January 16, 2006

What Do You Know?

Recently, one of my former students asked me why I wrote for Jamaicansrus.com instead of submitting (I made a note of that word) my work to juried journals that originate from many college and universities. My answer led to thoughts about the good life, economics, racism, artistic freedom, and intuition vs. knowledge in a Caribbean context.

I was particularly interested in fleshing out my thoughts in the area of using intuition versus knowledge, for it has taken me a long time to figure out when, where, and how to use my intuition rather than relying on what I had learned through acculturation and schooling. As an artist who has spent most of his life in educational institutions (our modern patrons), I’ve realized the relative values of intuition, knowledge, and artistic freedom while appreciating the necessity of earning a living.

Growing up in Jamaica and being of African and Scottish descent (according to the reports of two American journalists who were sent to Jamaica to write about Apprenticeship (1834-1838), Special Magistrate Philp was one on the worst judges and slaveholders due to his frequent intoxication), I refused to believe that all white people were evil and that all black people were brutish ignoramuses (“A Far Cry From Africa” by Derek Walcott). It went against my experience. I had Black, white, Chinese, and East Indian friends who were as foolish as I was and some who were way smarter that I would ever be. This is why the Caribbean remains an interesting space because we’ve been exposed to European, African, and Asian influences and so far, we’ve had to figure out how to live and love (A Morning at the Office by Edgar Mittelholzer) without resorting to ethnic cleansing. Skin color did not necessarily imply a certain political stance. For example, some of the blackest people I’ve known, still support the British colonialism and some of the whitest people I’ve known would strangle Queen Elizabeth if they had a chance. And vice versa. As far the so-called brown people were concerned, the same rule applied: you had to know the person instead of relying on stereotypes.

Nowhere was this skill put to test than during my years at Jamaica College where I also learned the difference between intuition and knowledge. For as long as I’ve known myself, I’ve relied on my intuition, but it took me along time to realize when, where and how to use this gift and my grades suffered as a result of my ignorance (you have to study, not intuit math, son). Studying increases one’s knowledge base. With intuition, one gains an experience of a truth. Both faculties are necessary in education. Studying gives one a factual basis for writing about slavery; intuition gives the writer a feel for the era. But to trust one’s intuition is to rely on the validity of personal experience—what you know in your gut instead of what you believe from books or acculturation. What you know to be true instead of what you have been told is true. Of course, sometimes what you feel to be true isn’t necessarily so (No, Victoria, the Earth does not revolve around the Sun) or what you’ve been taught (Black people _____ Fill in the blanks with any part of The Bell Curve) sometimes doesn’t match with experience.

Again, the evil of racism rears its pernicious head. By it’s very nature, racism asks the question, who are you to be saying that your experiences are more important than all the knowledge in these books? What do you know? Who are you? Racism challenges one’s right to exist. Intuition challenges points of view that are not dictated by what “everybody knows”.

This is why a liberal arts education (contrary to what the bean counters who are always reminding us of the mythical bottom line) is so important. In order to grasp the meaning of a poem, the reader (once s/he has understood the factual elements) must rely on his/her intuition. In my experience, any written appreciation of a poem (unless it is way off base: Derek Walcott writes about Martians) that can be backed up with quotations from the text, will usually be given a passing grade for content. In other words, to write coherently about a poem (that may have many themes not easily grasped from a denotative reading) forces one to have an opinion—the process of becoming an individual. It takes a real person to speak up for the intangible.

Unfortunately, many educational institutions are more interested in providing more soulless workers for the marketplace rather than educating citizens who are interested in expanding their human potential. Many artists have reacted instinctively against the coercion and brainwashing once they have escaped: “The Wall” by Pink Floyd; “You Can’t Blame the Youth” by Peter Tosh; “Dan is the Man in the Van” by The Mighty Sparrow.

Yet, an intuitive experience will only be handled in a limited way if an artist has a limited knowledge base. For example, hip-hop is destined to remain limited to rhyming couplets unless the rappers learn how to incorporate character the way Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen did in their music. The knowledge base of Dylan and Springsteen led to a greater understanding of their craft. One of the easiest ways to gain a broader knowledge base is by staying in school and by contributing to their fine, glossy journals.

Unfortunately many of these journals are more interested in a promoting a particular ism (Deconstructionism—“Deforestation” according to George Lamming) than in an experience of art. For example, I am more interested in the relationships between the characters in Edwidge Danticat’s, The Dew Breaker, or the experiences of Nathan Zukerman and Coleman Silk in Phillip Roth’s, The Human Stain, than in any particular political themes that these books seem to imply. I am not saying that these issues and themes are not important. I'm saying, as writer I’m more interested in the characters than in politics. (Harold Pinter in his Nobel Prize address points out the essential difference between artists and politicians). Many of these journals that have become more interested in espousing political points of view, base their selections on very narrow considerations. A real experience in a short story comes along and they don’t know what to do. It’s like the punch line to the old joke, Who are you going to believe me (the voice of authority) or your lying eyes (individual experience)..Sadly, many editors go with what they believe rather than what they know. The sad part is that they perpetuate soulless poems and stories (purely for economic gain) rather than opening up themselves and their readers to vivifying experiences. They teach only what they’ve read in books rather than what they’ve known from experience.

So, I’ve tried to strike a balance between freedom, economics, intuition and knowledge. No one or no single discipline has all the answers. Artists, teachers, politicians and even bean counters are all interested in living a good life. How the good life is achieved and what the good life means is a balancing act that can only be answered one life at a time.


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