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Monday 27 May 2019
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Commentary

Inside the cave

Last weekend my niece and I went to look at the new Disney film Dumbo. The story goes thus: “May I have two tickets to Dumbo, please?”

My niece, on the other end of my phone, burst out laughing, prompting the sales girl at the counter to laugh as well.

"Somebody laughing at you?" she asked.

“Yes,” I replied (Apparently I’m too old for Disney).

"Tell them once a man, twice a child," the sales girl counselled, still laughing.

“Funny that she should laugh, because she’s the one who is coming to look at the movie with me!”

I collected my bundle of tickets, phone, money, wallet and keys, all of which had found their way onto the counter.

Laughter again.

My 29-year-old niece arrived just after Dumbo, with his unconventional ears, had tumbled down into full view of a disapproving public (except the children. Children always have more sense in these films).

My niece, irate at the "a--hole humans" in the film, declared, “Animals are so much nicer than humans!"

She’s not much of a people-lover and had only recently lost her dog, which she had loved and nurtured for over 14 years, a dog that was supposed to have been dead a few days after his birth.

“He’s so cute. I’d be his mummy,” she continued, grabbing my arm as if I were supposed to procure the elephant for her.

I didn’t dare look at her for fear that she might be in tears at this point.

"Would you like to leave and not look at the movie?" I asked.

"No! But I might need a strong drink after this. A--hole humans!"

The next day, I related my niece’s reaction to the film to a friend.

“People really can be very cruel,” my friend said, quietly, as though considering further than that thought.

"Well, what if we are expecting too much of human beings?" I asked.

My pessimism was kicking in.

“Explain,” friend said.

"Well, we assume that we are blessed with some superior sense of discernment, but I tend to think that left to their own devices, humans will work by instinct. Religion, law – these are systems designed to keep us in check, to tell us how we should think and behave. Think about the number of infidelities in relationships or wars and tell me that I’m wrong," I said, becoming increasingly annoyed on account of the thoughts running through my head.

“I’ll have to think about it for a while,” my friend said.

We ended on that note. I was arguing through emotion rather than actual facts. However, the trend of the conversation actually set me on the road to thinking through our nationalism, like Disney; a re-imaging of reality.

What if the parameters that we have set to define national unity are unreal or perhaps not suited to our context? Is it that we grapple with defining our nationalism because we are boxed into a framework of thinking that doesn’t allow us to see beyond what we know? I think of Plato’s cave (see https://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/cave.htm for a brief explanation).

What we have inherited are shadows, but not the full experiences that provide a solid understanding of the shadows’ origins. What if finding the shape of national identity/nationalism in TT requires us to break free of the empires’ versions and take into consideration our history in a deep and meaningful way? This should not be a question, but rather a statement.

Such an approach requires us to feel our way through – feel the breath of history in the land, the people, events.

I cannot ignore the first line of Jamaican-born Stuart Hall’s opening chapter in his memoir Familiar Strangers, “Sometimes I
feel like I was the last colonial.”

I read Hall always with the sense that he feels and experiences the concepts that he writes about. These are not merely academic ideas. They are lived experiences approached with humility and thoughtfulness, an expanded awareness that can only come from close attention to thoughts and emotion.

I believe that pure academic exercises prevent us from digging deeper into feeling the concepts that we so loosely speak about sometimes – multiculturalism, nationalism, culture itself. Should we shift our perception, throw off the suits and ties, actually feel the weather of the tropics, acknowledge ourselves as groups of transplants still identifying with our motherlands, perhaps then we shall begin to absorb the energy of this space in a more tangible way. It might require just a minuscule adjustment to the ears for our imagination to soar!

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