Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Natural Histories of Social Bodies: Rethinking Caribbean and Victorian Realisms

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Natural Histories of Social Bodies: Rethinking Caribbean and Victorian Realisms

Article excerpt

In his well-known book of essays The Pleasures of Exile (1960), George Lamming welcomes the West Indian novel--novels written by West Indians--as a new technology. According to Lamming, travel books, sociological studies, and economic treatises on the Caribbean "worked like old-fashioned cameras, catching what they can--which wasn't very much--as best they could, which couldn't be very good, since they never got the camera near enough." In contrast to the cumbersome and compromised documentary tools of social scientists, Lamming praises the novelist for being "the first to relate the West Indian experience from the inside." Such visionary technology, Lamming predicts, will compel "the anthropologist and all other treatises" to consult the West Indian novelist (37-38). At first glance, Lamming's account of the novelist's ability to probe interiority seems to fit within two closely related critical narratives. His praise of the novel's intimate, almost invasive possibilities as a leap forward from the narrow purview of documentary renderings reads as a version of the perceived divide between nineteenth-century realism and twentieth-century postcolonial writing. (1) But Lamming's arguably smug rhetoric about "old-fashioned cameras" also bolsters a more recent critical interest, one that traces the affinities between Anglophone Caribbean literature and modernism. (2) Put simply, Lamming seems invested in a modernist call to "make it new."

I argue that Lamming's vision of meaningfully relating experiences unexpectedly resonates with a brand of realism delineated by George Eliot in the nineteenth century. This essay thus sets out to problematize two critical commonplaces: the opposition between realism and modernism, and the famous antagonism between canonical British writing and Anglophone Caribbean literature. Placing Lamming and Eliot side by side may appear to go against the recent trend of tracing Anglophone Caribbean literature's affinities with modernism. But closely reading these two authors alongside one another in fact harkens back to reading twentieth-century Anglophone Caribbean literature for its attempt at authentic depictions of Caribbean life--in other words, for its realism. (3) V.S. Naipaul's novel A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) offers the most obvious example of Anglophone Caribbean literature's echoes of a familiarly detailed and accessible realism. But Naipaul is also a troubling representative of Caribbean writing who infamously rejects local elements of Caribbean artistic practices. (4) By pursuing instead the similarity between Lamming--an author who early on pushed back against the "sacred gang" of British literature (Pleasures 27)--and Eliot, I will dig deeper into their shared project of realism and at the same time offer an understanding of realism that challenges its reputation as a formally obsolete and politically naive tradition of writing.

Analyzing Lamming and Eliot through the lens of realism finds much in common with recent projects to reassess the contours of realism. With calls to see realism as "a continuing social project" with a vast "aesthetic range," realism is increasingly understood less as a historical tradition of writing that seeks to depict the known, visible world and more as a richly variegated formal and political project of representing the often-shifting terms of what counts as reality (Robbins 225, Esty and Lye 269). As Jed Esty and Colleen Lye write in their introduction to a special issue of MLQ on peripheral realisms, "the literary mimesis of the past and present involves no simple reproduction of the already known and existing but always contains a future open to dynamic change" (287). Neither historically outmoded nor formally static, realism is more and more distinguished by the self-reflexivity its practitioners bring to the fore.

Lamming's Season of Adventure (1960) and Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876) are the two novels in which I trace these authors' similarly probing, plastic realisms. …

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