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  • An Intellectual History of the Caribbean
  • Clem Seecharan
An Intellectual History of the Caribbean. Silvio Torres-Saillant . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Pp. xiii + 290. $79.95 (cloth); $26.95 (paper).

This is not an easy read, but it deserves patience. The rewards are bountiful. Although I was expecting a chronological treatment of ideas, I am delighted to say that this is a work of impressive erudition, interdisciplinary in scope and pan-Caribbean by conviction.

An Intellectual History of the Caribbean is dedicated to the notion that the Caribbean merits consideration as a discrete entity with intellectual validity, thus warranting a place in any wider "theoric awakening" within a universal framework. Torres-Saillant, a fine scholar, argues that this Caribbean intellectual identity is rooted in its shared geography and history of travail from Amerindian decimation to African enslavement and the indentureship of many of its other peoples. But the region's creative energy comes from its making, by colonizer and colonized, into one of the world's most culturally diverse and intellectually vibrant regions, encompassing its Amerindian, African, European (British, French, Spanish and Dutch), as well as its Asian legacies (Indian, Chinese, Javanese). This, he seems to be saying, constitutes an older—a more authentic—cosmopolitanism than its somewhat rudderless contemporary variant in the cities of Western Europe and North America.

The Caribbean is an authentically polyglot entity that has arrived at intellectual maturity through a more anchored historical prism. It has also sought intellectual affirmation by way of diverse disciplinary experimentations. This is manifested in the remarkable range of Caribbean thought that has shaped Torres-Saillant's own intellectual history. He argues that it constitutes a corpus of work offering credible paradigms for self-assessment as well as illuminating the wider human predicament, including the European variant with its instinct for appropriating the power to define universally. Indeed, on reading this book, one becomes aware of why anyone claiming authority on the Caribbean could legitimately proffer credentials for a wider validation. It's a journey requiring facility in four European languages and their creole variants. Unlike Torres-Saillant, though, how many can reach thinkers such as these in the original: Diana Lebacs, Frank Martinus Arion, Albert Helman (Lou A. M. Lichtveld), Boeli van Leeuwen, Cynthia McLeod (Dutch); C. L. R. James, Wilson Harris, V. S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Eric Williams, George Lamming, Stuart Hall (English); René Depestre, Anténor Firmin, Edouard Glissant, Jacques Stefan Alexis, Gisèle Pineau, Aimé Césaire, Félix Morisseau-Leroy (French); Alejo Carpentier, Juan Bosch, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Nicolás Guillén, Pedro Mir, Manuel Moreno Fraginals, Frank Moya Pons, Gabriel García Márquez (Spanish)?

And this is only one aspect of the Caribbean complexity, for embedded in the diversity engendered by slavery and indentureship is the reality of boundaries of race, color, and class. But Torres-Saillant is equipped to explore this legacy. He was born in the Dominican Republic (it shares Hispaniola with the perennially maligned Haiti), of black Haitian ancestry on his father's side, towards the end of the long reign of the dictator, Rafael Trujillo (1891–1961). He encountered the racism bred by chronic antihaitianismo—the affirmation of the Hispanic/Amerindian strand in the Dominican patrimony (putative whiteness), and its antithesis—the construction of the African core of Haiti as savage. He also felt the raw power of American imperialism when the democratically elected, Juan Bosch (1909–2001), was deposed in 1965 with American bayonets [End Page 208] and another dictator, Joaquin Balaguer (1906–2002), enthroned. He grew up in a culture of torture and death—routinely visited upon dissenters who dared to challenge tyranny. The state has acquired mastery in silencing the mind in the Dominican Republic.

Consequently, ever since he reached America in the early 1970s, Torres-Saillant has pursued a life of the mind—an encyclopedic voracity that looks out from this work, as from his Caribbean Poetics (1997). But he has not deserted his Dominican antecedents. The autobiographical strand in Intellectual History illuminates it: we learn that his father's fascination with European scholarship, particularly its classical legacy, was a seminal influence. But whereas the father, a journalist, uncritically...


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