Now, on to my relationship with David Wallace's _Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn_. Fair warning: this is a very long post, partly a testament to my love of this book and its influence on my recent work. As it is the beginning of the weekend, though, I crave your indulgence.
Let me begin by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It is that rare academic book that speaks to its readers in casual, conversational tones, carrying us along a complex journey smoothly and with truly humbling erudition.
For those of you know who know me, it will be no surprise that what captured me most about this book are a) its obsession with notions of time and historicizing, and b) it’s dedication to a truly comprehensive understanding of hybridity. In figuring the movement from medieval to premodern to colonial to postcolonial, from
The objective which resonated most strongly and immediately with me was Wallace’s insistence on the attempt “to render accounts of human life and development without (in Hegelian fashion) according sequential temporalities the power of determinative or necessary force.” Such attempts, he conceded, “do not always succeed. But this longue duree historicism has (at its best) proven able to consider general socio-economic trends while remaining forever cognizant of locally experienced differences” (12). What Wallace does not state explicitly, but what a great deal of the book goes on to argue, is that “locally experienced differences” should really read “locally and temporally experienced differences.” It is this insight of his that led to my most recent paper.
Wallace makes this point partly by noting that all notions of the “
While it is no surprise that retroactive periodization and understandings have structured the Western experience of history, there were two real surprises for me. The first, which I discovered while researching my book, is that
As Wallace traces a gentle rhythmic motion from medieval
But what is truly striking is the way in which Harris goes on to link that notion of hybridity to a new conception of time. I quote at length from my soon-to-be-published paper inspired by Wallace’s book:
“Harris goes on to argue that not only is this original encounter a definitive one for the Caribbean, but that it is played out over and over again in Caribbean history. Indeed, he suggests that the original encounter was but the first in several “stages of conquest” which the Amerindians faced. First, they were forced to re-create their former colonial glory on a subservient level for their own conquerors. Then, when the blacks and Indians achieved freedom in
'involving men of all races, past and present conditions, had begun to acquire a
residual pattern of illuminating correspondences.
This, as with so much of Harris’s work, is a dense passage, and it makes several important points, all of which are represented in Harris’s first novel, The Palace of the Peacock, an examination of which will form the bulk of the remainder of this paper. In the first place, it suggests, as I’ve been saying, that Harris sees the exploitation of the Amerindians as something which has continually recurred in the history of the Caribbean, by all those people who came there after them. But he also suggests that recognizing and acknowledging that series of exploitations can be beneficial to the comprehension and formation of
Most importantly, though, the passage deals with an idea central to Harris’s work, and to his attempts to re-instill the Amerindian influence into a holistic conception of
. . .In other words, to read such a complex and convoluted history in purely chronological terms is to miss the potential knowledges which can be gleaned from the discontinuities and divergences from apparent historical patterns. In terms of Amerindian history, for example, it is possible to see “an apparently unchanging identity which embodied pre-Columbian conqueror in post-Columbian mercenary” (Continuity 182). That linear and continuous view of history, though, does not take account of “the divergence at a certain moment of time . . . that pointed away from that continuous character line towards a subtle annunciation of native host consciousness” (Continuity 177). So, then, within his own work Harris set out to stress “a discontinuous line – the missing links, as it were, between cultures rather than a hard continuous dividing wall. Such a discontinuous or dotted line means, in effect, that one has no dogmatic evolutionary reinforcement of superiority and inferiority. One is, in fact, intent on an original overlap or viable frontier between ages and cultures” (Continuity 177). It is of vital importance, he argues, to be able to “assess discontinuities and original divergences” from the continual historical line “charted by historians as a humane imposition, on one hand, or an oppressive deterrent on the other” (Mittelholzer 30). Thus, Harris is preoccupied not only with the overlaps and interstices between cultures, but among different times as well – he is as concerned with the overlaps and frontiers between ages as he is between peoples. . .
. . . Harris discusses the medieval clash of cultures and its impact in terms of a notion of time which is both accumulative and discontinuous, and he clearly privileges the discontinuous. Viewing history as linear and accumulative, he suggests, potentially blinds us to the parts of history wherein the Caribs are re-conquered and re-colonized, partly because that continuous history assumes that the Caribs have long been made extinct, a fact which is simply not true. By focusing on the repetitions and discontinuities of history, subtleties and unpleasant truths have the potential to be revealed, not least among them the colonizing and genocidal roles which blacks and Indians played in relation to Amerindians once those groups had achieved their own freedom. I will suggest that understanding Harris’s discontinuous view of history, and the recurring nature of that original medieval encounter, is central not only to understanding the nature of Caribbean identities he envisions in Palace of the Peacock, but the very form of the novel itself.”
To my ears, Harris’ intermixture of times and cultures echoes very strongly Wallace’s discussion of the influence of English on native Surinamese languages. Wallace notes that although England possessed Suriname for less than 15 years, “a quarter century after English withdrawal, a shipwrecked Dutch sailor encountering slaves in Surinam assumed them to be speaking English”; and that in the language spoken in Suriname today, the “terms kosi and bosi derive from the English cuss (cuss, curse) and buss (a kiss; a smack): terms more current in the English of Behn’s time – and to their social use in Surinam – than to our own” (241). We can see here the same jumble of space, place and time that Harris describes, languages and peoples and cultures all out of time. And here, of course, we come back to an age-old debate at In the Middle – the nature of time.
We’ve covered this before, but let me close by saying that Wallace and Harris together have combined to give me a new image of thinking time to myself, if they have not yet led me to a single coherent term to describe the phenomenon. The felicities of life played a part here too: just before reading Wallace and re-reading Harris I was re-reading some of the writings of Albert Einstein, and one sentence in particular struck me again: “The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once.” The image that grew out of this sentence, for me, was that of time as a ball. Within that ball is the sum of all experience on this planet (choose whatever beginning point you will). All of it is contained within the ball. As more people are born, as more stuff happens, as more human experience accumulates, that ball expands. But there is no straight line, only all human experience swirling around within that ball, each aspect touching and jostling against the others and affecting them in ways we can’t ever know. We make the obvious connections and call those time; so that, as Einstein put it, everything doesn’t happen at once. But those connections don’t account for the refusal of history to be ultimately and finally linear. In that ball, 1341 can touch 1941 as easily as it can touch the advent of the Middle Passage, or the fall of
The last example refers to David Dabydeen, a writer with whom both Wallace in this book, and I in mine, conclude. He is in a way the perfect representation of this notion of time. In the first place, he’s obsessed with medieval English literature, and it shows up throughout his novels and poetry. Secondly, Middle English literature led him not only to write in the first place, but to write specifically in the way that he does; his encounters with the medieval alliterative tradition, and its refusal of the Chaucerian and Chancery traditions, led to his own alternative and subversive uses of English, the very language which was for so long a part of the structure of domination which sought to determine his homeland and the identities formed there. And if his is a writing which, as Wallace puts it, “belongs neither here nor there, England or Guyana,” then it is also a poetics which belongs neither now or then, for it is undoubtedly infused with resonances not only of the modern and the medieval, but of all the times and spaces inbetween, and before and after. In this regard, I’ve identified the two words with which I disagree most in this book. Wallace writes that postcolonial theory considers texts and voices with “medieval, unmodern” ways of thinking. As I have argued here, elsewhere, and on this blog before, those two words do not automatically go together, for much that we consider modern is quite medieval, and vice versa.
I would like to end, then, with what has always been my personal punctum: “a sign or detail in a visual field provoking some deep – yet highly subjective – sense of connectedness with people of the past” (Wallace 2). It is a combination of two images taken from Dabydeen’s work- the image of an old snuff box, obviously colonial, found on the beach, and the sea itself onto which the beach opened. My great-grandmother had several such colonial relics around her house, and as a child I often admired their beauty (hers was a curious mirroring of the colonial tendency towards “the randomly assembled bric-a-brac of empire” (Wallace 279)). Far from being symbols to me of a wealthy and brutal regime, as I grew older they came to represent to me a common humanity – that these people who did such terrible things should share a sense of beauty with people who had endured such harshness (and believe me, my great-grandmother’s generation did). I feel the same way when I look at ancient Egyptian and Roman jewelry; that people of all times (or all around that expanding ball) care to make their things beautiful seems to me to say something more profound about humanity than all the horrors of war and colonialism. The second image, the sea, is the ultimate punctum: the sea encompasses and flows among all places and times – there are pieces in it of slave ships and slaves, medieval and antique treasures and modern toxic chemicals and sailboats. It carried the English and Caribs to the
We would never dream of trying to name each particle of the sea, the way we do each particle of time. To quote Wallace, the approach to time described here forces us “to acknowledge ourselves peripheral to a cultural unfolding whose complexity and historical depth escape our grasp” (283). Perhaps it is only by finally conceding our marginality to time, rather than our control over it, that we can begin to fully realize all the things that time has to reveal to us.