C.L.R. JAMES AND AMERICAN CULTURE:
by Ralph Dumain
The accompanying essay, now called "C.L.R. James kaj Usona Kulturo", started out with the title "Surrealismo kaj Amaskulturo en Usono" [Surrealism and Mass Culture in the United States] and commenced with an amusing anecdote reported by Edwin Denby told to him by Willem de Kooning about André Breton being attacked by a butterfly on the streets of New York. This poke at the surrealists was consciously based on a comparison of the difference between Europe and America, and I chose it to highlight James's conception of that same difference. But the opening section, which received the title you now find, took over the essay, and though I never finished it, I realized that I would have to split the essay into two: one on James, one on the Chicago surrealists.
When I read the manuscript of James's American Civilization in the early spring of 1992, I was totally transformed. I felt as if I had received an illumination which conceptualized American culture and the relation between European theory and American practice for me. James taught me how to love America, and I have not been the same since. I immediately began to sketch out a dozen or so essays dealing with the implications of these views for different facets of American culture, identity, and intellectual life. In this rush of enthusiasm, I began this essay in Esperanto (April 19, 1992) with the dual purpose of educating a non-English-speaking audience about James and educating a mostly European audience of Esperantists (but also Americans!) about the naivete of its own cultural conceptions by comparing traditional notions of nationality and culture with the more modern, more difficult to define character of American culture. I had intervened in the Esperanto press during the preceding five years or so with respect to several ideological aspects of the cultural and intellectual world of Esperantists. I sought to get Esperantists to think in a new way about their goals, including cultural goals, to little avail. I even wrote poems with my goals in mind. Sometimes I had hinted that America might have no more in common with European high culture do than the traditional cultures of the intelligentsia of non-European nations such as China and Japan, a scandalous notion to interject in debates over Eurocentrism. After I read James on America, a whole new dimension opened up to me. I could give a theoretical basis to my dissatisfaction, with brand new tools to combat Americophobia, which I myself may have been guilty of fostering inadvertently. I considered sending this essay to the only Esperanto literary journal (published in France, I should add) incorporating imitations of American pop culture vulgarity. (I still have a standing invitation to publish it.)
The essay begins with the rhetorical question: why do Americans find it so necessary so often to reinvent their identity. I give Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman) and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) as examples. Then I give the usual hollow overview of James's life and accomplishments, with an effectively compact summary of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, citing high points of their intellectual work in the 1947-1950 period. I translate one paragraph of this below:
The Tendency consisted of people of diverse talents who shared the common purpose of seeking out a new conception of socialist action which would integrate all facets of human life customarily neglected in political action. They emphasized not the politics of vanguard parties but the spontaneous, everyday action of the masses of workers themselves. They aimed to explore and respect the subjective motivations and state of mind of the workers themselves. Tendency members would here emphasize a humanistic world-view, there everyday [American] workers' activity in industry, or Hegelian philosophy, or the state capitalist theory [of Stalinism] and perspectives on world affairs. Eventually internal tensions would split up the group, but the internal differences always existed even in the midst of collective action. James himself at the end of the decade worked on an individual project which transcended what the other group members were doing. He strove to integrate yet further factors into his world-picture, specifically the character of culture and how it reflects social contradictions and aspirations.
I specifically credit Anna Grimshaw for her work which made this realization possible and gave us the key to understanding James as a whole. Then I mentioned the still unpublished American Civilization, where the key to James's thinking can be found, and which demonstrates that the failure of the intellectual class to understand America is a symptom of its overall bankruptcy.
Unfortunately, I never got back to work on the essay. The last line reads: "In every inquiry, in every situation, James sought to find that which exemplifies something new in the world." Well, well.
Note: The unpublished fragment "C.L.R. James kaj Usona Kulturo" is the first essay ever written on C.L.R. James in Esperanto. For various reasons I had to leave my Esperanto hobby to the side. This essay documents my transition as I plunged into the James work, as well as the influence it had on me, especially the work of James's American period. 26 November 2003
Written 5 February 1994, edited for this site 26 November 2003.
©1994, 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.
C.L.R. James &
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