OFF CENTRE – C-words: cut contrive, cope
We all complain – and often it’s a good thing too.
In his book Complaint, Julian Baggini says: “Complaint has a noble history. It has driven human society forward and led to the abolition of systemic injustice.”
Unfortunately, he felt pressed to say, “Although, at its noblest, complaining is one of the most important things we can do, most of the time it’s not much more than a leisure activity.”
That strain of negativity seems well captured in a WEEKEND NATION weekly column called Street Beat, which engages people who populate various informal meeting places around Barbados.
It is distressing that week after week, block after block, Barbadians are singing a song that the old cow would die on: “We are helpless. Somebody put us in this position and until they pull us out, we are done for.”
Every week. From my observation, the Street Beat responses speak for a lot of Barbados.
A kind of defeatist discontent. Just complaining, complaining, complaining. “I got talent, but I need opportunity.” And all roads out must be paved by somebody else.
What is particularly interesting is that this fatalism, this mendicancy, this “oh, poor me” has no lineage here.
Think back to our forebears. Having to contend with far, far worse than is our lot, they “girt up their loins”, as the Bible would say, and got to work coping.
That spirit was aided by our mass songs – work songs, folk songs, gospel songs. Kenneth Burke understood the need for these: “Along with our efforts to alter [an intolerable social situation] must go the demand for an imaginative equipment that helps to make it tolerable while it lasts. Much of the ‘pure’ or acquiescent art of today serves this invaluable psychological end.”
And we were on it.
But in pursuit of a pot of overt message and comment, we now have philosophy lite – dumbed down, sloganistic simplifications of issues that more informed people take books to deal with. No emotional, experiential help. Dey now only aiding the complaining.
Don’t we understand that apart from friends and relatives, our coping companions are in stories and experiential songs that meet us in the midst of life and by creating affinity, simulation and rehearsal walk with us in our difficulties and maybe partner us out?
We are now lacking the affirming resonance of seeing ourselves or others we know or care about in our songs and stories (in resilience, in hope, in faith, in resoluteness, in cutting and contriving). It is all about complaining.
“The world changes,” says James Baldwin, “according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimetre, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”
There is a vicarious seeing that artistic story and song create.
I beg our oral/aural writers to adopt story/emotive experience.
You have to be on the literary frontlines of connecting, because in this day of aliteracy (the condition of being able to read but with a strong aversion to it) our people gone a different kind of AWOL: aliterate without lament). At least people will listen. Help our people to really see.
I en talking ’bout no “social commentary” calypso or “conscious lyrics” songs or spoken word ben’-up words, all of which, in a framework that is not primarily cognitive, are using a discredited view of the human brain, and a rationalistic, message-centred approach, in which the performer is trying to be prophet and preacher and know-it-all sage on governance and social matters in a post-modern world (in which that approach is especially untenable).
They “battle” listeners rather than “dance” with them (Katalina Groh’s characterization) and thereby fail to create emotional participation and partnership, even kinship. And we alternately bus’ out laughing or look pensive; and see nothing, and approach tomorrow without Burke’s “imaginative equipment”, just a greater propensity to bellyache.
Leave the rationalistic for Comissiong, Mascoll, Laurie, Singh, et al. in their columns (and wish them luck, too). For all the good they may do, they do not touch the soul, vicariously hand-hold people through the miseries and shoves of life. That’s not their role.
Listen to Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Story and song know that.
Baldwin’s point about helping people to see differently puts another profound spin on “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.
Where are our stories and songs that make us experientially see – and cope?
Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]