Beauty, pain, and A Small Place

I’ve been stuck in a particular section of this project – a long critical introduction to a new translation of Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphael Confiant’s Éloge de la créolité (contracted with SUNY). The section is on Édouard Glissant’s contribution to and critical appraisal of the creolists. On the one hand, this is the most straightforward section of the introduction. Unlike other sections on Négritude and surrealism, black existentialism, and my own conception of the afro-postmodern, this section – which I title Theorizing the Black Atlantic – has plenty of texts for dialogue, extrapolation, and analysis. Still, as it goes with writing, sometimes it is hard to start and find the right motif.

Reading helps, so I re-read Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place over the past couple of days. Anyone who has read it knows that A Small Place is brilliant, polemical, and searching. The close of the text is amazing and I have the last two paragraphs below. Kincaid’s final comments brought me back to this section of my own writing by evoking something so central to Glissant’s work: the simultaneity of beauty and pain in Caribbean history, memory, and landscape. Kincaid builds it into the polemic as a sort of existential release, coming at the close of a bleak assessment of Caribbean economic and political life. In this moment, she arrives at what so many thinkers of her generation wrestled with: how to make sense of this simultaneity and the legacy it leaves? There is a strong thread in the African-American intellectual tradition on just this, from Du Bois through Locke, then Baldwin, that turns on an interpretation of the spirituals as an animating force of voice, identity, and possibility. Glissant is more metaphysical and, with that sensibility, rethinks the interpretative frame with which, to use Benítez-Rojo’s expression, we read the repeating island. Kindcaid’s close to A Small Place is less metaphysical, more visceral. And a beautiful evocation of all of that.

It seems to me that the creolists in part want to move beyond this metaphysics, to disentangle the historico-existential register of creolization from the positivity of cultural production in creolized places. Perhaps simply as a bracketing of the issue – setting it aside for the sake of a finer analysis of cultural work – or perhaps as a shift in the understanding of history and memory. This is an important generational turn, for sure, whatever one thinks of créolité and its various projects.

Either way, this is all just a preamble to posting this passage from Kincaid’s A Small Place, which concludes the short book.

ANTIGUA is beautiful. Antigua is too beautiful. Sometimes the beauty of it seems unreal. Sometimes the beauty of it seems as if it were stage sets for a play, for no real sunset could look like that; no real seawater could strike that many shades of blue at once; no real sky could be that shade of blue—another shade of blue, completely different from the shades of blue seen in the sea—and no real cloud could be that white and float just that way in that blue sky; no real day could be that sort of sunny and bright, making everything seem transparent and shallow; and no real night could be that sort of black, making everything seem thick and deep and bottomless. No real day and no real night could be that evenly divided—twelve hours of one and twelve hours of the other; no real day would begin that dramatically or end that dramatically (there is no dawn in Antigua: one minute, you are in the complete darkness of night; the next minute, the sun is overhead and it stays there until it sets with an explosion of reds on the horizon, and then the darkness of night comes again, and it is as if the open lid of a box you are inside suddenly snaps into place). No real sand on any real shore is that fine or that white (in some places) or that pink (in other places); no real flowers could be these shades of red, purple, yellow, orange, blue, white; no real lily would bloom only at night and perfume the air with a sweetness so thick it makes you slightly sick; no real earth is that colour brown; no real grass is that particular shade of dilapidated, rundown green (not enough rain); no real cows look that poorly as they feed on the unreal-looking grass in the unreal-looking pasture, and no real cows look quite that miserable as some unreal-looking white egrets sit on their backs eating insects; no real rain would fall with that much force, so that it tears up the parched earth. No real village in any real countryside would be named Table Hill Gordon, and no real village with such a name would be so beautiful in its pauperedness, its simpleness, its one-room houses painted in unreal shades of pink and yellow and green, a dog asleep in the shade, some flies asleep in the corner of the dog’s mouth. Or the market on a Saturday morning, where the colours of the fruits and vegetables and the colours of the clothes people are wearing and the colour of the day itself, and the colour of the nearby sea, and the colour of the sky, which is just overhead and seems so close you might reach up and touch it, and the way the people there speak English (they break it up) and the way they might be angry with each other and the sound they make when they laugh, all of this is so beautiful, all of this is not real like any other real thing that there is. It is as if, then, the beauty—the beauty of the sea, the land, the air, the trees, the market, the people, the sounds they make—were a prison, and as if everything and everybody inside it were locked in and everything and everybody that is not inside it were locked out. And what might it do to ordinary people to live in this way every day? What might it do to them to live in such heightened, intense surroundings day after day? They have nothing to compare this incredible constant with, no big historical moment to compare the way they are now to the way they used to be. No Industrial Revolution, no revolution of any kind, no Age of Anything, no world wars, no decades of turbulence balanced by decades of calm. Nothing, then, natural or unnatural, to leave a mark on their character. It is just a little island. The unreal way in which it is beautiful now is the unreal way in which it was always beautiful. The unreal way in which it is beautiful now that they are a free people is the unreal way in which it was beautiful when they were slaves.

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island. It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty— a European disease. Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way. The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, supposing you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves. Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

– Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), 80-81.