In the Castle of My Skin, the Caribbean novel, and the historical conjuncture of the 1930s

2010 August 6

The episode of Pa’s dream-speech is exactly that point when the novel shifts, marking the introduction of G.’s full differentiation from the village, initiating his heightened self-consciousness of unevenness, his “petit-bourgeois” awareness, as well as the villager’s halting, disjointed awareness of Slime as a figure of the emerging national bourgeoisie. Larsen’s critique of magical realism as a narrative strategy to address unevenness is apropos to the overall direction of Lamming’s novel: “The resort to montage has made it possible to imagine Latin America as historically integral with itself, but only on an isolated, phenomenological plane. Up to this point the structure of social action itself remains static, even if not viewed from an ironizing, aestheticizing perspective.” [1] In short, however critical, montage is inadequate on its own in constructing a narrative that can account for the emergence and development of this new political subject as a historical process. Like Fanon, with In the Castle, Lamming seems to initiate a project whereby the interrelation or linking of these two phases must be achieved.

In this regard the introduction of Pa’s dream-speech is unique among the fragments of the narrative because its form is the first to pierce the externality enforced by the ideological continuity of the colonial, capitalist present and therefore the past. Simon Gikandi has called the fragmentation of narrative in the novel a “project of translating modernism” within the Caribbean context. As we have seen, in Lamming’s view, such a translation is necessary because West Indian society, unlike other colonial societies, lacks an “indigenous” tradition that serves as a point of reference and therefore historical continuity. The dream-speech sequence opens up a vertical relation to the past, paralleling the rupture in colonial, capitalist time enacted by the mass rebellion. It is one step towards denaturalizing and historicizing Caribbean society. The narrative strategy of In the Castle, then, is produced by these conditions whereby, Gikandi further argues, “key terms in the lexicon of decolonization—history and nation, home and tradition—encountered experiences that could not be accounted for in the common grammar of modernity or in the forms associated with nationalism: that is, in realism.” [2] However, given the novel remains governed by the realist desire for totality, the representation of the “structure of social action” remains the necessary compliment, much like in Fanon, to the explosion of space. Gikandi answers critics who question the “gap between ideology and form” internal to the Lamming novel by noting that this is not so much a contradiction that undermines its proposed tenets, but an expression of the relation to the past in the colonial situation. [3] However, where Gikandi places this gap primarily between the delineation of the “nation” and its fragments, I am instead refocusing such disunity within the mass subject.

Any kind of unity of this subject seems to dissipate after the rebellion. “The years had changed nothing. The riots were not repeated. The landlord had remained” (p. 201). Despite this event and the emergence of a political subject, the novel appears unable to narrativize it in a new, dialectical relation to the externality that had imprisoned it before the rebellion. Such a reality is highlighted by how the novel emphasizes the sense in the village of the riot coming from outside its imaginative boundaries. It appears, then, that the village encountered at the beginning of the novel, a “breeding ground for every uncertainty of self,” returns without alteration (p. 50). Commenting later, Lamming approaches this issue by way of questioning his decision to emphasize ambivalence or uncertainty about the strike and, most importantly, the hesitancy to kill the landlord. [4] Lamming contrasts this anxiety to that of Trumper when he returns from working in the United States for some time that gives him “a political experience which the subtle force of British imperialism had never allowed to flourish in the islands….Trumper returned home with a new ideology, and the startling discovery that his black presence had a very special meaning in the world.” [5] While the rebellion appears to initiate or anticipate what Lamming identifies as moving from anxiety to “become the subjects of their own history,” this process appears to be short-circuited. [6] The failure to kill Creighton, then, may symbolize this aborted development; however, what is crucial here is to recognize that the entrance of Slime mediates this moment. In other words, the failure of consolidation on the part of the mass subject, its lack of autonomous movement, is interrelated to the emergence of Slime as a new political subject, one approximating that of the national bourgeoisie. From this angle the rebellion in the novel initiates an objective movement in the recomposition of classes that begins decolonization.

There is a certain truth, then, in the return to “normality” in the novel, which is reflected in the subsequent historical development of decolonization. Under pressure of dramatically deteriorating conditions, a workers movement imbued by a class struggle black nationalism and led by Clement Payne, began to put forward a distinct political challenge to British colonialism in Barbados. As in Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean this movement distinguished itself by threatening the hegemony of the black middle class in colonial politics. When Payne was framed and secretly deported in July of 1937, riots erupted in Bridgetown and throughout the island. [7] With Payne gone, associates like Israel Lovell, who were “aware of the need to bring historical awareness to workers so as to mobilise them into conscious, determined action,” according to Hilary Beckles, were able to sustain the movement against British authorities. Indeed, a stream or resistance in the form of wildcat strikes and cane burnings continued off and on for more than a decade after. However, considering this new element in Barbadian society, the planter oligarchy relented to some extent, helping to facilitate the placement of a more vocal middle class leadership within the institutions of colonial government. This “established the nature of the reformist leadership which would dominate the labour movement for the next two decades or so,” the central figure of whom, as Beckles explains, was Grantley Adams, recently “returned to Barbados fortified with imperial metropolitan support, which he used assertively over the next decade in order to suppress the left wing of the labour movement.” [8]

Perhaps the failure of this movement to take hold as a subject of history in the novel is the condition for exploring this reality. Such a collapse resonates with the difficulty the villagers find in comprehending not only the sale of the land and their terrible eviction, but also the origins of this sudden change of fortune, coming as it does in the figure of Slime whom they considered their advocate. It is only when it is too late that they begin to understand how Slime, the leader they championed, and the institutions of workers organization and social welfare he helped build, such as the Penny Bank, became the instruments to facilitate a new kind of exploitation and oppression. The potential subject that explodes colonial time and space with the rebellion, and that constitutes an alternative history, is disarticulated by Slime and the new social order he represents. It is now this emerging society that the potential mass subject is not able to define itself within, unable to fully place Slime within its framework. As Sandra Pouchet Paquet has noted, the villagers and presumably the strikers cannot situate Slime: “It is significant that while the villagers recognize the overseer, the sanitary inspector, the supervisor of baths, and the police constable as members of this class of middle men, they fail to identify Mr Slime and the head teacher as part of this class.” [9] It is this prehistory that underlined the new social realities of the 1950s, where this “class of middle men” were found to be firmly in power and purging the leftwing of the labor movement, which Lamming appears to be grappling with here. It may be that Lamming overdetermined, once again, the fall into externality so as to express this dynamic of articulation and disarticulation of the mass subject that is found in the inaugural moment of mass anti-colonial politics, which then conditioned a key problem in the historical experience of decolonization that, as we have seen, would return to full visibility in the immediate post-colonial period.

Finally, this also might help shed light on why it is the interior of a kind of petit-bourgeois consciousness that is introduced and comes to predominate the close of the narrative. In “The Negro Writer and his World,” Lamming notes the necessary function of reclaiming language as an embodiment of the process of coming to consciousness and naming a subject. “Language in this respect is intentional, and the intention seems clearly part of the human will to power. A name is an infinite source of control.” [10] And, commenting elsewhere, Lamming urges that “[l]anguage is a source of control. But language is also a source of invention. And the controlling power of language of course depends very much on who has the power to define.” [11] Throughout In the Castle the appeal to the power of language to understand and address the constitution of the self and its particular way of being in the world, then, gains a double-sidedness by the end of the novel. For instance, we are told that the power of language is critical in grasping one’s place in the world. “Perhaps we would do better if we had good big words like the educated people….People who were sure of what they were saying and who had the right words to use could do that” (p. 145). However, language is not only expressive, but can also be instrumentalized. “And if you were really educated, and you could command the language like a captain on a ship, if you could make the language do what you wanted it to do….It knifed your feelings clean and proper, and put an end to any pop, pop, pop in your head. Perhaps we would do better if we were educated” (p. 146). Language here takes on a more sinister cast, one, it is suggested, deeply implicated in the social relations of power. Such a conception of language foreshadows the changes that will happen to G. and the apparent social ideology of Mr Slime.

The narrative makes this shift when Lamming brings in the form of the journal, which reintroduces G. speaking as an “I”—the atomized consciousness exhibited by the teachers during the school assembly—over the “we” that has predominated so far. At the same time it also introduces a writing over a speaking subject. The impact of the change is felt immediately. Writing about the anticipation for the “annual Agricultural Exhibition,” G. notes that the “farmers and peasant folk select the choicest specimens of their crops for display in Queen’s Park, and those who don’t live in the country get an idea of what it means to work on the land. We are used to sugar cane and the vegetables, but we have never really known them this size” (p. 150). The identification of “we” has noticeably changed, signaling the exclusion of the villagers, who are now objectified and abstracted in the form of “the peasant.” The socio-political implications are hinted at when G. finds himself in the “Miami Club” where he overhears Slime, the head teacher and property speculators talking about selling the village land they have bought from Creighton with the help of the funds in the Penny Bank. Importantly, G. keeps his “head bowed,” and only seems to be disturbed when he believes they are talking about putting Pa in the alms house (p. 252). The function of language has now changed. In Fanon’s work, Sekyi-Otu observes, “the colonial version of the cognitive function of language, the mutual dependence of a language world and a speaking subject who enjoys expressive autonomy and responsibility is shattered. In place of this relation of reciprocity, the colonizer’s language here assumes a constitutive authority that mirrors the status of imperial subjectivity as a kind of demiurgic power acting on inert and formless matter.” [12] A similar process is occurring here, with the emphasis now on how G.’s new consciousness is being formed by the language of a new embryonic class in the Caribbean. G.’s new form of anxious self is later contrasted with Trumper, recently returned from America with his “big, confident, self-assured smile” that remains mysterious to G. (p. 273) Trumper’s experience in America—and the very different social experience of black people there—has given him a frame of reference, allowing him to place the social role of Mr Slime in the changing conditions of Barbados in a way G. cannot (p. 278).

In “The Occasion for Speaking,” Lamming suggests it is the novel that must be an important means in the reconstruction of historical narrative in Caribbean society given the particular conditions of its colonial experience. As Lamming insists, “[c]olonialism is the very base and structure” of consciousness in the Caribbean, and it is the task of In the Castle to depict how such a consciousness is historical, rather than inevitable. The fictionalized account of the 1937 rebellion turns out to be critical to the potential break down of the externality that defines the situation of popular consciousness. Yet how are we to reconcile the stated aims of the Caribbean novel, as expressed by Lamming, and the apparent lack of trace left by this event in the novel? Peter Hallward argues that in Badiou for the event to be recognized as such “from within the situation, the existence of an event cannot be proved; it can only be asserted. An event is something that can be said to exist (or rather, to have existed) only insofar as it somehow inspires subjects to wager on its existence.” [13] The naming and elaboration of an event is a concurrent part of the overall intervention that explodes the structure of a given situation. In this case, colonial, capitalist society excludes the possibility of a black proletarian subject, even as the social relations of this society give rise to the existence of such a subject. However, the rebellion of 1937 and its new subject may only become fully visible if someone or something claims it as such and, in a sense, sustains it discursively and institutionally. Badiou refers to this as maintaining “fidelity to the event.” [14] Considering the role Lamming envisions for the novel, in some sense, In the Castle is enacting a similar “fidelity” to the rebellion and its subject as key to overcoming the blockages in popular consciousness.

Yet the transformation of language toward the close of the novel throws new light on this intention, by complicating the role of In the Castle as a critical commentary on the Gramscian notion of common sense. If we consider that language embodies the life-world of popular consciousness, common sense must also be transformed, in Gramsci’s terms, at the level of language, which embodies common sense as a lived reality, developing in a concrete, historical way. [15] However, as the middle class social relationship arises in language in the narrative, indicating G.’s changing consciousness, the former subjects of the village lose the projection of the phenomenological within the social space, and effectively disappear into an abstraction called “the peasants.” Marcus E. Green and Peter Ives note the close relationship in Gramsci’s thought between the transformation of common sense and the institutional referents that are necessary to facilitate that change. “The adoption of some ‘artificial’ worldview or language, that may be ‘coherent’ from a logical perspective or ‘beautiful’ from a given aesthetic perspective, is similarly an ineffective medium for going beyond common sense. Thus, the cultivation of organic intellectuals derived from and practically aligned with subaltern groups has the potential to facilitate the direction and coherence of the groups in their political activity which must include creating a new language.” [16] It seems the novel introduces exactly the distinction between an abstract language and popular consciousness. It is striking, in this regard, that the phenomenological dimensions of the middle class intellectual emerge in relation to their disappearance among the villagers, now rendered as mere “peasants.” This equation is such that these two poles in the social order are understood in opposition. In other words, Lamming is not cataloguing the fragments and discontinuities within the totality of the nation that must be somehow reconciled.

In the Castle, as a form of critical engagement with popular consciousness, differs from something like Jacques Roumain’s classic novel on 1930s Haiti, Masters of the Dew, whose procedure is underscored by a stance that assumes the self-identification of its own formal symmetry with its peasant subjects. Lamming’s novel works in another way. The introduction of intellectual consciousness with its abstract form in In the Castle suggests that the novel, in its purported task outlined by Lamming, cannot conduct itself outside the historical conjuncture of the 1930s, with its new class composition, and cannot therefore abstractly extricate itself from the subsequent development of decolonization and the emerging social relations that will come to define the post-colonial period. The intended legitimation of the novel, outlined in “The Occasion for Speaking,” is far more tenuous and precarious than it may initially appear, and this sense figures and pervades In the Castle in a way that can only be marked in a novel like Master of the Dew as an absence. Bill Schwarz identifies this problem in the novel as a separation between “the lived and the more self-consciously discursive,” where if “the relations between these two different forms of the popular remained unresolved….it offered a means by which the discrepancies—the dysfunctions—between these different types of social speech and different types of experience could be opened up and explored.” [17] Ultimately, it is perhaps the passive triumph of the national bourgeoisie during decolonization that delimits the possibilities of representing the masses as a subject of history. In the end, In the Castle discovers that the exploration and criticism of popular consciousness must face directly its own relation with the emergent national bourgeoisie and its end in the postcolonial state—a fact which C.L.R James’s revision of The Black Jacobins only ambivalently conceived.

Such a reality will fundamentally inform Wilson Harris in his first series of novellas, later collected as The Guyana Quartet, amid the trials of decolonization in Guyana. Despite what appears to be their formal differences, Lamming and Harris seek the answer to the lack of historical unity in the West Indies not simply through the representation historicity, but necessarily its relation to the conception of history, which comes to underscore the ideology of Bandung modernization.


[1] Ibid., p. 136; his emphasis.
[2] Simon Gikandi, “Back to the Future: Lamming and Decolonization,” The Locations of George Lamming, ed. Bill Schwarz (Oxford: Macmillan, 2007), p. 187.
[3] Simon Gikandi, Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 73.
[4] George Lamming, “In the Castle of My Skin: Thirty Years Later,” Conversations, p. 50.
[5] Ibid., p. 51.
[6] Ibid., p. 56.
[7] See Hilary McD. Beckles, A History of Barbados: From Amerindian settlement to nation-state (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 136-170.
[8] Hilary McD Beckles, Chattel House Blues: Making of a Democratic Society in Barbados, From Clement Payne to Owen Arthur (Kingston: Ian Randle, 2004), pp. 21, 22, 24.
[9] Sandra Pouchet Paquet, The Novels of George Lamming (London: Heinemann, 1982), p. 17.
[10] Lamming, “The Negro Writer and his World,” p. 38.
[11] Lamming, “The Sovereignty of the Imagination,” p. 124, his emphasis.
[12] Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, p. 193.
[13] Hallward, Badiou, p. 115.
[14] See Hallward, Badiou, pp. 107-130.
[15] This point is made by Marcus E. Green and Peter Ives, “Subalternity and Language: Overcoming the Fragmentation of Common Sense,” Historical Materialism 17 (2009), p. 10.
[16] Marcus E. Green and Peter Ives, “Subalternity and Language,” p. 26.
[17] Ibid., p. 59.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. 2014 November 28
    Vasisht kumar permalink

    Very good

  2. 2015 April 15
    McClose permalink

    well explained…makes it better to understand..Thank you.

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