Does history matter in #Haiti? Can phrenology foretell a people’s success?

An 1883 phrenology chart

An 1883 phrenology chart

Reading Amy Wilentz’s passionately argued post ‘Does history matter in Haiti’, I was reminded of the rather remarkable premise of Kunal Basu’s novel ‘Racists’.

It is not (as I wrote in The Times of India in 2006) a novel about racism per se, not any modern manifestation of it, anyway. The racists of the book’s title are not today’s right-wing, anti-immigrant lunatic fringe. Instead, the story goes back two centuries to another kind of racist, the racial scientist. These were men who spent a lot of time measuring skulls, using the science of phrenology – the size of the brain box indicates the size of the brain and thereby, how evolved you are – to calculate the capabilities of races and genders. This was all part of the effort to answer an esoteric, essentially flawed question: what makes the white man intrinsically superior to the black and coloured?

That’s what I remembered when Ms Wilentz wondered how it was possible for “Mischa Berlinski, the award-winning novelist who has written almost all of the post- earthquake pieces on Haiti for (the) NYRB” to sweep away “history” as a possible cause for Haiti’s woes. Instead, says Ms Wilentz, “he sees Haiti’s problems as a result of something he calls ‘the Haitian character’.”

We might as well be measuring skulls, as calculating the effects of a people’s “character” on the state of their nation.

Basu, who teaches at Oxford University’s Said Business School and writes historical novels in his spare time, set out to portray this in ‘Racists’.  (Just to set the record straight, the novel’s idea is better than its execution.)

When I spoke to Basu back in 2006, he told me the novel was prompted by an idea greater than the sum of its parts. “Why are we fascinated by human difference? It is natural to note difference, but why do we the take the next step and ask what it means?” he said.

So, he decided to write about a “forbidden” 19th-century experiment in racial science. Two babies – one white, the other black – are subject to “planned neglect” on a remote island off the African coast, with a mute nurse in attendance. They are deliberately left innocent of language, song, music, games, cuddles, authority and structure. The children are meant to illustrate the racial battle for superiority – will the white child win or will it all end in bloodshed? (The Egyptian emperor Psammetichus apparently conducted a similar experiment in an attempt to determine which tribe – Egyptian or Phygian – came first.)

Back to Haiti and the consequences of history. What is the “Haitian character” if not a consequence of history, among other things? What is any people’s “character” if it is not formed, informed, beset or burnished by history and historical happenings of all sorts?

Some might still say that Haiti’s current state – 209 years after it courageously became the world’s first slave republic – is a conundrum so great it can only be solved by a laboratory experiment that would pit Haitian “character”, verve, ability and aspiration against that of some one else. Raise a Haitian child and some other on a remote island and see where it ends.

We might as well be measuring skulls. For all that phrenology played an important part in the advance towards neuropsychology, it has little role today in foretelling winners (and losers).

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac