Eric Keenaghan

"His Eyes Almost Fell through the Crease": Using Voyeurism and Sexuality to Ascertain the Modernist Attributes of C.L.R. Jamesís Minty Alley"

     Born in Trinidad and later expatriating himself first to London and then the United States, C.L.R. James was a key figure of the West Indian literary scene during the 1930s. Today he is primarily associated with his nonliterary writings in sociology and politics, and his fiction seems to have dropped from critical attention. Part of this shortsightedness stems from the fact that little of his fiction is readily available to a reading public in this country. Although a selection of his shorter work is now available in The C.L.R. James Reader (1992), the only extant edition of James' novel Minty Alley (1936) is published by the small London press New Beacon Books. Because of its relative inaccessibility, this significant piece of Caribbean literature remains absent from the immediate consciousness of American readers and critics. In part, this article is intended as a platform to stage a recovery of this book, opening up a critical dialogue about the novel in order to develop a more comprehensive perspective about the genealogy of Caribbean fiction. The literary history of this region is too often thought to begin in the 1960s with the(post)modernist work of such celebrated authors as Wilson Harrisand George Lamming, and Minty Alley provides us with a formidable example of narratival experimentation antedating these more critically acclaimed works. But there is more at stake than extending canon lists and the historical boundaries of post-realist Caribbean fiction. James' formal innovations in Minty Alleyalso allow us to begin to rethink that retrospective categorization of literature which is now loosely termed "modernism." In the process of recovery, then, I would like to shift the emphasis of the little that has recently been written about it as a work of social realism, focusing instead on its social attributes--that is to say, those elements we have come to associate with modernist aesthetics.

     In part, my desired shift of critical focus is a response against the predominant tendency in Anglo-American literary studies of underestimating the formal experimentation of early twentieth-century Caribbean writing. Critics tend to construct narratives in which British, American, and continental European writers set the standard for and carry out the work of producing modernist experimentation. Those few critics who have turned their attention to James' fiction continue to follow suit of this general critical trend. Paget Henry and Paul Buhle have remarked that this authorís value lies in his status as "an anti-colonial writer," an identity that they believe to be affirmed by Minty Alley because of the "careful artistic representation [that it] gives to the lives of working-class Trinidadians" and its "affirmation of the creative self-projections that such individuals established in relation to their world" (122). James did envision his novel as a populist one, affirming his own mothers's adage that "[t]o write forblack people in the Caribbean was a distinction" (James interviewedin Henry and Buhle 57). But does its accessibility to a contemporary audience preclude the incorporation of experimental elements? Aldon Lynn Nielsen, a prominent promoter of Jamesís workin this country, perpetuates the mythos that "modernist" or"experimental" must mean "inaccessible" when he draws the following comparison between James and T.S. Eliot: "James' own fiction, which begins to appear in print only five years after "The Waste Land"[i.e., 1927], does not signal so abrupt a change in surface style as Eliot's much redacted collage, but what James undertook within the existing framework of literary realism is the precursor to the far more unorthodox formal experiments of Wilson Harris" (15). This is a typical critical move: James is fixed as a figure constrained by the realist tradition, working within it and struggling against it. In the end, he is relegated only to the position of "precursor" to later Caribbean formal experimentalists.

     Confining Minty Alley to the rubric of social realism--albeit a realism that tests its own boundaries--both minimalizes the force of James' text and promotes a misconception of modernism as socially disinterested. Such a view of modernism has been propagated since philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset defined the art of the early twentieth century as typified by its ability to "divide the public into two classes, those who understand it and those who do not understand it" on account of modernists being "brazenly set on deforming reality, shattering its human aspect, dehumanizing it"(12, 20). Such a misunderstanding was imbued with a more pejorative tone decades later by George Lukacs, who posited that modernist texts are socially and politically unviable because "the hero is strictly confined within the limits of his own experience" and "is without personal history" (19). According to this schema, any work engaging social critique cannot be considered "modernist" but, instead,falls under Lukacsís valorized rubric of "social realism." Critics recovering Minty Alley continue to work from this premise, positing that the novel must be approached as a realist reflectionon class issues and colonialism in Trinidad.

     This need not be the case. Class issues in West Indian society certainly have great emphasis in this story of Haynes, an educated lower-middle-class man who, for economic reasons, is forced to move into the working-class barracks-yard of No.2 MintyAlley after his mother's death. And surely James' own ardent political activism suggests that we take into serious critical consideration those aspects of social realism that permeate the novel. But does such a reading of Minty Alley necessarily preclude reading it as utilizing a modernist aesthetic? Exactly what validates our labeling any literary work as "modernist" has been the object of much critical contention, and because of the limits of space I cannot adequately rehash an eighty-year-old debate. To arrive more directly at a point that will adequately redefine this amorphous term in a manner relatingto this discussion of James, I follow the lead of Raymond Williams who has suggested that neither modernism nor modernists were ever utterly divorced from the political realm. Williams stresses that modernist politicism is rooted in its "anti-bourgeois" polemic,encompassing attitudes spanning from the conservative "formerly aristocratic valuation of art as a sacred realm above money and commerce" to the more radical belief that "art [functioned] as the liberating vanguard of popular consciousness" (34). Intensely critical of his protagonistís bourgeois attitude, James topically adheres to the general political spectrum in which Williams grounds the modernist tradition. What is more, James constructs this criticism of Haynes' limited bourgeois perspective through the novel's limited third person narrative, employing novelistic form in an innovative manner that experiments with realist conventionsin order to depict a type of individual social consciousness in an experimental and critical manner.

     What results is a social realism with a modernist twist. In order to segregate what it is that formally contributes to the novelís innovation, however, I recommend that we turn our attention away from James' anti-bourgeois and anti-colonial critique and refocus our attention on another series of topoióthose of sexualityand gender. For the purposes of constructing a digestible argument in this short space, I would like to disentangle the interwoven issues of class and sexuality/gender, even though this simplification may seem risky and suspectóand I admit that it is.But if those who sustain readings of Minty Alley as an example of social realism depend upon class tropes, I think it prudent to base my claims for its modernist status by focusing upon the textís neglected sexual and gender aspects for it is through these transgressive tropes that the more experimental textual elements of James' novel are made more apparent.

     When the protagonist Haynes arrives at No.2 Minty Alley, he is not only introduced to the world of the working class in Trinidad but he is also introduced to a world of sexuality. Benoit, the only other male occupant of the compound, warns Haynes to keep a close eye upon his cook Ella. He tells Haynes: "[G]uard your property. I am a man girls like, you know. If she fall in my garden I wouldnít have to lock the gate to keep her in" (31). Initially Haynes is appalled by Benoit's unrelenting machismo, but as time wears on and he witnesses the domestic melodramas unfold around him, he becomes more and more affected by Benoitís warning. Ella does not "fall" for Benoit, but this man's sexual escapades with the landlady Mrs. Rouse, the servant Wilhelmina, the anonymous nurse, and Mrs. Rouseís young and vampy niece Maisie form the narrative crux of Minty Alley. From the distance of his room, Haynes witnesses the series of sexual intrigues, literally watching Benoit as he moves from one lover to the next. At the beginning of his stay, Haynes observes all from a hole in his bedroom wall, a voyeur in this newly discovered land of lust,passion, and sexual intrigue. During one such voyeuristic episode, he espies Benoit romancing Wilhelmina. The observed tryst is endedwhen Benoit abruptly sends the servant away in order to receive his next object of desire, the nurse. The hidden onlooker remains transfixed by the scene:

     Haynes continued to peep, saw nothing, lay down again for five minutes and then, hearing nothing, thought he might as well have another peep. His eyes almost fell through the crease.
...Just inside the kitchen door he could see the nurse, her arms raised, probably around Benoit's neck, for his left arm was around her waist and his black fingers stood against the base ofher neck into which they pressed. The two remained almost unmoving for about a minute. Then they broke apart (38).

This comic voyeuristic scene uses an expressionistic moment of intense exaggeration to register the shock that Haynes experiences upon seeing the promiscuous Benoit in actionó-"His eyes almost fell through the crease." Throughout most of Minty Alley James is careful to construct a narrative conforming to the realist convention of a disengaged third-person narrator. At thisparticular moment, however, the narrator lapses into hyperbole.This image of the peeping tom losing his eyes through a hole in the wall generates a disjunctive shock for the reader, a shock that approximates Haynes' own when observing the spectacle of the amorous Benoit.

     Through Haynes we--the readers--are given a glimpse of a psychosexual fantasy about what happens behind the walls of West Indian working-class homes. What formally results is an approximation of that brand of modernism found in the work of such writers as Ford Maddox Ford, Joseph Conrad, and E.M. Forster. It is commonly noted that the work of these authors evinces asimultaneous conveyance of realism and an intermittent transmission of free indirect personal impressions. When examining the work of Ford, Michael Levenson has noted that British Impressionistsí work "is entitled, even obliged, to be personal in the presentation of reality, since there must be no pretence of a neutral body ofknowledge. To render reality then is to manifestindividuality" (116, Levenson's emphasis). Although he was not socially affiliated with British Impressionism, Jamesís use of hyperbole renders this pivotal scene in the development of Haynesís sexual consciousness in an analogous manner that is not explored by social realists and naturalists.

     James constructs an intensely self-reflexive narrative, one that demonstrates a consciousness of those points through which the bounds of social realism are assiduously tested. The more formally experimental aspects of the narrative lie embedded within and camouflaged by the larger and (only) apparently realist story .Haynes, whom this narrator ironically renames "student of humannature" (80), comes to embody the means by which James formulates his critique of realism's narratival insufficiencies. Theprotagonist is responsible for the camouflaging events of his own sexual consciousness, attempting to maintain a disinterested distance from the observed events of the barracks-yard. He takes a great deal of care in hiding his spyhole from the other residents: "Haynes removed his pillow from the top of his bed to the bottom, fixed his elbows on it and glued his eyes to the peephole, which he had enlarged and arranged (and camouflaged) so as to command a wide and comprehensive view of the whole yard" (54). One might be inclined to extrapolate from such episodes that Haynes constructs for himself an epistemological privilege based on the power of a seemingly panoptic gaze. This conclusion, however, would not take into consideration that both the novel's narrative and its style challenge such an analogue to the raconteur of realist and naturalist fictions.

     In order to generate his critique of narratival detachment through Haynes, James incorporates another figure who challenges the narratival privilege of this personified approximation of social realist ethnography. That critical figure is Maisie. LikeHaynes, Maisie is a spectator. Unlike Haynes, however, her spectatorship (and her sexual desire) remains unconcealed,intruding not only upon the story's events but also upon the narrator's ability to relate those events in a disinterested manner. One such example occurs during a confrontation between the nurse and Mrs. Rouse, in which Masiesís mischievous laughter generates a narratival disjuncture, unsettling the spectacle of thefight: "From some unseen spot Maisie laughed slightly shrill but very musical, with the detached appreciation of a disinterested spectator" (56). Just as we often see Haynes sidling up to his spyhole, we often hear Maisie's interruptive laughter from some unseen location, also watching the unfolding events of the householdís psychosexual melodrama. A crucial difference, however,marks the two figures' mode of spectatorship. Maisie may be "disinterested," but her vocable and unhidden laughter imbues the text with moments of semiotic critique, voicing an unworded criticism that directly affects the other characters' interpretation of Benoit's sexual escapades and the form of masculinity that he typifies.

     What Maisie sees and what Maisie knows challenges the integrity of Haynes's limited knowledge. As Kenneth Ramchand remarks in his introduction to Minty Alley, James employs a narrative strategy in which "[t]he use of Haynesís limited perspective as the novel's point of view makes for the vividness ofthe people of Minty Alley, since they can only reveal themselves to him in speech and action" (12). Through a limited third person narrative, in other words, James' audience faces the same limitations to their knowledge of No.2 Minty Alley that the protagonist does. We know only what he knows because we are only able to see (or read) what Haynes sees, and we occasionally get an impressionistic glimpse into his consciousness. Maisie, on the other hand, always seems to know more about what is going on than Haynes or ourselves, and her narrative--unlike Haynesís-óis not limited to what can be seen from her room. Maisie moves freely outside Minty Alley, reconnoitering with others in town, attending Benoit and the nurseís wedding, and then imparting her version ofthose events. She becomes a valuable source of insight once these characters leave the scope of Haynesís camouflaged spyhole.

     The problem is that what Maisie relates is embedded in a great deal of incertitude. She has a proclivity for lying, or such are the other characters' accusations. Repeatedly her aunt turns to Haynes to keep Maisie in line. The narrator notes that "Haynes alone could keep her quiet" (192). A gendered power is evident in this statement for his ability to silence Maisie has been gainedonly through their eventual sexual involvement. Yet the figure of Haynes is resolutely involved in a struggle against any implications that the story of No.2 Minty Alley is inherently a narrative about his sexual coming of age. He has been pressured into this position, compelled to assume a sexual masculine identity at the behest of others. Repeatedly, Haynes receives warnings that his detachment from Minty Alley's affairs (in both senses of the word) is considered suspicious. One of the compoundís residents,Mrs. Atwell, warns him that the others find him easy prey: "Theysee you look soft, Mr. Haynes, and they wants to jostle you" (53). The "softness"--the impotent vulnerability--that Mrs. Atwellremarks upon incites Haynes to fill the yawning financial and gendered gap left in the household's structure when Benoit leaves to marry the nurse. Reluctantly, Haynes helps run the household business of making cakes and manages the books. He comes to regard this new position of man of the house as a burden, and upon one occasion when he tears himself away from the compound, the narrator comments that "still more inexpressible was the relief at having got away from playing leading man to all those women" (75).

     Haynesís integration into No.2 Minty Alley results from his assimilation into the householdís gendered structure, filling Benoitís vacant role of "leading man." His gendered performance, however, is not complete because he remains "soft," not having indulged in a sexual relationship with the women in the house. Despite all his involvement in business affairs, he still remains distanced from the psychosexual. Benoit gives Haynes the final push needed to assume the role of "leading man" fully. When Haynes runs into him one day in town, Benoit questions why Haynes has waited so long to embark upon sexual escapades: "Man, when I was your age, by the time one was out another was in. You have nice little batchie here where girls can pass through the back without nobody seeing them. Whatís wrong? You sick?" (79). Benoit not only affronts Haynes by questioning his sexuality (You sick?) but he also provides the younger man the reassurance that his room will allow for secretive sexual liaisons, disallowing the possibility that he would be victimized by the same voyeurism he exercised over the other residents. This knowledge that his sexual activity would be safeguarded from public scrutiny permits Haynes to grow more intimate with Maisie.

     Once James' two voyeurs become sexually involved, Haynes assumes an authoritative posture, definitively seizing control of the householdís affairs and making a stand against Mrs. Rouseís manipulations. As the narrator puts it, "after that he was master of the house. Nothing was ever done without consulting him" (173).This newly masculinized character who has worked his way, albeit unwillingly, to the position of domestic outsider is thought to be able to silence the unruly Maisie who threatens to become uncontrollable in her sexuality, in her general behavior, and in her speech. But this control proves to be more of a male fantasythan a reality. Haynes does not elicit from Maisie good behavior; he only secures loyalty. Miss Atwelló-ever the Cassandra figure-ógives him the following warning: "You and me has to do something for that child, Mr. Haynes. She will listen to you. The girl is a mystery to me. She picks up six cents, car tickets,shillings, in your clothes or on the table. And I sit down here and she hear her first thing as you come in, give you" (207). The motives for Maisie's thefts remain indiscernible and the explanations that she provides are incomprehensible, even to Haynes. She is a mystery to him as she is a mystery to MissAtwell.

     Once this mysterious quality is brought to Haynes'attention, he quickly loses interest in Maisie. "Miss Atwellíswords stuck in Haynes' mind. He wondered if the girl of his dreams, the divine, the inexpressible she whom he was going to marry one day, he wondered if in some things she would be to him what Maisie was in all" (212). It is not so much that Maisie no longer appeals to his feminine ideal, but it is Haynes' suspicion that her duplicitous nature destabilizes the security of his new position in the household. His masculinity is threatened because she will not abide by his orders or sufficiently explain herself, and their sexual involvement precludes his ability to resume his former detached distance. In the end, a break is made with both Maisie and No.2 Minty Alley. The final confrontation, however, is not between Haynes and Maisie but between herself and Mrs. Rouse, who finallydiscovers the truth of their affair by walking in on them in Haynesís bedroom. During the whole of the confrontation, Haynes passively watches: "Haynes neither could nor wished to interfere with Maisie breaking up his life at No.2. For the moment he pushed aside all thoughts of the future and stood lost in a fearful admiration at her winning her last great victory"(222-23).

     The protagonist whose limited perspective determines our only access behind the walls of No.2 is rendered powerless by a combative domestic dispute in which two women throw each otherís illicit sexuality in the otherís face. The narratives both women tell during the argument are incompatible with the world that Haynes and the reader have known up until this point. As a result, his world collapses around him and he is compelled to leave the house. The story folds in upon itself and ends shortly thereafter, lingering only long enough to tell of Maisie's departure, Mrs. Rouse's reunion with Benoit, and Benoit's death and the sale of the barracks-yard. The final moment of the story depicts Haynes looking at the new residents of No.2: "The front door and the windows were open, and from the street he could see into the drawing-room. Husband and wife and three children lived there ...[H]e stood outside, looking in the window and thinking of old times" (244). Ending on a note of Haynes' powerlessness, Minty Alley closes with the revelation that his spectatorship does not grant him insight into what happens behind these Caribbean walls, and he is left to reminisce about a lost power and masculinized sexuality.

     Both Haynes and the reader are disenfranchised from any sort of power they may have once thought to entertain. The final blowup setting the security of No.2 under Haynesís management comes from gendered subjects who inadvertently challenge the precepts of his epistemological position. Both Mrs. Rouse and Maisie "know" things that he did not; both have moved beyond the compoundís walls, andtheir narratives are free of any dependence upon a camouflaged vagina-like crease such as the one through which Haynes peers. These women's alternative and indeterminate stories separateMinty Alley from realist conventions, generating an embeddednarratival indeterminacy not unlike that which we have come to expect in modernist fictions. The novel may not read like Ulysses, but the story itself hinges upon disjunctures that upset traditionally realist preconceptions of fictive narrative. On the surface, there seems to be a degree of narratival coherence. However, the threat of what Maisie knows and the threat of being unable to determine the veracity of her narrative opens up the structure of the story, shaking the foundations of not only Haynes' epistemological position but also of our own.

     We might be tempted to read these"threats" as evincing a masculinist narrative. Such a reactionary reading would permit us to sustain the common notion that male-authored modernist texts often resort to masculinism. But if we take into consideration the role of the novel's audience--primarily a British audience--we are forced to reread the story according to what George Lamming would refer to as "the colonial castration of the West Indian sensibility" (49). Lamming maintains that Caribbean writers are faced with the predicament of not writing for Caribbean audiences but for British and American ones. This change of national audience has resonances in how Caribbean authors deal with novelistic and social topoi, and it has an effect upon the style of their texts. Lamming postulates that "[a]n important question, for the English critic, is not what the West Indian novel has brought to English writing. It would be more correct to ask what the West Indian novelists have contributed to English reading" (44). Forced to share Haynesís limited perspective and unable to penetrate the mystery of No.2 and its inhabitants, British and American readers are "castrated" by their own devices. Like Haynes, they are left disenfranchised and powerless, questioning the epistemological apparati and realist narratival conventions through which they thought they had secured their once potent faculties. Of course,there is trouble with James' resorting to an emasculation model to develop this experience for his readers, but his celebration of the narratival inconsistencies that Caribbean women introduce to a reifying Euro-American worldview begin to counter those problems.

     Gender and sexuality are the grounds upon which James contests the illusion of power propagated through the realist aesthetic. Through his inclusion of an element of narratival incertitude and his critical unveiling of Haynesís prized private sexual consciousness, he levies a formidable social critique of theWestern realist tradition. Consequently, Minty Alley offers British and American readers a crucial means by which we can reinvestigate our understanding of how different international modernist traditions contested past literary forms and for what end these critiques were made.

Works cited

  • Boone, Joseph Allen. Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and theShaping of Modernism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.
  • Henry, Paget and Paul Buhle, eds. C.L.R. JamesCaribbean. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1992.
  • James, C.L.R. Minty Alley (1936). London: New Beacon,1971.
  • Lamming, George. The Pleasure of Exile (1954). AnnArbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.
  • Levenson, Michael H. A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study ofEnglish Literary Doctrine 1908-1922. New York: Cambridge UP,1984.
  • Lukacs, George. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.London: Merlin, 1963.
  • Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. C.L.R. James: A CriticalIntroduction. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1997.
  • Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Dehumanization of Art and OtherWritings onArt and Culture (1925). Garden City, NY: Doubleday &Company, 1956.
  • Williams, Raymond. The Politics of Modernism: Against theNew Conformists. New York: Verso, 1989.

The original version of this paper was delivered at SchuylkillísBorderlands conference in March 1998. I would like to thank those members of the audience, especially Kabi Hartman and panelchair Jon Ihle, who asked very pointed questions that have furthered my own approach to Minty Alley.

 

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