Emily Greenwood, Afro-Greeks, Dialogues Between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century. Classical Presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xii + 298, incl. a general index. ISBN 978-0-19- 957524-4. UK£55.00, US$99.00.
Classics, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Most Classicists know (and even write about, expertus confiteor) Caribbean literature, and its relation to the Classics, mainly, or solely, through the work of the Nobel laureate in literature, Derek Walcott, especially his poem Omeros. But as Emily Greenwood’s timely book, Afro- Greeks,[] now shows, Walcott is by no means unique among writers of the region in creating a dialogue and resonance between Caribbean and Mediterranean, between Anglophone West Indian literature and the Classics.
Walcott, although he looms large, is only one among several authors whose work Greenwood scrutinizes in this fascinating and wide-ranging book. Concentrating on Caribbean writers in English, her main points of focus are the extraordinary Marxist intellectual, journalist and writer on cricket, C.L.R. James; novelists Austin Clarke and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul; historian and first premier of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams; and poets Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott himself. In each case, Greenwood teases out the complex, inventive, sometimes problematic relationships between the work of these men and the world of (mainly) ancient Greece, as well as Rome. She further shows how, in this aspect of their writings, they responded to and reacted against authors of earlier generations.
Already in the nineteenth century, J. A. Froude, in The English in the West Indies, or The Bow of Ulysses (1887), had used the Odyssey, and the Classics more generally, as a filter through which to render the West Indies intelligible to a British readership. And Froude’s trope was taken up and extended by the travel writer and novelist, Patrick Leigh Fermor, in The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands (1950). In Fermor’s eyes, this region of the New World gains significance and meaning by comparison with the ancient Greek world of the Aegean. However, as Greenwood comments, ‘the Hellenic interference in his account means that the Caribbean lies in the shadow of Greece’ (p. 34), being humbled and lessened, rather than enhanced by the comparison.
Up until the 1960s and ’70s in the Caribbean, the few scholars who completed secondary education at elite schools devoted an inordinate amount of time and effort to winning the scarce island scholarships available for university study in Britain and its empire. The scholarships, and elite secondary education in general, demanded considerable competence in Latin and, for a tiny minority, in Greek. Britain controlled both curriculum and examinations. And imperial ideology strongly coloured the teaching of the Classics: ‘whole civilizations were collapsed into an imperial tradition in which Pericles’ Funeral Oration was one with the culture of Victorian Britain’ (p. 69). Greenwood discusses the intriguing strategies that Caribbean authors developed to counter these influences. Pointing to ‘blatant fictions and gaps in colonial Classics’ (p. 113), some authors criticized the way in which such education created a small class of ‘exoticized natives’ (p. 78) and lead to a narrow, instrumental view of learning. Other writers recreated the Greeks and Romans in their own Caribbean image, forging a direct link with the Classics, seeking to bypass the imperial British reception.
Since the 1970s, Latin has virtually disappeared from the West Indian school curriculum. Greenwood (pp. 108-11) allows herself a brief lament for this state of affairs, pointing out that the loss of the Classics makes it difficult for the current generation of Caribbean students to understand all the nuances of some of the region’s finest literature.
Derek Walcott is a constant presence in Afro-Greeks, Greenwood’s book providing abundant evidence for her argument that ‘the ambivalent way in which Walcott represents classics and classical pedagogy belongs to an established Caribbean tradition’ (p. 79). In attempting to define his world, Walcott engages with the colonial idea that the Caribbean is an ‘empty’ space, where ‘nothing happens’, where there are no monuments and no history. Strategically adopting this notion and turning it on its head, Walcott is able to create his own history and to abolish the millennia between the ancient Mediterranean and the modern Caribbean, allowing them to co- exist in a timeless present. And he can appropriate just what he needs from Homer, from the Odyssey, from the ancient world, to suit his poetic or dramatic purposes. Another method Walcott uses to understand ancient Greece on his own terms, so Greenwood argues, is to view it through the filter of a humbler, ‘unclassical’ modern Greece. Hence his engagement with the poetry of George Seferis (pp. 58-68), and his use of the modern Greek ‘Omeros’ (introduced to the narrator by a twentieth-century Greek woman in the poem of that name) in preference to the traditional ‘Homer’, with all that name’s cultural accretions. Walcott wants a Homer purged of any imperial associations. And Greenwood writes of a ‘cagey identification with Homer . . . whereby Walcott is careful to keep his distance even in the moment of engaging with epic’ (p. 170). Finally, in discussing Walcott’s use of Helen in Omeros(pp. 231-5), Greenwood rightly points out that that poem ‘now exercises a powerful force field in the study of Homeric reception’ (p. 233), just like the Ulysses-figures of Dante, Tennyson, and Joyce.
As a classicist and enthusiast for the game of cricket, I was keenly interested in Greenwood’s discussion of the complex figure of C. L. R. James, for whom cricket and ancient Greece were his twin lodestars. James, though he received a solid middleclass education, was largely self-taught in the Classics, like several other West Indians the author discusses. He fashioned for himself an idiosyncratic view of antiquity, believing (although admitting it was a fantasy) that he would have felt entirely at home in the world of ancient Greece (p. 102), and comparing cricket, as ‘a social art that involves the whole community’ (p. 198) with the theatre of fifth-century Athens. And he was able to use his version of the ancient world as a standard against which to judge critically the shortcomings of British history and society. For James, as Greenwood well comments, ‘The ancient Greek connection offers European civilizational authority without imperial and colonial interference’ (p. 195).
Eric Williams, C.L.R. James’s erstwhile pupil and ally, later political foe, was one of those lucky few Caribbean students who, thoroughly drilled in Latin, won an island scholarship to study at Oxford University. There, in 1938, he earned a D. Phil. in history. Discussing an episode from Williams’s autobiography, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister (1969), in which the author lets us know how much better he was in Latin than his Oxford contemporaries, Greenwood comments that this is ‘a motif in Caribbean literature where the struggle for political and cultural autonomy is contested through the classics’ (p. 88). A parallel contestation, much later in Williams’s career, showed how much antiquity could be shaped to suit political ends. Prior to becoming first premier of Trinidad and Tobago (from 1956 until he died in 1981), Williams launched a campaign for public political education of the masses, citing Greek philosophers and orators in his speeches. Greenwood argues that to ‘offset this elitism he interprets these authors in a popularist, post-slavery, and anti-colonial light’ (p. 210). She shows further how Aristotle, no less, was brought into the political arena of Port of Spain, as Williams and a Benedictine monk, Dom Basil Matthews, publicly contested the philosopher’s views, with Williams turning what had been a debate about education into one about slavery (pp. 213-19).
The writing of the enigmatic V.S. Naipaul -- so clear-eyed and objective (to all appearances) in his style, so relentlessly negative in his attitudes towards the Third World -- is discussed in some detail by Greenwood, who interprets his work in a generally sympathetic way.[] Another Trinidadian recipient of an island scholarship to study at Oxford (English, in his case), Naipaul touches on the Classics at several points in his novels. Miguel Street (1959) displays the pathetic figures of Elias, vainly striving to better himself through education in Latin (among other subjects), and his incompetent teacher Titus Hoyt, with his dubious ‘External’ London degree. In Greenwood’s view, Naipaul here satirizes the dire lack of opportunity in Trinidad, rather than the characters themselves. Then, examining deliberate misquotation of the Aeneid in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979), and Roman allusions in The Mimic Men (1967) and Half a Life (2001), Greenwood argues that what we see here is ‘a sustained process of ironizing, and indeed satirizing, of the artificiality of the relationship between British colonial power and Graeco-Roman classical antiquity’ (p. 158). I am still not entirely convinced, though, that Naipaul’s satire targets the colonizer as much as, or more than, the colonized.
Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack (1980) is the wonderful title of Barbadian writer, Austin Clarke’s memoirs, which provide yet another sidelight on Caribbean constructions of the Classics. Objecting to a critic’s view of ‘the study of Latin as an extension of white culture’ (p. 95), Greenwood shows how Austin and his schoolmates happily assimilated the ancients to what they knew and saw about them; they loved Hannibal ‘(and no one told us he was black like us!)’;[] in their eyes the Romans were very like their own island men, who loved women, drank, talked and sang all day long. Greenwood also discusses Clarke’s novel The Polished Hoe (2002), drawing the reader’s attention to the interesting Caribbean phenomenon of ‘talking sweet’ (p. 118), whereby Latin and Latinate English are felt to be appropriate, are indeed demanded of speakers, on high ceremonial occasions. She shows how Clarke satirizes this practice by having one of his characters pretentiously quote Livy in Latin, incomprehensible to most of those listening to his speech (pp. 125-8).[]
The concept of translatio studii et imperii, denoting ‘the transfer of culture along with power as empires succeed each other’ (p. 112), runs like a leitmotiv through Greenwood’s book, the transfer in question being that of classical literatures, languages and culture to the Caribbean by the British empire. Many West Indian authors, as we have seen, tried to bypass the imperial connection and forge their own, new relationship with the ancient world. One such was Edward Kamau Brathwaite, discussion of whose poetic collection X/Self (1987, revised 2001) rounds off Afro-Greeks. X/Self, reflecting the multiple forces that have produced the modern Caribbean, is an enigmatic rewriting of history that uses multiple personas, among them figures from ancient Rome, in its difficult search for selfhood. The poem stands as yet another instance of the subtle innovative ways in which Caribbean Anglophone writers have used the Classics to make sense of their post-imperial, postcolonial situation.
This review has touched on only a few of the many valuable insights Afro- Greeks has to offer. Southern African scholars of the Classics will often find themselves nodding with recognition at the educational and cultural circumstances the author describes, and with agreement at the conclusions she reaches. Greenwood writes with intelligence and passion. She has produced an excellent book, which will benefit scholars of the reception of the Classics, of Caribbean literature in English, as well as scholars interested in postcolonialism and world literature in general.
[] The title comes from the opening lines of Walcott’s poem ‘Homecoming: Anse La Raye’: ‘Whatever else we learned / at school, like solemn Afro-Greeks, eager for grades’ (Derek Walcott, Poems 1965- 1980 [London 1992] 100).
[] Greenwood does, however write that she rejects ‘Naipaul’s pessimistic response’ (p. 164) to the phenomenon of cultural hybridity.
[] Greenwood p. 94, quoting Austin Clarke, Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack (1980, 2003) 46.
[] The occasion is a party put on by plantation manager, Mr Bellfeels, to celebrate his son’s success in winning an island scholarship; the passage of Livy comes from Book 21.42 and describes Hannibal, in northern Italy, offering prisoners a chance to win their freedom by single armed combat. Greenwood comments: ‘The Latin quotation is pertinent to the occasion only inasmuch as they are celebrating the achievements of a classical scholar’ (p. 126). But there is surely a deeper relevance here. As Greenwood herself shows, the island scholarships, supervised by a superior foreign authority (Britain), were ferociously competitive with (often) only a single winner, and meant freedom for the victor from the narrowness of island life. Is Clarke not suggesting a parallel here in the deadly duel for freedom among the prisoners, overseen by the foreign overlord, Hannibal?