Sun | May 28, 2023

Making of a Philosopher

Published:Sunday | October 27, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Author: St Hope Earl McKenzie

Book: The Rooms of His Life

David Alexander Richmond’s life is one of quiet intrigue, one that is authentic and rich in meaning. It is in the rustic culture of Jamaica that an identity emerges, unconstrained by the limitations of its surroundings.

In this existential journey, Richmond meticulously traces his footprints from a nondescript and prodigious lad to an artist, thinker and philosopher of note.

He credits his teachers that cultivated his professional musings. Richmond, though, possesses a natural quality seeded in most artists. He is measured and sensitive. he is in touch with his anima. This explains his perspicacity and artistic orientation.

He recounts a pivotal exchange with one of his childhood teachers.

“Since you are a poet, write poems,” the teacher said to him. “Look across at the hills and valleys and write.”

Richmond embraced and acted on the splendour of nature, “the awe-filled presence before him of hills, valleys, mountains, and the sea”. This exchange unlocked his genius.

He recalls, “Writing poetry was the first thing I did which contributed to my sense of identifying as an individual with distinctive gifts ... I wrote poetry as a form of healing and as a way of creatively affirming my worth as a person.”

There are also light episodes, one being his brief infatuation with an attractive teacher “that ended as quickly as it began”.

He pens, “I would do anything to please her. One day she asked me to spell “necessary”, and I spelled it with two c’s. She sprang on the desk in front of me and began pounding my back with her leather strap. She pounded all the love I had for her out of me.”

The culture of corporal punishment was rife. There was fear of it among students. The cane wielded with abandon was the punitive disciplinary measures taken against ribald and mischievous children, tardiness also drawing the ire of faculty and parents alike.

In one case, he found himself in a dilemma: “If I continued (to school), a beating awaited me ... but if I returned home, I would probably get one from my mother.” Petrified, he “thought of hiding in the bushes all day, but if that was discovered, beatings at both home and school were certain. He chose to sprint to school, [which was] “at least likely to reduce the volume of the beating”.

Bible-shaped vision

Interestingly, the Bible shaped young Richmond’s vision of the world. It was his first moral compass and laid the groundwork for his intellectual ambitions. The humanity and sensibility in poetic thought lured him. His interest in the art and literature heightened.

He would pursue mathematics as an integral and experiential essence of life. He began “seeing the human side of mathematics and realised it has history, was still evolving, and would continue to do so.”

He credits his mother’s industry, steadfastness, and vision. “She took in sewing, made and sold her craft items, and planted tomatoes, cabbages, and cucumbers.” The selling “of other crops like yams, bananas, sweet potatoes, and cocoa” augmented her income.

In these formative years, he saw the archetypal power of culture to create as it did for those he admired and to destroy as he witnessed in the unfortunate tale of Ian, a classmate who “started telling people that his community jealous of his scholarship and were working obeah on him”. The psychological die was cast. He dropped out of school, the denouement of that episode left unknown.

Richmond excelled in academia and secured a place at Wilberforce, a teachers’ college, and recounts some memorable experiences, including that of Edgar Washington, the school’s principal. His training in religion, ethics, and etiquette left their mark.

He attended the Methodist religious fraternity, where he “debated a number of moots, including the question of whether cremation was Christian”. He recalls his interest in Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks ,and according to a visiting minister, “the artist’s scientific interest in geology and the reproductive forces of the earth”.

Such a discourse only piqued his curiosity. “It was right up my street,” he pens, so fascinated he was with “the theological interpretations of the painting”.

Such academic encounters were foundational to his epistemology enquiries and artistic pursuits at Calgary College in Canada.

He distanced himself from his colleagues with binary proficiency in philosophy and the sciences in the vein of John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Rene Descartes, a rare undertaking in West Indian academia.

Although his stay at Calgary was short-lived due to a bureaucratic snafu, his artwork developed as he observed teachers like Bob Woodruff, whose detailed application to his craft proved fascinating.

Racism, though, was bound to rear its head. Racial violence exploded across the border when Richmond was in Canada. He was flummoxed and troubled. However, greater awareness and insight led him to conclude that racism was not restricted to the metropolises; that beneath the carapace of Jamaica’s multiculturalism, this moral evil was alive. “It was becoming clear to me that the question of race and racism was one I would have to deal with in some shape of form,” he states.

Richmond’s racial pedigree stirred an identity conflict that was arguably repressed. His dream of a white woman imploring forgiveness reflected a psyche searching to resolve its conflicted parts.

But he finds healing in acknowledging and embracing every nuance of his ancestry.

He returned to Jamaica with a new approach to pedagogy, adopting a Zen-like approach to life and his profession as an art tutor.

In a summative moment, he describes himself: “Wittgenstein,” – a strayed poet who believes that “poetry is a quest for the sacred through the aesthetics of the ordinary,” and “women are the Tao’s best lyric poetry”.

The Rooms of His Life does not sanitise the human condition. There is no dismissing our tribal, corruptible nature, and there is no disputing our vices, despair, and fatalism. In this compelling narrative, there is a fair amount of social malaise. But amid the foibles of human existence, there is self-realisation through service and the ceaseless search for meaning. This aesthetic attribute that so defines the author is what many call ‘The Philosopher’s Stone,’ the key that accesses the rich abundance that life offers.

The Rooms of His Life by St Hope Earl McKenzie

©2019 St Hope Earl McKenzie

Publisher: Arawak Publications

ISBN 978-976-95835-2-8

Available at Amazon

Ratings: Highly recommended

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