Photograph - Eugene McConville
Dr Marjorie Thorpe at the launch of Light Falling on Bamboo at the National Library, Port of Spain..
“A Sermon has no Place in Art”: Lawrence Scott’s Light Falling on Bamboo
In his work The Terror of History, T.F.Ruiz, Professor of History, and of Spanish and Portuguese at UCLA and the winner of 2011 National Humanities Medal, considers the ways in which human beings living in the Western world have traditionally confronted the major catastrophes and the everyday crises that are an inescapable part of the human condition. I came to Light Falling on Bamboo a couple months after reading Ruiz’s study, and I was immediately struck by the extent to which the two texts complement and enrich each other. And so I thought I would use Ruiz’s thesis as a stepping stone into this brief introduction to Lawrence Scott’s intriguing novel.
Drawing on selected examples from the Middle Ages to the present day, from the Black Death that decimated Europe’s population between 1348 and 1350, through such modern terrors as the holocaust , 9/11 and even more recent catastrophes, Ruiz identifies three primary approaches adopted by Western society to the “stress of history”, the stress of history defined as “ the weight of endless cycles of war, oppression and cruelty which shape our individual and collective lives. These include
i) embracing the religious experience;
ii) pursuing worldly success and pleasures;
iii) adopting an aesthetic response to the cruelty of the situation.
The particular historical cruelty that informs Scott’s novel was the transportation of millions of enslaved West Africans from their homeland and their introduction into the Caribbean landscape. The action of the novel, however, begins in 1848 and focuses on the experience of the free coloreds, themselves a product of this somewhat protracted transplanting exercise. Scott’s free coloreds are a people existing uneasily between two worlds: that of the recently emancipated community of Africans and that of their former French and now English masters. Economically and socially advantaged in relation to the former, “these learned men of medicine and law, men of letters, moneyed men and women on sugar estates, those with wealth and those without”, are nevertheless denied access to the white world of constituted power and prestige to which they consider themselves entitled by virtue of their education, financial status and skin colour.
Scott explores the existential crises of this group through Cazabon’s imagined encounters with members of his family, his friends, the black working class and his white patrons.
The opening scene in which the protagonist attends his mother at her death bed, establishes the three possible responses outlined by Ruiz, and later developed over the course of the novel’s action: religion, the material world; aestheticism. In the dying woman’s room, the reciting of the rosary, the chanting and the distant drumming may be seen to speak to the individual and collective urge to escape/deflect history’s terror by engaging the religious response. At the same time, even as they pray, his sibling’s simultaneous concern about the distribution of their mother’s estate suggests the second mode of escape: the embracing of the material world, through the accumulation of wealth OR through the pursuit of sensory and sensual pleasures, expressed here initially in our hero’s urgent search for Josie and expanded through his subsequent amorous adventures.
But finally, there is Ruiz’s third category of response, and this is the one that concerns us more immediately this evening. It involves adopting an aesthetic response to the cruelty of the situation: the turning to the creative forms of writing, art, music and scholarship as avenues for facing down the terror of history, for sublimating our uncertainties about our own lives and historical role.
Scott imagines Cazabon’s mother on her deathbed urging him not to forsake his art: “You have work to do, paintings to paint, an island to give to the world, a people whose dignity you must be proud of when you place them in their own world. . . . Don’t forget the Republic we seek in this corner of the world.” And yet, the extract from the Walcott poem that is an epigraph to the novel warns us of the role of the artist as conspirator and spy. And I think it is this dual role that explains, in part, the tension that impacts the consciousness of the fictional Cazabon . Recognizing and accepting the ideological position articulated by his mother, he must strive to mitigate the deep guilt he feels about benefits accrued through his membership in the free coloured community, benefits which he has no intention of surrendering:
“I never wanted to record the dark visions . . . . Only this light, the fields, the skies and something also I saw in the people, something I hoped for them, a kind of peace and harmony with the fields and the light” -P.77) And again, “It was not the wonder of the landscape that was uppermost in his mind while he painted, but the figures who traversed the landscape, making and leaving their mark (p.159). And, finally, ”The flowers and leaves knew how to protect themselves. It was more than the whole land could do to save itself. The breezy air contradicted the harshness of the history. The gentle, waving palms denied the violence. The visual surprise, the daily epiphany of radiance, assuaged the brutality with which people had dealt with each other.” (p.174)
The artist or maker of culture, Ruiz observes, more often than not does not write or create art for himself or herself. Her/His passionate engagement with a subject or artistic theme represents an attempt to reach out beyond the self and to bind readers, listeners or viewers into a community of insights, a community of beauty, and even a community of suffering. When he succeeds, the effect can be transformational. When he fails, his fate may be likened to that of Shakespeare’s Cinna in Eddie Baugh’s amusingly insightful re-creation of the scene from Julius Ceasar in the poem “Truth and Consequences”
When the mob swerved / at him he screamed
“I’m not the man you’re after./ I’m Cinna the poet/
I never meddled in politics.”
The mob knew better. Then tear him,
it screamed back, tear him/ for his bad verses!”
It was then he learned/ too late/ there’s no such thing as only literature
Every line commits you.
Those you thought dead will rise,/ accusing. And if you plead / you never meant them,
Then feel responsibility /-break on you in a sudden sweat
As the beast bears down.
As a student, the painter Cazabon is constantly reminded “A sermon has no place in art” (p.90). But while the focus of the novel is on the free coloureds,. Scott suggests that the experience of the formerly enslaved, now dispossessed black population may be discerned by those alert to the ironies that inhere in Cazabon’s paintings of grand homes and extensive estates, ironies also concealed in the mocking and self-mocking song of the washerwomen: “Doudou ou abandonne mwe: So you leaving me, darling. I have no one to care for me, you know!”
Observations, extracted by Ruiz from Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations , offer an interesting gloss on the character Burnley’s assertion that the pain and suffering that inform our more dazzling achievements should either be ignored or, as he put it: “accommodated in as comely as way as possible” (p110) Burnley, I should add, is the wealthiest man in the country. The owner of the Orange Grove estate, his mansion of 101 windows houses commissioned paintings, a retired black mistress and her daughter who has succeeded to the position. The Cazabon protagonist remembers Hardin Burnley’s boast as he walked him about his estate, more concerned then with the importance of the imported iron railings from Glasgow than his imported labour from Calcutta.: “If the niggers won’t work we can transport coolies to take their place. Let them walk off my estate. I can do without them” (p.174)
Benjamin writes: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. Every cultural achievement, every iconic monument that stands as an example to the greatness of civilization has been created at a price. The price is injustice, oppression, inequality, war and other barbarities that turn our individual and collective histories into what Hegel once called ‘the slaughter bench of humanity’ “.
Benjamin goes on to call on historians and non-historians alike to brush history against the grain and to write a different kind of account, one that seeks to reveal the interstices of resistance and pain. For, as Ruiz notes, the differences in how we experience terrifying catastrophes are deeply embedded in class distinctions, economic well being and education.
“A Sermon has no Place in Art”. We may praise the quality of Scott’s research into the life and times of the free coloured community and admire his skilful evocation of the landscape, of the light and colour, the sounds, the smells, the sights and even the tastes that comprised their world. We may delight, too, in how a reference to live fireflies as personal adornment, or allusions to the fabled wealth of Golconda and El Dorado deepen our sense of “the ephemeral nature of our well being and happiness”. But for me, the novel is particularly appealing in two fronts: first, there is Scott’s sensitivity in treating with the racial and social tensions that, even today, are the subtext of so many of our public exchanges; and second, and most importantly, there is that strength of imaginative energy that informs this fictional re-creation of the life and work of the country’s most-renowned landscape artist, Michel Jean Cazabon.