E. R. Braithwaite’s book, ‘To Sir With Love’, portrays a scene where a character stands in a contemplative mood. Thinking he’s alone, lost in his own thoughts, he stands there, a lone, forlorn figure, forever captured in the imagination of the reader.
But then, with a sudden start, he becomes aware of someone watching him in silence. His posture changes, his contemplative mood disappears, and he becomes rather self-conscious.
The scene speaks to a profound part of what it means to be human.
Braithwaite, as a keen observer of human nature, not only internalized such a self-defining experience, but is able to write so that it speaks to readers generations later.
Such an experience, so lucid in the writing, touches the heart and mind of every human being, everywhere, of whatever language or culture, with the truth of what it means to be a human being.
Braithwaite shows in that clarity of observation, and expression, that he embodies that V. S. Naipaul insight: a person who develops his “conscious” self.
Naipaul, in his travels and in contemplating his boyhood days in Trinidad, concluded in his book after which this column is named, ‘A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling’, that some societies fail to develop a clarity of consciousness. These people, like his dad and relatives in India, live with a foggy mind, vague thoughts and unconscious awareness of their states of being, unable to understand their experiences.
The society reflects this fogginess of mind in bad writing and poor thinking.
A couple weeks ago, Dave Martins, our celebrated songster, wrote in his column in this newspaper, ‘So It Go’, that every creative work, everything, in fact, starts with writing. He gave readers a wonderful insight into the writing of his iconic songs.
Then, last week, our literary icon, Ian McDonald, in his column in this newspaper, again implored us to teach our children the value of literature and clear writing.
McDonald’s lament echoes a sombre note, a sad disappointment that “the authorities” in our society seem to abdicate their responsibility to teach our children to write clear and thoughtful sentences.
Writing ability reflects a society’s state of mind.
How clear is our thinking as a people?
We could see that in how we write, in our newspapers and the media, even TV and radio, where scripts precede sound and picture, and in our schools, from nursery to university.
How clear-thinking are we as a society?
Foggy, unclear, convoluted writing reflects the fact that we are not clear thinkers.
Education Minister Priya Manickchand, in leading our kids to re-write the future of this nation, must aim for one simple goal: develop and cultivate, through the education system, clear thinkers.
How do we accomplish that?
McDonald tells us how: teach our people to write clear sentences. We must become a people able to use words and form sentences that express our experiences as a Guyanese nation in a way that refines us, awakens our understanding of ourselves, shapes our inner thoughts as a thinking people.
We waddle about confused in a social mess today, with the loud, noisy, cussing street babble reflecting a people of thoughtless and unthinking minds, unable to introspect and learn who we are as a nation, as human beings, incapable of understanding our experiences.
The 89 percent brain drain compounds the severity of the problem. We become a society of non-thinkers, of what Northrup Frye in his book ‘The Well-Tempered Critic’ calls mere “babblers”, lacking the rhythm of structured thought.
Street language lacks the structured thinking of written prose or verse.
So we cannot build a society depending on street talk. We must learn as a people to structure our experiences into clear thinking, and share them in clear writing.
Creolese, as a verbal form of language, fails as structured thought, as clear writing.
We must understand what we go through, our experience of life. Then we must express and share this understanding among ourselves, using clear, rhythm-structured writing.
As Frye illustrates in his book, written language embodies clear thinking, because the prose sentence has a structured rhythm of subject object predicate. Verse, or poetry, also embodies the rhythm of structured thinking with its rhyme, meter and alliteration devices.
Street talk, or the cacophony of the noisy masses babbling in stream-of-consciousness confusion, lack such structured rhythms, or any structure except a sing-song stringing together of short phrases, cliches and unrelated ideas.
“Ordinary speech is concerned mainly with putting into words what is loosely called the stream of consciousness: the daydreaming, remembering, worrying, associating, brooding and mooning that continually flows through the mind, and which … we often speak of as thought”, Frye notes, likening such language to a child’s talk, not only in its whining, sing-song, chanting rhythm, but its lack of structured thought.
The point is that common talk, verbal language and untrained street babble cannot build a thinking society. Such language is unable to convert experiences into an understanding and appreciation of life.
How we talk, then, must be structured into clear thinking, through prose – clear sentences; or verse, and song. Our Guyanese society was once at this high level of clear thinking, with Dave Martins structuring experience into song, Martin Carter expressing our experiences in poetry, and E R Braithwaite illustrating the human experience in literature.
These three show what we could achieve when we learn to share with each other through clear writing – in song, poetry and novel.
Carter, Braithwaite, Martins, and McDonald elevate us as a people in the historic global body of knowledge, the literature of humanity.
We must regain that glory. We must again cultivate orators like L F S Burnham, and thinking writers like Walter Rodney.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson asserts in his essay ‘On The American Scholar’, we must cultivate “man thinking”, clear thinkers able to write clear sentences. We must lift “the sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of reason” to understand and appreciate the experience of daily living.