The Four Tribes of Anglophone Caribbean Literature

There's an old saying about your children keeping you young, and for the past week, I've seen the wisdom of that adage. My children love comics and frequently send me links to interesting stories about superhero movies or TED talks. One TED talk that caught my attention was Scott McCloud on Comics.

In his TED talk, McCloud developed a theory about comics and artists based on Jung's theory of the four basic functions of the psyche: sensation, intuition, thinking, and feeling.

According to Jung, the psyche is an apparatus for adaptation and orientation, and consists of a number of different psychic functions. Among these he distinguishes four basic functions:

Sensation—perception by means of the sense organs
Intuition—perceiving in unconscious way or perception of unconscious contents
Thinking—function of intellectual cognition; the forming of logical conclusions
Feeling—function of subjective estimation

From these four types, McCloud has extrapolated four types of artists, Classicists, Animists, Formalists, and Iconoclasts, which he divided into four quadrants representing different attitudes toward beauty and truth; life and art; content and style; tradition and revolution.

The Classicists admire craftsmanship and mastery of the art form. Their goals include creating lasting works of art which adhere to traditional aesthetic principles. Perfection is impossible, but that doesn't mean they can't try for it. According to McCloud, their catch-word is beauty, and they are an extension of Jung's sensation archetype.

The Animists are interested in content. They aim for the clearest presentation of their story or ideas. To some extent the medium must always interfere with the message, but the animist's focus on the content means they try to make the form as transparent as they possibly can. Their catch-word is content, and McCloud considers them an extension of Jung's intuition archetype.

The Formalists are fascinated with their chosen medium's form. They create their art to explore its boundaries and contours, to learn what it can be capable of and how it works internally. Their works of art incorporate experiments, and they often double as analytical critics. Their catch-word is form, and in McCloud's scheme they correspond to Jung's thinking archetype.

The Iconoclasts value truth and experience in art. To them art must be authentic, must show life as it is. They take aim at artistic conventions that gloss over the imperfections and disappointments at life. Artists who speak of "honesty" or "rawness" are voicing iconoclastic ideas. Their catch-word is truth, and they are Jung's feeling archetype.

As Jon Aquino states, "playing around with this, it's interesting to deduce that":

Tradition = Sensation + Intuition
Revolution = Thinking + Feeling
Art = Sensation + Thinking
Life = Intuition + Feeling
Revolution + Art = Form
Tradition + Life = Content
Art + Tradition = Beauty
Life + Revolution = Truth

As Mr. Trombley notes: "Each of these have specific reservations about the mediocre works of other three:

1. The Classicist accuses the animist of simplicity, the formalist of meaninglessness, and the iconoclast of ugliness
2. The Animist accuses the classicist of pointless overdrawing, the formalist of unnecessary density, and the iconoclast of pretentiousness
3. The Formalist accuses the classicist of artistic conservatism, the animist of pointlessness, and the iconoclast of self-absorption
4. The Iconoclast accuses the classicist of soullessness, the animist of dullness, and the formalist of meaningless abstraction

Damien G Walter continues with his observations:

Animists are the first artists, the shamen dancing around the tribal fire who drag raw emotion from their soul and give it to the audience. They are the instinctual artists, concerned above all with content.

Classicists worship at the altar of beauty, and yearn to create art that achieves greatness. They believe in objective standards of good and bad, and establish the canon of great artists who embody those ideals.

Iconoclasts are either the first against the wall when the revolution comes, or at the front leading the charge. They use art as a means of personal and political expression, and when asked will say that they value truth over all else.

Formalists love talking about art almost as much as they enjoy creating it. They are the experimenters of any given art, obsessing about details of style and technique in their own work and the work of others.

The real fun begins when you start to look at synergies and conflicts that exist between the tribes. Between the Classicists and Animists is the shared belief that tradition is important, a belief which both the Formalists and Iconoclasts give the finger to in favour of revolution and change. However, the Formalists and Classicists both believe first and foremost in the value of art, whereas Animists and Iconoclasts both make art secondary to life.

These might seem fairly arbitrary distinctions, until you relate them to those unending arguments in the arts, which start to look like ongoing territorial squabbles between competing tribes. What is the age-old debate between truth and beauty, if not a fight between the Classicists and the Iconoclasts? Who is more passionate about style v content than Formalists and Animists?

But every tribe has weaknesses to balance their strengths. For all their ability to move an audience, Animists are often the most colloquial and narrow-minded artists. Classicists might know what is great, but in constantly repeating it can easily become boring. While style-conscious Formalists can be so concerned with experimentation that their creations lack heart and soul. And the Iconoclasts, determined to change the world, risk making art consumed by negativity and anger.

From McCloud's formulations, I've realized that many Anglophone Caribbean poets fall into these quadrants:

Classicists: John Figueroa, Louis Simpson, Ralph Thompson
Animists: Jean Binta Breeze, Mutabaruka, Malachi Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson
Formalists: Derek Walcott, Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, Dennis Scott
Iconoclasts: Kamau Brathwaite, Lorna Goodison, Tony McNeill

One of the startling revelations of this typology is that both Walcott and Brathwaite are revolutionaries, but in different ways. Walcott, "the mulatto of style" has shown a preference for art over the raw details of life. And as far as race and ethnicity are concerned, it wasn't that Walcott didn't think that he was black, he simply didn't have a form to express the horrors of the Atlantic Holocaust. It took him over thirty years to realize a form that could encompass his vision. The result was his magnificent work, Omeros.

The classification also helped me to see why many formalists are not viewed as "authentic" Caribbean writers. Caribbean literature and publishing is dominated by the Animists. In the popular mind, dub poetry and the "raw" stories of Caribbean life (content over form; truth over beauty) have become the de facto definitions of Caribbean literature.

Finally, I've also come to appreciate the catholic tastes of Jeremy Poynting and Peepal Tree Press, who have been publishing writers from all four tribes--an achievement that not many publishers, main stream and independent have been able to accomplish.

It will be interesting to see how far down the rabbit hole I will be heading with these new insights. But then, again, what did you expect from a magpie?


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