Elusive Origins

Elusive Origins: The Enlightenment in the Modern Caribbean Historical Imagination

Paul B. Miller
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 248
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    Elusive Origins
    Book Description:

    Although the questions of modernity and postmodernity are debated as frequently in the Caribbean as in other cultural zones, the Enlightenment-generally considered the origin of European modernity-is rarely discussed as such in the Caribbean context. Paul B. Miller constellates modern Caribbean writers of varying national and linguistic traditions whose common thread is their representation of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution in the Caribbean. In a comparative reading of such writers as Alejo Carpentier (Cuba), C. L. R. James (Trinidad), Marie Chauvet (Haiti), Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe), Reinaldo Arenas (Cuba), and Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá (Puerto Rico), Miller shows how these authors deploy their historical imagination in order to assess and reevaluate the elusive and often conflicted origins of their own modernity.

    Miller documents the conceptual and ideological shift from an earlier generation of writers to a more recent one whose narrative strategies bear a strong resemblance to postmodern cultural practices, including the use of parody in targeting their discursive predecessors, the questioning of Enlightenment assumptions, and a suspicion regarding the dialectical unfolding of history as their precursors understood it. By positing the Cuban Revolution as a dividing line between the earlier generation and their postmodern successors, Miller confers a Caribbean specificity upon the commonplace notion of postmodernity.

    The dual advantage of Elusive Origins's thematic specificity coupled with its inclusiveness allows a reflection on canonical writers in conjunction with lesser-known figures. Furthermore, the inclusion of Francophone and Anglophone writers in addition to those from the Hispanic Caribbean opens up the volume geographically, linguistically, and nationally, expanding its contribution to a nonessentialist understanding of the Caribbean in a Latin American, Atlantic, and global context.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3129-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Structure of the Enlightenment
    (pp. 1-26)

    While the questions of modernity and postmodernity have been posed with regard to Latin America and the Caribbean on numerous occasions and in a variety of forms, less discussion has been generated in this context about the putative origins of Occidental modernity, the Enlightenment. Moreover, while conversations about modernity and postmodernity in Latin America and the Caribbean often take place in a highly theoretical realm, the Enlightenment in the region is usually discussed in a much more concrete language of economic, administrative, military, and penal reforms. If the idea of modernity in Latin America and the Caribbean can be described...

  5. Part I. Inaugurating the Modern Caribbean Historical Imagination
    • 1 Carpentier and the Temporalities of Mutual Exclusion
      (pp. 29-56)

      The import/export operation that Carpentier describes in this epigraph does not amount to a “symbiosis” characterized by mutual benefit to the parties involved. Symbiosis implies compatibility, whereas much of the force of Carpentier’s writing stems from the incongruity of different peoples and civilizations that occupy the same space at a given historical moment. Perhaps no image is more characteristic of Carpentier’s description than that of the old slave Ti Noël seated on several volumes of theEncyclopédieeating sugarcane: even more than the narrative engine itself, this kind of juxtaposition amounts to a vignette whose poetic force owes almost entirely...

    • 2 Enlightened Hesitations: C. L. R. James, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the Black Masses
      (pp. 57-84)

      In the previous chapter, I characterize the writing of Alejo Carpentier as being informed by a subtle contradiction at its core: the author’s proclaimed intention to find synthesis and symbiosis between Afro-Caribbean and European Enlightenment culture is in fact belied by the narrative and psychological propensity to thematize their very incommensurability. In the case of the great Trinidadian writer and intellectual C. L. R. James, an inverse tendency seems to operate. James’s towering contribution to Caribbean writing and scholarship,The Black Jacobins,also balances certain tensions that, left to themselves, might seem to be mutually canceling or exclusive. And yet,...

  6. Part II. Chauvet, Condé, and the Postmodern Turn in the Caribbean Historical Imagination
    • 3 Conflicted Epiphanies: Politicized Aesthetics in Marie Chauvet’s Dance on the Volcano
      (pp. 87-107)

      In a footnote in her formidableHaiti, History and the Gods, Joan Dayan says the following about the Haitian author Marie Chauvet (1919 1973, also known by her maiden name, Vieux-Chauvet): “Haiti’s greatest writer has suffered the curse of near oblivion.”¹ The dramatic history of the publishing of Chauvet’s novels is itself almost worthy of a novelistic depiction. After Gallimard publishedAmour, colère et foliein 1968, a fictional triptych that contains thinly disguised allegorical criticisms of the Duvalier regime, Chauvet’s husband seized most of the available copies and sequestered them for twelve years. Chauvet was subsequently exiled to New...

    • 4 Alliances and Enmities in Maryse Condé’s Historical Imagination
      (pp. 108-128)

      Marie Chauvet’srécit Amourconcludes with the oneiric and sacrificial assassination of the sadistic local commander Calédu, who embodies for the protagonist, Claire Clamont, the oppressive legacies of racism and patriarchy. And yet for Maryse Condé, commenting on this symbolically charged denouement, “the well-known link between executioner and victim is apparent, even if the conclusion is reversed, even if the conclusion is not a triumph since, in the end, nothing has changed. The death of Calédu would not be enough to stop the march of history.”¹ And so for Condé, it makes little difference whether Calédu murders Claire (the false...

  7. Part III. The Center and the Periphery Cannot Hold
    • 5 Cuban Cogito: Reinaldo Arenas and the Negative Historical Imagination
      (pp. 131-150)

      Wittgenstein’s proposition, as stated in the epigraph—that there is no causality between the will and the world—might be taken generally as an anti-Enlightenment position. The Enlightenment held that the will can to some extent determine the world, that the latter is largely a question and result of the former. What is required is a conscious decision to declare one’s own autonomy, to throw off the yoke of extraneous authority, whether that authority consists of an oppressive political system, a comforting system of religious beliefs, or even a doctor’s prescription for a healthy diet. For Kant, the enlightened individual...

    • 6 Heightened Perceptions: Rodríguez Juliá and the Mechanics of Temporality
      (pp. 151-174)

      In his essay “Puerto Rico y el Caribe: Historia de una marginalidad” (Puerto Rico and the Caribbean: History of a Marginality), Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá describes a Caribbean cultural condition that is characterized primarily by a feeling of loss and incompleteness:

      If Fanon showed us the reality of colonial Manichaeism, the great Caribbean writers and artists converge in speaking to us aboutmodorra, thattaedium vitaeor sleepy lethargy so characteristic of these sad tropics. It is a colonial condition in which the soul is as though suspended, vacillating between a flat, half-baked society with a precarious past and an uncertain...

  8. Conclusions: Before and After, Here and There
    (pp. 175-194)

    The writers studied in this monograph abounding in the discernment of binary structures contribute to a critique of this historical framework. By approaching the question of the Enlightenment in the Caribbean through the modern historical imagination, the very idea of the Enlightenment is partially dismantled or deconstructed, not only as something that the Caribbean and Latin America may or may not have “had,” but also as a unified or homogeneous philosophical school or historical period in the first place. Moreover, the insertion of this regional factor moves to a new terrain, as it were, the very notion of the Enlightenment,...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 195-212)
  10. Works Cited
    (pp. 213-224)
  11. Index
    (pp. 225-230)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-232)