‘Pioneering into regions Caesar never knew’: Beyond a Boundary in Glasgow

To devote a conference to a single book is rare, perhaps because so few volumes withstand such prolonged critical focus or provide opportunities for close reading that avoid descent into the pedantic, trivial or arcane. A workshop or day seminar is merited, perhaps—but to deserve the sustained scrutiny, across a series of sessions and over several days, that a dedicated conference implies requires that the title under scrutiny has demonstrated a sufficient impact, has enjoyed a sufficient resonance and, perhaps most importantly, speaks to a diverse audience, cross-disciplinary, as well as academic and non-academic.

C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, to which a conference was dedicated last week in Glasgow, meets these criteria. In one of the text’s most quoted and quotable sentences, James riffs on Kipling, and asks: ‘what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’, necessarily inviting multi-dimensional, multi-directional readings of a work whose worldliness means that words and meanings spill beyond its pages. The Glasgow event brought together James scholars, cricket enthusiasts, political activists, literary specialists and many others in a collective re-reading of James’s text, itself published fifty years ago this year. What emerged was a complex portrait of a book, produced—in the terms of Robert Hill, opening keynote speaker at the conference—across a series of ‘moments’, and in a number of different locations (Britain, Trinidad and Spain). At the same time, speakers at the event located Beyond a Boundary within the political evolution of its author, and also presented the work as a foundational study in the field of sport, politics and society.

This is a generically indeterminate book, characterized by its vogue-ing between autobiography, history, social commentary and the study of sport. It is also a book that has travelled, through editions and around a network of readers on both sides of the Atlantic – it was noted at the conference that a scholars’ edition for use in Caribbean schools has just been produced by Ian Randall, with an introduction by Hilary Beckles, reflecting the text’s on-going influence in Trinidad itself.

The event opened with a screening of Mike Dibb’s film of 1976, Beyond a Boundary, an exceptional documentary account of the book’s genesis and of its meanings within James’s life. Still particularly striking is footage of James’s return to Nelson, where he had lodged with Learie Constantine in the 1930s whilst working as a cricket correspondent and (between seasons) pushing on with the research on the Haitian Revolution that would culminate in The Black Jacobins. Dibb filmed James reunited with acquaintances of that period, and watching a cricket match together. In those sections, the film highlighted the gulf between the Trinidadian in inter-war exile and the local population – but also revealed the particular solidarities that nevertheless emerged in the Lancashire town once dubbed ‘Little Moscow’. The opening keynote lecture was delivered by Robert Hill, James’s literary executor, editor of the Garvey papers and (in David Scott’s terms) ‘archaeologist of black memory’. In a brilliant paper, drawing heavily on correspondence and manuscript sources, Hill tracked the emergence of James’s text, revealing the work’s entanglements in, for instance, James’s return to Trinidad, the role of George Lamming in ensuring its publication, and the place of F.R. Leavis in its evolution (and in James’s reading of the game of cricket as closely as he might have read a poem). C.L.R. James, Robert Hill noted, could be seen as a ‘creole Leavisite’. Particularly striking was the sense of a transatlantic dialogue between James and comrades he had left behind in the United States, made very clear in a remarkable letter from Grace Lee Boggs in which she compared James’s emerging reflections on cricket with her own observations on total participation of the crowd at a football game in Detroit. In a subsequent plenary, Wai Chee Dimock explored Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, presenting the text produced by James while he was confined on Ellis Island as a reflection on the indestructibility of the Herman Melville’s crew, bringing them as a result to the foreground of the narrative. The paper was also interested in James’s text as a rewriting of Melville, and situated Beyond a Boundary as a result in a continuum, the latest stage of which is Frank Stella’s art work inspired by Moby Dick. The continuing scope and scale of the impact of Beyond a Boundary was made clear in the third plenary, delivered by former England captain Mike Brearley, who presented ‘what do they know of cricket?’ as a Socratic question, ultimately unanswerable but a means nevertheless of exploring knowledge of the game in a number of different spheres, technical, critical and reflective. ‘What happens within the boundary,’ he concluded, ‘influences profoundly what happens beyond the boundary.’

The rest of the sessions were equally rich, and it seems unfair to single out individual papers—but I was particularly struck by Roy McCree’s study of the book’s genesis (and not least the evolution of its title, variously proposed as Who Only Cricket Know, W.G.: A West Indian Grace, W. Indian Progeny of Grace, and The Cricket Crusaders); Arin Keeble’s reflection on James’s influence on Joseph O’Neil (and the implications of this for the understanding of cricket in North American life); David Austin’s discussion of James’s ambiguous engagement with Africanism in the Caribbean, most notably in the figure of Matthew Bondsman; Paul Bérard’s study of James and Caribbean activism in 1960s Montreal; and Christian Hogsbjerg’s political reading of James’s 1930s cricket writing (not least that published in The Glasgow Herald).

In a paper on the ‘Caribbean Beyond’, Aaron Kamugisha explored the implications of the first word of James’s title, drawing implicitly on the work of Sylvia Winter to set out the ways in which James’s work represents ‘an epistemologically daring landmark in the quest for a future beyond coloniality’. (Reflecting on the ‘Caribbean beyond’, he noted also that Simon Schwartz-Bart’s Pluie et Vent sur Telumée Miracle is translated as The Bridge of Beyond.) ‘Beyond’ provides a space that is not of loss or gain, but of speculation and possibility. The conference provided an eloquent indication of that key idea, and further illuminated James’s own thought as he noted enigmatically in the preface to Beyond a Boundary that, “[t]o establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew”.

Cite this blog post
Charles Forsdick (2013, May 15). ‘Pioneering into regions Caesar never knew’: Beyond a Boundary in Glasgow. Translating Cultures. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/utvu

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