- The Sovereignty of the Imagination: An Interview with George Lamming
Who comes walking in the dark night time? Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass? It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.
At the Eighth Convocation Ceremony of the University of Guyana, held on 19 October 1974, the “poems man” Martin Carter gave a lecture entitled “A Free Community of Valid Persons.”1 It is an address that, justly, has passed into legend. Carter, then only forty-seven but speaking with the authority of more then twenty years of (almost) unimpeachable political commitment and recognized literary accomplishment behind him, reflected on the deepening crisis of cynicism and instrumentalism that had become so deforming a feature of our postcolonial Caribbean politics. Perhaps the crisis [End Page 72]
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was particularly evident—or particularly absurd—in Guyana in those darkening Forbes Burnham years of the cooperative 1970s, but as we were to learn soon enough in the rest of the region, that distinctive experience of postcolonial barbarism was a cruel omen: it was our future, a future that has lasted a long, long time.
The focus of Carter’s disenchantment on this notable occasion was the descent of our politics into, among other perversions, what he called “the exercise of state power which brooks little interference and distorts men and laws in the overt and covert processes of its consolidation and hegemony” (32). Speaking, as he so often did, in the measured meter of a poetic and metaphorical prose, Carter described the emergence of a certain way of thinking and acting that had become prevalent especially among those who had arrogated to themselves the right (and appropriated to themselves the power) to “decide how we should live” (31). Carter was at war with this attitude and the “paralysis of spirit” it induced, its deadening effect on the personality of the ruled. But for Carter this was not a time for complacency or submission. To the contrary, for him there was no better time for the kind of engaged self-criticism that defined the active citizen (as Hannah Arendt would have called her) of a sovereign community. For as he said, “it is precisely in times of crisis that we must re-examine our lives and bring to that re-examination contempt for the trivial, and respect for the riskers who go forward boldly to participate in the building of a free community of valid persons” (32). [End Page 73]
George Lamming is one of these “riskers.” There are perhaps few Caribbean writers with a keener sense of the meaning of Martin Carter’s literary-political purposes in this essay than Lamming. This is because there are few Caribbean writers (of any generation of them, and Lamming belongs to Carter’s almost exactly) with a keener sense of the relation between writing and politics, between the moral exercise of criticism and the practical demands of decision making. (Maybe Roger Mais, a generation older, would have recognized its purposes too, for he was also someone of whom it could be said what Eusi Kwayana memorably said in his tribute to Martin Carter, namely that “his poetry was not a political instrument, but his politics was an expression of his poetry.”)2 In this lecture, as elsewhere in the occasional prose he had published since the anticolonial days of Thunder in the 1950s, Carter was carrying out a distinctive moral and intellectual function, one that has come to be a recognizable dimension of George Lamming’s practice as a writer. Rupert Roopnaraine aptly describes this function when he refers to Carter’s addresses as “educating people into the habit of thinking.”3
There are, no doubt, many angles at which it is possible to come with advantage at the work of George Lamming, such is its range and its depth, its subtly and complexity, but this is the one that I find the most compelling and the most insistent in its contemporary moral-aesthetic claim...