The following article has been published in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism: Vol. 20, No. 3, 2020 (published 6th December 2020) in a special edition edited by my colleague at New College of the Humanities Sebastian Ille. All the contributions to this edition are by colleagues representing various disciplines at New College of the Humanities; the following is the only contribution from the arts disciplines. It is reproduced below in pre-edited form. It is a development of the thesis that I wrote for my MA in Comparative Literature at University College London.
This article compares how two contemporaneous Anglophone Caribbean writers – Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul (1932–2018) and St. Lucian Derek Walcott (1930–2017) – explore the challenges posed to ontological security and nationhood in the Caribbean by considering how myth (broadly interpreted), knowledge, and ignorance of Caribbean history interact in understandings of their respective islands. The article focuses on one work by each – Naipaul’s The Loss of El Dorado and Walcott’s Omeros – which mediate myth and history through artistic discourse in a similar way. Hitherto the personal and literary differences between Naipaul and Walcott have been stressed by their critics more than their similarities; this article points towards the latter. Both writers are aware of how the presences and absences of Caribbean history can give rise to the mythologization of both Caribbean and foreign nations. They condemn the emotional and moral simplicities which both imperial and anti-imperial mythologizing involve. Yet both of them write works which perform as well as condemn such mythologization with regard to their own islands. Whilst not rejecting a careful handling of documentary sources, both writers are aware that recreations of history inevitably involve imagination and desire, and as creative writers they embrace this premise.
Introduction: Caribbean Nation-Building
This article, being a comparative study of Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul, is of a relatively rare breed. That this is so may appear strange in relation to their obvious comparability of place, time, Nobel Laureateship, and qualified mutual admiration, though less so in relation to their differences of talent, character, and politics – and the consequent limited overlap among their admirers. To rehearse for a moment the parallels and divergences of their biographies: Walcott and Naipaul were born into ethnic minority communities in two Windward Antillean islands in 1930 and 1932, respectively. They had a British secondary and higher education, took undergraduate degrees in literature, and aspired to write themselves into the English canon. Walcott, who was ethnically part-African, -English, and -Dutch, was raised in a middle-class, Standard English-speaking Methodist family on Catholic, French-Creole-speaking St. Lucia. Naipaul was a third-generation East Indian raised in a poor, rural, Hindi- and English-Creole-speaking Hindu family in Trinidad. Walcott acted, directed, and taught; Naipaul, as the blurbs on his books proclaim, lived only from his writing. Walcott lived in Naipaul’s native Trinidad for 20 years, then moved between homes in Boston and around the Caribbean; Naipaul made his ‘enigmatic arrival’ in rural Wiltshire in the 1980s (Naipaul 1987). The high visibility of their different temperaments and literary achievements, viewed against their comparability as great writers of a similar time and place, has led to an emphasis on those differences, overshadowing such similarities in their attitudes as in fact exist.
History and Myth
This article explores one such similarity: their attitudes towards the possibility of nationhood in the Caribbean, as built on their understandings of the relationship between history and myth. St. Lucia did not become independent of the British Empire until 1979 when Walcott was 49; Naipaul was 30 by the time that Trinidad and Tobago became independent in 1962. Their formative years saw the struggle towards not just the post-colonial, but the mutual independence of their countries, which occurred after the collapse of the short-lived West Indies Federation (comprising the former British West Indies) in 1962. That is, they grew up in an environment of constant striving towards nationhood, whilst the nature of that nationhood was itself in question due to the divisions that existed not only between islands, but between islanders themselves according to ethnicity. As Naipaul put it in his 1962 travelogue The Middle Passage:
[T]here was no community. We were of various races, religions, sets and cliques, and we had somehow found ourselves on the same small island. Nothing bound us together except this common residence. There was no nationalist feeling; there could be none. There was no profound anti-imperialist feeling; indeed, it was only our Britishness, our belonging to the British Empire, which gave us any identity. (Kraus 2005:90)
Both Naipaul and Walcott felt excluded by the Black Power movement – the former as an Indian; the latter because (as he put it in his 1979 poem ‘The Schooner Flight’) ‘After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me/ when the power swing to their side […] I wasn’t black enough for their pride’ (Walcott 1986:350).
However, in the perception of both writers there was – on top of the increasing neo-colonialism and cultural dominance of the United States – a further factor complicating the process of Caribbean nation-building: the relationship between history and myth. These two concepts are involved in the constitution of any nation, but their interaction in a Caribbean context presented certain problematics with which both writers constantly grappled. The history of both their islands had been complicated not just by imperialism per se, but by competing imperialisms; St. Lucia passed multiple times between the French and British between 1674 and 1814, whereas Trinidad moved from Spanish to British control in 1797, although over the preceding century it had experienced principally French immigration. Myths helped to smooth over this complexity and to compensate for the passivity to external forces that this history entailed, but they were also at times exposed as myths.
This phenomenon might profitably be studied in relation to many of the works of either author, but I will concentrate on one work by each which, despite clear differences of period and genre, explore it in profoundly comparable ways: Naipaul’s 1965 history of Trinidad, The Loss of El Dorado (published by Penguin in 1973), and Walcott’s 1990 epic poem of St. Lucia, the book-length Omeros.
Both Naipaul and Walcott understand history in the Caribbean as problematic by virtue both of its presence and of its absence. Walcott sums up the former problem: ‘Decimation from the Arawak downwards is the blasted root of Antillean history’ (Walcott 1998:82); ‘who in the New World does not have a horror of the past, whether his ancestor was torturer or victim?’ (ibid.:39). Just as Walcott feels that ‘[History] is there in […] the lances of cane […] a green prison’ (ibid.:81), Naipaul senses that ‘There is slavery in the vegetation’ (1962:61–2). Absent history, which is intrinsically related to its mode of presence, is either ignorance of what has been known and narrated, or consciousness of what cannot be known or has not (yet) been narrated. Not known, because of the successive near-eradication of cultures; not narrated, because colonial education had produced, in Édouard Glissant’s phrase, ‘le néant d’une non-histoire imposée’ [‘the vacuum of an imposed non-history’] (1981:228). Walcott writes that he ‘grew up with two ideas of history’: ‘history with dates […] that affected people and places abroad’; and a ‘historical darkness’ encompassing St. Lucia (Juneja 1996:144). In his 2004 poem ‘The Prodigal’, he points to the power advantage that possession of a known history entails:
The facts! The Facts! The history. The cause.
You need a history to make your case. […]
- 1833. 1930.
Dates. The one thing about which there is no discourse.
Dates multiplied by events, by consequences,
Are what add up to History. We have a few coins
Struck for a mere handful of events,
As amateur numismatists, regal profiles. […]
Slavery being an infinity of endeavour
Without pause or payment, without commemoration.
The poem’s voyager, when in Italy, experiences an ‘Envy of statues’; of that of a General, for example, about whom he asks:
Had he died, catapulted in some charge
in some euphonious battle? […]
We had no such memorials on the island.
Both the brutal content and fragmentary extent of what is known and told made the Caribbean, according to both Walcott and Naipaul, a fertile ground for myths about its island peoples, and in it, about other peoples. Regarding Trinidad, Naipaul considers that the people ‘had the vaguest idea of their history, of how they had got to that flat barrenness in the Caribbean Sea so far from the big continents, so far even from the other islands; some people spoke of a shipwreck’ (Naipaul 1987:148). Walcott diagnoses that ‘The West Indian mind, historically hungover, exhausted, prefers to take its revenge in nostalgia, to narrow its eyelids in a schizophrenic daydream of an [African] Eden that existed before its exile’ (Walcott 1998:18). Both writers condemn what they perceive as the moral simplification that corresponds to such mythologization. Naipaul comments that in his childhood, ‘History was […] a fairy-tale not so much about slavery as about its abolition, the good defeating the bad. It was the only way the tale could be told. Any other version would have ended in ambiguity and alarm’ (Naipaul 1973:353). Walcott condemns the translation of such vision into art which ‘is forced to exclude certain contradictions, for history cannot be ambiguously recorded’ (Walcott 1998:58–59).
Nonetheless, the two writers have almost contrary reputations with respect to the subject of myth. Naipaul has frequently been praised by his admirers for a transparent prose which banishes nationalist illusions and the myths on which they are based; the cover of the 1987 Penguin edition of The Enigma of Arrival carries the blazon by Bernard Levin: ‘The work of a man with no illusions’. Less favourable critics have noted his apparent relish in this role; Richard Cronin considers that Naipaul ‘travelled the world as a self-appointed missionary intent on the destruction of all human illusions’ (Cudjoe 1988:213). Indeed, we see illusions of Black Power attacked in Guerrillas (1975); of Hindus in An Area of Darkness and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990); and of Muslims in Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). One purpose of Naipaul’s history, The Loss of El Dorado, is specifically to demythologize Trinidadian history: ‘a fairy-tale about Columbus and a fairy-tale about the strange customs of the aboriginal Caribs and Arawacs’ (Naipaul 1973:353). Walcott, on the other hand, is praised by his admirers for richly layered poetry and drama which banishes the dead hand of history, and creates and revives myths. These reputations are not wholly wrong, but they require modification in the light of the similarities between the authors, particularly with regard to the mythologization involved in the concepts of history and nationhood themselves.
‘The word called “history” is the question’, wrote Walcott in his essay ‘The Sea is History’ in 1989:
I’m talking about the idea of history becoming a deity, a force, as much as science has become a deity. […] People who have confidence to dominate the idea of time […] do it under the name of this alleged force called history. (Walcott 1996:22–23)
Here Walcott describes history as a Foucauldian discourse which expresses a dominant power: it justifies, is translated into, and is reinforced by a real force which determines events. It is also guilty by its association with progress, which for Walcott is: ‘a Faustian idea that leads to Nazi Germany, or to empires’ (Walcott 1996:24), and which in ‘The Schooner Flight’ is ‘something to ask Caribs about./ They kill them by millions’ (Walcott 1986:355). That is, it is myth in Barthes’ sense: a discourse which makes ideology appear as nature and fact. On several occasions Walcott has accused Naipaul of worshipping history. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he explained:
There was this conviction in Froude that since History is based on achievement, and since the history of the Antilles was so genetically corrupt, so depressing in its cycles of massacres, slavery, and indenture, a culture was inconceivable and nothing could ever be created in those ramshackle ports. (Walcott 1998:76)
Thirty years earlier Naipaul had placed a quotation from Froude’s 1887 The English in the West Indies as the Frontispiece to The Middle Passage: ‘There are no people there in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own’ (Froude 2010:347). The Middle Passage also contains the now notorious comment: ‘History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies’ (Naipaul 1962:20). The Loss of El Dorado, however, is a far more complex work.
V.S. Naipaul: The Loss of El Dorado
The Foreword to this idiosyncratic history of Trinidad ends thus:
An obscure part of the New World is momentarily touched by history; the darkness closes up again; the Chaguanes disappear in silence. The disappearance is unimportant; it is part of nobody’s story. But this was how a colony was created in the New World. There were two moments when Trinidad was touched by ‘history’. This book attempts to record those two moments. The story ends in 1813. (Naipaul 1973:xiv)
Here the words ‘unimportant’ and ‘nobody’s story’ are presented as free indirect speech for a personified and demythologized ‘history’. The ‘silence’ of the Chaguanes is retrospectively qualified by being noted. Naipaul recalled in The Middle Passage that ‘we could never be convinced of the value of reading the history of [Trinidad] which was, as everyone said, only a dot on the map of the world’ (Naipaul 1962:43). The Loss of El Dorado is his attempt to write this history. The book’s compass is centred on Trinidad, leaving European events and movements on the periphery. With the exception of one trial in London, the plot does not leave Trinidad, Guyana, or Venezuela. Naipaul claims that ‘The idea behind the book […] was to attach the island, the little place in the mouth of the Orinoco river, to great names and great events: Columbus; the search for El Dorado; Sir Walter Raleigh’ (Naipaul 1987:142), but the work undermines the greatness of these mythologized people and events, all three of which are represented as failures.
Indeed, the work explicitly exposes the mythical thinking of those whom it describes. El Dorado is ‘a Spanish delusion’ (Naipaul 1973:3), a ‘New World Romance’, a dream of earthly paradise and therefore a myth of a place without history. Naipaul undermines the myth by presenting its probable factual basis: Inca tribes that had wandered eastwards. He corrects his source documents: ‘They marched through the thick woods over “high and unpleasinge mountains” – which do not exist’ (ibid.:40, emphasis added). He equally attacks the mythology of the anti-Spanish revolutionaries. Francisco Miranda is portrayed as a romantic; a ‘would-be Inca emperor with a private cause’ (ibid.:316), through an exile-induced, mythologizing vision of Venezuelan society which included Native Americans but excluded blacks, and envisioned a future of perfect justice and harmony after the revolution. This mythical revolutionary discourse is undermined by Naipaul’s description of the violent century which followed that revolution. This is loosely paralleled by the mythical discourse of certain slaves’ nocturnal fantasy world, in which they assume colonial titles and plot revolution against the whites. The movement and its myth disperse, in Naipaul’s phrase, in ‘the surrender, the whip in daylight’ (ibid.:275).
On the other hand, Naipaul honours Walcott’s history-deity by choosing to record only ‘those two moments’ when Trinidad is ‘touched by history’. After the abolition of slavery, ‘Port of Spain was a place where things had happened and nothing showed. Only people remained, and their past had dropped out of all the history books’ (Naipaul 1973:353). Naipaul does not write the story of their lives (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are summarized on pages 350 and 351). He claimed to have no ‘source volumes about Trinidad. I had to go to the documents themselves’ (ibid.:142); i.e. imperial documents found in the British Museum, the Public Record Office, and the London Library (ibid.:357).
However, this was to overlook the nineteenth-century histories of Trinidad written by local amateur Creole historians, such as Borde’s two-volume anti-British, French history of Trinidad under Spanish rule published in 1848 (Borde 1982) – despite the fact that Naipaul’s historiography stands precisely within that tradition. His document-reliant, biographical method was old-fashioned by the standards of 1965, when at the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies (under the influence of metropolitan tendencies, native socialism, and Black Power) much of the historiography being produced was socially, culturally, or ethnically orientated, used oral sources, and rarely concerned Trinidad before the 1770s. The Loss of El Dorado makes little attempt to reconstruct the stories which it acknowledges to be excluded by the document-writers:1
The slave was never real. Like the extinct aboriginal, he had to be reconstructed from his daily routine. […] In the records the slave is faceless, silent, with an identification rather than a name. He has no story. (Naipaul 1973:353)
Naipaul’s attempt to reconstruct the human story extends only to the documents’ authors and those whom they choose to describe in detail. Caribs are exterminated parenthetically: ‘(The French and English, both claiming the island of St. Kitts, united to exterminate the Caribs in one swift action)’ (Naipaul 1973:101). Moreover, the narrative is susceptible to the glamour of the very myths which it exposes as such, and the end of the Spanish phase of empire is described with regret; Part One ‘The Third Marquisate’ concludes: ‘The New World as medieval adventure had ended; it had become a cynical extension of the developing old world, its commercial underside. No one would look at Trinidad or Guiana again with the eye of Ralegh’ (although the book nonetheless tries to give a glimpse of his vision) (ibid.:91). The tautological observation: ‘The island [after 1834] was going to be no more than what it was, an outpost, a backwater’ (ibid.:350) is replete with melancholy, and when Europeans cease to mythologize Trinidad, the narrative ends.
Not only is the text not consistently or clearly mythoclastic, but it does not consistently pretend to objectivity or truth either. In many passages the narrator is less than omniscient and acknowledges his dependence on the source documents available. In giving the history of such documents (‘it was fourteen months before Bravo’s letter reached the King. It was personally minuted and passed on to the Judge of All Irregularities’ [Naipaul 1973:7]) he points towards a potentially infinite series of nested histories. Time in the source documents and the text are sometimes conflated: ‘Time vanishes in Berrio’s narrative, like effort, like the landscape itself, and Berrio is ready to start on his third journey. Ten years have passed’ (ibid.:12); ‘At midnight – Wyatt’s narrative jumps and becomes obscure’ (ibid.:36).
In certain sections the narrator refrains from offering an opinion. For example, the many extant narratives which resemble that of Robinson Crusoe are presented without adjudication between their relative non-fictional values. And in some sections extracts from documents constitute, as opposed to endorsing or illustrating, the narrative for as much as 50 lines. The text’s subjects sometimes inflect the narrative with free indirect speech which is rendered without implied judgement. For example: ‘The missionaries had come out [from Spain] in a hurry. They didn’t have all they needed. They needed a bell, to call the Indians to prayer. […] They needed paper; they needed almost everything’ (Naipaul 1973:102). A similar sympathetic identification of the narrative with the protagonists is found in the apocalyptically asyntactic description of ‘The jail as a place of horror’:
[I]t could not be otherwise: the planters […], entering the jail, faced the tortures, confessions and rotting bodies like the African darkness that might overwhelm them all: power turning to insects to ravage a plantation, charms killing the canes, money turning to dung, Negroes dying in convulsions, the world ending in blood and flames. (Naipaul 1973:184)
In the phrase ‘cannibalism was never a joke to the Spaniards; it aroused the same wish to mutilate, destroy and enslave as did sodomy, another open Indian practice’ (Naipaul 1973:63–64), the last five words reflect the Spanish perspective through a distanced, ethnographic vocabulary and syntax which is foreign to the dominant narrative mode. ‘Negro’ slaves are ‘pieces’, without inverted commas, until on page 102 (in the mid-seventeenth century) the latter terminology is banned by missionaries. That is, the most postmodern aspects of The Loss of El Dorado reflect and project the imperial perspective more than they do any other, precisely by refraining from judgement of the protagonists described.
Insofar as the historiography in The Loss of El Dorado is postmodern, it is by the same token partly fictional. This aspect goes beyond that literary aspect which Herodotus, Ranke, Mommsen and Froude2 had all recognized as an inevitable part of historiography. There are no notes; the sources are described in a Postscript rather than listed in a bibliography; and Picador classifies its 2001 edition as ‘Literature’. The novelistic title doubtless sells many more copies of the book than A Colonial History of Trinidad 1592–1813 would have done. Indeed, its episodic interweaving of the stories of individuals is in the mode of a realistic English nineteenth-century novel. New characters are introduced considerably in advance of their names. Chapters end on ‘cliff-hangers’. The elegiac past-future-subjunctive (‘he would never see a town again’ [Naipaul 1973:7]) is frequently used. Minor but memorably described characters reappear unexpectedly, as in Dickens. In subject matter (particularly in Part One, on Spanish Trinidad), it resembles a nineteenth-century imperial adventure novel. Naipaul writes that ‘The legend of El Dorado, narrative within narrative, witness within witness, had become like the finest fiction, indistinguishable from truth’ (ibid.:24), and the construction of his own work, ‘narrative within narrative, witness within witness’ makes this not ‘indistinguishable from’, but related to, ‘the finest fiction’.
The Loss of El Dorado attempts to answer the questions posed in The Middle Passage:
How can the history of this West Indian futility be written? What tone shall the historian adopt? Shall he be as academic as Sir Alan Burns? […] Shall he, like Salvador de Madariaga, weigh one set of brutalities against another? […] Shall he, like the West Indian historians, who can only now begin to face their history, be icily detached and tell the story of the slave trade as if it were just another aspect of mercantilism? The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. (Naipaul 1962:19)
Its implicit answer is to forge an alternative discourse through the intersection with fiction. As Naipaul admits in his 1985 essay ‘Prologue to an Autobiography’: ‘My instinct was towards fiction; I found it constricting to have to deal with fact. I was glamoured by the idea of the long journey’ (cited in Weiss 1992:159). And as he later writes in The Enigma of Arrival (1987): ‘I had given myself a past, and a romance of the past […] the romance by which I had attached it to the rest of the world continued to be possessed by me as much as the imaginative worlds of my other, fictional books’ (Naipaul 1987:149).
The Loss of El Dorado, then, is an unsettled hybrid of genre and discourse. It combines traditional with postmodern historiographical techniques. The former are used to attack both imperial and anti-imperial mythologies, whilst offering de facto support for the imperial myth of ‘History’ critiqued by Walcott. The latter soften the mythoclasm by denying the narrator omniscience, allowing for the intersection of imperial and narrative discourses, and permitting a novelistic enjoyment of the romance of myth. The work emerges as neither straightforwardly colonial, nor entirely mythoclastic (as some of his critics and admirers claim). In relation to the latter, Peter Hughes rightly states that ‘Naipaul’s power to translate between history and fiction, between the traveler’s dream and the ethnographer’s romance, which obsessively marks and distinguishes his work, is a power that Claude Lévi-Strauss has defined as the power to make myths’ (Hughes 1988:52).
Derek Walcott: Omeros
Walcott had also equivocally exposed the myth of El Dorado in his 1958 play Drums and Colours. In it a Creole character called Paco, in order to take revenge on rapacious Europeans, tells the young Walter Raleigh, with conscious mendacity: ‘This El Dorado is a golden country. [ … ] And these two words, they mean the gilded king’ (Walcott 1961:38). However, over the course of the play – as Joe Kraus points out (2005:57) – Raleigh learns that ‘whales and marvels really do exist’ (Walcott 1961:38), and he is impelled to adventures which help to create the possibilities of the New World.
The play itself was commissioned by the University of the West Indies as an ‘epic’ to celebrate the opening of the parliament of the short-lived West Indian Federation in 1958; it received its only performance in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, on 23 April that year. As Kraus also shows, the Federation turned out to be just as mythical as El Dorado. No amount of fervent imagination would make it a reality in the minds of islanders who were separated by treacherous seas (in the days before accessible air travel), but who had in common the (valid) perception of the federal concept as imperial in origin (Kraus 2005:61).
Yet through this play Walcott felt his way towards another kind of union – a joint awareness of the obstacles to national self-fashioning presented to the separate islands by the historical conditions that pertained to them all. Unlike Naipaul, Walcott retained this abstract sense of the commonality of the Caribbean throughout his writing career. When the protagonist in ‘The Schooner Flight’ asserts of himself that ‘I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,/ and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation’ (1986:346), Walcott is attributing details of his history to another who is in many ways unlike himself, and therefore gesturing outwards towards the nature of Caribbean identity per se. (By contrast, when Naipaul expressed the same sentiment in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech – ‘I am not English, not Indian, not Trinidadian. I am my own person’ – he was doing so in his own person) (Trivedi 2008:30). Therefore, although Walcott’s mature, Nobel-prize-winning epic Omeros is concerned with the details of St. Lucia, its localism gestures towards an archipelago made up of countless such localisms.
If, for Naipaul, the primary obstacle to a Trinidadian sense of nationhood is the absence of Trinidad’s history in colonial education and historiography, for Walcott the primary obstacle to St. Lucian national identity is the irrevocable loss of oral history and myth through the near-extinction of native Caribs and the Middle Passage. Connectedly, he is more haunted than Naipaul presents himself as being by what is known of Caribbean history. In Naipaul’s The Mimic Men the protagonist Ralph has a black schoolfriend, Browne. When together they ‘walked in a garden of hell, among trees, some still without popular names, whose seeds had sometimes been brought to our island in the intestines of slaves. This was what Browne taught’; ‘distress was part of his reality, was nothing more, could lead to nothing’ (Naipaul 1967:147,150). Much of Walcott’s writing contains both Browne’s distress and Ralph’s wish to be free of it. Whereas Ralph simply drops Browne as a friend, Walcott contains Browne’s discourse persistently within himself, and tries to strip it of its hurtful power.
Overcoming History the Oppressor
Walcott uses the term ‘history’ in two ways. The first, noted above, is as a mythical and imperial deity of progress. The other is as an abstract sense which combines his negative feelings towards what he knows (and knows he cannot know) of Caribbean history with his second-order negative feelings vis-à-vis these feelings: Ralph combined with Browne. History in this sense possesses agency which must be resisted: ‘The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force’ (Walcott 1998:37). It is both created and denounced by Walcott’s sensibilities. In both senses of the term, then, ‘history’ is negatively mythological. Correspondingly, vision with ‘the eyes of history’ is distorted vision. Walcott criticizes the viewing of ancient cultural objects through the eyes of the history deity: ‘Our hallowing of what is archaic is a process of the presumption of dominating time’ (Walcott 1996:22). He argues that, were the Elgin marbles to be seen as originally painted, they would be condemned by those who currently venerate them, for want of taste (ibid.:23).
The eyes of history the oppressor, on the other hand, can distort a viewer’s sight of Caribbean culture and peoples. This history states to Walcott that black people in the Caribbean have been displaced from their ancestral homes; he counters that their ontology is independent of these origins. In an essay written in 1970 he observes the ‘voracious, unreflecting calm’ of a group of Trinidadian fishermen: ‘By all arguments they should have felt displaced, seeing this ocean as another Canaan, but that image was the hallucination of professional romantics, writers and politicians’ (Walcott 1998:15). Four years later he asserts that ‘Fisherman and peasant know who they are and what they are and where they are, and when we show them our wounded sensibilities we are, most of us, displaying self-inflicted wounds’ (ibid.:63). And as he acknowledges in his 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech of a dramatization of the Ramleela: ‘I misread the event through a visual echo of History. […] Why should India be “lost” when none of these villagers ever really knew it, and why not “continuing”?’ (ibid.:68).
For most of his career Walcott argues that the New World should develop a culture which rejects history the oppressor, described by Michael Dash as ‘a literature of renascence – a literary aesthetic and reality based on the fragile emergence of the Third World personality from the privations of history’ (Ashcroft et al. 1995:199). Such a culture would swallow cultural amnesia itself (which forms part of the distress of ‘history’) in amnesia: ‘For every poet it is always morning in the world. History a forgotten, insomniac night’ (Walcott 1998:79, emphasis added). The metaphors with which Walcott recurrently describes the New World and its culture are the myths of Crusoe and Adam. For example, Walcott gives ‘a strange thanks’ to his black and white grandfathers ‘that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another’ (ibid.:64). The conception of a second paradise is part of the Christian mythology in which Walcott, as a Methodist, was raised. The concepts used as vehicles for the rejection of oppressive history draw on Judeo-Christian myth, and a myth inscribed in an eighteenth-century English novel.
It should be stressed that Walcott rejects the mythologization of older cultures; not the cultures themselves. ‘The great poets of the New World, from Whitman to Neruda’ have paid their ‘accounts to Greece and Rome and walk in a world without monuments and ruins’, immune to ‘the fearful magnet of older civilizations’ (Walcott 1998:37). Accounts are payable not by veneration, but by considering historical myths as myths, devoid of ‘history’. Similarly, ‘art […] does not contain history’ (Walcott 1996:22–23), and Walcott enthusiastically accepts European art as art: ‘The writers of my generation were natural assimilators. We knew the literature of empires, Greek, Roman, British, through their essential classics’ (Walcott 1998:4). He likewise accepts their language (in contrast with, for example, Jamaica Kincaid, who writes that ‘the language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the criminal’s deed’) (Ashcroft et al. 1995:94). Walcott considers that the colonial language may be used anew through ‘the new naming of things’ (Walcott 1998:48); that is, through poetry.
This attitude towards European cultures parallels his attitude towards African ones. He condemns the unimaginative mythologization of African culture and therefore despises ‘the “African” phase with our pathetic African carvings, poems, and costumes, and our art objects which are not sacred vessels placed on altars but goods placed on shelves’ (Walcott 1998:7–8). Walcott’s opinion here intersects with that of Wole Soyinka, who nicknames the Bolekaja movement ‘Neo-Tarzanism: the poetics of pseudo-tradition’; and of Frantz Fanon, who in 1961 called on Algerians to create a new, syncretist culture rather than attempting to revive the culture disturbed by colonialism (Fanon 1965). By contrast, in the essay ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’, Walcott argues that ‘Antillean art is [the] restoration of our shattered histories’ (Walcott 1998:69), and that ‘the labour of the Antillean imagination [is] rebuilding its gods’, ‘accreting and secreting fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa’ (ibid.:82,70). This is myth-recreation through imagination. Another place in which Walcott does this is in Omeros.
Epic, Myth, and the Resurrection of a National History
The author of The Loss of El Dorado is concerned to recover a national history. In Omeros three of the central characters – Achille, the islander-poet-narrator, and Dennis Plunkett – have the same ambition. Several of the other characters also desire to overcome history the oppressor. The parallels, such as they are, with The Iliad and The Odyssey give to the St. Lucian Castries the resonance of myth. They are also, however, obtrusively undermined. This subversion of Homeric mythologization is achieved with a similar range of techniques as Naipaul uses in his own mythoclasm. The discourse of analogy is strained and contradictory. Names and actions are frequently mismatched. Renu Juneja points out that whereas the characters’ names are those of The Iliad (a narrative of public events), such plot links as do exist are connected more to The Odyssey (a private narrative): a character called Achille journeys home (Juneja 1996:202). In certain passages Homer is teased directly; when the narrator meets his spirit, he says of The Odyssey: ‘I never read it,/ […] not all the way through’ (Walcott 1998:283). The line ‘Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles, son of Pelios’ becomes ‘I sang of quiet Achille, Afolabe’s son/ who never ascended in an elevator’ (ibid.:320). Those elements of the poem which undermine the Classical analogy are strongly emphasized by Walcott’s own comments. In an impromptu lecture in 1990, he stated that ‘the last third’ of Omeros ‘is a total refutation of the efforts made by two characters [Plunkett and the narrator]’, and that the poem ‘pivots on itself and accuses itself of vanity, of the vanity of poetry, of the vanity of the Narrator’ (Breslin 2001:243).
This is particularly clear in the case of Plunkett. The retired Major Dennis Plunkett pursues every coincidence between Homer and St. Lucia in order to endow his chosen island, and the woman with whom he is in lust, with the glamour of ancient mythology. Some of his analogies are inscribed in florid, rambling, free indirect speech: ‘Her village was Troy,/ its smoke obscuring soldiers fallen in battle. Then her unclouding face, her breasts were its Pitons’. In considering Homeric myth a source of glamour, Plunkett, as it were, mythologizes European myth. His musings are further connected to imperial discourse through the detail that, whilst sitting in a beachside bar, absorbed by the woman, he does not hear his waiter Lawrence asking him to pay the bill. The narrator metonymically extends the bill and the waiter: ‘But the bill had never been paid./ Not to that housemaid [Helen] swinging a plastic sandal/ by the noon sea’ (Walcott 1998:31).
The very fact of inscribing the motivations and mechanisms of Plunkett’s analogizing lays bare the device of second-order mythologizing, and thereby estranges the reader from it. The narrator does the same to his own mythologizing – eighteen stanzas from the end of the poem – confessing directly that ‘the name Helen gripped my wrist in its vise/ to plunge it into the foaming page’ (Walcott 1990:323). Walcott told D.J.R. Bruckner in 1990: ‘I think that it is wrong to try to ennoble people’ (Hamner 1993:143); the poem’s last, two-page section describes Achille fishing with ‘unreflecting calm’.
Walcott’s 1990 lecture points towards a reading of the poem which holds that Homeric mythologization is performed precisely in order to be rejected; to enact exemplary resistance to ‘the fearful magnet of older civilizations’, and the appropriation of these civilizations in nation-building (Walcott 1998:37). Or, perhaps, to rewrite and redefine them. But these readings are inadequate. At 323 pages the poem is of epic length; analogies (albeit troubled ones) persist throughout. The poem does not imply that Homeric epic is, in Bakhtin’s sense, monologic, and therefore it does not pluralize it. In fact, the analogies are of such varied kinds that no coherent reading of Homer by Walcott emerges at all. Instead, Homeric epic is inscribed as a work of imagination which employs analogies and metaphors just as Omeros does, which is why ‘ants’ are connected to St. Lucian slaves and Greek soldiers. The ‘last third’ of Omeros by no means decisively rejects the Homeric analogies or decisively ridicules Plunkett’s imagination; they are problematized throughout, but their rejection does not form the entire raison d’être of the poem. This being the case, it begs the question of why in fact they are included.
Paul Breslin’s ‘guess is that the self-critique emerged in the course of composition’, prior to which ‘Walcott takes Plunkett’s quest seriously’ (Breslin 2001:272,243). Breslin attributes the impulse towards analogical discourse to colonial insecurity – and precisely the mythologization of European literature – and the wish to ‘ennoble’ his fellow St. Lucians, which Walcott noisily denounces. Similarly, Paula Burnett (but with no criticism intended) thinks that the analogy is intended to build self-respect in a new Caribbean nation (Burnett 2000:66). On this reading, Walcott is not immune to ‘the fearful magnet of older civilizations’ (Walcott 1998:37), and the poem resembles the Browne family photograph in which the family stand ‘before a painted backdrop of a ruined Greek temple’ (Naipaul 1967:149). There is some strength to this reading, not least because, as I have mentioned, Omeros treats Homeric epic as itself analogical and playful, and plays with Homer’s play (for example with the ants). Walcott is a syncretic poet, and doubtless shares that imaginative delight in making analogies which the narrator describes in Plunkett:3
The name [Helen], with its historic hallucination
brightened the beach; the butterfly, to Plunkett’s joy,
twinkling from myrmidon to myrmidon […]
He smiled at the mythical hallucination
that went with the name’s shadow.
Towards the end of the poem the narrator asks:
[W]hen would I not hear the Trojan War
in two fishermen cursing? […]
When would it stop
the echo in the throat, insisting, ‘Omeros’;
when would I enter that light beyond metaphor?
But it was mine to make what I wanted of it, or
what I thought I wanted.
These lines summarize the relations of the poem to Homeric myth: the persistent practice and rejection of mythologization; possession by the myth; possession of the myth (just as Walcott possesses the English language to do what he wants with in the poem); uncertainty of what it is that he wants. The poem itself confesses its contradictions. As Walcott says: ‘my sign was Janus/ I saw with twin heads,/ and everything I say is contradicted’. In its unresolved critique of and participation in European, mythologizing views of the Caribbean, its delight in imagination, and rejection of it, Omeros resembles certain features of The Loss of El Dorado.
There are two levels of plot in Omeros: the ‘factual plot’, which follows the actions of a small group of people in modern Castries; and the ‘imaginary plot’, which follows flights of imagination across space and time made by various characters. Major Plunkett and the narrator visit eighteenth-century Holland and St. Lucia; Achille travels to his ancestral village on the Congo during the time of the slaving raids. Walcott, like Naipaul, addresses the absences of history, which he felt personally: ‘Half of me was with him [Achille in Africa]. One half with the midshipman/ by a Dutch canal’ (Walcott 1990:135). Plunkett’s and Achille’s journeys are both parallel and contrasting. Plunkett chose to move to St. Lucia with his wife Maud after the Second World War precisely because at the time he perceived it, like El Dorado, to be a place without history: ‘somewhere, with its sunlit islands/ where what they called history could not happen./ […] She deserved Eden after this war’ (ibid.:28). As in The Loss of El Dorado, the myth of history-lessness is rejected by the poem and, eventually, by Plunkett, who, like Naipaul, begins to feel the absence of the island’s history. He ‘decided that what the place needed/ was its true place in history, that he’d spend hours/ for Helen’s sake on research’ (ibid.:64).
On the one hand, this wish to abolish the ‘néant d’une non-histoire imposée’ compensates for Plunkett’s former Edenic mythologizing. On the other, his researches are the historiographical counterpart of his Homeric mythologizing. The latter connects St. Lucia to the European cultural tradition; the former considers St. Lucia’s ‘true place in history’ to be precisely that point when it was ‘touched by “history” ’. This ‘history’ is Walcott’s imperial deity-history; and the touching, as it is for Naipaul, is tangential. Naipaul researches the use of Trinidad as a base for the search for El Dorado and for Venezuelan revolution; Plunkett researches the use of St. Lucia as a base for the British fleet in the Battle of the Saints.4 Like Naipaul, Plunkett simultaneously centres his compass on the island, and inscribes it as marginal. Moreover, unlike the ‘history’ which Naipaul studies, Plunkett studies British success. (It should be added, however, that Plunkett is aware that the imperial deity-history is soon to be pronounced dead: ‘History will be revised,/ and we’ll be its villains./ […] And when it’s over/ we’ll be the bastards’ (Walcott 1990:92).
Plunkett’s research, similarly to Naipaul’s, is document-based. He rejects oral or ‘ethnic’ history, such as that presented in a pamphlet which tells him that the island was originally named ‘Iounalo’, the Arawak word for lizard: ‘It’s all folk-malarkey!’/ […] History was fact,/ History was a canon, not a lizard’ (Walcott 1990:92). He focuses on his ‘son’, an Ensign named Plunkett whom he uncovers in his documents. Also like Naipaul, he makes no investigation into the lives of the colonized people, and he shows no more consciousness of dealing with slave islands than does the 2003–17 mythologizing Hollywood film series Pirates of the Caribbean. Unlike Naipaul, however, he uses locally available sources, which probably include those of the white Creole historians in whose tradition he stands. (West Indian libraries were established from the early 1950s and encouraged research into local history [Higman 1999:583].) Plunkett’s historiography however, is more traditional than Naipaul’s. Whereas Naipaul is fully aware of history’s textualized accessibility, Plunkett looks obsessively to documents to establish history’s physical details, and is distressed by discrepancies between them: ‘Plunkett recited every billet, regiment,/ of the battle’s numerological poetry;/ he learnt eighty ships of the line’ (Walcott 1990:88).
Flight of Imagination
Given Walcott’s antipathy to oppressive ‘history’, it is unsurprising that historical research makes Plunkett withdraw from life: ‘his life grew increasingly/ bookish and slippered, like a don’s. He stayed in’ (Walcott 1990:65). He begins to ignore his wife Maud, failing to acknowledge her when she brings tea to his desk (‘She had never felt more alone’ [ibid.]) and she shortly dies. Yet his obsession with factual minutiae coexists with a desire for emotional understanding: ‘He had no idea how time could be reworded,/ which is the historian’s task. The factual fiction/ of textbooks, pamphlets, brochures, which he had loaded/ in a ziggurat from the library, had the affliction of impartiality’ (ibid.:95). Naipaul records an associated dilemma in The Middle Passage: ‘What tone shall the historian adopt?’ (Naipaul 1962:19). Naipaul’s solution is to weave documents which are themselves full of emotion into a partly postmodern historiographical fiction. In Omeros, the poem’s narrator (and, indeterminately, Plunkett) uses Plunkett’s ‘factual fiction/ of textbooks’ as the basis for a flight of imagination which provides those emotional details which the ‘ziggurat’ has not.
This flight of imagination, like parts of Naipaul’s The Loss of El Dorado, reads like a novel. Book Two opens: ‘The midshipman swayed in the coach, trying to read’ (Walcott 1990:77). Only gradually is the reader able to establish that the plot has shifted to eighteenth-century Holland, and that the midshipman is Ensign Plunkett working as a spy. The section is written with the tension, late revelations, and circumstantial detail of a spy story – which the poem has temporarily become. The poem’s flexibly rhymed and metred hexameter terza rima allows for the effects of prose. In the subsequent description of the Battle of the Saints the style modulates; certain lines have the flavour of a second-rate imperial adventure poem: during the battle a wave enters his ship and sets Plunkett ‘against his own sword. It was a fatal wound/ but he pulled out the sword./ […] They found him face downwards, still holding to the sword’ (Walcott 1990:84,86). This heroic and nationalist aspect is, implicitly, coloured by Plunkett’s wishful, imperialist thinking. Like Naipaul, the narrator/Plunkett is enticed by the romance of the Caribbean imperial past. Thus Walcott demonstrates deliberately – as Naipaul does less deliberately – that ‘historical narrative accedes to the language of fantasy and desire’ (Bhabha 1994:97). Both writers imply that documents are limited, and that a semi-fictional vision is as close to the past as it is possible to get. Walcott’s narration of the voyage of Achille makes the same point, whilst treating precisely the slave’s history which both Naipaul and Plunkett efface.
Achille suffers sunstroke whilst fishing one day. He sleeps in his boat all night, during which time he travels to a late seventeenth-century Congolese village and meets his ancestor Afolabe. In the morning he wakes and returns to Castries. Ontologically and historiographically, this voyage is very different to that made by the narrator/Plunkett into the eighteenth century. No documents are involved, not only because Achille would not take a ziggurat to the library in Castries to fill it with books, but because no documents about his ancestors’ village(s) exist. The African scenes are not, therefore, flights of imagination based on documents; the journey can have no postmodern-fictional aspect. This begs the question of its causal source. Achille has some agency. Whilst beginning to fish, ‘for the first time, he asked himself who he was’ (Walcott 1990:130). In other words, when he first feels uncertain about his own national identity, and senses the presence of history’s absence (‘it was the tribal/ sorrow’ [ibid.:129]), he voyages into it. A sea-swift circles his boat ‘like an answer/ once Achille had questioned his name and its origin’ (ibid.:130); she leads Achille to Africa. The cross made by the sea-swift’s body in the sky recurs throughout the poem as a metaphor for stitching together continents and times. The journey is also inscribed as one of memory: ‘Out of the depths of his ritual/ baptism something was rising, some white memory’ (ibid.:129); the African village feast, in which the costumes and dances are the same as those in St. Lucia at Christmas (‘The same, the same’ [ibid.:143]), is endorsement of the fact of survival of ethnic memory in the New World. This is mixed with the memory of films which Achille has seen: in the Congo ‘It was like the African movies/ he had yelped at in childhood. The endless river unreeled/ those images that flickered into real mirages’ (ibid.:133).
Of course, since Achille, unlike Plunkett, makes an (imaginary) physical journey, the past could have been presented as of the same order of reality as the factual plot involving St. Lucians. It is not. Its nature as the hybrid fabrication of a metaphorical swift (representing the poet), the memory of a people, Achille’s consciousness of loss, and his memory of films is stressed.
Correspondingly, the action in Africa is inscribed as a fantastic fiction (of the kind that might appear in a film), that veers between orders of physical and logical possibility. Achille is paddled by ‘A skeletal warrior’ to meet his ancestor; ‘he was moving with the dead’. Yet the difficulty of a French-Creole speaker and a Congolese-language speaker conversing is acknowledged, so a translator is introduced: ‘Time translates’. Achille cannot stop the slave-raiders without metonymically denying his existence, therefore he trips over a vine during his attempt (Walcott 1990:133,137,146). Beyond Achille’s interactions with the village, however, village life is realistically inscribed. The villagers, naturally, crowd round the stranger to touch his clothes; the slavers’ raid5 is naturalistic. Therefore the African scenes are presented neither as the actual past, nor as mythologized. This is because the former is inaccessible – even more so than that which Plunkett and Naipaul research. On the other hand, a mythologizing vision of Africa would not serve the purpose which the voyage in fact does – to help heal Achille of his wound of ‘absent history’. The voyage is therapeutic, precisely because Achille tires of life in the village where he is a stranger. When he talks with his father, he is no longer interested in the meaning of his name – for which his father rejects him. He has imaginatively reclaimed his history – but he cannot live in it. He returns to St. Lucia, and the pregnant Helen returns to him.
In ‘The Muse of History’ Walcott states that the ‘patrician writers’ of the New World ‘reject the idea of history as time. […] For them history is fiction’ (Walcott 1998:37). The weight in the last phrase is on ‘fiction’. In Omeros, history is still a fabrication, but it may start from documents – if these are available – and it is worth visiting with an imaginative effort which shuns mythologization. In Omeros Walcott no longer believes that St. Lucia’s history can simply be shunned, or dissolved in such statements as ‘The Sea is History’; he no longer rejects memory. The epiphany of the poem is the cure of Philoctete’s festering shin-wound (which is also the wound of history). The cure takes the form of an African plant carried as a seed to St. Lucia in the belly of a sea-swift, discovered by the Catholic Obeah woman Ma Kilman, with the aid of the metaphorically freighted ants. Browne’s slave-carried seeds – a source of historical distress to Browne and Ralph – are transformed with the aid of imagination and cultural memory into its cure.
This article has revealed certain important similarities between these two writers who are often defined in opposition to each other. Yet differences have also emerged. Walcott, who thinks himself into the experience of characters in many ways dissimilar to himself, is more broadly concerned with the challenges presented to nationhood in the Caribbean; these constitute a negative kind of Caribbean commonality which nonetheless permit of resolution and ontological security to individuals who are prepared to make a leap of acceptance of their historically (if not ethnically) Creole identity (McCallum 2009:25). Naipaul is more concerned with the concrete details of his own island, and his writing offers less ontological security (Kraus 2005:88). Yet Walcott feels haunted by history more keenly than does Naipaul, and it is for this reason that he reaches for a sense of individual ontology that is independent of history. Naipaul, in contrast, demonstrates in his non-fiction the will to historicize the present in order to banish myths about the past which could affect it. He is an ostentatious mythoclast, including of imperial-nationalist mythologies. Walcott nonetheless correctly detects the discourse of these mythologies in certain parts of Naipaul’s writing. It would be wrong to say that Plunkett is a Naipaul-figure (Naipaul after all only wrote one work of history); nonetheless, Walcott makes some similar critiques of both figures.
Both writers, however, strongly oppose the negative mythologization of imperial nations. They are syncretist, hybrid writers who take much from English literature, and they have not hesitated in making the English language their own. They condemn the simplistic thought and feeling involved in the mythologization of any nation (Homer, a creative artist, being exempted). Yet both, in practice, take ambivalent positions with regard to the mythologization of their home islands. They both subvert the myth of El Dorado, and are affected by and purvey its glamour. Walcott both rejects, and lengthily and playfully engages in, the Homeric mythologization of St. Lucia. The two works on which I have concentrated are internally contradictory, and no decisive attempt is made by either writer to impose control on their polyphonic discourses.
The two writers also share a de facto (and by no means extreme) postmodern awareness of history’s problematic accessibility, and of the problems this poses to national identity. They indicate the unreliability of documents – although neither rejects their use. They are aware that mental or textual historical narratives inevitably contain a fictionalizing aspect, which will itself, in the sense of Lévi-Strauss, involve a mythical aspect. As Benedetto Croce noted, ‘history in reality refers to present needs’ (Carr 1961:21). Walcott and Naipaul show that, depending on the research and imaginative effort of the constructor of the narrative, the fictionalized result may be good fiction – or else it may be kitsch. As creative writers they embrace this insight. Naipaul writes an imaginatively reconstructed national historiography. Walcott employs the insight in his imaginative attempt to strip St. Lucian history of its ‘still-hurtful power’. They concur that simplistic national myths demand mythoclasm, and history, fictionalization. However, these two processes can have a problematic relationship within a work – as they do in The Loss of El Dorado. The Ensign Plunkett scenes of Omeros are successful in simultaneously subverting imperial mythologization, and in embracing the fictionalizing element which is necessary to the reconstruction of history. It is easier to perform this conjunction within the ontological flexibility of a self-declared work of imagination than as part of historiography’s more factually determined discourse.
In The Mimic Men, Ralph comments that ‘All landscapes eventually turn to land, the gold of the imagination to the lead of the reality’ (Naipaul 1967:10), and Naipaul frequently performs this reverse alchemy. Walcott, by contrast, at times insists that conceptually unmediated ‘reality’ is itself ‘gold’. Both writers share, however, a belief in a more conventional alchemy. To them, a Caribbean nation’s history is only accessible as the gold of the imagination. And mythologization makes fool’s gold.
1 Naipaul seems not to have been aware of, or to have ignored, the existence of slave narratives. These have recently been brought into a more accessible form in books such as Nicole Aljoe’s Creole Testimonies: Slave Narratives from the British West Indies, 1709–1838 (2012, Palgrave Macmillan).
2 The 1972 Encyclopaedia Britannica comments on Froude’s works: ‘their attractive, lucid style gives them a secure place in English literature, in which field indeed Froude believed history truly belonged’.
3 Plunkett is almost the only character into whose first-person narrative the narrator sometimes enters.
4 A naval battle in 1782 between the French and the British, won by the latter under Admiral Rodney.
5 Like Naipaul and Plunkett, Achille visits a time when a place outside Europe is ‘touched’ by European history. It is equally, however, part of Achille’s own history.
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