C.L.R. James on West Indian Writers
Vs. T.S Eliot & Jean-Paul Sartre:
The New World & The Old

There is Mr. T.S. Eliot. We can abuse him properly because he is dead. I am going to read two passages from his poem Four Quartets. There is not the faintest trace in Wilson Harris of the quality possessed in all the modern writers who really matter. These modern European writers are sick to the soul. How Sartre could have the nerve after all he has been writing and the number of people who have gone to gaol for him and whom he has led in demonstrations and whom he has encouraged to believe in this to say that he is now a man who for the last ten years can only look back at the past and wonder at the nonsense he has been guilty of... At least he should have kept his mouth shut. He should have said nothing. Here is T.S. Eliot [long passage follows] ....

I have already stated in Beyond a Boundary that T.S. Eliot is a poet I always read. First of all he is a fine poet and secondly he states most clearly and exactly whatever I do not believe; I can find it there.

Now undoubtedly he feels that way. Undoubtedly many people feel that way, but you don't find that in the West Indian writer. We have not yet reached the stage where we are sick of existence and doubtful of the future. There is a feeling that there is some prospective. We have not suffered enough. We have not been in it long enough to have the sickness of the soul which so many of these European intellectuals have.

[Another jab at Sartre and another passage from Eliot]

This is one of his finest poems. It is a poem I read quite often just to know how I do not think. So there are two of them; Jean-Paul Sartre, T.S. Eliot—two of the biggest names in the 20th century and remarkably fine writers. Sartre in particular is an astonishing person with a tremendous variety and absolute capacity. I want to make it clear that the present generation of West Indian writers have none of that in them. They write differently.

Orlando Patterson in his book The Children of Sisyphus puts at the beginning a quotation from Camus [quotation follows].

The characters, however, in that book are nasty, mean, stupid, filthy and all sorts of things, but they are not absurd. When a prostitute says that she will do all she can to give her daughter an education, that is not an absurdity. And despite the belief of this 24 year old writer that life is an absurdity, Patterson cannot help making these people on the lowest levels of existence show the essential human virtues, the things that make man human and remove him from the state of the animal. He describes people whose lives are on lower levels than the animals', but these profoundly human instincts are there. I don't know if he put them there purposely, I would not be surprised if they were there instinctively, but he has in mind Camus' philosophy.

That is one of the first things we must get clear about these writers. They are not like T.S. Eliot or Jean-Paul Sartre who think that life is a miserable business, and there is no point in it. Sartre says that there is no point in it at all and Eliot says that the only point in it is through struggle, and to know that in struggle lies the significance of it. The rest we know nothing about. That may suit him. It does not suit me and I don't think it suits the average West Indian. We have a lot to find out. We have a lot of sorrow to pass through and maybe at the end of 15 or 20 years we will know what it is to have an absolutely hopeless view of the world. But we have not got it today. We have a lot of things that are quite wrong but that we have not got.


SOURCE: James, C.L.R. "A New View of West Indian History", Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4, December 1989, pp. 49-70. Quotes from pp. 61-64. In memorial tribute issue to James: transcription of a lecture delivered at UWI, Mona, June 3, 1965.


CELEBRATE THE 100TH BIRTHDAY OF C.L.R. JAMES ON 4 JANUARY 2001


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