Bogart in Miguel Street

2008 December 31
by roots

Much of Naipaul’s fiction has been concerned with the disintegration and discontinuities of the Indo-Trinidadian community, the foundations of which have conditioned their entry into modernity, that have been determined by the creation, conscripting and looting of surplus labor, and enters a new phase with the advance of capitalist modernization. Selwyn Cudjoe has been one of the better readers in situating Naipaul’s early work within this framework. (I look forward to checking out his new book on A.R.F. Webber). He writes of the prevailing predicament of their social being: “It was as though their social existence was not synchronized with the sociopolitical realities of their new environment” (53). As a result this being is displaced and “becomes frozen between two points of existence” (60). But while Naipaul’s exploration of the social and psychological condition of Indian-Trinidadians may be more sensitive and layered—it is only there they he achieves a kind of fully developed realism—it is possible to apply these observations to the Caribbean in general.

Uneven development is a critical part in understanding the Caribbean’s “failed modernity”:

“ We had music while we drove, from the two radio stations. With their songs, commercials, constant weather reports (as though this was at any moment liable to spectacular change) and news ‘every hour on the hour’, they suggested that we were in an exciting, luxurious metropolis, which was supported by a vast, rich hinterland. Soon this hinterland appeared: occasional horse-carts, small houses, people working in small vegetable gardens. We with our car-radio on the highway were in one world; they were in another” (The Middle Passage, 45).

Miguel Street posits this unevenness in part by juxtaposing “Americanness” to the Trinidadian environment. “But modernity in Trinidad means,” according to Naipaul, “a willingness to change, a readiness to accept anything which films, magazines and comic strips appear to indicate as American” (The Middle Passage, 40). It is especially in film, where “the Trinidad audience actively participates in the action on the screen,” that he locates the false consciousness he associates with Trinidadian paralysis. (53-54) “In its stars the Trinidad audience looks for a special quality of style. John Garfield had this style; so did Bogart. When Bogart, without turning, coolly rebuked a pawing Lauren Bacall, ‘You’re breathin’ down mah neck,’ Trinidad adopted him as its own. ‘That is man!’ the audience cried” (54-55). The confluence of style and masculinity mediate the ways in which many of Miguel Street’s characters adapt their alienation from and lack of unity in their social being. Style, for Naipaul, is to be contrasted with social standards or convention; style is the absence of social convention, and such absence indicates a lack of history. The consequences are a phantasmagoria; a privation of self that can only reproduce itself in boorish attitudes through mimicry: “In the immigrant colonial society, with no standards of its own, subjected for years to the second-rate in newspapers, radio and cinema, minds are rigidly closed; and Trinidadians of all races and classes are remaking themselves in the image of the Holywood B-man. This is the full meaning of modernity in Trinidad.” (The Middle Passage, 56)

The opening “Bogart” chapter of Miguel Street illustrates some of the important premises in Naipaul’s portrait of “Trinidad’s flawed modernity.” By representing the composition of the Trinidadian self through the “Hollywood B-man,” he traces the uneven division in social space by dramatizing the disjunctive condition of this self exactly as “frozen between two points of existence.” Crucially, this static condition produces a subjectivity permanently shaped by its impoverished self-awareness.

In “Bogart,” Naipaul confronts us with Trinidadian mass society in the 1940s, influenced by American movies like To Have and Have Not and Casablanca, in which “hundreds of young men began adopting the hardboiled Bogartian attitude” (9). Here the “Bogartian attitude” signals an aesthetic response toward the dilemmas of Trinidadian working class life. Naipaul does not explore the philosophy indicated in the act of appropriating the “hardboiled” attitude for a Trinidadian context. Instead, he exteriorizes it into an assemblage of gestures. “Hat recalled Rex Harrison, and he had done his best to strengthen the resemblance. He combed his hair backwards, screwed up his eyes, and he spoke very nearly like Harrison” (14). Through the repetition of these gestures, “Bogart was hardly opening his lips when he spoke. His mouth was twisted a little, and his accent was getting slightly American. ‘Sure, sure,’ Bogart said, and he had got it right. He was just like an actor” (13-14), and their gradual development in the chapter into a reified image of “Americaness,” Naipaul renders the absurdity and pathos of these characters. “Bogart became the Bogart of the films. Hat became Harrison. And the morning exchange became this: ‘Bogart!’ ‘Shaddup, Hat!’” (15). In the process of exteriorization he empties this aesthetic response of its content and, therefore, the interiority of his characters.

The act of repetition measures Bogart’s place on Miguel Street or, more precisely, his lack of place. For instance, Hat and Bogart’s ritual morning greeting, “What happening there, Bogart?”…”What happening there, Hat?” anticipates Bogart’s perennial, but sudden absences and arrivals. After Bogart’s first disappearance, “It was as if Bogart had never come to Miguel Street. And after all Bogart had been living in the street only for four years or so” (12). The lack of a definitive relationship between Bogart and his environment is reinforced by his lack of history. He “always remained a man of mystery” (12). It is the increasingly rigid embodiment of Bogartian gestures, which holds his position in the social field, and thus returning after “four months” from his latest departure, now “his accent was pure American” (15).

Here repetition also comes to imply the social being of non-movement—a radical atemporality—and the consciousness it produces. For Naipaul, gesture signals a consciousness of ontological paralysis and a lack of social referent. In his system it is difficult to ascertain which precedes the other, but each is constitutive in how he poses the condition of unevenness in phenomenological and social terms. The rendering of style as a mode of knowing, then, is linked to repetition as a mode of social being. Thus Bogart’s style “impressed Hat,” and it is only through the elaboration of an assemblage of such gestures can he have a recognized place in Miguel Street (12).

Naipaul’s delineation of the historical roots of this particular way of knowing is found in his identification of a “picaroon society.” The picaro, lower class anti-hero of the picaresque novel, adapts and advances in a corrupt and hypocritical society through the cynical use of wit and satire. A society formed by the mutual derision of slavery and colonialism has given shape to the consciousness of the hustler: “Power was recognized, but dignity was allowed to no one. Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible” (The Middle Passage, 35). For Naipaul, the origin of such consciousness can be found in the failure to cohere a culture from fragments of the British inheritance—“the cultures represented by the buildings in Maraval Road”—and the variou
s cultures—Naipaul’s “racial groups”—of Trinidad. Since these “have not coalesced to form” a culture, “They have all been abandoned under the pressures of every persuasive method: second-rate newspapers, radio services and films” (The Middle Passage, 53). “If such a society breeds cynicism, it also breeds tolerance,” the lack of social convention means there is “tolerance for every human activity and affection for every demonstration of wit and style.” Hat’s appreciation of Bogart’s persona can be understood in his “having no rigid social conventions of his own, he is amused by the conventions of others” (The Middle Passage, 74)

Bogart responds to his lack of place and history through Naipaulesque fantasy. After his return, encouraged to inform the others where he had been for so many months, Bogart eventually tells his story. We learn that he “became a cowboy on the Rupununi” savannah in Guyana, returned to Georgetown and set up “the best brothel in town.” “’It was a high-class place,’ he said, ‘no bums. Judges and doctors and big shot civil servants.’” (14). Bogart’s inferior class position is compensated through a shared masculinity, and his story imaginatively links the traditional icon of the regenerative male, the cowboy, with power over women as commodity. Indicative of the changes in the barrack-yard novel with Miguel Street is to notice how women have receded from the foreground and have become objects of male desire. The early barrack-yard novel, like Minty Alley or Black Fauns, are dominated by women and this transition reflects, in the words of Rhoda Reddock, demonstrates how “the domestic ideology increased with the separation of women from wage-labour” into the post-war period. It shows that the consolidation of Bandung modernization was achieved not simply by turning the Caribbean masses into objects in general, but by excising women from the national narrative in particular.

Whereas in Minty Alley or Black Fauns, men are dependent on women’s waged labor, the men of Miguel Street attempt to deny their relationship to women. After the police come to arrest Bogart, who remains in “character,” Hat has “to find out all the inside details.” Naipaul now reveals the real reason for Bogart’s absences. We learn he left his wife in Tunapuna because she “couldn’t have children.” However, “feeling sad and small,” Bogart leaves to “find a girl in Caroni and he give she a baby.” After, he is forced to marry, but when asked, “why he leave she?”, Hat answers the group assembled on the street: “to be man, among we men” (16). Naipaul unmasks “the hardboiled Bogartian attitude” by revealing how it cannot escape the empirical and material realities of Trinidad represented by women. The condition of non-synchronicity is marked by the failure to create, and in Bogart’s story it is symbolically expressed by his failure to generate himself—both literally and aesthetically. This effects all the men of Miguel Street.

In Naipaul, Bogart’s rejection of this society is translated into a rejection of all society. Bogart is an approximation of the bad-john and an antecedent of the rude-boy. But also captured in general in the qualitatively different musical rhythms of the “planet of the slums” in the 1970s, reggae and afro-beat, and reflecting the structure of feeling of semi-proletarianization. In America, its affinities are found in the birth of hip hop and later crystallized in the gangster persona; but also the punk and its parallel attitude to the conditions of decay with the onset of neo-liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Naipaul can only see the self-negation/annihilation in these forms, but not its productive critique, its utopian/dystopian quality.

We have to look elsewhere beyond Naipaul and I went back and reread CLR James on the “the hardboiled Bogartian attitude.”

Bogart, as he embodies the Sam Spade detective character, for James, is the inverse of the gangster. The gangster has a genealogy: he represents all those character traits and yearnings that were once celebrated as the values of official society, but under the regime of state-capitalism and Fordism must be repressed. The gangster “is the persistent symbol of the national past which now has no meaning—the past in which energy, determination, bravery were certain to get a man somewhere in the line of opportunity. Now the man on the assembly line, the farmer, know that they are there for life; and the gangster who displays all the old heroic qualities in the only way he can display them, is the derisive symbol of the contrast between ideals and reality” (American Civilization, 127) With state-capitalism, bureaucraticization, mass society, Fordism, these traits have become dangerous to the rational order. So they are driven underground in the form of the gangster. Sam Spade/Bogart is the everyday American man who hates the pretences of society, its fakery and sentimentality that attempt to cover-up this reality and injustices of this society. But while he looks cynically on, he has no choice but to “intervene” in the social scene. “Society would fall entirely to pieces if the gangster were to triumph” (American Civilization 126).

I would add that in order to maintain the social order he must intervene, but he is alone and doesn’t know how to intervene in any other way. The struggle occurs through the contradictions in the content of American individualism. Sam Spade is the form of the contradiction between American individualism and the era of state-capitalism, as much as, expanding on Earl Lovelace’s idea, the Bad-John is the form of the village stick-fighter as he goes through the transition to modernization and semi-proletarianization.

“Finally, we can sum up this phase. The film, strip, radio-drama are a form of art which must satisfy the mass, the individual seeking individuality in a mechanized, socialized society, where his life is ordered and restricted at every turn, where there is no certainty of employment, far less of being able to rise by energy and ability or going West as in the old days. In such a society, the individual demands an esthetic compensation in the contemplation of free individuals who go out into the world and settle their problems by free activity and individualistic methods. In these perpetual isolated wars free individuals are pitted against free individuals, live grandly and boldly. What they want, they go for. Gangsters get what they want, trying it for a while, then are killed. In the end ‘crime does not pay’ but for an hour and half highly skilled actors and a huge organization of production and distribution have given many millions a sense of active living, and in the bloodshed, the violence, the freedom from restraint to allow pent-up feelings free play, they have released the bitterness, hate, fear and sadism which simmer just below the surface. The gangster and detective film, the strip and the radio-drama are the product of the peculiar conditions in the United States. But they represent a universal.” (his italics, American Civilization, 127)

What Naipaul misses is that Bogart’s persona posed an increasingly universal problem. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he appears in Trinidad, adapted to particular national or regional expressions of this problem.

To contrast James’s method to Naipaul’s is instructive. Naipaul displaces the effects of his ideology onto his characters. Isn’t repetition and non-movement define his writing. And, as Derek Walcott implies, doesn’t surface style without dialectical depth characterize The Middle Passage, describing his writing as “style without truth” and relates it to his historical narrative defined by Naipaul’s “pluperfect tense” (Walcott, 130).

This process identifies how the aesthetic experience in Miguel Street helps structures Naipaul’s social ideology. Repetition is part of the work of comedy
in general, but in Miguel Street it takes on specific meaning. The gestures of these characters gain force because they are repeated as a habit in each character, and in each chapter, until each one becomes interchangeable, and generalized. It becomes a condition. The reader becomes part of this conspiracy because once we pick up the pattern, we expect it, and imaginatively complete it before the end of each chapter. We “know” with Naipaul soon enough. You get this sense though that he is still waiting to see his reaction and ours. He hasn’t made this part of his permanent persona, he hasn’t elevated his cynicism into an ideology and a formalism completely yet in Miguel Street.

13 Responses leave one →
  1. 2011 September 13
    janet Khaemba permalink

    I like the approach you have taken to analyse Bogart as a symbolic character. Honestly, culture is the issue. If you have no historical origin that is rooted to a certain culture, then anything can sweep you off the feet, the american cultire in this case seem popular to the street family, when Bogart deteriorates to drinking and swearing, this is also a sign of influence that degenerates to the teens. Naipauls character choice of teens is very approriate to underscore the predicament faced by the Trinidadians as an aftermath of colonialism and slavery. The master still inflences the generation.

  2. 2011 September 26

    bogart is meh lover lol i love this story

  3. 2011 November 8
    alan permalink

    this is one of the best books i have evr read

  4. 2012 April 2
    Thiong'o Waiganjo permalink

    Most of members of society behave just like those characters in the text “Miguel Street” They are influenced and victims of colonialism . It is a relevant book.

  5. 2012 April 9

    Could you say more about what you mean that the characters behave they way they do because they are influenced by colonialism?

  6. 2012 April 20
    Abuyah permalink

    The novel ,i cal it so because its a mere continous flow of event in specific scenes,with different major characters in each scene and the omni present characters keeps on appearing in every scene,is one of the best mirror show of the ills the female characters were exposed to in the Miguel steet.It also gives us the effect of the American if not to mention the Whites culture on the Miguel street,

  7. 2012 September 4
    Devon permalink

    Can you describe 3 characters in the first chapter (Bogart)? Please. Thank you

  8. 2012 September 7

    Devon, you have read it – you should try and describe three characters in the first chapter.

  9. 2013 January 15
    Enock M Masaki permalink

    i like the way you have elucidated your work and this has motivated me to read the novel further since am just beginning to like it

  10. 2013 September 11
    Nicholas Diaz permalink

    I love this book but I would really like to see what the characters look like, i’m studying this book for a project and I really need pictures.

  11. 2013 September 21
    kurtisha permalink

    thanks alot !!!! :) i’m suposed to describe him and you just cleared it out a bite for me once again thanks

  12. 2015 September 30

    did popo ever molest hes wife ” in miguel street chapter 2

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