A Unique Marxist Thinker
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Wilson Harris
C. L. R. James is, I believe, a great West Indian of complex spirit. I recall a conversation with him on the plane that was taking us from Madrid to Havana, Cuba, some years ago to attend a UNESCO conference on Caribbean literature. We became immersed in the problem of "light" in the paintings of such artists as El Greco, Titian, Piero della Francesco, Van Gogh, Turner and Rembrandt. Through the window of the plane — far above the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea — we could see a huge otherworldly continent saturated by an enormity of sun, and we could not but pause and wonder at the quality of obsession with both darkness and light in some Caribbean poetries and fictions. What is light, we asked ourselves, in imageries of plastic word as this borders on a sensation of paint, sculpture, and organic metaphors of music as tone of verbal narrative beyond mimicry of sound?
"Light" is as much a naked tone or quality as a dazzling mirror; these run sometimes concurrently since the genius of art lies, in part, in a "shock of tone, a shock of beauty, a shock of perception" that helps us to unravel biased habit built into the ways one may have been conditioned to perceive the world.
C. L. R. James's preoccupation with such issues makes him a unique Marxist thinker whose dialectic is attuned, it seems to me, to necessity for individual originality as much as it is involved in analyses of historical process in the life of the people or the body-politic. The significance of this may not be immediately selfevident in an age such as ours in which ideologies have little or no independence in themselves and are virtually delegates of robot genetics and undifferentiated mechanics of thought.
The Black Jacobins, which James wrote in the 1930's, was a daring work of individual scholarship in assessing the universality of Toussaint L'Ouverture within the fractured limits of his age that possessed its roots not only in the Middle Passage but in pre- and post-revolutionary France and the tragedies of the age of Napoleon.
At the other extreme, James's Beyond A Boundary, which appeared in the early 1960's, witnesses to the English legacy of cricket as an extension of the ideal and subtle physicality of the Greek pantheon that casts its shadow upon practitioners of the game in the West Indies and around the globe.
C. L. R. James has written a great deal, many articles and important books — as his critics have attested — and I wonder in what degree the body of his work may lie within two extremities, namely, The Black Jacobins, on one hand, within which the freed slave of genius Toussaint confronts the fascinations of Napoleonic tyranny, and Beyond A Boundary, on the other, in which body-epic becomes a variable of the mind of theatre.
Wilson Harris, a West Indian novelist living in Britain, is the author of Palace of the Peacock and other works.