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Books for Republic Readers

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A remarkable theme in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is the necessity of re-positioning the social sciences to accurately capture social reality. He recalls that till relatively recently, economics was based on observation and inference, not hard data. 

Malthus, Ricardo and Marx were to an extent creatures of their classes and environments. Only in the mid-20th century did Simon Kuznets design the first data-driven economic project, refine the Kuznets curve, and transform the dismal science into the mathematical science.

There might have been some over-shooting after Kuznets, as Piketty writes: “Economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with other social sciences…. The obsession with mathematics is a easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the complex questions about the world in which we live.”

To do this, he continues, “It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of intuitive knowledge…even in the absence of any theoretical framework or statistical analysis”. 

Piketty seeks those intuitive connections via the precursors to social scientists: artists. To support his arguments, he cites, inter alia, Balzac, Jane Austen, and Quentin Tarantino, making copious reference to Austen’s and Balzac’s novels as means of illustrating the distribution of wealth in Victorian England and Napoleonic France.

 The fiction, he proposes, provides accurate depictions of the returns on capital, and the consequent development of class attitudes to the state as a capital generating machine (via government debt by way of bonds). Fascinating, but there’s more.

 In Balzac’s novel, The Thirteen, is an astonishing example of the artist’s sociological sensitivity to his environment. He writes: “In Paris, no sentiment withstands the drift of things, and their current compels a struggle in which passions are relaxed; there, love is a desire, and hatred a whim; there’s no true kinsman but the thousand-franc note….The universal toleration bears its fruits and in the salon, as in the street, no one is de trop, there is no one absolutely useful or absolutely harmful—knaves or fools, men of wit or integrity. There everything is tolerated: the government and the guillotine, religion and cholera.”

Back in Trinidad, compare the above with: “Trinidad was and remains a materialist immigrant society, continuously growing and changing, never settling into any pattern, always retaining the atmosphere of the camp; unique in the West Indies in the absence of a history of enduring brutality, in the absence of history…. All this has combined to give it its special character, its ebullience and irresponsibility. And more: a tolerance which is more than tolerance; an indifference to virtue and vice.”

This is from Naipaul’s Middle Passage, which manages still to enrage some “nationalists.” But that sensitivity to environment, which remains penetrating half-century later, is absent from most contemporary fictional or social science assessments of our state. (The exception being Gordon Rohlehr’s books My Strangled City and The Shape of that Hurt.) Nonetheless, the general shallowness of public appreciation of Trinidadian history and sociology pervades the public sphere.

As noted many times in this space, there’s no history of post-independence or 20th-century Trinidad. Bits of the history are reproduced in populist spectacles, but these are usually absurdly inaccurate. I refer, again, to the atrocity that is restaged yearly as the Canboulay Riots.

But if academics and politicians have failed artists, as Naipaul illustrates, have done their job in tracing the social and cultural history of the country. Even as educators, culturati, and media have cultivated indifference to that effort. But in this moment between independence and republicanism, if any Trini wanted to get an imperfect, but coherent and viable idea of his or her social history, there are possibilities from writers.

They could start from the beginning with Naipaul’s Loss of El Dorado and Warner Arundell, The Adventures of a Creole, by EL Joseph. Continue to Adolphus: a Tale, and The Slave Son, written anonymously and by Marcella Wilkins in the mid-19th century.

Early in the 20th century came Rupert Gray, by Stephen Cobham. The Man Who Ran Away, a collection of Alfred Mendes’ stories, capture the 20s and 30s. Ralph de Boissiere’s novels Crown Jewel and Rum and Coca-Cola run from the mid-30s to the Second World War.

In the preceding, there’s little acknowledgement of Indians. You can get an account of rural Indian life from Seepersad Naipaul’s Gurudeva stories, and Sonny Ladoo’s No Pain Like this Body. Trinidad just after the War is captured by Mittelholzer’s A Morning at the Office, and Naipaul’s The Suffrage of Elvira. The mind and mores of the urban working and underclasses in this (post-war) period are captured in Miguel Street and Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance.

After this, the works become more frequent: Naipaul chronicles Trinidad’s post-colonial journey (independence and Black Power) in The Mimic Men and Guerillas. Derek Walcott’s plays like Pantomime, Remembrance, and poetry written here in the 70s, The Castaway and The Star Apple Kingdom, present an up-close look at the decay in Afro-Saxon middle-class society and politics. Neil Bissoondath’s Digging Up the Mountains, A Casual Brutality, and Worlds Within Her present a window into the Indian mind-world post-1970. Eric Roach’s The Flowering Rock is indispensable to capture the all-too-rare consciousness of morality of post-independence.

This isn’t a complete list, but these books have the virtue of actually being available. If the Government wished to do something useful with the $200 million wasted on Carnival annually, they could commission reprints and re-distribution, even film versions of all these books, and reading programmes around them. Or something. 


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