- Elusive Origins: The Enlightenment in the Modern Caribbean Historical Imagination
Perhaps no other event in Caribbean history has sparked such interest as the 1791 slave revolt in Haiti. As the first organized resistance against colonial power, the Haitian revolution has been depicted in both literary and historiographical works that are now fundamental to an understanding of the region. Representative of each genre, Alejo Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo (1953) and C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938) are the towering texts of this tradition, followed by a host of later works inheriting this founding moment and its creative interpretation.
Paul B. Miller’s book examines the archive of texts grappling with the impact of the Haitian revolution in the New World. Taking a new look at this crucial stage in Caribbean history, Miller considers the historiographical and literary tradition generated by the 1791 uprising as well as its broader epistemological context. Weighing the ramifications of “le siècle des lumières” both in Europe and the New World, Miller sees the interlacing of fiction and history as a main trope of a Caribbean imaginary, while making a cogent argument for how both genres address a conflicted sense of Caribbean modernity. Resisting a unified or uniform view of the Enlightenment, Miller’s book traces the philosophical roots of the movement in the introduction, then goes on to study the classic texts in the Caribbean tradition that have reconfigured its allegedly “rationalist” program in a society riddled by its very opposite—the “antirational” legacy of colonialism and slavery (4–5). From the region’s three main linguistic traditions, modern writers rework the contradictions inherited from the eighteenth century, resulting in an effective “critique of the Enlightenment” that spreads over the pan-Caribbean area and spans well into the twentieth century (4). Emblematic of a postmodern historical imagination, contemporary writers, playwrights, and essayists drive this critique even further by showing the intrinsic flaws of post-Enlightenment legacy, “with the irrational occupying center stage and ‘rational thought’ receding to the background” (5), this last wave parodically inverting the binary categories inherited by the Enlightenment episteme.
Refuting claims that deny the Enlightenment’s impact in Latin America, Miller shows its unfolding in three distinct stages, from the colonial period [End Page 303] to “the Bourbon reforms of Carlos III,” ending with “the final decade of the eighteenth-century,” with the influence of “French encyclopedists and Jacobins” (14). His main argument is that the Enlightenment inspired a type of “historical imagination” that profoundly questioned the origins, ideals, and methods associated with the premise of rationality, an inquiry motivated by the hierarchical nature and uneven evolution of Caribbean societies (19). The two main models for what Miller calls “the Modern Caribbean Historical Imagination” are James and Carpentier, whose works are studied in first part of the book. In his reading of Ecué-Yamba-O and The Kingdom of This World, Miller retraces previous critical territory in positing an incompatible difference between Europe and America, except in his claim that miscegenation leads to an elevation in Ti Noël’s consciousness (42, 52). Carpentier’s influence on later Caribbean writers is traced in part 3, in chapters devoted to Reinaldo Arenas and Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, representing them as emblematic of a more radical critique of Enlightenment rationality.
James’s The Black Jacobins affords the second model of historical narration dealt within the book, a model that aims at monumentality and leans toward allegory. Miller approaches this classic work rhetorically rather than thematically in order to show the author’s contradictions in his crafting of history: James is both indebted to Enlightenment categories and attempts to go beyond them (58), a paradox evident in his depiction of Toussaint Louverture, which plays into the dichotomy between “leaders” and “masses” (60). Although Miller effectively contrasts James’s and Carpentier’s methods of historical inquiry, he also notes that they share a similar vision of the Caribbean “as periphery to the enlightened...