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Small Axe 7.2 (2003) 39-70



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C. L. R. James and George Lamming:
The Measure of Historical Time

Bill Schwarz


I believe deep in my bones that the mad impulse which drove Powell to his criminal defeat was largely my doing. I will not have this explained away by talk about environment; nor can I allow my own moral infirmity to be transferred to a foreign conscience, labelled imperialist. I shall go beyond my grave in the knowledge that I am responsible for what happened to my brother. Powell still resides somewhere in my heart, with a dubious love, some strange, nameless shadow of regret; and yet with the deepest, deepest nostalgia. For I have never felt myself to be an honest part of anything since the world of his childhood deserted me.

These are George Lamming's words, written nearly half a century ago. They appear under the title "Author's note" in an interpolation toward the end of his novel Season of Adventure. 1 They explain his love—or his dubious love—for the fictional character Powell. Powell is described as the author's half brother and close boyhood companion, from whom Lamming (or the authorial first person) became separated. The separation occurred when Lamming won a scholarship to high school, and psychologically "migrated," as he put it, to another world, leaving behind the life of village and community. 2 The slide between reality and its imaginings is not easily demarcated [End Page 39] here. I find that this beautiful, moving writing—whether real or imagined—centers the moral responsibilities of an individual. Moral responsibilities exist in spite of the great historical systems of injustice (imperialism is named in this extract) that have the made the modern world what it is. To think otherwise, Lamming tells us, would be to default, to succumb to bad faith. The final, brief paragraph introduces an inner, emotional world of ambivalent love, regret, nostalgia and desertion in which moral sensibility is lived.

The passage's placement in the novel's structure is unexpected because it breaks into the larger narrative. I first came across it not in Lamming's novel but in a radically different context: in the 1963 appendix to C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins. 3 I have always been affected by James's afterword. It is a brilliant document in its own right. In inspiring, epic mode it dramatizes the history of the Caribbean in its world-historical personifications, from Toussaint to Fidel. Reading Hegel against Hegel, black Toussaint becomes the world-historical spirit on horseback, the slave whom history has made into the military commander of brilliance; Fidel is the world-historical spirit as guerrilla, the compañero in the foco, the historical continuation of Toussaint, in higher mode, whom history indeed is destined to absolve.

If the interpolation of Lamming's authorial note induces a certain strangeness in his novel, the strangeness redoubles when a reader comes across it in a different context. Lamming's note, in this context, supplies evidence of a markedly different historical imagination from James's. James was given to the epic, and had a sharp eye for the manner in which the dispossessed could take on the mantle of history and realize their own selves by becoming masters of their destinies. But Lamming's sense of history works by more humble procedures. His is an imagination in which not the heroics of history predominate but on the contrary all that conspires to make history unhomely: ambivalence, regret, desertion—even perhaps the impossibility of feeling an honest part of anything. The framing quote for The Pleasures of Exile comes from James Joyce: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken." Lamming's is a voice that embodies history not as truth nor as universal redemption but as the "quiet force of the possible." 4

I wish neither to draw any strong conclusions about the respective merits of these different conceptual and temperamental intellectual worlds nor to polarize them as essentially contrary. James and Lamming were...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-6714
Print ISSN
0799-0537
Pages
pp. 39-70
Launched on MUSE
2003-10-10
Open Access
No
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