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  • Elusive Origins: The Enlightenment in the Modern Caribbean Historical Imagination by Paul B. Miller
  • Max Hantel (bio)
Miller, Paul B. Elusive Origins: The Enlightenment in the Modern Caribbean Historical Imagination. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2010.

Elusive Origins: The Enlightenment in the Modern Caribbean Historical Imagination is an incredible exercise in what the author calls "Caribbean intertextuality." Describing the emergence of a distinctly Caribbean modernity, Paul B. Miller roves across the Hispanic, French, and Anglo Caribbean to, as he puts it, "call into question the relationship between our understanding of history itself and the way that it is—consciously or unconsciously— underwritten by rules of causality and historical unfolding that we have interpreted from the Enlightenment" (19). In other words, beyond a narrow historical study of the spread of Enlightenment ideals into the Caribbean, he investigates how the contradictory legacy of the Enlightenment has become fertile ground for Caribbean cultural expression.

The Enlightenment is understood broadly and straightforwardly throughout the text, characterized as the combination of René Descartes cogito ("I think therefore I am") and Immanuel Kant's idea of "man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity" (qtd. in Miller 3): a Cartesian subject achieving historical progress. In practical terms, this combination describes a rational individual accurately narrating the objective story of historical progress. When Enlightenment thought is mapped onto colonialism, moreover, Europe becomes the center of this progression and the home of the rational subject while the Caribbean serves as the immature and unenlightened periphery.

Miller analyzes the writings of six authors, categorizing them as either modernist or postmodernist based on how they interpret the legacy of the Enlightenment. He devotes a chapter, in order, to each of the following: Alejo Carpentier (Cuba), C. L. R. James (Trinidad), Marie Chauvet (Haiti), Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe), Reinaldo Arenas (Cuba), and Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá (Puerto Rico). Carpentier represents the foundational figure of the "modern Caribbean historical imagination," so much so that Miller sometimes uses postmodern and post-Carpenterian interchangeably. Thus, the first chapter on Carpentier is crucial for the rest of the book as each author is drawn into his orbit.

According to Miller, Carpentier sets up the following dichotomy: "a positive fusion or synthesis, on the one hand brought about by the convergence and exchange of European and Afro-Caribbean cultures; and on the other, a Manichean irreconcilability" (30). Miller argues that Carpentier's oeuvre is defined by a struggle with these two tendencies. He ties together two of Carpentier's works, Ecue-Yamba-O! (1933) and The Kingdom of This World (1949), based on the role of music in articulating both the divide between European and Caribbean culture and the possibility of its transcendence. Music tantalizes Carpentier, who desires synthesis but is paralyzed by a center/periphery binary between Europe and the Caribbean, because even when culturally distinct there is a universal quality to musical expression. In other words, the radical incommensurability between European and Caribbean cultural styles is seemingly bridged in form by music. Yet this formal [End Page 202] connection is inadequate since Carpentier continues to shuttle between synthesis and opposition, temporally valorizing the "prospective" American periphery against a decadent European past.

In chapter 2, Miller turns to C. L. R. James's seminal historical treatise The Black Jacobins (1938). While James is "a far more engaged partisan of historical and cultural 'symbiosis'" (58) than Carpentier, he ultimately succumbs to the same paradoxes arising from the articulation of Caribbean emancipation in an Enlightenment grammar. The tragic hero of The Black Jacobins, Toussaint L'Ouverture, embodies this paradox: he is supposed to be the point of synthesis between the elite and the masses, but fails to disentangle the promise of Enlightenment ideology from the material base of the slavery economy. Toussaint's attempt to hold onto the abstract promises of the French Revolution without the violence of European imperialism collapses. Miller considers Toussaint's paralyzing hesitation "between French civilization and Haitian independence" (76) in relation to James's own inability to find a point of connection between the leader and masses. Just as Toussaint fails to institutionalize his Enlightenment ideals, because to do so would paradoxically require their violation in the form of widespread violence...


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pp. 202-204
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