If you’re a literary scholar, and not a modernist, you might be inclined to neatly tuck primitivism into a series of equations and associations—the visual arts, Picasso, white Europeans. If, like me, you thought that you didn’t need to know much more than that about primitivism, Ben Etherington’s new book Literary Primitivism gently reminds us, and especially postcolonial scholars, that we might have a little more homework to do. In the first overview of the topic in quite some time (since perhaps Michael Bell’s work on the subject), Etherington forces us to take a good look at what the implications of a truly decolonial approach to the topic reveals: that primitivism was more important for those attempting to imagine life free from imperial rule than for those living more comfortably at its center.
In two parts, Etherington maps out first the historical and material conditions for the rise of the aesthetic project of primitivism, and then provides a series of compelling case studies examining the work of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, D. H. Lawrence, and Claude McKay. Although the book sets its analysis on a global scale and world stage (employing key theorists of totality such as Lukács and Adorno), the Caribbean beats at its heart and center, and Caribbean scholars will be particularly interested in Etherington’s readings of Césaire and Fanon together. In fact, the chapters on Césaire, Fanon, and McKay offer such compelling readings of their work as part of the literary primitivist project that it would be difficult to ignore how this new paradigm asks us to reconsider the politics and aesthetic consequences of negritude and black liberationist politics.
While these new ways of seeing this particular moment and these particular literary works (his reading of Césaire’s famous poem Notebook of a Return to My Native Land is particularly compelling) offer exciting possibilities to reconsider past assumptions, they also spark a number of controversial points, as the reviewers highlight here. Alys Moody takes issue with Etherington’s refusal to consider literary primitivism as a part of a larger modernist project, and sets out her own set of reasons why we should reconsider that position. Moody also remains cautious about the political implications of understanding primitivism in this way—although Etherington carefully handles the question, she nonetheless asks how his methodology of reading the texts in their historical context enables the projection of a masculinist, patriarchal utopianism that poses particular dangers for the present, as she writes: the “anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism that Literary Primitivism discovers is also an anti-feminism. . . . It suggests, somewhat dishearteningly, that racial capitalism is the horizon of domination for this study, gender merely an optional extra.”
In his review, Victor Li highlights three key concepts which allow Etherington to reconceive primitivism: “the concept of delimitation and periodization, the concept of the primitive remnant, and the concept of aesthetic immediacy.” Li carefully walks us through these important points of the argument, asking whether the narrowly defined and carefully plotted conception of literary primitivism as particular to a certain historical moment, and doing particular aesthetic work, allows us to see only what we want to see. These narrow definitions, Li points out, could lead to the problematic exclusion of other literary works that might be participating in the primitivist project. The concept of the primitivist remnant is developed in the book as that which sparks the project of literary primitivism. It is this imagined piece of human existence outside of imperialist capitalism that motivates the writers in the study. Li suggests that the remnant in Literary Primitivism might remain too abstracted, and could use more clarification, as could the concept of aesthetic immediacy.
Finally, Michael Bell continues the discussion by highlighting the watershed moment of Edward Said’s Orientalism and its implications for discussions of primitivism, arguing that Said’s work converted “orientalism from an academic specialism into an ideological sin.” Bell notes this is where Etherington respectfully departs from Said and takes up a much more nuanced approach to primitivism that understands it not as a product of imperialism but rather a response to it. Bell also comments on the order the case studies are presented in the book—curiously ending with McKay when chronologically we might have begun with him to see the development of literary primitivism in relation to previous writers.