The irenic unearthing of traditionally subjugated cultures by Western academia is an admirable effort primarily driven by empathetic intentions. Unfortunately, however, a new fixation on the importance of identity in literature has plagued current critical thinking, producing uncouth cenacles across the West that are more loquacious than learned, more restless than reflective, more enraged than inquisitive. In life, questions of identity are inevitable. The earlier and less reactionary a settled sense of self is accomplished, the more likely a person is to reward eternal, rather than ephemeral, themes with their attention. This issue of limiting your identity in response to insidious political and social events, of favouring the neglected over the revered and of rejecting violently imposed cultural influences on your society is concisely epitomised in debates between Caribbean poets about the character, Caliban. Of all of Shakespeare’s iconic characters, no other has provoked such passionate and opposing appreciations.
Derek Walcott was one Caribbean poet who wrote about the significance of Shakespeare’s Caliban as a metaphor for colonial oppression. Having lost his island to the magical Prospero, the enslaved Caliban learns the language of his master and naturally seeks to overcome those who prevent him from living freely. Walcott used Caliban to embody his conundrum of being a Caribbean poet. He was born into ‘an inescapable English tradition’ and felt pressed to pursue an identity untainted by imperial influences. Walcott’s solution was morally elegant and strategically clever. He argued that the absorption of imported ideas, understandings and styles is preferable to a total excommunication of an edifying intruder. He called this an ‘enriching process’ by which moral and artistic insight can be enhanced.
The poet, Aime Cesare, held an opposing view to Walcott’s. He rewrote the tale of The Tempest and created a Caliban who recognised no advantage in emulating Prospero at all. Cesare’s accusation is that Prospero only taught Caliban his language so that Caliban could follow his instructions, thereby immuring his natural identity and denigrating his right to self-determination. Attacking a cultural imposition can be a health-inducing process, but it can also cost a great deal. It seems a good principle to assume that everyone you meet knows something important that you do not. The same should be said of your enemies and the same should be applied to culture. In my opinion, Walcott’s solution transforms the dilemma ofpost-colonial identity into an advantage and affords succeeding generations a wider scope of inspiration.
It is language that explains Prospero’s primacy. In the original play, his power emanates from a set of magical books in which his spells are written down. When Caliban plots to overthrow Prospero, he tries to steal the books that make his master so powerful, saying to his accomplices: ‘Remember first to possess his books, for without them he’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not one spirit to command. They all do hate him as rootedly as I. Burn but his books.’ Were I Caliban, I would see that my adversary had imparted his language to allow me to speak like him. I would therefore conclude that I could, in theory, learn to read like him too. Think how formidable a foe Caliban would become if he used Prospero’s lessons to wield his master’s magic, to pour over the literature of Prospero’s native land, to leaf through the works of Dante, Cavalcanti, Petrarch and Machiavelli. The influences of these Italian maestros would find a fresh resonance in a new kind of reader and the reader would acquire unwonted wisdom conceived worlds away.
Some scholars insist that Shakespeare’s The Tempest draws inspiration from Montaigne’s essay – On Cannibalism. Montaigne marvelled at the moral differences of distinct cultures. He snubbed suggestions of cultural superiority over dominated races and instead sought to identify their virtues. He felt his own culture would benefit from the freedom and clarity evident in tribal behaviours across the Americas and reminded his readers that knowledge of a neighbouring culture’s iniquities should not blind us to our own ethical, social and artistic failings. The moral relativism he expatiated is essential to understanding how we can expand our outlook without sacrificing our sensibilities.
TS Eliot said, ‘The writers of the past, especially of the immediate past, may be valuable to the young writer simply as something definite to rebel against. He may recognise the common ancestry, but he needn’t necessarily like his relatives. Some of my strongest impulse to original development in early years has come from thinking, here is a man who has said something, long ago, or in another country and in another language, which somehow corresponds to what I feel I want to say now. Let me see if I can do what he has done in the language of my own time.’ Here, Eliot argues that it is wrong to reject an influence that can be of use. Veracity necessitates variety and no previous generation can boast a broader variety of interests and influences than ours. Indeed, the wealth of variety and the immediacy of access we presently enjoy should spur us on to locate as many masterful accomplishments as possible. We are free to find virtue and utility from such disparate sources as the science of early Islam; the medicine of ancient Egypt; the architecture of medieval China; the music and literature of modern America; the fashions of vanished worlds; and the treasures of distant times. It would be foolish to discard these achievements because their creators warred with your forebears.
In many ways, the disagreement between Walcott and Cesare is not dissimilar to the debate that raged between the Bengali Nobel Prize winning poet, Tagore, and that iconic architect of modern activism, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi distrusted Western innovations and wanted to disentangle Indian society from the ‘craze of machinery’ that the British Empire had imposed on its imperial subjects. Tagore saw World History as a series of saturation points, beyond which there is no return. Instead, he advocated an acceptance of British innovation to improve the prospects of India. Plato believed something is always lost once something else is gained. No doubt, Gandhi was worried that the perceived moral decadence of Europe would spread to India via machines and his sub-continent would lose the essential spirit of its ancient identity. But even Gandhi conceded the inevitable betterment of life in India with the assistance of European contrivances.
Old attempts by scholars to accomplish a consensus on the greatest literary achievements in European history are now deemed reductive and even at times, racist. They may well be reductive. It is a near impossible task to definitively declare the supremacy of certain works over others. There are no accepted and objective means of bestowing merit and ascribing fault in the arts. Inevitably, a selection of preferences will be imperfect and will exclude other compositions of alternate value. Moreover, once chosen, no matter the apparent diversity of opinion or variety of style, that group will be contrasted with those who were not chosen, and their significance will be rightly questioned. But the growing sentiment of seeing Goethe, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Cervantes, Moliere, Montaigne and the like as belonging to one irrelevant unit in European history belies the individuating qualities that first gained them repute. In this age where identity matters a great deal, assertions are regularly made that our heritage should be refurbished with ‘fairer’ and more ‘relevant’ figures and motifs. Nabokov once said in a lecture ‘During this course, I have tried to reveal the mechanism of those wonderful toys, literary masterpieces. I have tried to make of you good readers, who read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalisations. I have tried to teach you to read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art.’ We would do well to heed this intention and to remind ourselves why it is that we read in the first place.
In recent years, the ire of cultural criticism has certainly turned on the European tradition, casting it as a preclusion to appreciating subjugated customs and values. As a multicultural country, Britain ought to acknowledge the numerous origins that account for its current cultural dynamism but not by repudiating the greatness of traditionally celebrated artists, writers and thinkers. We should embrace our varied inheritance, that marvellous mixture of daring deviations. It will distinguish us in the end and may prompt a production of art more attune to universal sensitivities and eternal themes than any previous output in human history.