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The Black Atlantic at 30: Even the Whales Don’t Read


Even the Whales Don’t Read
Paul Gilroy’s Compound Prose

by Phoebe Braithwaite

On 5 May 2023, the UCL Department of English, the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) and the Sarah Parker Remond Centre (SPRC) held a day of conversation to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. This series offers some reflections on the book’s resonance now, and how it has travelled since its publication in 1993. Here, Phoebe Braithwaite ventures a ‘toad-level analysis’ to explore the enduring tension in Gilroy’s work between music and the written word, and how this generates a planetary version of human life.

Sometimes late at night as I’m struggling to sleep, I take to ‘Twitter’ to scroll numbingly through the dregs of the day’s feed. Sometimes it’s @bungatuffie’s tweets that emerge from the ether to greet me: often they commemorate the passing of a great figure, frequently a musician, or note with sober alarm some developments in human brutality. Sometimes they simply show the emergence of spring shoots from sodden earth or talk of birds: goldfinches, starlings, peregrines, willow warblers. Recently, he posted something that caught my attention: a piece called ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’, by George Orwell. Before detailing the toad’s emergence from hibernation into an access of “intense sexiness” where it tries to mate with anything it can find, its spawn “laid in long strings which wind themselves in and out of the reeds and soon become invisible,” Orwell pays homage to the toad because, “unlike the skylark and the primrose, he has never had much of a boost from poets.” The toad sports “a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent,” with eyes abnormally large, allowing one to notice them as the most beautiful of any living creature, “like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl .”

Gilroy’s love of Orwell is, perhaps, surprising. His writing (like Orwell’s) hardly conforms to Orwell’s often-trotted-out rules for writing in ‘Politics and the English Language,’ with its insistence on punch and verbal austerity – though he writes sparely when the moment warrants. But the Gilroy who has usually called on me samples from a broad linguistic palette. Terms which reoccur in his writing suggest an awe for the sharp specificity of which language is capable and the variegated intensity of the world it evokes. Words like ‘xenology,’ ‘chiliastic,’ ‘Manichean,’ ‘diachronic,’ ‘infrahuman,’ and ‘pelagic’ – to name a few – are part of “a vocabulary [he has] tried to develop – a constellation of concepts that are addressed to [our] histories of suffering,” to use Gilroy’s own words. Over and above their blunter and more obvious synonyms, Paul Gilroy deploys an idiosyncratic lexicon.

One way of thinking about this verbal ecosystem, as I see it, is in terms of Gilroy’s love of the natural world. Speaking to Philip Dodd, Gilroy described that relationship, the compound texture of his identity, like so: “I’ve always felt that… I have an entitlement to recognition as not only a Londoner… but as an Englishman. Can I say that? I love the green of this country, I love its birds, I love its plants, I love the light in the places that I frequent.” So it is not only in Gilroy’s use of individual words, carefully and even at times eccentrically chosen, but in the use of contradictory compounds that the commitment to a kind of verbal plurality gets in. These compound structures have deep roots. In his ‘Blueprint for Negro Writing’ Richard Wright refers to the “complex simplicity” at the heart of this tradition, and Gilroy’s writing deploys terms that conduct this dissenting charge: the frisson of unlike things in tension, where he writes of the need for a kind of “agonistic belonging,” a home met by the need to strain against its racialised definitions, of the Black Atlantic as a “changing same” or of the vital importance of “redemptive critique” with its sharp incisions as well as its deeper and more generous sort of offering. This juxtaposition of elements, hard and soft, characterises the “primal history of modernity” that The Black Atlantic tells.

Its oxymoronic formulations inaugurate a species of something that might be called popular modernism, or more aptly post-modernism. I use ‘popular’ because the deep core of Paul’s work is popular: it magnetises people in a way that exceeds the self-propagating properties of celebrity through its fervent and affective directive to provoke thought and know the world acutely. Its tensile blend of elements also makes it difficult, demanding thought. His writing thus reminds me of another popular modernist: the late Toni Morrison, who in an interview funnelled to me recently by my ‘Twitter’ timeline, said: “It’s not possible to hone in on the crisis…. You have to have the love and you have to have the magic; that’s also life.”

Music had always been Morrison’s touchstone, she explained to Gilroy in their 1988 interview: its blend of effortlessness and spirituality. “My parallel is always the music because all of the strategies of the art are there. All of the intricacy, all of the discipline. All the work that must go into improvisation so that it appears that you’ve never touched it. Music makes you hungry for more of it. It never really gives you the whole number. It slaps and it embraces, it slaps and it embraces.” Gilroy also holds up music to attend to the incapacity of speech to do justice to forms of experience and historical memory. In his recent essay about Steve McQueen’s film Grenfell, he writes of his hope that the film “bears witness to the sorrow and anger which exceed words.” In a recent lecture at All Souls, Oxford, Gilroy said he had employed a “metaphor of sonic reverberation because [it] alerts us to the phenomenological limits of texts and textuality.” In The Black Atlantic, these calls sound over and over, as he wrestles with “a history of barbarity that exhausts the resources of language”. While the written word has occupied a supreme status in the hierarchy of human endeavour, and needs no defending here, I sometimes wonder whether the depth of Gilroy’s attention to the shortcomings of lexical expression, the ‘unsayability topos’ (discussed so brilliantly in Lana Crowe’s talk on 5 May at UCL) that peppers and structures his thought, instils it with a more than usual musicality, one not content with the schematic prescriptions of scholarship or the flat surfaces of speech: it murmurs and growls and susurrates, instinct with other sorts of life.

In Morrison’s Nobel Lecture of 1993, widely shared after her death, she nonetheless defended the value of linguistic work: “Word-work is sublime,” she wrote, “because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Perhaps that sublimity arises at the junction of language between the finite and infinite, shuttling between lasting and temporal planes. Music is not just something intricate and disciplined, but a form that sometimes aspires to a condition of nature. Yohann Koshy’s loving profile of Gilroy details his affinity with aerial creatures, “easily distinguishing different species of bird from their interlaced song: ‘A lot of these birds have migrated from west and central Africa,’ Gilroy said. ‘What can I hear right now? I can hear a great tit, a blue tit, and there’s a particular kind of warbler – that sound – which comes up from the area between Niger and Senegal.’ Later, to a bemused university colleague who happened to be walking by, he taxonomised three types of woodpecker,” Koshy writes.

What are the patterns of Gilroy’s song? In his writing, that glimmer of the sublime is disclosed by individual word-choices and in the cadence of his sentences and rhythms of speech. The following lines seemed broadly representative. Speaking of the “the formation of a distinct, often priestly caste of organic intellectuals,” Gilroy discusses the discrepant, unexpected resources those thinkers have drawn on, plumbing their orthogonal relationship to the modern world:

The irrepressible rhythms of the once forbidden drum are often still audible in their work. Its characteristic syncopations still animate the basic desires – to be free and to be oneself – that are revealed in this counterculture’s unique conjunction of body and music. Music, the grudging gift that supposedly compensated slaves not only for their exile from the ambiguous legacies of practical reason but for their complete exclusion from modern political society, has been refined and developed so that it provides an enhanced mode of communication beyond the petty power of words – spoken or written.

The moral authority of these sentences is stark and unmistakeable, dispensed through the staccato phrasings which do not waste their breath: “to be free and to be oneself.” Their declarative tone carries an unhurried grandeur: their author speaks to us unabashed from a height. But they do not confuse this height with purity or natural hierarchy. The curving, self-clarificatory character of the third sentence demonstrates a willingness to complicate itself with subtlety and to make fine distinctions. No stranger to irony, the bracing sincerity of Gilroy’s tone marks a break with the times in which we live. The baroque character of certain words (irrepressible rhythms, unique conjunction, ambiguous legacies) along with their rougher, more grounded bedfellows (once forbidden drum, basic desires, grudging gift, petty power) betray their willingness to tune into the hum of life, understanding from the perspective of what Adorno calls its “rifts and crevices” – to know the life of the common toad, shaken into awareness by what Orwell describes as “a shudder of the earth”. They acknowledge the force of myth in giving meaning to our lives and disclose it in the fibre of their language. The looping cadence of that final sentence, furling out in successive clauses, is characteristic, fierce with the power of its insight and landing with a thundering rallentando: slowly, from a bridge of agonistic deliberation, it comes home. There is a quiet political disposition disclosed in that tendrilled mode of speech – far beyond the fantasised parameters of Jürgen Habermas’s “ideal speech situation,” which Gilroy battles in The Black Atlantic, lies a realm whose existence, as Fanon writes, “rehabilitates us both in regard to ourselves and in regard to others”. Thinking of the common garden toad, Orwell asked: “Is it wicked to take a pleasure in Spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible… to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle?” It is not wrong to love what is beautiful, this writing seems to say.

Characterising the Black Atlantic as a “rhizomorphic, fractal structure,” Gilroy adopts a metaphor capable of accommodating the rough edges and contours of organic irruption that tend out laterally in tendrils and sprouts . “I am thinking of fractal geometry as an analogy here because it allows for the possibility that a line of infinite length can enclose a finite area. The opposition between totality and infinity is thus recast in a striking image of the scope for agency in restricted conditions.” In an earlier essay from 1988, ‘Cruciality and the Frog’s Perspective’, where the frog’s perspective is a Nietzschean metaphor for seeing from below, Gilroy writes:

Blackness evolves in fractal patterns. What we can usefully say about it depends on the scale of the analysis which is being undertaken. It is only when viewed from above that Britain’s black communities have the homogeneity of a neat Euclidean outline. Moving lower and closer reveals the infinite course of their expressive traditions even within a highly restricted space – the fractal geometry of black life’s rifts and crevices.

Arborescent metaphors that are, after Deleuze and Guattari, digitally rendered, help to recast the organic, with its naturalising, biological connotations; it is cracked open and reformed through The Black Atlantic’s “politicised post-modernism”, as James Reath has argued, skewering high theory via the networked promises and potentialities of dub. Gilroy’s knowing fusion of finitude and infinitude is signal. It discloses the utopian promise of unendingness with the earthly reality of closure: a redemptive critique and a promise of agonistic belonging, which draws that never-ending line down into the “rifts and crevices” where it incubates human agency: an earthly utopia. Gilroy is writing against both Marx and more proximate forbears such as Stuart Hall who thought about the world through the prisms and glassy panes that refract its light. Gilroy deploys a language beyond the clean lines that look to cordon it from above. The writing looks for a language of abstraction that refuses the will towards ‘purity and standardisation’ implicit in these Euclidean formulations. In this way he echoes the spirit of Aimé Césaire, who praises a world “made golden by a sun that no prism divides — the earth where everything is free and fraternal, my earth.”


There are various rebuttals to the emphasis on undergrowth that I have been attempting to advance. Despite the rhizomatic swirl of his thinking, Gilroy has more recently, continuing currents that originate in the Black Atlantic’s depths, adopted a “fluvial orientation,” and is a self-designated “pelagic thinker,” conducting theory to the rhythms of the sea; he is also a “cosmic pessimist,” after Giacomo Leopardi, looking down at our “acid spots of time” from a great height. These scales necessarily challenge this toad-level analysis. Many have noticed Gilroy’s opposition of ‘routes’ to ‘roots,’ and it unsettles the global, journeying, diasporic account of his work to note what he calls the “determinedly local sense of dwelling and being in the world” that has emerged in his thought through our moment of ecocidal danger. But Gilroy’s work is stalked by an insistent question: what is a human being? Interviewed by anthropologist Bjørn Enge Bertelsen on receipt of the Holberg Prize in 2019, Gilroy spoke about the meanings of ‘planetary humanism’. Echoing Morrison’s account of our human difference, “the way in which we are like no other life,” he said: “I’m sure I will be denounced for saying this, but even the whales don’t read.” Interviewing Achille Mbembe in 2021, he spoke of the “the continuum of all varieties of life and what we share” – which is more than the idea that we are 96% sea cucumber, or whatever the statistic is.

Continuity and interdependency should not be mistaken for flattening equivalence. Gilroy’s profound reckoning with history’s brutality holds a double injunction. For peoples who have been “imbruted,” Gilroy says, made infrahuman, into what, as he often notes, W.E.B. Du Bois called the “tertium quid”, a third thing, it is easier to make kin with creatures and note the depth of human embedding in the world they too inhabit. During the pandemic, I listened to Gilroy interviewed on the radio. He talked, as I remember it, about noticing some of the changes in the natural world since we repaired to our homes. I thought of it as a sort of anti-fascist riposte to the deep ecologist ‘nature is healing’ discourse emergent at that time: it noticed how great turmoil produces unexpected effects. He talked about a documentary called Life After Chernobyl, which looked at the way the natural world had changed in the thirty-year wake of the disaster, and the kind of miraculous repair seen in certain plant and animal species in that part of the world. I asked him about it the last time we spoke, and he reflected that it was important because it showed us as prey. People trot out words like ‘humanity’ as if it is something just there, all around us, obvious to witness, rather than something we glimpse in rare snatches on a far-away horizon.

There is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism, as Walter Benjamin has written. Looking into those histories in all their intimate detail, as Gilroy asks us to, no doubt holds some sobering lessons about the condition to which human beings can stoop. But there is a doubleness to our being, both animals and something more – even the whales don’t read, as Gilroy has it. Language cannot undo the histories of atrocity only we have wrought; nor can it compensate for the “half-lives” of those events. But language is a powerful thing, living its life in excess of mechanistic requirements. And there is a wrinkle in Gilroy’s thought, which repeatedly states its dignified claim that words are not enough, yet knows they are extremely special. Even the whales can’t read, who sing and whistle. I wonder whether, if only in glimpses, this wrinkle is smoothed out in moments of heightened musicality in the writing, where we find a way back to the mind, up to the sky, into the body, and down to the earth (in at the ear, perhaps) – going through and beyond the histories that ever sought to sever them.

PHOEBE BRAITHWAITE is a PhD student at Harvard University and a former visiting student at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre (SPRC). Her writing has been published in the Dissent, Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman and ArtReview.


Series editor is LARA CHOKSEY

Lead Image: Detail Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South (1934), Aaron Douglas.
The painting is in the collection of the New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division




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