The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Brother Man, Part I

Posted on: January 2, 2007

In West Indian literature there is little support for aesthetic ideals like ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. Not in Jamaica at any rate. The overshadow of slavery and colonisation, the ongoing status as a Third World country increasingly dependent on tourism—foreigners spending their shiny, shiny foreign cash—as the agricultural sector weakens, the tragically high crime rates, the political corruption closely tied to the criminal elements, the brain drain to the developed world, this reality is not conducive to vibrant discussions on whether art can and should be its only reason for being.

All Jamaican literature is studied in the New Historicism style (of which post-colonial/postcolonial is an extension in my eye, with the emphasis on studying the text within historical/political frames). This lead naturally, perhaps, from the fact that Jamaican literature of any prominence had engaged with Jamaica’s colonial past, the political culture and sociological problems. I do not find fault with this tactic as long as it is the art form primarily which compels the artist to create, whether it is in the literary, visual or performing arts. If her primary obligation is to any kind of activist aims which just happen to be packaged in a poem for example, the art must then suffer. It is dead before it arrives and only has the possibility of reaching the converted, the people who already support whatever agenda she is peddling.

[1]Karina Williams, in a review of Jean D’Costa’s Roger Mais: The hills were joyful together and Brother Man (Critical Studies of Caribbean Writers), notes that the Mais’ works “success as novels of protest has had a damaging effect on his reputation in the long rub by focusing too much attention on the documentary and polemical element in his work at the expense of his more durable qualities”. This is a shame and also a surprise because, despite being written pre-independence (which, happening in 1962, was not that long ago) many of the political elements are still relevant. The anti-authority strain towards the police is alive in Jamaican society and news of police brutality crops up repeatedly in the news; The questionable role of the Christian church’s effectiveness in helping to address social ills of the lower class; the lower and working classes standard of living; all of this sounds familiar. If people are looking for present-day relevance there is no lack of it in my estimation.

That could be enough said but Roger Mais’ novels, particularly Brother Man, have intrinsic qualities of their own of a calibre that makes them worthy of notice outside of political and sociological concerns. Brother Man, his second novel, is not a mere historical artefact providing a window into Jamaica’s past, but shows an improvement in style, a sophistication in the development of themes and exploration of human character that trumps any of the dated charges that could be more ably aimed at Hills.

[1] Karina Williamson. “Roger Mais: The Hills Were Joyful Together and Brother Man by Jean D’Costa”. The Review of English Studies. 32 (1981): 245-246


31 Responses to "Brother Man, Part I"

Very interesting – I like your point about the spohistication of literature as opposed to simply the protest element. Although it might be the kind of thing hard to pick up on if you aren’t very aware of the context and times in which the novel was written and the literary tradition of the area – I assume the critic was, though?

Yes, Williamson praised D’Costa for actally focusing on those elements of Mais’ writing as opposed to the usual political stuff. I am tempted to think that if a novel can only be even partly appreciated, at the very least on an aesthetic level, if one has a thorough knowledge of its historical context, it is not a very successful one. I’ll have to consider that more now that I’m immediately second-guessing myself.

“Art for Art’s sake” grows out of a particular kind of European hermeneutics that while I admire its aims is not particularly suited for the Caribbean. Our sense of the aesthetic grows out of the body and the community–reggae, calypso,NDTC’s sense of space/time etc.,so the historical, sociological elements need to be discussed.

Oh, I agree with you for the most part Mr. Philp and certainly have not met up on any works that make me feel differently about it. Thanks for commenting!

I think there is merit in knowing the social and sometimes political context in which any work of art is set because it adds understanding to the reader’s interpretation of the piece. I do not entirely subscribe to the view of “art for art sake” since every writer, artist, playwright and poet depict an experience couched in personal, social, and even political milieu. As a student of Caribbean Literature I totally agree with Mr Phillip.

” ‘Art for Art’s sake’ grows out of a particular kind of European hermeneutics that while I admire its aims is not particularly suited for the Caribbean. Our sense of the aesthetic grows out of the body and the community–”

I take strong exception to this, as it savours strongly of the same old, very damaging, black=body/ white= mind dichotomy, which is nothing but the internalized preservation of plantation politics. It’s a trope as venerable and enduringly popular as the notion of the hyper-sexual black; the violent black; the naturally athletic and superstitious black and so forth. Raised in very powerful fields of propaganda, we don’t question our default assumptions often or deeply enough, but isn’t it clear by now how corrosive they are?

Secondly, “Art for Art’s sake” is a prejudicial misnomer that misses the point that some of the most rarefied aesthetic approaches in the canon are the most powerful responses to the politics of human life (see Kafka); polemic is the minor art (nurtured by cliche) that the greater artist manages to subsume in the ambiguous; the pared-back or withheld; the universal.

If social oppression is the mandate with which a culture tosses “Art for Art’s sake” out the window, how do we explain Joyce? Could it be that Joyce had an indignant enough sense of self to transcend his masters’ notion of what it would have been proper for him to write?

If climate is the alibi, how to explain Marquez or Borges or Roberto Bolano? If the historical fact of an Oral Tradition is the impediment to abstract sophistication in the literary arts, should Carribeans, and various other post-African cultures, also avoid the innovation of the Internet? Or reading *at all*?

If “blackness” itself is the dividing line, we’re in trouble.

You have aptly captured my thoughts on the matter!!

Helen I don’t think there is merit in that approach for every work of art. It wouldn’t help me much with Lolita or Mulligan Stew by Sorrentino or most of Steve Stern’s short stories. (In fact, for them, it would be better if I read a lot of other related fiction.) It’s neither here nor there for Jean Rhy’s Good Morning, Midnight.

For most Caribbean fiction I will concede that for the works that are promoted as worth reading it becomes more necessary. While every author is influenced by his environment it is filtered into and inhabits her work to varying degrees and it is that that should influence a reader’s approach rather than any set theory or wisdom. Thanks for commenting!

Steven Hmmmmm. First of all I do not think it is impossible or even improbable that a significant number of Caribbean fiction could be produced that did not demand an engagement with political/historical issues. (If it hasn’t been done already.) I figure that if I, a Jamaican reader, can grow up not needing that to be a predominant element in all of her art, then there are writers who do not need that to be the point of their writing.

I know that the postcolonial establishment has wholly taken Jean Rhys under its roof — Wide Sargasso Sea, at least — but I’d present her as an example of that. A lot of Walcott’s poems too and even Lorna Goodison, although it’s easier for poets to get away with it as long as there’s a fair number of poems that meet the expectations of what a Caribbean author should produce. (Actually Walcott isn’t as beloved in some circles because he didn’t produce enough of what was expected of a Caribbean writer, so he got the Nobel over, say, Edward Kamau Brathwaite .)

I am also very sure that the art community, in Jamaica at least, does not encourage experimentation in that direction. If a writer wants to be taken seriously he’d have to write works with largely political or historical themes or that could conceivably be interpreted that way, with enough artsy elements to earn the “creative” label.

What makes South America different? Well, a far more significant portion of their populations are directly of European descent so they brought with them that literary culture and history; and while they have the colonial baggage, they (the Europeans) were not enslaved. Maybe that’s why their literature has evolved differently.

No, it isn’t “blackness”.

With all due respect, Imani, what should a history of slavery have to do with dividing modern artistic expression, within a common language (English? French?), into various (race-assigned) classes of intellectual abstraction?

As a writer of color, I can’t say I’m pleased by the complacency I read, almost everywhere, on this issue; the bien-pensant fascism of the “authentic” as it applies to the “minority” artist. When “whites” promote it, I suspect condescension; when “non-whites” promote it, I suspect brainwashing. (Now watch the feathers fly! laugh)

Surely the true artist’s duty is to rebel against society’s (*whatever* the society) expectations about “duty” and the aesthetic realm of the appropriate? Or was Soviet Socialist Realism really much better than mere kitsch?

Remaining on the “Art for Art’s sake” issue that inspired my original comment, I’m curious about your honest opinion about how the literature favored by “the art community in Jamaica” stacks up, in the larger view, against your personal canon of favorites?

I was only using slavery as a starting point rather than a dictating factor. If the majority of a country’s population is descended from slaves then chances are a) there’s ridiculously low levels of literacy and b) there’s lots of fucked up ideas about race. Jamaica’s arts developed hand in with pro-black movements, Marxism, Rastafarianism and what people wanted to write or read, so it has filtered down to me anyway, were works with a predominantly political/sociological POV or ones that could be interpreted within that framework. Identity politics and all that. At least, that’s the literature that is being taught now.

It may be a daft idea but I theorised that since South America was largely populated by Europeans and the countries, to the best of my knowledge, became independent sooner, that this allowed their writers a bit more room in terms of what would be accepted, interpreted and “canonised”. That’s all.

I’m pretty much all the way with you about artists flipping the bird to the society. And I’ve read Jamaican writers who did that, but again, it was on political/societal issues, so you have Roger Mais’ “Brother Man” which has a Rastafarian protagonist published in a time when the public viewed that group as the dregs of society. Or Andrew Salkey’s “Escape to an Autumn Pavement” with a homosexual protagonist when up to this day Jamaicans are generally staunch homophobics. Or his epic “Jamaica” poem which is predominantly written in Jamaican patois and seeks to reclaim Jamaican history.

As for my “personal canon of favourites” do you mean overall or my favourite Jamaican works vs. the literati’s?


Re: the question you finish with: I have my answer, in the larger sense, in your comment, and we’re in agreement…

Dear Imani,


For the benefit of your readers and mine, I will post a response over at my blog:


Yay! I can’t wait. I felt slightly out of my depth in this discussion so I really hoped you’d take matters in hand. 😀

Ha ha! Imani, having read your blog for about a year, now, and, considering the books you’ve bothered to discuss, and *how* you’ve discussed them, I find it hard to believe that you honestly see yourself as “out of your depth” here. Isn’t it more that this is a real minefield of a topic?

I think it deserves discussing, but you and I know that revealing yourself to tilt towards anything but the “Politically Correct” stance on this has the potential for causing problems. Quite a few of the virtual-hugs-crowd will have their sensibilities bruised over a frank exchange on all this. Eg, how many liberal “whites” will own up to being rather compacent about the intellectual superiority the status quo confers on them?

And I know, as well as you do, better than to go around and around on anything touching on the broader topic of race. It’s a sloshing gas can in a room full of flickering candles. There are still too many raw nerves when it comes to all that.

I’ll leave you with this question, though:

…why do you suppose Black Music is *so* far ahead of Black Literature, as of a.d. 2008?

Consider John Coltrane. I’d say his greatest recordings are almost the *definition* of “Art for Art’s sake” (in the best sense); fiercely intellectual, uncompromising, experimental and rather difficult, at times, for the uninitiated to sit through. Wherever Coltrane started in life, he certainly ended up pushing almost every possible limit, as applied to the black entertainer, that he was born to.

Further, his Art synergized and built upon both the post-African and post-European aspects of his *multiple* heritage (to say nothing of the fact that the saxophone was invented by a Belgian) in order to transcend the limiting concept of “authenticity”.

Louis Armstrong was a prodigy and a master, but he hewed more closely to the expectations of *his* masters, no? (One realizes he was forced to). Even his stage presentation, as immortalized with great affection by the “white” media, was ingratiating to an almost embarrassing extent. Satchmo gives us pleasure, but didn’t Coltrane, by breaking so many race-appropriate laws of aesthetics, move music *forward*? Yes, and then there’s Thelonius Sphere Monk…the truly out-there Sun Ra…the list of fearless Black *musical* geniuses stretches on and on.

Please, show me the literary equivalent of any of these men? Well, they happen to be “white”…”Art for Art’s sake” artists like Gass, DeLillo, Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Harold Brodkey, et al. Toni Morrisson is *far* too mainstream to count.

I would never find fault with Mr. Philp’s voice or subject matter in his writing; from what I’ve read on his blog, I’m sure I would enjoy his books immensely. I only have a problem with his statement to the effect that “Art for Art’s sake” is a *European* trait, a European inheritance, an intellectual approach derived from European tendencies. And I only have a problem with it because it’s a widespread attitude.

The results of the attitude are there, for anyone with open eyes, to see.

Maybe it’s just that pedestrian Grad student malady of feeling like a fraud all the time? I was serious :P. Not so much because of the topic’s perceived difficulty but because it covers Caribbean and African American fiction: the first of which I know little about, the second, nothing. I did not read fiction written by black writers outside of what high school required until last year. Even then I consciously stuck to Caribbean novelists with no interest in what was being done on the continent for reasons I will explain later.

Some time in the mid-90s there was a kerfuffle about the meaning of one of Jamaica’s flag colours. They are black, green and gold, the black representing hardship, the green our agricultural wealth and the gold the sunshine, symbolising optimism. They (I have no idea who) wanted the black to symbolise something more positive, like strength, rather than “hardship” which, I guess, just kept the spectre of our past over us.

There is an attitude, I think, where the idea of “hardship” is codified into black identity in such a way that to be a major voice in the arts one must substantially incorporate that element into one’s work. Literature, being of words, is superficially easy to assess by that criteria; and also because it has a smaller audience; and also because Afro-Caribbean literature was championed by academia for political reasons.

Music, instrumental music, especially jazz instrumental, is less tractable to that kind of interpretation and therefore its practitioners are freer to experiment. That’s not all of it but I suspect that’s a part of it.

Ever since I was a teenager I kinda curled my lip at the idea of reading African American fiction because I figured it was gonna be all about slavery and lynching. (I was young!) Years later the offerings have diversified but I’m not really one for “urban lit” and its similar pop fiction cousins. I’m more interested in the “literary” stuff and, well, it still seems to be about slavery and lynching.

It was only through lit blogs that I picked up that there might be more to Toni Morrison’s literature, that she was considered something of a stylist (which for some meant obfuscating, nonsensical pyrotechnics) but for the first time I, with pitiful relief, thought, well, maybe I’ll pick up Blue some day. It was James Wood’s LRB review of E.P. Jones’ latest book that, with its focus on the writing and lack of political/racial commentary, persuaded me to pick up the novel, even though it was set in “Ye Olde South”. (What can I say? I’m coco for novels.)

(Before I get ambushed, can I just say that this goes for white authors too? I’ll die happily without reading Huckleberry Finn. Had no idea that that William Styron book I picked up for free recently was about all that jazz until later.)

I don’t know if it’s because no one’s writing what I want or because their books aren’t being highlighted because it doesn’t fall within the expected. When Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche released Purple Hibiscus — a novel far superior to her second on every level, but of course the 2nd is about war and stuff so she gets a prize — she revealed that many were confused by the book because it wasn’t about “bush men” or political prisoners. She’s an African novelist but the book didn’t have “something to say”, I suppose, on predictable issues. I think she even faced such arguments back in Nigeria — whether she was really a Nigerian novelist or not.

All novelists deal with this problem, to varying extents, but I think that, because of our history, have a rougher time with it.

Thelonious Monk is a god but Sun Ra is way, way, way out of my orbit.

Interesting post, on your blog, Mr Philps! I still can’t fathom, though, how the genealogy of “Art for Art’s sake,” as you trace it, should preclude any Artist-of-color’s participation in (or futherance of) that tradition (or anti-tradition).

Anyone with an Indo-European language as a mother-tongue is the direct heir to some of the cultural traditions that tree of tongues encompasses, though I don’t believe an Artist requires a license of cultural inheritance to operate outside her/his “traditions”. If there *is* a “license”, it’s Talent.

Judging by your fluency in English, I’d say your cultural heritage encompasses as much Shakespeare as it does the melodically oral tradition of the West African griot (for example). I’m bold enough to put forth the theory, in fact, that that statement’s as true for any “white” North American, raised in Detroit, expressing himself in a melange of inherited tropes he’s powerless against absorbing. I should think that the quality of *Era* is far more the cultural dividing line, in this age of info-saturation and instant appropriation, than race or geography.

Everything an Artist produces will bear the traces, subtle or overt, of the milieu she/he came along in, obviously. Whether he/she cranks that dial towards the “subtle” or towards the “overt” is an Artist’s decision, calculated on the basis of the overall goals of the material. I think it’s every Artist’s right (job, even) to make that decision with ruthless fidelity to a self-made aesthetic which shows, itself, a ruthless fidelity to the Artist’s *imagination* . This is probably the division between Art and Craft, as I see it.

I’m afraid that the range of expression of the Artist-of-color (or of “exotic” origin) is too often limited by pressure (overt or subtle) from the Authenticity Police.

I’m not agitating for a legal quota of Black Urban postmodernists, or for more Sappho-Caribbean pastiches of “The Magic Mountain”. My initial response was to your proscriptive comment:

” ‘Art for Art’s sake’ grows out of a particular kind of European hermeneutics that while I admire its aims is not particularly suited for the Caribbean. ”

I’d like to think that any Black Artist is as free to break rules of that sort as every other genotype of Artist in history. I’ll stick to my notion of the Artist as a creator who isn’t much bothered by what “suits” her/him (as defined by the Authenticity Police, with their rainbow arm bands).

And I’m still waiting for the Black *Literary* Coltranes to come along… I think we already have enough literary Duke Ellingtons, Billie Holidays and Satchmos.

[…] by the clicks it’s received I may not need to point many to Brother Man – Part I an old post I did from last year. Steven Augustine revived the comments section and what ensued was […]

What a great discussion… Augustine, you are either way off or way on, but with real consistency in the inconsistency… I call that a good thing. And I don’t mean, agree or disagree-like your in there and with it, and then–in over your head, and then again, you really have it together.

Means you think with your gut and feel with your mind.

Kinda thing that makes me pay attention…

Nothing I could add to this–but maybe an anecdote (true)… of a certain psychiatrist of Jamaican birth who was in a class with Walcott as a child (are patient’s pledged to the same vow of privacy as therapists?)… he was only the P-doc (prescribing MD), so it was an incidental intimacy… was severely caned and clearly bore the scares of his treatment–that how could this man have been so willing to emulate their British masters? Such that, he could not read Walcott without awakening that burning shame and resentment.

There is no escape from honoring the conditions of our origins–that we only transcend them, as in our dreams, by reworking them… not by disowning them. We rise “above” our condition to the degree we are able to fully avail ourselves of the raw material it supplies. Now and then, every few millenniums … a Shakespeare will so fully use and make over his immediate conditions that he will himself vanish… and make us believers in that myth of art for art’s sake.

For the rest of us… the other stuff does matter

Augustine not was arguing for rising above or disowning anything or implying that any “other stuff” does matter. That’s not what your implying, is it?

But I think it’s the height of presumption to presume that the “other stuff” matters to everyone equally, or should be given equal — or any — credence in an artist’s work simply because of their skin.

And I completely reject your friend’s assessment of Walcott’s work as any kind of emulation of “British masters”. Categorical nonsense. No one who read poems like “Ruins of a Great House” or even “The Sea is History” could call that mere emulation. Even Omeros. Never mind that it glances over the fact that Walcott is of obvious mixed descent. I don’t know anything about his parents but the dude looks half-white. It’s that particular conflict exactly that he tries to work through and anyone who does not even take that into account should stick to reading Maya Angelou.

I should probably step out of this now before I say something I shouldn’t. Suffice it to say that I can become sensitive about this topic because when I was younger I innocently developed artistic interests that weren’t “black” and suffered accordingly.

Edit: Philp did a post on one of Walcott’s poems here in Why I trust Derek Walcott more than my pastor which gives insightful analysis of how Walcott incorporates his European literary heritage (and the heritage of all former British colonies to some extent, whether or not we care to admit it) into his poetry.

We transcend our condition, not by rejection, but by transformation. Seldom will the assimilated elements be rendered invisible.

In Walcott… yes, the conflict is his subject, isn’t it? That he rendered corporal punishment in emulation of his political masters does reveal something of his origins, doesn’t it? Of the conflict of identity. This was certainly felt, most painfully, by the object of the caning.

Not a friend… my P-doc. An inadvertent confession while discussing literature in the midst of an evaluation of my prescription needs at that time.

I see no possibility of drawing neat lines between the contingent and the unmediated–and no need to pretend to establish them. But I certainly acknowledge the subversive force of art… even the productions of those seemingly themselves part of the status quo (Pope… a supremely subversive thinker and poet).

Oh, your friend wasn’t even commenting on Walcott’s literature, it was the caning? Which is British? My apologies for misinterpreting. I’m not in any position to comment on Walcott’s personal behaviour. I was confused because I know many older persons who were also caned in school when they were younger but the experience was never given that political twist before; and we were talking about literature so I kind of glanced over the caning bit there.

I still don’t get your “rejection” comments and resent the implications but I’ll assume we’re just missing each other’s point and leave it be.

Actually, Jacob, I addressed this issue, artistically, a year ago, in fiction. It’s a non-linear, collagist narrative… not something you can scan quickly and “get”, but nothing impenetrable, either.

It was inspired by my reading of Mr. Ellison’s Paris Review interview, which I found to be fairly condescending (to Mr. Ellison) in patches; one of the interviewers, Alfred Chester, I knew about via his connection to Paul Bowles, so I was able to gauge how inappropriate his apparent condescension was.

I’ve gotten as much hate mail over this story as love letters, so I’m not expecting to win converts (laugh) with it, but it *is* a serious attempt to get at the heart of the matter that our discussion here takes on:

(if the URL doesn’t work, just go to my site and search for “If I Dealt in Candles”)


“Means you think with your gut and feel with your mind. ”

Ha ha! Jacob, Jacob. I think *entirely* with my mind, I assure you.

Sometimes. That probably explains where you go wildly off center.

I think the “rejection” comment was in response to something Augustine wrote… though I don’t recall. In any case, it was not about anything personal. I was thinking about Walcott–how difficult it must be to assimilate those conflicting cultural identities without giving in to the wish to be free of one part or another, as it seems to me that literature is a product of exactly that sort of internalized conflict; by belonging in more than one place, we belong in none–and are driven to imagine a world large enough for both.

Does that make sense now?

Yes, it does make more sense. I know that you weren’t trying to make it personal, I was pointing to my own susceptibility. Hence, why I’m (trying) to bow out.

No need to reply then… but wanted to say that I’m relieved. I felt bad that I’d inadvertently pinched a nerve. Thank you for your reply… I understand how this would be a sensitive topic.

On to other subjects!


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