By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 06, 2011
If I turn into earth, water, grass,
Flower or fruit-if it comes to pass
I return to Earth in the animal class,
Why in the world should I care?
In the limitless bond wherever I pass,
A kinship is ever there.Rabindranath Tagore, Of Myself
A few things before I start. First, although my original paper is 27 pages long in conformity with the instructions given, I have had to cut my paper down to fifteen pages so that you will forgive me if there are gaps in my presentation. Second, the title of my paper is taken from an essay that Dr. Williams offered at the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists that was held in Rome from March 26 to April 1, 1959, entitled “The Political Leader Considered as a Man of Culture.” Third. Although my original paper examines the former article and “Four Poets of the Greater Antilles,” I will look at Dr. William’s relationship to literature and his essays on Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranth Tagore, with an emphasis upon the latter. In the process, I would like to expand upon the Professor Rampersad’s observation that Dr. Williams, a man of letters, was “comfortable with literature, capable of invoking the words of Shakespeare and Dante and showing a greater familiarity with their works and the work of other eminent writers than one finds using the index to Bartlett’s Quotations.” In the process I also hope to put a dent into the silly allegation that Dr. Williams was a racist who did not like people of Indian descent.
Dr. Williams, one of the most brilliant scholars of colonial reality, did not only feel comfortable with literature, he also used literature and the arts to organize and express his truths. Moreover, when we turn to the major religious/philosophical influences on Dr. Williams’ life, one ought to look no further than his exposition on the works of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet and author, to get a better sense of who Dr. Williams was — an entrée into his philosophical and religious thinking. This fact is lost upon many who see only the outer dimension of the man rather than his resilience, his beliefs, and his understanding of the world.
Dr. Williams’s admiration of Tagore came from his deep appreciation of literature and art “as sources for the understanding and appraisal of historical development” as he observed in Inward Hunger, his autobiography. He subscribed fully to Tagore’s conviction: “In a literary work the author’s purer being reveals itself unconsciously; the work thereby is a purer thing. That is why I go to poetry and drama for evidence.” He loved Tagore, primarily a poet, who on his seventieth birthday could say of his vocation: “Now I have followed this long orbit of life I can take a look at the circle in its entirety at the hour of farewell, and I understand that I have only one identity, and it is this: I am simply a poet.” It is this love and appreciation of Tagore’s work that Dr. Williams sought to express when he delivered his lecture on Tagore at Queen’s Hall, Port of Spain, Trinidad, on May 6, 1961, at the invitation of India’s high commissioner.
THE POLITICAL LEADER AS A MAN OF CULTURE
In April 1959, Dr. Williams used the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists to expand upon his views about the role of culture in the liberation process. In “The Political Leader Considered as a Man of Culture,” Dr. Williams elaborated upon an observation that Alioune Diop, editor of Presence Africaine, made at the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists held in Paris in 1956 when he said: “There is no people without culture. But we often lose sight of the natural bond … between politics and culture. It is the State that guarantees a culture, the memory of its traditions, and a sense of its personality. A community deprived of political liberty has great difficulty in creating the image of its past.” Although Dr. Williams drew upon the Ancient Greeks to set up his argument, he was convinced that Diop was only “seeking to translate to the African struggle what has already been established on the Indian field of battle. For it is modern India which most clearly demonstrates the natural tie between politics and culture as symbolized by Gandhi and Nehru.” He noted that Gandhi, in his struggle to free India from colonial rule, emphasized the importance of a national culture when Gandhi said, “I must cling to my mother-tongue as to my mother’s breast, in spite of its shortcomings. It alone can give me the life-giving milk. I love the English tongue in its own place, but I am its inveterate opponent, if it usurps a place which does not belong to it.” This does not mean that the movement towards the adoption of a national culture was made any easier by the several languages that were spoken in India. It only means that one could not cultivate a national culture if one did not give precedence to the language of one’s people.
If European colonization implied a displacement of local languages and cultures, independence demanded its reversal: that is, an emphasis on local languages and culture. In this context, Dr. Williams also quoted Kwame Nkrumah, Prime Minister of Ghana, who observed:
We must work a greater glory and majesty, greater than the civilization of our grandfathers, the civilization of Ghana, the civilization of the Mali Empire and the civilization of the Songhay Empire. Long before the slave trade, long before imperialist rivalries in Africa began, civilizations of the Ghana Empire were in existence. And here, you even discover that at one time, at the great University of Timbuctoo, Africans versed in the science of and learning were studying their works translated [from Latin] in Greek and Hebrew, and at the same time exchanging professors with the University of Cordoba in Spain. These were the brains, and today they come and tell us that we cannot do it.
Culture, as Dr. Williams observed, and the Congress emphasized, was not an embellishment. It was a way of thinking about one’s society and an integral part of the nationalist struggle for independence.
Dr. Williams believed culture had an important role to play in welding the society together. This could not be achieved if the people’s culture was not at the vanguard of the nationalist movement and the educational system was not rooted in the national culture. This is why he affirmed that “the struggle for the national culture today is not only a part of the struggle for political independence but also the struggle for building a new social order as well.” Therefore, when the people of Trinidad and Tobago started their quest for national independence, Dr. Williams saw the practice of culture as integral to the construction of the new society. He offered his analysis against a background of the tendency of the colonizing powers to privilege their culture and languages over local languages and culture which led leaders of newly independent states, both in India and Africa, to insist on the revitalization of their indigenous cultures and languages as central ingredients in the construction of these new states. This still remains the challenge of postcolonial nationhood.
GANDHI & NEHRU
Dr. Williams’ lecture on Gandhi in October 1959 allowed him another opportunity to elaborate on the role that culture plays in developing societies and to continue the discussion he began in Presence Africaine. Even before Dr. Williams’ conference paper, Gandhi was venerated by the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Both C. L. R. James and Beatrice Greg, an English woman living in Trinidad, had alerted the public to Gandhi’s accomplishments in the Beacon in 1931 and 1932. Dr. Williams reminded his listeners that Gandhi, “one of the most gifted human beings who has ever lived,” centered his work around the Indian peasant “by whose progress and emancipation from misery and poverty the standard of Indian civilization was to be judged” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 46). He emphasized Gandhi’s role in education and the social sciences and noted: “The history of Indian national awakening combined with a living appreciation of India’s struggle for social, political and economic freedom should prepare the pupils to bear their share of the burden joyfully and to stand the strain and stress of the period of transition” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 48).
Dr. Williams also pointed out the lessons that Gandhi’s life had for the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. He noted: “The traditions against which he fought in South Africa and developed his capacities were in some respects very similar to those which existed in the Trinidad of the time. Gandhi’s relations with the Indians and the Africans in South Africa should form a chapter of his history which should not only be of interest but of profit to all of us at this particular time.” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 51) He ended his lecture by highlighting Gandhi’s method of passive resistance and “the highly spiritual quality of his personal life… To acquaint ourselves with it [his life], to whatever degree, can only lead to the enrichment of our own. ” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 52-3)
Dr. Williams felt closer to Nehru politically than he did to Gandhi in spite of Gandhi’s spiritual qualities and the tremendous contribution he made to revolutionary theory and practice in the twentieth century. While Gandhi played down the importance of academic learning and attempted to spiritualize poverty, Nehru was more politically inclined and was determined to reduce poverty through scientific methods. Tagore also “thought little of Gandhi’s alternative economics, and found reason to celebrate, with a few qualifications, the liberating role of modern technology in reducing human drudgery as well as poverty.” It helped that Nehru, an amateur historian, was the leader of a nationalist movement who had a close attachment to his people. Like Dr. Williams, he became “alive before a large audience; his speeches, whether in Hindi or English, were always clear, direct, easily understood if somewhat lecturing. The communists’ nickname for him was ‘the Professor.'” Trinbagonians called Dr. Williams fondly, “the doc.” Although Dr. Williams compared Gandhi’s accomplishments with those of Marx and others “in the sense that he discovered and invented a new method of political struggle, carried it through successfully over a vast area of human activities and has left it as a heritage which has been studied and followed in areas as far apart as Ghana and Montgomery, Alabama” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 52), Williams’ ideas and ideals of national independence were closer to those of Nehru than they were to Gandhi.
As a historian, Dr. Williams appreciated Nehru’s “analysis on Britain’s imperialism in India” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 13). One may remember that Dr. Williams did a similar thing for British capitalism in the Caribbean. He also restated Nehru’s contention that British imperialism led to “the total destruction of Indian community life and community values” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 14) which led, subsequently, to the pauperism of Indian peasants that sent millions of them to Burma, Malaya, to Sri Lanka, Kenya, South Africa, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. This exploitation led to the “demoralization and sapping of the spirit of the people” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 18-19); hence the goal of the independence movement was to restore that dignity to the Indian people.
Dr. Williams appreciated Nehru’s masterful writing of history. Glimpses of World History, written while Nehru was in prison, revealed Nehru’s “vision of human progress, advancing through periods of inhumanity and suffering but teleologically moving onward towards better lives for the world’s ordinary people. … There is great praise for the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (in particular the Bhagavad Gita), but as works of literature rather than as sacred texts. ” Dr. Williams calls Glimpses of World History “a classic in the literature of intellectual decolonization” that places “the history of India in true perspective” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 20-22) and his description of the Dravidian civilization one of the finest chapters of his work. India’s cultural unity comes in for special praise even as its caste system, “the enemy of every kind of progress” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 24), is condemned. No progressive leader-Tagore, Gandhi, or Nehru-could be silent about its debilitating effect on the progress of India.
Dr. Williams was inspired by Nehru’s internationalist perspective. Speaking of the new creative spirit that was being reborn in India, Dr. Williams says of Nehru: “[He was] internationalist because he was nationalist, just as he was the champion of all colonial peoples because he was an Indian colonial, Nehru, with the universal vision of a Walt Whitman or a Victor Hugo” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 27). In 1932, as Nehru compared India’s struggle for freedom against Europe’s dominance and authoritarianism, he could declared in confidence: “So while we struggle for the freedom of India, we must remember that the great aim in human freedom, which includes the freedom of our people as well as other peoples'” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 27). Dr. Williams could invoke Whitman to demonstrate how these literary personalities assisted in the construction of his vision.
From these essays one gets the impression that Dr. Williams felt a certain anxiety about his role as historian and nationalist leader, trying as he did, to locate himself and his activities within the decolonizing process and seeking to understand his place as a colonial intellectual and historian with the larger international process. In Nehru, Dr. Williams saw “a man who was at one and the same time a national symbol, a philosopher of anti-colonialism and a student of world history” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 42) whose task it was to build up “that inner strength of the people that we were after, knowing that the rest would inevitably follow. We had to wipe out some generations of shameful subservience and timid submission to an arrogant alien authority.” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 28) Dr. Williams might have uttered these words. He said as much when he declared in his time and space: “Massa Day Done.” Each man believed that greatness was thrust upon him.
Dr. Williams identified with Nehru’s legacy in a meaningful way. He concluded his lecture in the following manner: “India today would not be what it is if India had not achieved independence and if Nehru had not been there for forty years to learn and to teach, to guide and be guided, to inspire and be inspired, to aspire and to achieve. He stands out as one of the greatest champions of freedom for all times” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 43). Interestingly enough, the national motto, “Together we aspire; together we achieve,” is inscribed on the Coat of Arms of Trinidad and Tobago. It is tempting to think that Nehru’s influence might have been essential in the coining of the national motto of Trinidad and Tobago.
Dr. Williams admired Gandhi and was inspired by Nehru’s political achievements, but it was Tagore in whom he found a measure of spiritual guidance and a canvas upon which to reflect upon his humanity. Unlike Gandhi and Nehru, Tagore was still in vogue during Dr. Williams’ adolescent years, his having been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913 and a towering international figure during the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century. It helped also that Tagore’s “outlook was persistently nonsectarian, and his writings — some two hundred books — show the influence of different parts of the Indian cultural background as well as that of the rest of the world.” He was committed also to the humanitarian ideal. “As early as 1908, he put his position succinctly in a letter replying to the criticism of Abala Bose, the wife of a great Indian scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose: ‘Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”
Although Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru knew each other, worked together, and were committed to India’s independence, the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 brought them together in common cause and “made Indians out of millions of people who had not thought consciously of their political identity before that grim Sunday. It turned loyalists into nationalists and constitutionalists into agitators [and] led the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore to return his knighthood to the king and a host of Indian appointees to British offices to turn in their commissions.” The Trinidad awakening and the Bandung conference had a similar impact upon Dr. Williams. Caught up in the intensity of a rising nationalist movement in Trinidad and Tobago, and anxious about his role as a historian/intellectual in the movement, Dr. Williams regarded the philosophical reflections of Tagore as guides to his behavior. He admired Tagore’s aesthetic sensibilities, his participation in India’s nationalist movement, the breath of his internationalist concerns, and what Amartya Sen called his “reasoned understanding of the world around us, … his wholehearted support for scientific education … [and] his cultural evaluations.”
Tagore’s epistemic approach to his work and his concern for the common people appealed to Dr. Williams. His belief in the “freedom of mind,” the expansion of education as “central to social progress,” the importance of science in understanding the world, and the use of modern technology to develop India must have impressed Dr. Williams. Amartya Sen puts it this way: “The poet who was famous in the West only as a romantic and a spiritualist was in fact persistently guided in his writings by the necessity of critical reasoning and the importance of human freedom.” Most of all, Tagore believed that “Truth is realized through men.” Like Tagore, Williams believed that if you gave people the information (in Williams’ case, historical and political information) they required they would be able to make intelligent choices about where they wanted to go as a people. His association with C.L.R. James during the early phases of the nationalist movement tended to reinforce this position.
According to Dr. Williams, Tagore represented “one of the best examples that we can ever hope to find of the role of the intellectual in the Nationalist Movement in colonial countries.” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 57). It may have helped if Dr. Williams had emphasized that although Tagore fought for the independence of India, he “was critical of the display of excessive nationalism in India, despite his persistent criticism of British imperialism. And notwithstanding his great admiration for Japanese culture and history, he would chastise Japan late in his life for its extreme nationalism and its mistreatment of China and east and southeast Asia.” Yet it remains true that it was a role that Williams tried to emulate as he gave himself more and more to his nationalist movement.
As an intellectual at the head of a nationalist movement, Dr. Williams drew on Tagore’s inspiration to assist him in understanding the demands of our nationalist movement and his own humanity. Although he never articulated his religious beliefs, his conception of the Godhead was closer to that of Tagore who prayed that “he may never lose the bliss of the touch of the One in the play of the many” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 68). In his final submission to oneness of the world, Tagore declared: “I have come to the brink of eternity from which nothing can vanish-no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears. Oh dip my emptied life into the ocean, plunge it into the deepest fullness. Let me for once feel that lost sweet touch in the allness of the universe” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 68-9). It was this magnanimous, all-embracing spirit that Whitman, whom Tagore also admired, tried to capture in his poetical rendering of the world. It was a vision of the world that Dr. Williams also shared.
Dr. Williams never wanted any monuments built to commemorate his achievements or to perpetuate his glory or his memory. He wanted to be cremated and have his ashes thrown into the Gulf of Paria to merge once more with the great confluence of nature out of which he had come. Eternity rather than the passing moments of time mattered to him. This is why he quoted Tagore so approvingly when he said: “There, where spreads the infinite sky for the soul to take her flight in, reigns the stainless white radiance. There is no day nor night, nor form nor color and never a word” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 68).
Tagore was also fascinated by the play between life and death. Dr. Williams writes: “His principal concern was death” (The Birth of Dr. Williams, 68). In Phalguni, a celebration of spring, Tagore captured this pas-de-deux between life and death when he observed, “those who fear death do not know life; they embrace decay and exist in a living death, cut off from the life-rich universe.” Men and women, as Tagore said, yearned to experience life in a fuller and truer manner leading him to believe that “The life that is continually in blossom in the journey of human civilization, is so by continually conquering death.” It is in this conflict between “death and life, might and love, self-interest and welfare, this struggle of opposites to which only man’s religious instinct can glimpse a true solution — a solution that is supreme peace, supreme good and supreme unity.”
In their introduction to Tagore’s autobiographical essays, Devadatta Joardar and Joe Winter say of Tagore: “If literature was a focus for his inner energies the village of Santiniketan was where Tagore’s practical life sought an ideal. In the deepest of ways he lived for his people. From 1901, when he started his school there, to his death, he worked continuously to let the creative currents of the society find their freedom.” From the moment he entered politics in 1956 until his death in 1981, Dr. Williams strove continuously to let the creative currents of our people find their freedom in an understanding of their sensuous activities. In committing his life to re-searching and serving his people, he was aware, as Thucydides who wrote, that the essence of historical inquiry was “to correct and eliminate legends, false beliefs, [and] mistakes” without which a people could not understand themselves. This is what he sought to do throughout his life.
Eric Williams read widely and drew his inspiration from the best that was said and thought in the world, a concession he might have made to Matthew Arnold who would have understood him perfectly. He was committed to “freedom of mind,” freedom of the press, and an open democracy. His sympathies knew no racial barriers as he embraced us all. He understood Cicero’s injunction that “to be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain a child forever,” which is why he believed that a study of history and literature hold the keys to understanding who we are. He would have been sympathetic to the imperative that we ought not to be trapped by our past. The least we can do is to come to terms with his teachings and the interracial message that he left us seeking to find kinship everywhere we pass and perhaps, proclaiming as Tagore did in Gitanjali:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls;…
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert
sand of dead habit;…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Notes are available here: