C.L.R. JAMES, MODERNISM, MADNESS

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Sat Apr 15 11:55:11 MDT 1995


Mr. Burford, your last post is much appreciated.

>Should I lend him the James book? I cannot in my position start
>a marxist reading group for unemployed mentally ill black people
>in Tottenham.

I'm sorry, I'm not sure which James book you are talking about.  I
am not competent in the area of bibliotherapy, so I'm just going
to think out loud.

Of course James wrote about specific political situations, but one
of his most important and least understood themes was the crisis
of the modern personality.  He developed his thinking on this
matter during the 15 years he spent in the citadel of loneliness,
the USA.  I can't stress enough how important this theme is for
James.  James developed his own thoughts on the matter and was
strongly influenced by the American writer who most exemplified
the predicament, his friend Richard Wright.

If you want something therapeutic as well as something that deals
with the problem of the individual in society, then I recommend
most of all James's writings on culture.  The ones that changed my
world view were still unpublished when I read them, and much
material from the 1940s and early 1950s remains unpublished.  My
thinking was drastically altered by the manuscript (1950) of what
was finally published as AMERICAN CIVILIZATION by Blackwell in
1993.  Some of James's letters to Constance Webb (his second wife)
and to literary critics were published in THE C.L.R. JAMES READER
(Blackwell, 1992), as are extracts from other unpublished writings
on literary criticism, Walt Whitman, etc.  (James's full
correspondence with Constance Webb will be published this year.)
There is also James's much-misunderstood masterpiece MARINERS,
RENEGADES, AND CASTAWAYS: THE STORY OF HERMAN MELVILLE AND THE
WORLD WE LIVE IN (1953).

James's experience of individualism in America (which he valued
highly -- part of his anti-Stalinism) freed his psyche so that he
could write his own autobiography of identity as a Trinidadian
growing up under British colonialism who did not want to fit into
existing society, the acknowledged masterpiece BEYOND A BOUNDARY.
Since your patient is a Barbadian, perhaps this is the book for
him to read.

I must dig up a quote for you, but for the moment let me
summarize.  James advised: write about what you know.  If you
write about your authentic experience you will discover that other
people have experienced some of the same problems you have, and
that your individual experience is really a social force after
all.  In an interview in the mid-'80s published in EVERY COOK CAN
GOVERN, James advises some activist in Mississippi how to go about
publishing some kind of a newspaper based on studying the problems
of one's locale.  The idea is always to start out with something
of immediate importance to you, share it with others, maybe a few
friends, work out your ideas on this issue, study it for a long
time, and start publishing something on it, and over time it will
steamroll into a social force.

This is the cutting edge of James studies, one which certain
powers that be in the James world did their best to suppress but
could not!  (Non-academics made publication possible.
Nyah-nyah!)

I beg and I plead humbly on my knees: as a psychiatrist please
read and pass on what James has to say about culture and the
individual.  (Who cares about a petty tyrant like Eric Williams?)
James is 180 degrees removed from pop frontist volkish Stalinist
crapola.  His genius is to see the intellectual as a social force.
He mocked Sartre for "turning to the working class" and writing
"engaged literature".  James said, that's not how it's done.
Write about what you know, use your imagination, and that's how
you unleash the creative universality lying dormant within the
people!  James's fundamental philosophical category as of 1947 was
.... universality!

>I just had a sense of you using the German Ideology as an excuse
>to spray a lot of shit around at intellectuals on this list

Did I not explain my take on _The German Ideology_ at the very
beginning?  Could I have neglected to do this?  Did you see my
conference program announcement?

>Prior to your arrival the prevailing consensus on this list was
>I would say, anti-post modernist.

Well, I am the ultimate anti-postmodernist and a die-hard
modernist.  But nobody in his right mind could ever accuse me of
being anti-intellectual.  I am one of the few
anti-anti-intellectuals left.  That's because ideas are not a
luxury for self-satisfied dweebs at Oxford or Yale.  The common
people still languishing in semi-feudal religious darkness need
them more than anybody, and when they overcome their inferiority
complex and dread of thinking, appreciate them more than anybody.
If there is one thing I appreciate the British for, and there is
not much, it is their invention of working-class autodidacticism.

O William Blake, Christopher Caudwell, E.P. Thompson!  May your
spirits commingle with my synapses and shoot out the portals of my
brain down my left and right arms, out of my aching erection -- I
mean out of my fingertips, tingling my clackety keyboard with the
electrified ecstasis of mind-soul fired-up.  Remove soggy
Quine-twig from sore anus and let the Hegel flow.  Gort, vaporize
my enemies.  Klaatu, clitorify the receptacle of my inspiration.
May the testicles of my poesis dance joyously in the axiomatic
foundationalism of my scrotum until my membrum berengam can't take
any more.  Gortify my love!

(15 April 1995, 12:17 EDT)


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