Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
Late last month, Dr Earl McKenzie officially presented three books at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus. The trio of publications reflected his diverse, yet interwoven interests - philo-sophy, painting and literature.
Still, philosophy dominates, as it should, as McKenzie can lay claim to being a pioneer in the field of study at UWI Mona.
The business of being a trailblazer is naturally a solitary one, which is reflected in the title of one of the recently launched books, The Loneliness of a Caribbean Philosopher and Other Essays (Arawak Publications).
The other new books are Philosophy in the West Indian Novel (The University of the West Indies Press), and A Bluebird Named Poetry: Linked Poems, Stories & Paintings (Arawak Publications).
McKenzie has academic training in the three fields covered in the new books, philosophy, English, and visual arts.
To write Philosophy in the West Indian Novel, he obtained a Mona Research Fellowship from UWI. In locating and exploring that philosophy, McKenzie said he used a definition which is "personal to me - but is the accepted one".
It is "within the historic tradition" and from that starting point and reading as many novels as he should, McKenzie "chose those in which [he] found philosophical issues".
Books from the region
Among the novels McKenzie analyses are In the Castle of My Skin, where he examines the historicism of the novel; there is a chapter on 'The Inner Radiance of the Self in Palace of the Peacock' and there is also 'Knowledge and Human Understanding in A House for Mr Biswas'.
The novels cover a wide range of Caribbean writers and McKenzie said, "I wanted them to represent different Caribbean countries, range of ethnicity and gender". And he is aware that he is doing new work. "It is the first I know of the Caribbean novel being approached in this way. It is breaking new ground," McKenzie said.
However, he pointed out that philosophy is not as far removed from the everyday society as some would think.
"Part of what struck me is I think if you spend 10 minutes in a Jamaican rum bar or arguing with a taxi driver, you think Jamaicans have such a robust tendency towards debate and philosophical thinking," McKenzie said. But, he said, "The education system does not encourage this."
The title essay in The Loneliness of a Caribbean Philosopher and Other Essays is autobiographical. McKenzie said he began writing what would become the book in the early 1990s and "little by little, it came together".
When McKenzie returned home as an academic philosopher, he said, "many people thought I was nuts. Many before me had tried and given up."
Looking back, after retirement, McKenzie described the book as "an apologia for philosophy in the curriculum". He concedes that there were times he felt like giving up, but pressed on as "I do not give up easily".
With The Loneliness of a Caribbean Philosopher and Other Essays, McKenzie said, "I wanted to leave something for future generations ... I figure if I leave a few books behind, someone will notice."
In those early years, during his loneliness, McKenzie turned to philosophy in writers such as Garvey, Earl Lovelace, Lorna Goodison and C. L. R. James, as well as in Jamaican proverbs. There was also music, McKenzie saying, "I describe Bob Marley as philosopher with a guitar."
For A Bluebird Named Poetry: Linked Poems, Stories & Paintings, McKenzie found a natural link between the two art forms.
Painting and writing
"The poem would go where the painting would not reach. Or I wrote a poem and the painting would go further," McKenzie said.
He had an exhibition at the Manchester Parish Library in 1970. Then after an exhibition at UWI, he was invited to be included in the book, Writers Who Paint: Three Jamaican Artists. He was asked to do an essay for the book and, McKenzie said, it was the first time he sat and thought about how writing and painting were connected.
McKenzie pointed out that, in his painting "the bluebird is pivotal. It was a bluebird that started my painting".
So, putting it all together, McKenzie summed up himself as "a philosopher who writes and paints".