‘Every man hides many sources… an’ there’s no tellin’ till the lids be taken off’ (George Lamming, Of Age and Innocence)
‘I question now whether the personality is manufactured by the vision of others. The personality hangs together. It is one and indivisible’. (V.S. Naipaul, The Mimic Men)
‘I would like first of all to point out that the conventional approach to the ‘West Indian’ which sees him in crowds – an underprivileged crowd, a happy-go-lucky crowd, a political or a cricketing crowd, a calypso crowd – is one which we have to put aside at this moment for the purposes of our discussion.’ (Wilson Harris, ‘Tradition and the West Indian Novel’)
What this discussion of the treatment of individual being in Caribbean writing attempts is an enquiry into what social or psychological constructs the writer – whether novelist, auto/biographer or poet (virtually the only forms of discourse that have attempted to say anything about the inner/individual being of Caribbean persons) – has brought to the subject. It also provides a context for the individual surveys of those aspects of personal experience that Caribbean writers have been drawn to in their work. There is inevitably some overlap and probably some randomness in deciding what is social and what is individual, but whereas Society and its subcategories focuses on institutions, Individual being focuses on the nature of individual experience.
This piece asks whether there are distinctively Caribbean ways in which the idea of individual lives has been constructed. This is obviously not to suggest any single Caribbean ‘way’, for as Kamau Brathwaite writes in ‘Caribbean Man in Space and Time’ (Savacou 11/12), there are ‘differing psychosocial Caribbeans’ and George Lamming’s Of Age and Innocence makes the point that for the Caribbean person there is a constant state of awareness of being ‘in the eye of the other’, an ethnic other with different ways of seeing. Inevitably, this essay asks more questions than it offers answers. With the exception of critical writing about stereotypes in Caribbean fiction, and Sandra Puchet-Paquet’s Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and Self-Representation, little work has been done in this area.
To give a specific example: the biological universal of ‘Childhood’ (discussed in relation to literary treatments of it in a separate article) varies across societies in material and cultural terms, in its onset and in its passing, in terms of gender and its role relationships, in terms of its rights and status. Caribbean imaginative writing tells us much about all this, the extent to which childhood may be either a period of relative spatial freedom or of domestic constriction, a period of free association with peers or close supervision by adults; it tells us much about pastimes, play, the experience of school, children’s lore (rhymes, sayings), tells us much about the differences that class and ethnic background make to childhoods; it tells of childhoods within mother-headed families and extended, role-oriented families; it tell us about the gendering of childhood and of childhood sexuality. Caribbean literature is a rich source for such descriptive material, but what constructs do Caribbean writers bring to the portrayal of childhood? No Caribbean writer can begin writing about childhood outside the context of their reading, an awareness of ideas about childhood from Wordsworth to William Golding; outside the specific religious perceptions of their own community; or what they perceive with their own eyes in the world of their experience. Is it a period of innocence or of original sin? A holiday from adulthood, a preparation for it, or the beginnings of immersion in adult responsibilities? And how might the ways that Caribbean literature treats childhood relate to the constructs of African, European and Indian parent cultures and their interaction? Has there been a creolisation of the concept of childhood?
Childhood is but one term whose meaning can only be seen in relation to a whole system of signifiers for the social construct of the individual person. These signifiers address not only synchronic and diachronic ways of looking at the person, but at the underlying religious/philosophical ideas about what it means to be human. How have Caribbean writers related to such constructs as personality or character, agency, motivation, consciousness and other psychic processes; body and body images or with longitudinal constructs such as life-stages or biography or moral career? (See the work of Rom Harre, Social Being and Personal Being from whom many of the underlying ideas in this overview are borrowed). Are there, indeed, distinctively Caribbean ways of constructing these terms?
In Daryl Dance’s interview with Denis Williams and Martin Carter in New World Adams: Conversations with West Indian Writers, both speak of an African-inherited Caribbean attitude to agency, a disinclination to attempt the control of matter and a corresponding tendency to see agency in what the “scientific” Westerner would describe as inanimate matter. (I think Williams and Carter in fact grossly overestimate the extent to which the populations of the metropolitan countries do think in rational/scientific ways!). In Peter Wilson’s Crab Antics: A Caribbean Study of the Conflict Between Reputation and Respectability the concept of a moral career is seen in relation to two competing Caribbean moral orders: the gaining of reputation in the eyes of other men in ways that relate to an Afro-Creole value system, and the gaining of respectability within the conventions of ‘official’ society, that inherited from the European colonial order. In Rhoda Barath’s story, “Redemption” in The Ten Days Executive (2015), there is a witty dramatisation of the contested nature of the late Stanton Crewley’s moral career between the village men, the village women, the denizens of the brothel and the congregation of the church.
At the level of fundamental constructs, there are certainly continuities of spiritual constructs of the person – derived from Christian, Hindu, African traditions – that exist in tension with the tendency towards the socially determined stereotypes criticized in the quotation from Wilson Harris. In its most fundamental terms, this determinism included the historical denial of the existence of any personhood or meaningful inner life for the slave. A whole range of novels (see Sugar and Slavery) write into being that invisible personhood. Kamau Brathwaite’s exploration of the concept of Nommo, as a spiritual essence that links persons to universal being, is one movement that not only sets out to counter the materialist nihilism that is mercantilism’s malign gift to the Caribbean, but to reinstate African ways of seeing the person. Within a framework that is essentially Western, Caribbean writers take different stances on what is inherent/biological, what socially learned, what is externally determined or what lies within the scope of the will, but reading the fiction of, say V.S. Naipaul in comparison to that of Earl Lovelace, it is clear that there are fundamental and culturally rooted differences in exploring how human agency is to be seen in relation to the web of social and environmental structures? There are, indeed, widely divergent views amongst Caribbean peoples about the nature of human agency in a world where events and motivations may be seen as very directly divinely ordered or magically wrought. This is true, too, of the way writers have treated such concepts of consciousness and rationality in relationship to unconscious processes, and in how processes such as trance states, possession, dreams, unbidden thoughts are to be accounted for, whether, indeed the agency for such processes is internal or external. (See Dreaming, Possession, Discovering right and wrong, for instance.) The openness of some recent ‘post-Brathwaite’ writing to the creation of fictive worlds whose cosmologies have a place for the overseeing mediation of the Orisha pantheon (see Cosmologies) is discussed elsewhere.
At the level of the synchronic, with its assumption that persons have relatively stable inner characteristics which persist through time (a concept hotly contested by, for instance, Wilson Harris), there are evident connections between an implicit, “common-sense” trait theory of personality which underlies much conventional portrayal of character in Caribbean fiction, and the prevalence of stereotypes which have stigmatized the ethnic other, the poor, women, the disabled or the psychically disturbed. (See Poverty, Disability and Stigma, Madness) What such stereotypes reveal is what Harris would term ‘consolidated’ value constructs embedded in Caribbean culture.
But whilst a writer such as Kamau Brathwaite has been highly critical of the kind of social determinism that dissolves the inner person in social categories, his concept of the person is one that is both historicised and socialised. Whilst his approach is suggestive rather than systematic, there is a very interesting section in LX: The Love Axe/l where he outlines a series of ‘Caribb Personality Types’. What is valuable in Brathwaite’s personality types is that they escape from the reductiveness of the kind of pseudo-scientific trait theories espoused by the likes of Eysenk and Cattel (and are still beloved as a dubious means of ascertaining personality for employment purposes). Brathwaite’s types are essentially an historicized inventory of the range of possible responses to and interventions in Caribbean reality, which presuppose a dialectic between social contexts and inner perceptual and moral tendencies. Writers exploring the psychological world of the slave have attempted to go beyond simple moral reductiveness in asking why some slaves went to their inevitable deaths in refusing to submit to overwhelming power, whilst others betrayed their fellows for very scant reward.
How the events, willed and accidental, in an individual’s life (the diachronic focus) are to be seen clearly belongs as much to the realms of the social and the cultural or the spiritual/ideological as they do to the personal. However, there is a level at which life events are experienced as individual, inner events. Certainly, this is one of the distinguishing characteristics of most fiction and poetry, as compared to sociological or anthropological studies (though some interesting cultural anthropology – see John O. Stewart’s Drinkers, Drummers and Decent Folk (1989), which has borrowed from the individualised biographical forms of the novel).
Articles are grouped around the individual experience of childhood, learning, family, social relationships, life stages, sexuality, the body, death, the experience of oppression because of difference, bodily or sexual, mental processes such as memory and dreaming and episodes of personal distress such as alienation, madness, suicide and self-harm.