoted: the newspaper accounts of the book's events—murder, arson, indecent assault. Lamming is hardly writing a sociological novel; there is no sense of these events being explained to an uncomprehending public. The book has no moral stance and offers no judgments. What is felt is the weight of the past, history as a nightmare that is still, secretly, writing the script whose lines we are speaking.
The hallmark of Natives of My Person and Water with Berries is the extraordinary way in which present and past are combined. Lamming himself notes that the House of Trade in Natives of My Person is as much a modern multinational corporation as it is a sixteenth-century institution. Water with Berries is a dense meditation on The Tempest and its significance for the postcolonial era, but it is a book deeply marked by the circumstances of its writing, as racism became a major component of English social and political life: 1971, when Water with Berries was published, is also the date of the most infamous of the Immigration Acts that discriminated against West Indians, among other groups from the so-called New Commonwealth.
From this perspective Water with Berries marks a transition in Lamming's work, even if, as yet, it is not clear what lies on this side of the transition, at least for Lamming himself. The conspiracy in which Teeton is involved fails, and there is no return to San Cristobal. The three West Indians will have to make their way here, on Prospero's island, for better or worse. The “exile” has become permanent. “What they will have to deal with now is the new reality in the experience—that is, the world—the increasing world of Blacks in England, rather than what they propose to do about the world on the island. The transformations of their ‘homes’ would have passed onto another generation.”18
If the work of the postcolonial writer involves, as Lamming suggests earlier in his interview with George Kent in 1974, a “shaping of the national consciousness,” then, perhaps surprisingly, this “nation” turns out to be Britain. No true ceremony of the souls takes place within the book, yet Teeton comes closer than anyone else to acting as a conduit between the living and the dead: he hears the stories, pieces together the past, and listens to its victims, even if, finally, as victim himself, he is hardly in a position to act.
Water with Berries certainly offers no prescriptions. Inasmuch as it can be thought of as a ceremony of the Souls itself, though, it serves as a reminder, if any such is necessary, that Britain too is a postcolonial country and that the heritage of colonialism is not renounced quite so easily as Prospero's example at the end of The Tempest might suggest. The souls of the colonial dead are not yet at peace.
See Octave Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban; The Psychology of Colonization (1950), trans. Pamela Powesland, 2d ed. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964); Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto, 1986); Aimé Césaire, Une Tempête: D'après “la Tempête” de Shakespeare—Adaptation pour un théâtre nègre (Paris: Seuil, 1969); and Discourse on Colonialism (1955; reprint, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972); and Roberto Fernández Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, trans. Edward Baker (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1989). On this whole body of writing, see Rob Nixon, “Caribbean and African Appropriations of The Tempest,” Critical Inquiry 13 (1987): 557–78; Alden T. Vaughan, “Caliban in the ‘Third World’: Shakespeare's Savagé as Sociopolitical Symbol,” Massachusetts Review 29 (1988): 289–313; and Peter Hulme, “Rewriting the Caribbean Past: Cultural History in the Colonial Context,” in Interpretation and Cultural History, ed. Joan H. Pittock and Andrew Wear (London: Macmillan, 1991), 175–97.
Retamar, “Caliban Revisited,” Caliban and Other Essays, 119 n. 17.
For one thing language ties Prospero and Caliban together: see Lowell Fiet, “Reassessing Caliban's Exile,” Sargasso 3 (1986): 78–84; and George Lamming and Gordon K. Lewis, “Intersections and Divergences” (interview), Sargasso 3 (1986): 3–30.
Lamming himself, on the other hand, emphasizes the internal logic of his novelistic career (in Kent, “Caribbean Novelist,” 96).
See Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797 (London: Methuen, 1986), 126–27.
I have used single quotation marks around names to designate the equivalent characters in The Tempest who do not carry a name in Water with Berries.
For the term transgressive appropriation, see Nixon, “Caribbean and African Appropriations,” 558. Lamming himself discusses the “blasphemy” of his reading of The Tempest (PE, 9).
On “Prospero's wife” in Shakespearean criticism, see Stephen Orgel, “Prospero's Wife,” Representations 8 (1984): 1–13.
Lamming, in Kent, “Caribbean Novelist,” 89.
On the three West Indian characters, see the good discussion in Sandra Pouchet Paquet, The Novels of George Lamming (London: Heinemann, 1982), 87.
Lamming, in Kent, “Caribbean Novelist,” 91.
Fredric Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (1986): 69.
See Aijza Ahmad, “Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory,’” Social Text 17 (1987): 3–25. On allegory as a useful term for analyzing postcolonial literature, see also Stephen Slemon, “Monuments of Empire: Allegory/ Counter-Discourse/Post-Colonial Writing,” Kunapipi 9, no. 3 (1987): 1–16.
Lamming, in Kent, “Caribbean Novelist,” 90.
See Wilson Harris, “Tradition and the West Indian Novel,” in Tradition, the Writer and Society (London: New Beacon Books, 1967), 28–47.
If there is a model for this kind of writing within the European tradition, it would probably be something as anomalous as Conrad's Under Western Eyes, with its intricately wrought dialogues, matched here by the set piece between Teeton and Jeremy. There are some parallels also between Lamming's practice and the theory outlined in Wilson Harris's 1967 essay (ibid.), although their novels are quite different.
Lamming, in Kent, “Caribbean Novelist,” 94.
George Lamming, who was born in Barbados in 1927, has published six novels: In the Castle of My Skin (1953), The Emigrants (1954), Of Age and Innocence (1958), Season of Adventure (1960), Water with Berries (1971), and Natives of My Person (1972); and one book of essays, The Pleasures of Exile (1960). References to the last three books mentioned are to Water with Berries (London: Longman, 1973), Natives of My Person (London: Picador, 1974), and The Pleasures of Exile, 2d ed. (London: Allison & Busby, 1984); in these three cases quotations are identified by the abbreviations WWB, NP, PE. There is a good general account of Lamming's work in Sandra Pouchet Paquet, The Novels of George Lamming (London: Heinemann, 1982). On the last two novels, see also Helen Tiffin, “The Tyranny of History: George Lamming's Natives of My Person and Water with Berries,”Ariel 10 (1979): 37–52; Avis G. McDonald, “‘Within the Orbit of Power’: Reading Allegory in George Lamming's Natives of My Person,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 22 (1987): 73–86; and Patrick Taylor, The Narrative of Liberation: Perspectives on Afro-Caribbean Literature, Popular Culture, and Politics (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1989), 183–230.
For helpful comments on a draft of this essay I'd like to thank Dave Ellis, Sally Keenan, Jerry Phillips, Alden Vaughan, Dennis Walder, and Jonathan White.
Epigraph: In George E. Kent, “Caribbean Novelist: A Conversation with George Lamming,” Black World 22, no. 5 (1973): 92.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3398
SOURCE: “‘Whirling out of the Dance …’: Three Autobiographies Written in Exile,” in Griot, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 42-6.
[In the following essay, Bass finds many similarities among American Richard Wright's Black Boy, South African Ezekiel Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue, and Caribbean George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin despite the different nationalities of the writers.]
In Metaphors of Self James Olney says, “It is the great virtue of autobiography as I see it to offer us understanding that is finally not of someone else but of ourselves” (x). However, what we can expect to understand about ourselves is not always clear, particularly if the autobiographer is of a different race or gender and from a different culture.
This author read the autobiographical narratives by Richard Wright, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and George Lamming for the reason Olney suggests: to understand growing up black, and in this case, male, in a rather universal context. The objective was not to compare these autobiographies, but the extraordinary similarities among them forced me to think about them as one narrative about variations of a collective experience—growing up black and male in the early decades of the twentieth century.
When doing a study of these autobiographies written by black men from vastly different countries and cultural backgrounds, one wonders if race, skin color, the common condition of blackness was basis enough for comparison, particularly when scholars insist that there is no single black experience. The autobiographies, however, suggest that Wright, Lamming, and Mphahlele share two experiences that determine the courses of their lives: They must physically escape oppression and injustice through voluntary exile, and they must escape oppression and injustice through the writing of their life stories. To be black and male in the early decades of the twentieth century in the American South, the Caribbean, and in South Africa, was to suffer in remarkably similar ways.
While there can be no question that the events in these young men's lives are largely determined because they are black, there are, however, disparities in the way in which the writers perceive the significance of being black. For example, George Lamming says that the major difference between the black American and the black West Indian is the American's “highly oppressive sense of being Negro. No black West Indian,” says Lamming, “in his native environment, would have the highly oppressive sense of being Negro … It has to do with the West Indian's social and racial situation. The West Indian, however black and dispossessed, could never have felt the experience of being in a minority” (Pleasures 33).
The black South African shares that oppressive sense of being Negro with the black American but like the black West Indian, the black South African has not felt “the experience of being a minority.” In addition, the black South African has never, as James Baldwin says, “endured the utter alienation of himself from his people and his past” (122). These important distinctions account for the difference between the nature of the South African's rage and struggle for freedom and that of the Black American.
These various perceptions of what it means to be black do not alter the reality that people are colonized because they are African or of African descent. The oppressive influence and societal disruption and discontinuity caused by British and American imperialism and ethnocentrism is perhaps the most crucial similarity in their lives. “Colonialism,” says Frantz Fanon, “has never ceased to maintain that the Negro is a savage; and for the colonist, the Negro was neither an Angolan nor a Nigerian,” (or, I might add, a West Indian or a black American), “he simply spoke of the Negro” (211). The colonial predicament, which includes the negation and destruction of indigenous culture (JanMohamed, “Humanism” 296), links the lives of Mphahlele, Wright and Lamming.
There is no doubt that Wright's experience in the United States parallels that of Lamming in Barbados and Mphahlele in South Africa. In Black Boy, he says, “Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it” (45). Wright's position is further complicated by the fact that the United States was once a colonial culture. George Lamming in the Pleasures of Exile says, “The American Negro is not just colonial vis-a-vis England, but American and Negro up against the monolithic authority of European culture” (30). In other words, Wright is diminished and colonized in a country that still lives under the shadow of its own colonization.
The colonial experience manifested itself in tangible ways for each of these men. For example, poverty was a factor of life for all of them. Mphahlele remembers:
But all in all perhaps I led a life shared by all other country boys. Boys who are aware of only one purpose of living; to be. Often crops failed us. Mother sent us a few tins of jam and we ate that with cornmeal porridge. Sometimes she sent us sugar which we ate with porridge. I can never forget how delicious a dish we had by making porridge out of pumpkin and corn meal. The only time we tasted tea bread was when our mother came to see us at Christmas. On such occasions many other people in the village came to our home to taste these rare things. If hunting was bad we didn't have meat. About the only time we had goat's meat or beef was when livestock died …
While Mphahlele' impoverishment is expressed by the type and quality of food he had to eat, Richard Wright's poverty involves a lack of food:
Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant. Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly. The hunger I had known before had been no grim, hostile stranger; it had been a normal hunger that had made me beg constantly for bread, and when I ate a crust or two I was satisfied. But this new hunger baffled me, scared me, made me angry and insistent. Whenever I begged for food now my mother would pour me a cup of tea which would still the clamor in my stomach for a moment or two; but a little later I would feel hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached. I would grow dizzy and my vision would dim. I became less active in my play, and for the first time in my life I had to pause and think what was happening to me
In In the Castle of My Skin (1953), George Lamming simply refers to himself as “G..” The nature of G.'s poverty differs sharply from that of Mphahlele and Wright. He is never hungry, and all his basic needs are met. G., his mother and the mother of his community live on what is essentially a plantation. Mr. Creighton, the British owner, lives on a hill overlooking the village. There are black overseers who supervise the villagers and act as liaisons between them and the landlord. The villagers own nothing save the few possessions in their substandard homes. No resident owns property and the community is solely governed by Creighton. This is made perfectly clear when the entire village is sold. Residents do not have the money to buy “their” houses and have nowhere to go. They are simply turned out like cattle without regard for their well-being. They are pawns that can be moved around freely without consultation or concern for their wishes.
Mphahlele, Wright, and Lamming all have absent fathers. In the narratives, Mphahlele and Wright feel nothing but contempt for their abusive fathers. Each associates his father with an incident that is extremely traumatic. Mphahlele remembers his father's cruelty to his mother:
He limped over to the pot on the stove. In no time it was done. My mother screamed with a voice I have never forgotten till this day. Hot gravy and meat and potatoes had got into her blouse and she was trying to shake them down. … He caught hold of her by the blouse and landed the pot in the middle of her skull with a heavy gong sound. She struggled loose from his grip and fled through the door crying
Wright associates his father with the hunger that he experiences. “As the days slid past the image of my father became associated with my pangs of hunger, whenever I felt hunger I thought of him a deep biological bitterness” (22).
The departure of their fathers bring not only the hunger but instability into the boys' lives. Mphahlele and Wright live with various relatives (Wright briefly lives in an orphanage) and thus never knows a stable homelife. G., however, has stability but he never knows his father: My father who had only fathered the idea of me had left me the sole liability of my mother who really fathered me” (11).
Perhaps the most significant aspect of these parallel lives is the fact that childhood experiences and living conditions drove each young man to feel an overwhelming need to escape and to write a record of their lives. One might ask why anyone would want to relive, in memory and imagination, such painful events? Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), traces the phases which characterizes the evolution of what he calls the native writer. He says, “In the second phase we find the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is … Past happenings of the bygone days of his childhood will be brought up out of the depths of his memory; old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of a borrowed estheticism and of a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies” (222). And in a passage specifically directed to South African writers, James Olney makes some remarks that apply equally to Wright: “For all these writers, the question that insists on being answered in their lives and their autobiographies is what or how they can create in a nation divided and oppressed by apartheid. Exile and literary autobiography have been their typical answers” (42).
Unlike Lamming, Wright and Mphahlele offer caustic indictments of their countries and communities. Wright seems to be more embittered of the two, and the reason for this relates to the differences in the expectations that each man has of his country. For Mphahlele, there was never the illusion of being born into a free society. He knew, as all blacks in South Africa then knew, exactly what constraints would be imposed upon him because of the color of his skin. The constraints were universal in South Africa since the government fully sanctioned and enforced apartheid. This knowledge neither minimized the desire for freedom nor made blacks accept segregation or discrimination readily. However, there was never the confusion about one's status that existed in the United States. Richard Wright was born into a democracy, the “Land of the Free,” and a country which theoretically assured that each citizen that was entitled to certain rights and privileges. At the time the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written, no one envisioned that blacks would ever be more than personal property. However, in time they “legally” won freedom and full citizenship. Blacks should have been able to participate fully in the democratic process, but they were not. Thus, in Wright's narrative, there is a deep sense of disappointment that is not found in Mphahlele's work. Wright, by virtue of his birthright, expects to be treated as an American citizen. He is, instead, treated as a slave.
On the surface Lamming's autobiographical narrative seems markedly different from Mphahlele's and Wright's. There are no passionate denunciations of an unfair or brutal system, and no deeply moving accounts of racial injustice. Racial segregation, as Mphahlele and Wright know it, does not exist in Lamming's predominantly black Barbados, West Indies. What is noticeably absent from In the Castle of My Skin is the overwhelming preoccupation with the race that permeates the other two autobiographies. This does not necessarily suggest that race does not seem to matter in Lamming's society. The history of slavery and the continued presence of the British serve as constant reminders that race matters. The nature of the population and the relative insularity of each island present particular problems for the West Indies. One of the primary problems is addressed in In the Castle of My Skin is that of class conflict. Middle class blacks rather than whites swindle the villagers out of their money and homes. What is seen most often in this narrative is infighting among blacks. What we also see very clearly is the imperialist system which created the peasant class and facilitates its exploitation. Lamming does not exonerate the British simply because they do not figure prominently in the book. Their oppressive influence is always felt.
Although G. does not have to deal with the government-sanctioned form of apartheid, Lamming does not end the story without making clear to the reader that there is a bond between himself as a West Indian and his counterpart in the United States. After a trip to New York, Trumper returns to Barbados with an identity. It is both significant and ironic that Trumper must leave his island and experience prejudice and discrimination in the United States to fully understand what it means to be black. Trumper tells G. that he has to leave the island to “fin' race” and explains that the West Indian's identity crisis, or “angst of identity,” as Michael Gilkes would say, is all a part of a well-designed plan on the part of the British:
“Course the blacks here are my people too; but they don't know it yet. You don't know it yourself. None o' you here on this islan' know what it mean to fin' race. An' the white people you have to deal with won't ever let you know. “Tis a great thing 'bout the English, the know-how.”
Trumper goes on to say that it is only through suffering overt racial discrimination that one can know “The Race, our people.”
Perhaps the most destructive thing that the Western world did to African people was to impose its world view upon them. In Myth, Literature and the African World. Wole Soyinka says that the African existed within a “cosmic totality” and possessed “a consciousness in which his own earth being, his gravity-bound apprehension of self, was inseparable from the entire cosmic phenomenon” (3). In the African world, there was no division between the ancestral world and this one and no distinction between the land of the living, the dead, and the unborn. Life was a continuum and everyone was a part of all that is. This world view, or a grieving loss of it, is evident in each of the autobiographies. For example, G.'s description of three women from his village gives evidence of his belief in that world view:
It seemed that they were three pieces in a pattern which remained constant. The flow of its history was undisturbed by any difference in the pieces, nor was its evenness affected by any likeness. There was a difference and there was no difference
With colonialism comes cultural imperialism The dominating culture becomes the model for the colonial subject who supposedly has no history and culture other than that he has inherited from the empire. Fanon says that “Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it” (210).
In Down Second Avenue and Black Boy, the cosmic totality becomes only a memory, passed on by ancestors, of life at another time or in another place. The horrors of racial segregation distort every aspect of life for these young men. Mphahlele, when comparing himself and members of his community to the Zulus, says that his people are “detribalized.” Wright wonders if normal relationships among Negroes are possible when one lives under such oppressive conditions.
The events in these three lives invariably led to exile. The stifling conditions caused by the burden of oppression offered no alternative but escape for some people, and that is especially true for Wright, Lamming, and Mphahlele. These autobiographies could not have been written without the objective knowledge acquired by a conception of their worlds, which, as Fanon says, was “discovered under the skies” (222). Toward the end of Tell Me Africa, James Olney describes South Africa as a place where “everyone, but most especially the black man, is caught in a dance where no one is free to act but only to react, and in this dance of death there is no creation but only destruction” (258). Lamming, Wright and Mphahlele had to free themselves from bondage and certain death of the spirit. This “whirling out of the dance” was a positive move, for it activated the creative process in each man. The distance from home gave a different perspective on their lives and experiences. Although Mphahlele, Lamming, and Wright were consistent in their repudiation of cultural and colonial imperialism, they were able to convert these negative forces into the positive act of creating new identities for themselves. These are not colonials writing autobiographies, but free men who able to reflect upon the colonial experience and relate it to the world. As a result, the lives of these men join in a very positive way.
There should be no question about the relationship among Mphahlele, Lamming, and Wright. Their lives are inextricably linked in innumerable ways. The cultural difference do not overshadow or diminish the similarities in their lives. They are sons born to a common mother, for all sprang from the loins of Mother Africa. The vast cultural differences, which seem so striking to us when we initially read their stories, fade as we examine their lives as recounted in their narratives. We see poverty, degradation, and powerlessness, but we also see the triumph and tenacity of the human spirit, the activation of the creative process, and the ability to recreate life—to recapture the essence of that which has gone before. And finally, out of the mire of negativity and hatred grows a deep and abiding love for the places where they were born and a vision of a new and better day.
At the end of Black Boy, Richard Wright captures the peculiar and continuing relationship that each of these writers has to his homeland as well as the hope that seems to linger in their hearts and those of many persons now in exile:
Yet, deep down, I knew that I could never leave the South, for my feelings had already been formed by the South, for there had been slowly instilled into my personality and consciousness, black though I was, the culture of the South. So, in leaving, I was taking a part of South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom … And if that miracle ever happened, then could I know that there was yet hope in that southern swamp of despair and violence, that light could emerge even out of the blackest of the southern night. I would know that the South too could overcome its fear, its hate, its cowardice, its heritage of guilt and blood, its burden of anxiety and compulsive cruelty
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. 1961. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
JanMohamed, Abdul. “Humanism and Minority Literature: Toward a Definition of Counter-hegemonic Discourse.” Boundary 2 12–13 (1984): 281–299.
Lamming, George. In the Castle of My Skin. 1953. New York: Schocken Books, 1983.
———. The Pleasures of Exile. London: Allison & Busby, 1984.
Mphahlele, Ezekiel. Down Second Avenue. London: Faber and Faber, 1959.
Olney, James. Metaphors of Self. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.
———. Tell Me Africa. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.
Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge UP, 1976.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. New York: Harper and Row, 1945.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6034
SOURCE: “Mothers and Their Defining Role: The Autobiographies of Richard Wright, George Lamming, and Camara Laye,” in Griot, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 54-61.
[In the following essay, Williams compares the strong mother figures in Wright's Black Boy, Laye's The Dark Child, and Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, and analyzes their effect on the lives of their children.]
The autobiographies of George Lamming. Richard Wright and Camara Laye have much in common with many other autobiographies which have emerged out of the European tradition. They share with other writers of the autobiography a common intention, which is to make themselves “the subject of [their] book and to impart some sense of it to the reader” (Olney 23). In an article entitled “The Negro Writer and his World,” George Lamming himself wrote that “the modern black writer's endeavor is like that of every other writer whose work is a form of self-inquiry” (Caribbean Quarterly 109). Yet, because of a common racial experience and the subsequent similarities in their cultural conditions, the autobiographies of these three black writers from three different parts of the African world present much that is common to them and unique both in content and method, even as they evidence variations among themselves.
One shared feature in the autobiographies of all three writers is the centrality of the mother's role in the lives of the youths as they emerge from childhood to adulthood. The matriarchal disposition present in many black families of Africa, the Caribbean and African American communities, coupled with specific historical circumstances, induce Laye, Lamming and Wright to underscore the crucial role that the mother plays in shaping the identity of her son in The Dark Child,In the Castle of My Skin, and Black Boy respectively. The sons in these autobiographies define themselves in relationship to their mothers.
Each autobiography presents a different family situation; yet for all the differences, the image of the strong African woman as mother haunts the pages of all three texts. From Africa to the United States to the Caribbean, she plays a pivotal role in the upbringing and development of her child. She protects as much as she scolds, seeking to provide some sense of direction to her offspring. She is the source of their perception of reality throughout their childhood up to their adolescence.
Each writer is emphatic in acknowledging, from beginning to end, the efforts his mother exerts in her attempt to influence who and what her son becomes. Each mother seeks to mold the personality of the young black male to prepare him to live in a society that may be unfamiliar and/or hostile to the youth. The matriarchal imperative is very decisive in the lives of the youngsters.
Historically, the black mother has been acknowledged as the major determinant in the survival of the black family, particularly in the diaspora where she has often had to assume the status of the head of the household as a result of the absence or ineffectual presence of the male. She has performed this task effectively in spite of her many sufferings. Treated as animals just like their male counterparts in slavery, the women had additional indignities heaped upon them. They were raped at will and made to undergo all manner of sexual depravities to satisfy the lusts of the slaveholders. They were reduced to the level of mere “breeder” of slaves when supplies from Africa could not keep up with the demands of the plantation.
To ensure that they perform this role, masters developed the most cruel of punishments. C. L. R. James in his Black Jacobins tells us that “the torture of the collar was specially reserved for women who were suspected of abortion, and the collar never left their necks until they had produced a child (13). Also, according to James, the pregnant woman was not spared the torture of the “four-post”: “A hole was dug in the earth to accommodate the unborn child.” (13)
This same black mother had to look on helplessly while her children were sold off once they reached an age deemed suitable for work by the plantation overseer. Francis Watkins Harper, one of the best known antislavery poets of the nineteenth century, captures the predicament of the black mother in her poem “The Slave Mother.” With “a burdened heart / … breaking in despair,” with “hands … sadly clasped / … bowed and feeble head / … a fragile form” that speaks of “grief and dread,” this black mother, “pale with fear,” attempts to hide her “trembling” son from the “cruel hands” of the slave master. Her role as protector is accentuated here, though in this case she seems impotent.
She is made to suffer the worst type of alienation known to womankind—the forced separation of mother from child. She is devastated by the knowledge that “he is not hers, although she bore / for him a mother's pains.” She must give birth only to see the sole “wreath of household love / that binds her breaking heart” snatched from her to be sold as a commodity. (Black Writers of America 225). Forced to witness the brutal enslavement of their offspring, some mothers either aborted or poisoned their children both as an act of defiance and as an act of mercy.
Moreover, since slaveholders had very little regard for the slaves' family life, “wives and husbands, children and parents, were separated at the will of the master” (James 15). Whatever shred of family life remained was primarily as a result of the efforts of the mother. With the virtual disappearance of the father in his traditional role of provider and protector, the mother had to appropriate this role even as she exercised the greatest moral authority over her children. The ties with her children, especially with her sons, took on special significance.
Even after slavery was abolished, the role of the black mother in many areas of the diaspora did not change significantly; she often found herself having to be primarily responsible for the nourishment and development of her children. She saw herself as the only shield between her sons and a hostile external world. She felt responsible for the development of her sons' character and ultimately their identity. According to the 1969 publication of Black Rage, authored by two black psychiatrists, she performs the function of “culture bearer … interprets the society to the children and takes as her task the shaping of the character to meet the world as she knows it” (Grier and Cobbs 51). The paradigm of the black mother in this psychological text holds true in the literary depictions of Wright, Laye and Lamming.
As culture bearer, interpreter and molder of character, the mother additionally takes on the role “as a concerned mediator between society and the child,” because she is painfully aware that it is up to her to “produce and shape a unique type of man” (52). The survival of her child is at stake and that realization impels her to exercise control at every point. This has been the case for thousands of black mothers as it certainly is the case for the overly protective mothers of Wright, Lamming and Laye. The role of these mothers and their relationship to their sons facilitate the search for and construction of an identity on a human level.
The search for self-definition begins at a very early age in all three texts and in each instance, the mother is at the core of that process. For each writer, it begins with the very moment of conscious recollection. When the novel begins, the author/narrator of The Dark Child is five or six years old, while the author/narrator of Black Boy is four. The oldest of them—Lamming—begins his journey towards individual consciousness at the age of nine. This is the age of innocence, and this notion is immediately established in all three novels. Each begins with a little boy in the process of performing some act, the significance of which is not fully appreciated by the immature child until the mother intervenes.
When The Dark Child begins, the author/narrator is playing with a poisonous snake at the entrance to his father's hut. His innocence has banished all fear and it is only in hindsight that he can appreciate the danger: “I was laughing. I had not the slightest fear, and I feel sure that the snake would not have hesitated before burying his fangs in my fingers …” (Laye 18). Laye's mother in her protective role “gave [him] a few sharp slaps” and “solemnly warned [him] never to play that game again” (18). Like the other two mothers of Black Boy and In the Castle …, she makes her appearance early as a disciplinarian determined to guide her child along the ‘correct’ path.
As an important repository of knowledge in the community, she is the one to first explain to him the significance of the “little black snake with a strikingly marked body”: “My son, this one must not be killed: he is not like other snakes, and he will not harm you: you must never interfere with him” (22). She advises him that the snake is his “father's guiding spirit” (22). Soon after this incident, the author informs us that his mother sensed very deeply anything which concerned him. This acknowledgment foreshadows the crucial role that she is to play in the growth and development of her son's personality.
Similarly, danger born of innocence confronts the author/narrator at the beginning of Black Boy. The child sets fire to his mother's curtains and the entire house is in jeopardy of being consumed by the fire. Even though the child admits to being afraid, it is not the fear of what damage he had done and might still do, but the fear that his mother would beat him which leads him to commit yet another foolish act—he hides under the burning house:
I crawled under the house and crept into a dark hollow of a brick chimney and balled myself into a tight spot. My mother must not find me and whip me for what I had done. And neither did it occur to me that I was under a burning house.”
Wright's mother is at the very center of his initial stirring of consciousness. He remembers clearly that “all morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise” (9). He establishes his mother's early role in molding him. As a disciplinarian, she has already begun to prepare her “black boy for his subordinate place in the world.” (Grier and Cobbs 50)
The awakening of the consciousness is equally dramatic at the beginning of Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin. In this instance, however, whatever danger is summoned up to jolt the consciousness is not the active doing of the author/narrator. It is an act of nature or as his mother would say. “The will of the Lord” (1). The worst flood that the village has known drowns out his ninth birthday, and all he can do is weep “for the watery waste of my ninth important day” (1). Linking his ninth birthday with the flood wreckage of the village, the narrator seeks to project the growth and development of a consciousness which would be shaped to some degree by negative forces: but at the center of this growth and development is the influence of the mother, determined to impose her perception and interpretation of the flood upon her son.
The only child of his mother and with no recollection of his father “who had only fathered the idea of [him], he was left the sole liability of [his] mother who really fathered [him] (3). Like her counterpart in Black Boy, she must “assume many masculine functions” (Grier and Cobbs 51). A strict disciplinarian, “G's” mother attempts to exercise control over him throughout his progress from boyhood to adolescence. Whenever he breaks her rules, he is either physically punished or verbally castigated.
When “G” complains that his birthday has been a disappointment because of the heavy rains, he is corrected by his mother. He must see the rains as “showers of blessing” because “it was irreverent to disapprove the will of the Lord” (1). She has no qualms about bathing him naked in the yard and whenever he disobeys her commands, he can expect to receive the belt with as much frequency and strength as his mother can muster: “She talked as she flogged so that I could see, presumably, why I deserved to be flogged” (105). To him, she is “fierce, aggressive and strict.” He is being adequately prepared for the future.
Even as she prepares her son for what lies ahead, she accepts responsibility for his social and educational performances. She believes she can control his social performance through threats and beatings; but her lack of formal education prohibits her from influencing his educational performance to the same degree. Consequently, his high school reports cause her anxiety and agony:
She didn't understand why the masters should say what they had to say. She didn't think I was as bad as all that, and she didn't believe the masters would tell lies. Sometimes she wept to think that everything had been wasted. Sometimes she visited the headmaster or asked to see the master whose condemnation had been the least sympathetic. She became very nervous, and everything, it seemed, was on my account … It was as though she had seen a new sorrow.
This “new sorrow” probably comes from the realization that in this area she can do no more than to remind him that “the mind was the man … and if you had a mind you would be what you wanted to be and not what the world would have you” to be. (220). To ensure that her son's mind cultivate the kind of man she wanted him to be, she sacrificed so he could receive the “best” education possible.
Even when “G” is nineteen years old and is about to leave for Trinidad, his mother refuses to relinquish control over him. Despite admitting that he was a man, she is domineering to the very end:
“You're a man now, but you better remember what the old people always say … you can play man when you cross the sea tomorrow but not now. You're my child now, an' I don't care how old you be, once I'm alive you got to have the right and proper respect for me. If you grow to one hundred you're my child … and when you see the others playing man, an' doing as they please, just tell them you sorry, 'tis different with you, 'cause your mother ain't that sort o'woman. Let them know I don't play, an' that a child is a child for me. Nothing more an' nothing less.”
Sensing that he might be ignoring her rebuke, she ignores his age and is as determined now, as she had been when he was nine, to give him a beating: “It is a long time I ain't hit you, but I'll let you have it good and proper this evening if you give me cause to” (258). She is prepared to carry through with her threat: “I'll show you ain't too big for me to take your pants down, and roast you tail alive” (259).
“G's” mother's major concern is that life in Trinidad should not undo in her son's character what she has sought to establish. Believing that Trinidad possesses the ability to corrupt her son, she lectures to him about the company he must keep and the standards of behavior he must maintain. She is prepared, if necessary, to travel to Trinidad, to enforce her admonitions: “Well, I tell you something, the day I hear you jumpin' up in any street like a bloody hooligan, the day I hear.—Well, I tell you boy, I'll come for you if I got to walk the sea to an' from. With the help o' the Lord I'll come for you” (263). Just as she had waged a battle against the possible corrupting influence of her son's peers, she is equally determined to combat the wider social forces likely to confront her son in a strange land.
However, behind the austere image which she projects, one senses genuine caring and the devoted love of a mother for her son, subtly expressed in the special final dinner which she diligently prepares for him before his departure and in the admonitions about how he must behave in Trinidad. The hope and intention of the narrator's mother is that she will continue to influence his character and personality long after he has departed from her presence.
Since she will not be there to mediate between him and society, she must seize this final opportunity to influence his personality and consequently, his behavior. Her fear is that, without her control and intervention, he is likely to go astray:
If you're left all on your own not the devil in hell self can keep up with you, ‘cause all you want is a little encouragement, an' it don't matter what they encourage you to do … That's why I take this last chance the good God give me to try an' call you to your senses, ‘cause 'tis never too late to save a soul.’
Contrary to her fears, her preparation has made it possible for him to escape the perceived temptations in the “strange land” of Trinidad. In acknowledgment of his mother's influence, the author has fittingly dedicated this chronicle of his boyhood, wherein his identity has been shaped, to his mother.
In his work, Lamming engages in a search for the real self that has been obscured by the constructs of society. While the peer group [Trumper, Boy Blue and Bob], the village environment and the educational institutions have undoubtedly played a part in the realization of “G's” selfhood, it is his mother who had the most profound effect on the self that is “hidden somewhere in the castle of [his] skin.” (253)
In spite of differences, the family setting, which is partially responsible for defining Lamming, bears a striking resemblance to its counterpart in Black Boy. Although Wright begins his life story with a father present, he may as well not have one, for in a real sense, he is as fatherless as “G” is in In the Castle of My Skin. It is his mother who heads the household. She is the disciplinarian whose punishment the child fears. The father does not exercise much of an influence over his son to whom “he was always a stranger. … always somehow alien and remote” (17). When the father eventually deserts the family, leaving them prey to hunger, the burden of nurturing and providing falls almost exclusively on the shoulders of the mother who must project the image of the strong African mother whose duty it is also to “father” the child, as was the case in In the Castle of My Skin.
Richard's mother is as protective and as stern as “G's” mother. The boy fears her anger as “G” fears his mother's anger. She comes on stage as aggressively as her counterpart does in In the Castle of My Skin. Her first interaction with Richard is to “shut him up” with a threat: “She came to me and shook her finger in my face. ‘You stop that yelling, you hear?’ “(9). The reluctance to offend his mother for fear of her likely response is the same as that which exists in In the Castle of My Skin between “G” and his mother.
Richard's fear of his mother is well founded. When his mother catches up with him after the fire, she comes “close to killing (him)”: “I was lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness. I was beaten out of my senses and later I found myself in bed, screaming, determined to run away, tussling with my mother and father who were trying to keep me still. I was lost in a fog of fear. A doctor was called in” (13). This is the mother who, in her attempt to shape her child for playing his proper role in the racist South, admonishes and punishes to ensure compliance.
When Richard deliberately kills the family's kitten as an act of “triumph over (his) father,” she is there to “whack (him) across (his) mouth,” and to require that he repeat a prayer after her: “Dear God, our Father, forgive me, for I knew not what I was doing. And spare my poor life, even though I did not spare the life of the kitten … And while I sleep tonight, do not snatch the breath of life from me” (20). This prayer is preceded by his mother's command to him to bury the kitten he has just killed. The effect of this is a contriteness of heart on the part of Richard.
Richard's mother continues her attempts to influence her son's thought and behavior throughout his childhood in what seems to him to be cruel and punitive fashion, particularly where racial matters are concerned. When he questions her about segregation, he is told to keep quiet. When his childlike mind inquires about the racial identification of his grandmother, he is slapped. When he questions why the family had not fought back when Uncle Hoskins was murdered by whites, he is slapped into silence once again. To Richard, the most puzzling of these is the incident in which he receives a deep cut to head from a gang of white boys. Instead of receiving what he thought would have been deserving sympathy, he is beaten by his mother who tells him that he must never fight white boys again, …” (94). She seldom explains; for the most part, she only commands.
Richard, the child, may not understand his mother's behavior, but in her own way, she is attempting to mold a child who will be able to survive a hostile Southern society which stands ready to mete out strict and merciless judgment whenever its racist sensibilities are offended. Richard's mother resembles in almost every detail the black mother of whom Grier and Cobbs speak: “… the black mother has a more ominous message for her child and feels more urgently the need to get the message across. The child must know that the white world is dangerous and that if he does not understand its rules it may kill him” (51). Richard's mother says as much after beating him for fighting with white boys: “but when she took me home she beat me, telling me that I must never fight white boys again, that I might be killed by them (94; italics mine).
The mother seeks to communicate to her son the hostility of a white society and, at the same time, to “suppress [his] masculine assertiveness and aggression lest these put the boy's life in jeopardy” (Grier and Cobbs 52). Her actions are deliberate and purposeful because they are designed to ensure the survival of her child in a hostile society.
In this setting, these two psychiatrists note that the black mother is likely to undergo “frequent and rapid shifts of mood … The mother who sang spirituals gently at church was capable of inflicting senseless pain at home.” This is a fair characterization of Richard's mother; and what may seem as inconsistencies or contradictions are necessary components for “preparing the boy for adulthood … so that he could understand his later role in a white society” (52). Of the three mothers in the autobiographies, Richard's mother best understands the dangers of her society, for she is a living victim of that society. She knows what that society requires of her son and she attempt to mold a personality accordingly.
When it is time to teach him to stand up to his peers on the streets of Memphis, she is equally adroit. Seeking to fill the void left by his father's desertion, his mother assumes control, and in a matter of minutes, gives her son a valuable lesson in growing up. “I'm going to teach you this night to stand up and fight for yourself” (24). Henceforth, Richard gains the respect of his peers and is able to walk the streets unmolested.
As long as she is physically able to, she attempts to impose her will on her child: “… my mother's ardently religious disposition dominated the household and I was often taken to Sunday school …” (33). Only her later paralysis and subsequent pain and helplessness prevent her from exercising greater influence.
Richard's mother knows that if her son is to survive, she must see to it that he acquires all the skills necessary to do so, and while she may have misgivings about how far her son can go with an education in the South, she is nevertheless anxious that he should learn to read: “When I had learned to recognize certain words, I told my mother that I wanted to learn to read and she encouraged me” (29). Subsequently, she does more than merely encourage him. According to Richard, “… she taught me to read, told me stories. On Sundays I would read the newspaper with my mother guiding me and spelling out the words” (30).
The significance of his mother's encouragement lies in the fact that the skill which she helps him to acquire eventually leads him to inquire into the nature of the social relations of his society, to question the status quo of those relations, and to become aware of alternative modes of social organization. The ability to read leads to a new consciousness, to a new man. This ability empowers Richard much in the same way as it had empowered Frederick Douglass. Each man moves on to become an author, employing the autobiographical text as the agent through which he liberates himself.
The seemingly dual personality found in “G's” mother in In the Castle of My Skin, is also present in Richard's mother. Under the veneer of a stern and uncompromising matriarch, lies a caring and loving person who is devastated by the act of having to place her children in an orphanage: “My mother hated to be separated from us, but she had no choice” (36). When she is unable to take the pleading young Richard out of the orphanage on one of her visits, her reaction is heartrending: “I begged my mother to take me away; she wept and told me to wait, that soon she would take us to Arkansas” (37). Later he would recall: “I had always felt a certain warmth with my mother, even when we had lived in squalor, …” (100). It is not difficult to understand the bond between mother and son, in spite of all the negative forces surrounding them.
Nowhere is the bond between the two better exemplified than in the touching scene where Richard is leaving to go North:
My mother sat in her rocking chair, humming to herself. Packed my suitcase and went to her. “Mama, I'm going away,” I whispered.
“Oh, no,” she protested.
“I've got to go, mama, I can't live this way.” “I'll send for you, mama, I'll be all right.”
“Take care of yourself. And send for me quickly. I'm not happy here,” she said.
Sensing that he might have brought pain to his mother's life in the past and feeling genuinely contrite, he is sufficiently touched to apologize, perhaps for the first time in his life: “I'm sorry for all these long years, mama. But I could not have helped it” (226). What comes next is as moving as the mother son separations in both In the Castle of My Skin and African Child:
I kissed her and she cried. “Be quiet, mama. I'm all right.”
Richard's mother is as persistent as “G's” mother, but is unable to endure in the same way. The system, which on the surface is more morally cruel, hostile and unrelenting than that in Creighton Villages, defeated her. At the end, the child whose consciousness has been shaped by the mother, must rescue that same mother. After he arrives in Chicago, he sends for his mother so that she can be better looked after. Despite her helplessness at this stage of her life. Richard's mother is still a very decisive factor in the development of his personality. Her suffering becomes for him a symbol of dreadful forces which condition his life and the lives of other black people. Indeed, the influence goes very deep:
… Her life set the emotional tone of my life, colored the men and the women I was to meet in the future, conditioned my relation to events that had not yet happened, determined my attitude to situations and circumstances I had yet to face. A somberness of spirit that I was never to lose, settled over me during the slow years of my mother's unrelieved suffering, a somberness that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with suspicion, that was to make me self-conscious, that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate seeking to overtake me.
Indeed, Wright unequivocally makes his mother responsible for the personality that he has developed, for the peculiar manner in which he wrenches his identity from that hostile environment of the South and, more specifically, the alienation that he suffers as he grows up. So profound an effect does his mother's suffering have on his consciousness that by the time he is twelve years old, he ponders the weighty issues that would most likely be problematic to adults, if one is to believe him.
The family situation in The Dark Child is different in many ways from that in the other two autobiographies, though there are striking similarities in the nurturing role of the mother. While the child in the other autobiographies falls under the direction primarily of the mother, in The Dark Child, both mother and father are present throughout and take an active part in directing their child's personality. Thus, there is a strong father presence but the mother is more influential in molding the young Laye. In many ways she bears a striking resemblance to the mothers in In the Castle of My Skin and Black Boy. Very much the disciplinarian like the other two, she is not averse to exercising her prerogative to punish, even if it is only a “few sharp slaps” (18).
Laye's mother sets the rules around the compound and no one dares challenge them; she “saw to it that everything was done according to her own rules; and those rules were strict” (68). Like her counterpart in the other two novels, she mixes caring and gentleness with heavy-handedness: “My mother was very kind, very correct. She also had great authority, and kept an eye on everything we did; so that her kindness was not altogether untempered by severity” (66). When it is time for the child to be rebuked or corrected for his transgression, it is the mother who obliges.
Moreover, Laye's description of his mother parallels that of “G's” mother in In the Castle of My Skin. Her attitude is described as “authoritarian” and the respect given her by both her husband, friends and neighbor owes as much to the role of women in Guinea at that time, as it does to her character:
The woman's role in our country is one fundamental independence, of great inner pride. We despise only those who allow themselves to be despised. … My father would never have dreamed of despising anyone, least of all my mother. He had the greatest respect for her too, and so did our friends and neighbors. That was due, I am sure, to my mother's character, which was impressive; it was due also to the strange powers she possessed.
The strange powers continue to baffle the author even up to the writing of his text. He is witness to his mother's special powers which he cannot explain: “no one ever doubted it” (73). Through these powers, she is able to gain insight into upcoming activities in the village, to cast spells and to neutralize dangerous crocodiles. According to her son, the feats are more like “miracles”; they are “unbelievable,” but true because he has seen them “with [his] own eyes.” (71)
Eventually, in spite of all of her powers, she must settle for a diminished influence over her son's life. The outside world beckons, and she must let go, albeit reluctantly. Like “G's” mother, she is very concerned about her son's welfare in the new place to which he is going. She fears that he will not be treated as well as she has treated him. In her eyes, his leaving is like “going to live among savages” (138). Under the circumstances, she performs the same ritual as “G's” mother had performed. She helps her son pack and gives him a send-off with feast.
This is another case of a mother wishing to maintain a role as mediator between her child and the society, and wishing to ensure her son's survival. She realizes that it is impossible for her to continue to play this role in her son's life. He is not merely leaving the society that she knows well, but he is going to live in a foreign society of which she has no knowledge. This fact increases her concern for her child and multiplies her fears for his safety and comfort: “And tell me this, who's going to look after you? Who's going to mend your clothes? Who'll cook for you?” (185). She is devastated by the thought of her son's vulnerability in the new society: “The child will fall sick; that's what will happen and then what will I do? What will become of me?” (185). She views his downfall as hers as well.
While the mothers in the other two autobiographies make allowances for their children's education, Laye's mother makes no such allowance. She views Western education as merely a device to get her son away from her. For her, traditional education is sufficient. She is convinced that her son's traditional upbringing will supply him with all that is necessary for him to live in his society. Moreover, she is much more reluctant than the other two mothers to cut the bond between mother and son. She is much more possessive. She also betrays more emotion than the other two. She weeps very openly; and even as she weeps, the reader feels that she is weeping for much more than the departure of her son for a strange land.
It is the prospect that her influence may not prevail ultimately which has Laye's mother distraught at the mere mention of his leaving for France. Unlike the other two mothers, she has not been able to prepare her child for the new society he is about to enter. She herself knows nothing about it. She has instinctive misgivings. She can only have suspicions of the dangers that may await him, whereas the other two seem to be more knowledgeable about the potential obstacles to be surmounted by their sons.
Whatever their level of familiarity with the outside world to which their sons will soon depart, these mothers play a diminishing role in influencing their children. This is to be expected since each of the boys is in the process of moving into adulthood, that stage where independence of thought and action become crucial; but until that stage arrives, each author has emphasized his mother's role in shaping her son's life from the very moment we encounter the child to the point where each writer decides to bring a closure to his autobiography. Thus, each writer has confronted what may yet prove to be a characteristic features of all black autobiographies a feature which is by no means circumscribed by time or place.
Barksdale, Richard & Kenneth Kinnamon, eds. Black Writers of America. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972.
Grier, William H. and Price M. Cobbs. Black Rage. New York: Bantam, 1968.
Lamming, George. In The Castle of My Skin. New York: Schocken, 1983.
Lamming, George. “The Negro Writer and His World,” Caribbean Quarterly, February 1958. 109–115.
Laye, Camara. The African Child. Trans. James Kirkup and Ernest Jones. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1954.
Olney, James. Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy New York: Harper & Row, 1945.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4342
SOURCE: “George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin: A Modern West Indian Novel,” in Ariel, Vol. 28, No. 2, April, 1997, pp. 103-14.
[In the following essay, Kirpal defends In the Castle of My Skin in light of Neil ten Kortenaar's negative critical review (Ariel 22:2 April, 1991). Kirpal evaluates the novel from a different perspective and finds it to be a worthwhile political/social endeavor and a complex work of fiction.]
Doubt about the merit and stature of postcolonial literary texts—rather than their paucity—is the factor that most likely discourages many Departments of English in India and elsewhere from formally introducing them into their syllabi. To change this situation, critics have to direct and show readers how to read and appraise these works so that they develop the necessary confidence in their literary and cultural value. In the absence of suitable critical guidelines, these Departments of English Literature seem content to preserve the status quo (that is, the study of British literature). Perhaps, they consider it safer to continue with English literature texts whose worth is well established. On the literary critical front, although many contemporary critics have written on postcolonial texts, few have been able to break out of the Eurocentric mould (perhaps unintentionally) thus contributing further to the confusion. I shall illustrate my point by responding to Neil ten Kortenaar's article “George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin: Finding Promise in the Land,” published in ARIEL, in 1991.
George Lamming's first novel, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), winner of several literary awards, is considered by many to be a major novel.1 Although Kortenaar acknowledges that the novel has a “special place in the hearts” of West Indian readers, he sees it as a “flawed” narrative, as a “formless” work, which “reveals the travail that gave birth to something new” (43). He proceeds to say that this novel takes on a formlessness when the novelist is depicting the undeveloped ego or self of the West Indian village community. He allows that towards the end, when Trumper returns from the US with a better sense of the world and a clearly defined self-identity, the novel achieves some control over the structure. Ignoring the protagonist G.'s rejection of Trumper's propagation of a Negro identity as romantic, Kortenaar concludes:
By giving Trumper the final word, the novel implicitly agrees with Trumper's vision. The novel's close validates a point of view that condemns most of the text itself. … The novel stands self-condemned of sterility and paralysis, but in the end it affirms that the West Indies stands ready to make its own narrative.
For Kortenaar, it is enough that there is a “hero” to write about, a narrative to engage in at last, because Trumper fulfills the usual fictional expectation of a journey from innocence to experience. Reading Kortenaar's Eurocentric analysis, few would feel inspired to include Lamming's seminal text in their syllabi. I wish therefore to examine his major arguments in detail, to indicate his misreadings and questionable critical pronouncements, and to set right the record about the status of In the Castle of My Skin as a major work of modern West Indian fiction. It is necessary to do so because of the adverse and pervasive influence the article could have, considering the fact that it is published in ARIEL, a reputable and widely read journal.
Kortenaar makes three points. First, he argues that In the Castle of My Skin has an “ungainly style” and “erratic narrative” (43). The novel is raw in “feel” and “abjures all narrative hooks, all novelistic techniques that arouse the reader's interest in what happens next” (44). It has, Kortenaar claims, no climax, no emotional catharsis. The flood with which the novel opens could have constituted its climax (as do floods in The Mill on the Floss and in The Virgin and the Gypsy, in which they suggest death and rebirth, and baptism and regeneration). Instead, it appears at the beginning of the book where there are no expectations to be fulfilled as yet.
The other scene, Kortenaar observes, that could have been explored for its climactic value is that of the violent riot in Creighton's Village. Unable to understand the meaning of this incident using English fictional norms, Kortenaar dismisses it as insignificant and amusing:
The violence is reported to be coming to Creighton's Village; the villagers take refuge behind their barred doors; they come out and take a look around, scurry back behind their doors, peep out, see some suspicious characters, and pull back their heads. The buildup is drawn out to such a length that the scene almost becomes comic.
As disquieting as Kortenaar's misreading is his use of imagery and diction that reduce the simple villagers to a pack of mice, frightened and ill-organized. Yet, as even a short extract from the three-page, suspense-ridden depiction of the scene demonstrates, it is the landlord, Mr. Creighton, who is demoralized and scared when he sees the villagers, armed with bottles, sticks, and stones, waiting to attack him.
The landlord turned the corner. … The terror of his face was indescribable. … The men waited. The thought of his death was terrible. … It was incredible. [Mr. Foster] had never seen nor imagined Mr. Creighton could look like that. … The men were waiting till he reached the next corner. They wanted to attack from the back. … He walked shakily like a man exhausted and drunk. … His face was white as a pebble.
(206–07; emphasis added)
Clearly the text is operating on two levels—the stated and the suggested. It is part of the complexity of the novel—and Lamming is writing a modern West Indian novel—that the villagers do not kill the white landlord. Colonized for centuries, coerced into unconditional submission, they are not only unable to “fire” the stones at the white “master” but they even experience guilt—“the thought of his death was terrible.” They wish to defer the moment of his murder as long as possible and unconsciously employ delaying tactics. They are visibly relieved when the landlord escapes to safety as they “wait” for Mr. Slime's orders to attack him (207–08).
Kortenaar quotes a much older Lamming, who has said, looking back at his first novel, that he should have had the white landlord killed at this point in the text, but that this modification would have been purely for political reasons and not out of narrative compulsions. What Lamming means is that killing the white landlord would have been a politically correct gesture. But Kortenaar misses the point and concludes almost in exasperation that “presumably [Lamming] still has no qualms about the narrative slackness of the text” (44). The yearning for a tighter, better organized text can be traced to allegiance to the norms of English fiction.
It is such Eurocentric criticism (or criticism from a non-indigenous perspective) that prompted me to write the article “What is the Modern Third World Novel?” in an attempt to modify the Third World literature critical scene:
[Third-World] novels are plotless in the Western critical sense, that is, they lack formal logic. They are loosely structured, circular, reverberative, and they do not follow the usual pattern of development and action in the Western novel. … The Third-World novel with its unstructured, meandering, unbound, episodic quality suggests the absence of sequentially, very much in the manner of traditional narratives. … The Third-World novel is not constructed without a sophisticated knowledge of structuring fiction. The difference is that its structuring principle is borrowed from the indigenous narrative forms, and it is the native world view that it aspires to picture and image with genuineness.
This is true of In the Castle of My Skin. It is my proposition that unless its constructive principle is located in the oral art of storytelling (although Lamming is writing a novel and not an oral tale), the novel will always be evaluated as a blemished manifestation of the English novel. For taken as a novel, Lamming's text has autonomy of space and time, but taken as oral narrative it erases causal and spatial relationships. It seeks to grow in meaning through juxtaposition of episodes and through accretion rather than through attainment of a climax (as in English fiction). To look at In the Castle of My Skin from this point of view is to have an altogether fresh and positive perspective of the novel's structure and characterization.2
To begin with, the book does not flow sequentially towards some grand climax. The flood, with which the novel opens, signifies not death or rebirth but the hopelessly static conditions of the deprived, penurious Barbadian, particularly the woman (often a single parent), under colonization: “As if in serious imitation of the waters that raced outside, our lives—meaning our fears and their corresponding ideals seemed to escape down an imaginary drain that was our future” (10). Yet the scene is not imbued with existentialist despair. As the relentless rain floods home and hearth, G.'s mother breaks into a folksong that is picked up first by one neighbour, then a second, and a third, until “the voices seemed to be a gathered up by a single effort and the whole village shook with song on its foundation of water” (11). (The absence of the definite article before “song” evokes the power of a great collective presence.) The oppressive, bleak, wet, and dark atmosphere notwithstanding, the brave villagers offer solicitude and comfort to one another in their togetherness. The scene evidently is not intended to lead to a climax.
Again, the novel seems to have an “ungainly,” “erratic” narrative because of its episodic nature. It is a collection of many stories, many lives, many details not strictly necessary to the development of the “plot.” In the sense, it is “plotless.” But as in oral narratives the stories as well as the details are as important as the whole, though they together constitute the whole. The organization of Chapter 2 illustrates this. It comprises 10 brief scenes: the bathing of G., the mothers at gossip, the boys at cricket, the landlord's house, the boys at the Public Bath, the boys flattening nails on railway tracks, the pudding vendor, couples in the woods, the old woman, and Miss Foster's visit to the landlord. Each scene is independent yet contributes to the whole, like motifs in a collage.3 The individual segments, as in an oral narrative (see Mukarovsky), would not lose their importance or independence if they migrated to some other section in the chapter. For example, it matters little if the Bathing-of-G. scene is interchanged with the Boys-at-the-Public-Bath scene. The effect of the whole remains the same since the chapter draws its meaning from a combination of “free-floating units … migrating from one whole to another” as in oral narrative, on which In the Castle of My Skin seems to be based, albeit unselfconsciously (Lamming, “In Conversation” 183–84). Such narration would seem erratic and formless if judged by the norms of written literature. Possibly, it needs to be evaluated by the principles of oral art, which Lamming seems to have used to flout the norms of English fiction. The litmus test in such evaluation is whether or not a theoretical model explains the different elements of the work satisfactorily. In the absence of a convincing model, the attempt would be to force the work to fit the model (as was done in the Ptolemaic explanation of the universe).
Since Kortenaar's main model is the English novel, it is not surprising that he is also dissatisfied with characterization in In the Castle of My Skin. He points out that Lamming does not give centrality to any one character. Though G. is present in the first two chapters, he disappears from the text for the next hundred pages or so. Kortenaar wonders where G. is during the school scenes or why in the beach scene he never utters a single word, the conversation being confined to Boy Blue, Bob, and Trumper. Besides, he is puzzled why the novel has such a host of characters with such labels as First Boy, Second Boy, Third, Fourth Boys as if they were secondary characters in a play (45). He notes also that there is a Mr. Foster, a Trumper, and a Boy Blue, characters “whose names are merely names, with no deeper significance” (51). This, he concludes, is typical of a village community with an undeveloped self; the characters in the organic community have no identity—“Three, thirteen, thirty. It does not matter” (24). Surprisingly, Kortenaar quotes from a section in the novel where Lamming is deliberately emphasizing village custom. Equally surprisingly, Kortenaar leaves out an earlier, more substantial reference, in which, Lamming, using similar statistics, represents the village community as an ever-growing, vital, creative, life-generating, and life-sustaining force:
In the broad savannah where the grass lowcropped sang in the singeing heat the pattern had widened. Not three, nor thirteen, but thirty. Perhaps three hundred. Men. Women. Children. The men at cricket. The children at hide and seek. The women laying out their starched clothes to dry. The sun let its light flow down on them as life let itself flow through them. Three. Thirteen. Thirty. Three hundred.
(25; emphasis added)
Ideological selection or genuine choice, the meaning that Kortenaar has given to the scene is very different from the one offered by Lamming.
Once again, if we wish to understand the characterization in the novel, we may have to turn to the principles of oral narrative on which much of Third-World fiction is modeled:
Are there other features too that distinguish the Third-World novel from the Western? For example, is characterization in the Third-World novel more “illustrational” and archetypal than “representational”? Is there no character development or character introspection as in the Western novel? Are the characters ideals, types, “essentials” more than “individuals,” as in traditional narratives?
Opposing the use of universalist criteria of Western literary criticism for reading Third-World fiction, Arun Mukherjee makes a related point about characterization. She uses Indian novels as an example: “All these novels are crowded with characters who may be considered extraneous if one went by the conventions of a main plot and central characters” (15).
Such a view of characterization enables us to understand characterization in In the Castle of My Skin. There is no central consciousness in the novel (as in a Jamesian novel) through whom the events of the book have been refracted. Yet, all its characters (including the unnamed shoemaker who is always referred to as the shoemaker and not as a shoemaker) acquire a presence and centrality that Lamming in writing this novel aspired to give to the West Indian community. In The Pleasures of Exile (1960), Lamming declares his autonomy from English literary criteria. We, as critics, ought to heed his fictional policy statement:
What the West Indian writer has done has nothing to do with the English critic's assessments. The West Indian writer is the first to add a new dimension to writing about the West Indian community.
The independence of Third-World writers such as Lamming demonstrates and advocates here is to be respected if we are not to fall into the same trap that ensnares Kortenaar: he wishes to praise the book but is uncomfortable doing so because he finds the book “flawed” according to his criteria. So he does the next best thing: he praises it by rationalizing the “flaws” as theme-determined technical necessities. This unfortunately has been the tenor of most available criticism on Third-World/postcolonial fiction.
Kortenaar's third point makes this still clearer. He states that In the Castle of My Skin is repetitious not in the way postmodern novels are (in postmodern novels, it appears, repetition is a virtue) but in a way that “drains everything of meaning” (50). Postmodernists subvert narrative sequence in a way that draws total attention to the words and offers double readings. But according to Kortenaar, in Lamming's novel this does not happen:
Lamming's text is repetitious. He can never say anything once, but must repeat it a dozen times in words that vary only slightly. But this is not the repetition … [that] allows that text to acquire a surfeit of meaning.
Repetition in Lamming's novel only leads to “black holes that absorb meaning” and point to a colonial society that “lacks imaginative wholeness” (52). The entire assessment smacks of unpardonable superciliousness. Injustice is done both to the writer and to the community Lamming was seeking to honour. When such literary criteria begin to reduce the worth of a work so mindlessly, it is time to look around for alternative criteria.
The novel's repetitiousness derives not from postmodern novels but from oral tales—though Lamming is not writing a “traditional” narrative. The repetition does not siphon away meaning, as Kortenaar alleges, but rather amplifies meaning. Repetition, a common feature of orature, if employed in writing could became monotonous but repetition can also lead to clarity by underlining and reinforcing what is repeated (Winters 62). In providing many details where one would suffice, the text defines and explicates more fully. For example, the ten scenes of Chapter 2 are in ten different ways of reinforcing the value and meaning of the rich, cohesive community in which G. and his friends grew up. By the end of the chapter, the West Indian village community becomes a vivid, multi-layered, vibrant conceit in our minds.
Since Lamming employs a number of digressions in his novel (the story of Jon, Susie, and Jen, and that of Bots, Bambi, Bambina are two obvious examples), he often repeats sentences to pull the narrative back into control. For instance, Boy Blue tells the story of Jon, Susie, and Jen in three parts. Part 1 is recounted in pages 122–25; this is followed by a discussion of the island folks' attitude towards black skin colour. Part 2 resumes on page 128 with Boy Blue remarking: “I was thinkin' 'bout the story. … I think they should put Jon where you say they put those people you mention” (128). The story restarts only to be interrupted again by a fascinating and detailed account of the colour of crabs' eyes and bodies (128–29) that has nothing to do with the story. Part 3 begins with this dialogue:
“You don't like crab?” Trumper asked, nudging Boy Blue in the ribs. “I like crabs all right,” Boy Blue said, “but I wus thinkin' 'bout Jon. Why he choose the cemetery of all places?”
(129; emphasis added)
The story of Jon, Susie, and Jen—which concludes in Part 3—is broken into parts and told in installments of uneven length as in an oral narrative. It is interspersed with digressions that are distinct from the digressions in a modern novel. Each return after the digressions carries the story forward but not in a linear manner—unlike the digression in the opening chapter of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. …
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Bryne lived: she sold lemon platt.
The digression here is brief and purposeful. It denotes Stephen Dedalus's pre-speech level recall. It suggests remembered associations registered by the individual mind of that lost, forever period, namely childhood. It conveys the nostalgia and total self-absorption typical of children recalling their own infancy. An easily identifiable narrative marker—“His father told him that story”—consciously explains the presence of the digression. The structure of the opening of Joyce's novel runs in a somewhat “linear,” cause-effect manner, thus: the story; then Father told Stephen that story; then Stephen was baby Tuckoo, etc. This kind of coherence and clarity is not evident in In the Castle of My Skin, as is seen in the structural components of the section under discussion: the narration of the story of Jon, Susie, and Jen; the description of the sea; the description of the landscape; the portrait of Boy Blue; the portrait of Trumper; the discussion of black skin colour; the resumption of the story of Jon, Susie, and Jen; the description of crabs' eyes and bodies; the resumption and completion of the story of Jon, Susie, and Jen. No explanations are offered for the various digressions. Cumulatively, however, they construct the acute tragedy of a deeply colonized people, who despise not only their own traditions but even their skin colour. This development of the novel through accretion of independent motifs, originates in the structure of oral narrative.
Further, the technique of breaking up the story (the Jon-Susie-Jen story is a story within a story) is not only akin to the method of oral narration but also to the method of repetition that is used to gain control over the narrative. Both Parts 2 and 3 of the story, after two lengthy digressions (about skin colour and crabs) are reined in, using almost identical sentences: “I was thinkin' 'bout Jon.” This manner of repetition, as explained by Isidore Okpewho, is the method of the “ring composition.” “Ring composition,” not only helps the narrator to inflate and expand in order to clarify and reinforce but it also controls a meandering narrative when required.
However, this is not the repetition of postmodern novels where a critique of the text is self-consciously embedded in the text itself, leading to double readings. Such novels, as Kortenaar has rightly observed, “subvert a sequence and with it causality and connection, they draw attention away from story, character, and theme, focussing it on the words themselves” (50). In Lamming's text, the repetition, instead of subverting, develops the story, expands the theme, and weaves the characters at the leisurely pace of an epic. The focus is not on the words but on community life under the stress of changes from within and without. In his novel, repetition amplifies meaning. Thus, the repetition that Kortenaar, evaluating the novel from a postmodern critical perspective, sees as “drain[ing] everything of all meaning,” can be seen from another critical perspective—that of orature—to actually extend and add layer upon layer of significance to the text.
In the Castle of My Skin is not a flawed novel, as Kortenaar contends but one constructed according to the principles of oral storytelling. At the same time, George Lamming is writing a modern and complex novel, with complete awareness of the techniques of the modern English novel. He has used the Joycean one-day narrative technique most conspicuously in Chapter 13, where the action is divided by time into Morning, Noon, and Evening. But he does this by not employing the stream-of-consciousness technique, possibly because he does not perceive his characters as the sophisticated intellectuals and isolates of modern English fiction. Indeed, the assimilation of oral and written narrative structures renders Lamming's novels stylistically one of the best modern texts. It ought to be judged not Eurocentrically but on its own terms as a work straddling different “literary” traditions while remaining firmly rooted in the indigenous.4
In the title of this article, I have described In the Castle of My Skin as “A Modern West Indian Novel.” I have done so to distinguish it from the modern Euro-American novel and also to emphasize the fact that it is a technically sophisticated novel.
Most Third World novelists have acknowledged their indebtedness to orality as having consciously or unconsciously influenced their technique and their writings. Many claimed to have fused the conventions of oral narratives with the norms of English fiction to create a new form that is a mixture of the scribal and the oral. While orality as a general category cannot and should not cover every stylistic feature of all Third World texts, it is broad enough to take care of many of the features that these texts seem to have in common. This is because orality encompasses not only narratological skills and structures but also the philosophy, values, cultural texts and practices, religious texts and practices, attitude to time, etc. Speaking in very general terms, there is much in common among the Third World countries with respect to these parameters than with the Western world. Third World discourse is also governed by polymorphism as against classes of successively subordinate grades in Western discourse (cf. Cairns). It can carry together fairly complex gradations on the same platform. Thus it is possible for orality as a critical category to explain both “strong” characters such as Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and the panoply of undistinguishable characters such as G. and his friends in In The Castle of My Skin. However, this is not to overlook the fact that orality also differs in specific details from one Third World country to another, and they have their own impact on the novel forms emerging from different Third World countries.
The comparison with a collage is merely illustrative since even a collage has a distinct underlying organicity that is absent in an oral narrative.
This article is a modified version of a paper I presented at the IACLALS Conference, Mysore, 27–29 January 1995.
Cairns, P. “Style, Structure and the Status of Language In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God.” WLWE 5:1 (1985): 1–9.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975.
Kirpal, Viney. “What is the Modern Third World Novel?” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23:1 (1988): 144–56.
Kortenaar, Neil ten. “George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin: Finding Promise in the Land.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 22:2 (1991): 43–53.
Lamming, George. In the Castle of My Skin. 1953. London: Longman, 1970.
———. “In Conversation with Frank Birbalsingh.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23:1 (1988): 182–88.
———. The Pleasures of Exile. 1960. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.
Mukherjee, Arun. Towards an Aesthetic of Opposition: Essays on Literature Criticism and Cultural Imperialism. Toronto: Williams-Wallace, 1988.
Mukarovsky, Jan. The Word and Verbal Art. Trans. John Burbank and Peter Steiner. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.
Okpewho, Isidore. The Epic in Africa: Towards a Poetics of the Oral Performance. 1975. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
Winters, Marjorie. “An Objective Approach to Achebe's Style.” RAL 12:1 (1988): 56–66.