“Unspeakable Events: Slavery and White Self-Fashioning” is, like the rest of this book, a tour de force. Gikandi opens by contrasting the shattering of Olaudah Equiano’s cosmopolitan dreams with the dazzling cosmopolitanism of David Hume in Paris, contrasted again with Hume’s own shattering of cosmopolitanism in his famous footnote on race. That a man of his time could spout racism is not surprising, Gikandi notes (102).
What is surprising is that an intellectual of Hume’s caliber and humanistic interests, one whose goal was to establish universal moral and aesthetic judgments, and one who considered prejudice injurious to this endeavor, seemed untroubled by his own sense of prejudice.
I’ll admit to being surprised about this myself when I first looked closely at Hume, and Gikandi cites Richard Popkin to the same effect. But Gikandi adds that Hume only seemed untroubled by his contradictory self. There’s no surprise, if we understand that like the other theorists and practitioners of taste, “Hume [was] determined to quarantine cosmopolitan Europe from black dirt” (100).
Similarly, we find the story of Francis Williams’ Cambridge education and accomplished Latin poetry failing to be “transformed by the modes of intellectual reflection one would expect from the best minds of the time” (105-6); instead, processed through the dismissive double-bind of racial prejudice footnoted by Hume and enacted by Jamaican slave-owner Edward Long. And again, what seems to be a surprising dereliction of attention and reflection turns out instead to have been an active, albeit unspeakable, exclusion and repression. In the cloistered universities, coffeehouses, and salons, the makers of the culture of taste were in fact deeply, constitutively troubled by the contradiction of their high sensibilities and the grim violence and shame of slavery.
The argument therefore hinges on shame and its repression. Hume, Long, Jefferson, and William Beckford in just a moment, have to be read contrapuntally to find amidst all of the not at all saying that they were ashamed of slavery, and all of the historical context in which slavery was only just beginning to become shameful, that they were in fact fundamentally ashamed of slavery. And they had to know it too, and be determined about it, and active in every way but speaking about it. I’m going to move to late in the chapter now, to the discussion of Beckford, to a representative instance of this argument.
Beckford was a complex fellow, as Gikandi makes clear. Creole, colonial parvenu, homosexual, art collector, Francophile, failed joiner, and all-around difficult character, for Gikandi the “greatest repressed force” in his life, a force that oppressed him, damaging his sense of self and/in relationship to the culture of taste, was slavery – the origin and dependence of the family fortune on the complex of sugar and slaves. Gikandi acknowledges that there are plenty of marginalizing factors to overdetermine the account, then dives into the evidence. This turns out to be Beckford’s reclusive hoarding of art, on which more in a moment, and letters in which he discusses the fortunes of his fortune. Here’s the first piece of that analysis:
Jamaica could be absent from Beckford’s biography, but this does not mean he was not aware of the extent to which his ability to live the lavish life of an aesthetic subject depended on his slaveholdings. We find acknowledgment of this connection in a letter to Lady Craven in 1790: “One of my new estates in Jamaica brought me home seven thousand pounds last year more than usual. So I am growing rich, and mean to build Towers, and sing hymns to the powers of Heaven on their summits […]” (137).
That the kind of spoiled, clueless punk emergent from Gikandi’s account and this quotation made the reflective connection between profitable “estates” and the cruel reality of slavery is now meant to be a fact in evidence, despite not being at all a fact in evidence. Why do he and Hume and the rest need so much to have been reflectively ashamed? I don’t know; maybe for the same reason it’s way more upsetting if lots of the Germans killing Jews and sitting at home while Jews were being killed next door didn’t give much thought to Jews, didn’t really much care about them at all? Killed them or let them be killed because at that moment it was more convenient than not?
But now anxiety makes its inevitable appearance, as Beckford is seen “worried about the effects of sugar prices, slave revolts, and legal challenges to his Jamaican holdings on his ability to maintain Fonthill House,” the family manor in the English countryside.
Nevertheless, the language used to express these colonial anxieties was one of denial, avoiding the subject at hand, refusing to recognize the source of the trauma, to be drawn close to it, or even to speak its language. Hiding behind the clichéd language of lawyers and agents, and using citations and indirect discourse, Beckford worked hard to distance himself from the unnamable event that was his legacy (138).
Or, he was pissed off that he wasn’t rich any more but saying so wouldn’t have done his status any good. That is, his thoughts and feelings followed a situated path of least resistance. In an analysis I’d like better, we’d now be looking at what the global economy was doing to ruin the profitability of Jamaican sugar plantations and marginalize the old planter class, creating an anxiety that had lots to do with being royally screwed and maybe little to do with feeling ashamed of slavery; until, of course, slavery became a financial liability and therefore safely a moral one.
“Denial was Beckford’s mode of existence,” Gikandi now feels comfortable asserting. “He was aware,” a fact not in evidence but admittedly probable, “that his success as a collector and man of taste was tied to slavery and sugar, but any direct association with black bondage was injurious to the social standing of a modern subject, especially toward the end of the eighteenth century, when slavery was no longer in vogue.” A more prudent man in such circumstances might well have invested in sweat shops, as in fact many classy folks did – showing no effective carry-over of the shame from that other brutal, humanly-destructive forced labor (or repressing the new shame in turn, perhaps). In any case, we have again the assumption presented as fact backed by speculative depth psychology and manifestly unsupported by anything else about the history or character of this fella that he had made a reflective and strategic connection between his taste, slavery, and shame. Into this epistemological gap now helpfully steps the genre, in the persons of John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, who handwave “that beneath the ‘houses and masterpieces’ of the collectors, ‘there is much to be learned by listening in to the quieter, subversive voices rising out of that “unacceptable” residue lying in culture’s shadow'” (138-9). Later in this hall of mirrors, we find amusement hinting at muses and museums. I would have left this snark out if it wasn’t almost 5am.
Anyhoo this is fine conceptual play, as good as it gets in fact, with an amazing richness of breadth and detail. And unlike the subjects of the book the brute fact that all of the goodies of modernity emerged from a complex that essentially included history’s most systematically vicious slavery is never far enough away to lose sight of. But surely after decades now of this genre experiment in optional readings we’re not finding them persuasive or satisfying any more?