Sounds of the Tides: Some Thoughts on Literature in the Vernacular

The late and much missed Sidney Morgenbesser used to say that the whole moral and intellectual dilemma posed by the universalism-particularism dichotomy was an uninteresting, if not false, one: to paraphrase Morgenbesser’s reasoning, we all come from a specific time and place, but we leave the world with more than what we were given by the circumstances of our origins.   I think what he meant was that there really was neither much of a choice nor much of an opposition between the two.

“Universalism” and “particularism” largely refer to ways of conceptualizing or treating cultural others. Universalism insists that there is a set of invariant or at least common standards over how we treat others, or art, or (once upon a time) the good life, and by that extension, that there is a commonness or sameness behind all our differences. Moreover, it claims some priority over the differences.  Perhaps most importantly, it provides a vantage point, the invariant and invariantly formulated universal one, for evaluating others.

“Particularism” has more formulations, probably owing to the fact that the opposition itself is untidy.  The straw man formulation is of course some extreme cultural relativism. On occasion, it is taken to mean that while there may be common or universal truths or beauties, our local and contingent reasons and justifications are born of specific times and places, reasons and justification that may not “link up” with these truths and beauties, and thus we may not really be able to access them. More intelligently, it is taken to mean that while there may be common or universal truths or beauties, our local and contingent reasons and justifications are born of specific times and places, and thus our avenues to those truths or beauties are quite different. I will leave it to the philosophers at 3QD to sort out which if any is the truer or more useful formulation.  This third formulation of particularism serves my purposes here.

In his basic formulation, I think Morgenbesser was right…save for the claim that the issue is an “uninteresting” one for at least two reasons.  First, how our ethical and aesthetic judgments themselves become something more than things that reflect our original local contexts and experiences is surely interesting. Second, how we come to recognize this process of others reaching out to us in and through specific contexts, shaped by history, culture and power is surely important.  Ttr250501185_201517a

While the terms have deep limits—the excessive tidiness of the either/or that seemed to irritate Morgenbesser, to name one—I was thinking of this opposition between universalism and particularism and Morgenbesser’s attitude towards it while reading my friend Dohra Ahmad’s recent anthology of literature in the various vernaculars of English, Rotten English. (But not in a David Brooks kind of way.)  For all who love the diversity of the English language, I highly recommend the anthology. (The introduction can be found here.)

The volume comprises pieces in various vernaculars of the Scots, the Irish, the American South, Afro-America, American Latinos, the Caribbean, South Asia and its diasporas, to name the language of some of the works.  In fact, the inclusion of Maori writer Patricia Grace and one of my favorite dub poets and musicians Linton Kwesi Johnson gives you a sense of how truly vast the formulations of the English language have become, how vast English has become.  Ahmad points out that these explosions are for the most part the product of Empire, developed in the settler colonies of North America, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, in trading colonies, such as South Asia, in the forced migrations of the slave trade and indentured servitude. English is, to use Chinua Achebe’s phrase, “the world language which history has forced down our throats.”

In one of Derek Walcott’s most celebrated poems “The Schooner Flight,” there are the following unforgettable lines:

I know these islands from Monos to Nassau,
a rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes
that they nickname Shabine, the patois for
any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw
when these slums of empire was paradise.
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

The last four lines may be for Caribbean English what Huck Finn’s thunderclap, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” is for that of the American South: an assertion of the collective self as wrapped in the particularized language and the problematic history that produced it.  But the last lines could easily also read “and either I’m nobody, or I’m a language” if only because of the way “English” hangs in the poem. 

What Rotten English nicely captures is the fact that as much as the history of empire and the migrations it induced have interwoven English into the formations of new nations and peoples, they have also woven these peoples into the evolutions of the English language.

Dohra The anthology is divided into sections on poetry (if ever something reminds one that poetry at its heart is oral, it is poetry in the vernacular), short stories, excerpts from novels, largely bildungsromans, and essays on the development of dialect itself. 

The structure of the anthology neatly folds in on itself. Many poems in the vernacular assert the fact of being composed in the vernacular itself. The Jamaican poet Louise Bennett’s “Bans O’Killing” lays the issue out: “Dah language weh yuh proud o’,/ Weh yuh honour and respeck,/ Po’ Mass Charlie! Yuh noh know sey/ Dat it spring from dialect!” (p. 48) As does, for that matter, the Scottish poet Tom Leonard in his “Unrelated Incidents—No. 3”: “thi reason/ a talk wia/BBC accent iz coz yi/widny wahnt/mi ti talk/about thi/trooth wia/voice lik/ wanna you/scruff…” (p. 78) The essays at the end of the volume assertively or matter of factly declare the legitimacy of the vernacular, at least for the most part.  The spirit of James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t a Language, What Is?” has always marked my readings of essays about language in the vernacular.

This bookended defense of the vernacular bounds a considerable variety of pieces that vary in origin, history, politics and purpose.  Pushing Rudyard Kipling up against Linton Kwesi Johnson, and his “Inglan is a Bitch” no less, may seem to ask the anthology to do more than say the juxtaposing of Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” to Rohinton Mistry’s “The Ghost of Firozsha Baag.” (So much of literature in the vernacular seems to be about the contingent development of the self.) But the effect is more productive that it would seem at first blush. 

Responding to the vastness of the anthology’s scope, Amardeep Singh notes:

Ahmad also makes the intriguing choice to include African-American vernacular writers (Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes) as well as writing by Scottish (Robert Burns, Irvine Welsh) and Irish (Roddy Doyle) vernacular writers in the anthology. The great advantage of this is the way it suggests that “Rotten English” is not necessarily a new movement, per se, or strictly limited to “postcolonial” concerns. But such inclusiveness also raises a question of historical relevance: what does it really mean to link a poet like Robert Burns to, say, Louise Bennett? The historical circumstances that lead Bennett to emphatically proclaim her affinity for Jamaican patois (“Dah language weh yuh proud o’,/Weh yu honour and respeck,” but, at the same time, the truth is “Dat it it spring from dialect!”) aren’t really the same as those that animate Burns’ writing poems like “Highland Mary”.

I’m not so sure.  It always seemed to me that there is in most if not all literatures in the vernacular, for lack of a better phrase, an intended audience that included others than the speakers of the vernacular.  I say this because as much as the enterprise of a vernacular literature may be steps in the self-aware expressions of new peoples and cultures, they are addressed to others.  The very orthography of much of the literature underlines this fact.  When I read Patrick White, I don’t hear an Australian accent.  I assume that Australians do.  And I assume that were Kwesi’s “Inglan is bitch/dere’s no escapin it” written out “England is a bitch/there’s no escaping it,” a Londonite speaker of the West Indian vernacular would hear it and sound it out the same way.  The rest of us would not.  Robert Burns’ or Zora Neale Hurston’s or Gautam Malkani’s spellings of the vernacular surely direct non-speakers of the vernacular to its specific sounds.   

How we understand and judge—make no mistake, the debate is about judgment—a cultural other’s ethical and, to a lesser extent, aesthetic orientations is complicated by this notion of the “vernacular” and the literature in it.  For the vernacular in this instance addresses others and asks to be heard by others and even accepts in some ways being judged by others but in its own formulations.  In this way, it complicates and undoes the crude dichotomy that Morgenbesser found uninteresting.

Perhaps more importantly, it is at once a demand for recognition, an invitation to equal dialogue, and a request for understanding across differences, not that this is all there is to the enterprise. The mixes of the elements may vary over time, as surely the historical circumstances behind them do, but I do think that this reach to communicate with Others (capital O) even as it re-forms the community in the language ties these disparate pieces in a crucial way, one that suggests a way to talk across circumstances and cultures without dismissing their specificities. The book is, in the words of Junot Diaz, an “X-ray of English.” But Rotten English also teaches us how to listen and not merely to the sounds of a language.