The Redness of Blackness:Revisiting Derek Walcott's Mulatto Aesthetics

Article excerpt

The problem involved in the description of Caribbean aesthetics is not only due to the heterogeneity of Caribbean culture - given its antecedents - but also the complex cognitive and social orientation of the individual Caribbean artist. In spite of this complexity, or perhaps because of it, this economically poor and rural region with no common language has produced a fountain of seasoned scholars, radical economists and political scientists, philosophers, writers, poets and artists of world acclaim. Jahnheinz Jahn (as cited in Dawes, 1977, p. 1) asserts that he knows of nowhere else, "where so many important writers and poets are bom in so small population." In discussing the problem of form in Caribbean aesthetics, Gordon Rohlehr (1985, p.l) also underlines this complexity with a brief run-down of the Curriculum Vitae of key practitioners of the arts in the Caribbean Islands, numbering among them:

"Norman Cameron : accomplished historian of the pre-colonial era in Africa, mathematician, teacher, essayist, playwright, bibliophile, man of letters; CLR James : novelist, playwright, historian, philosopher, politician, literary critic; Edward Kamau Brathwaite : poet, historian, critic with a seventy-page curriculum vitae; Derek Walcott : poet, playwright, critic, painter; with, perhaps, an even longer CV...."

Details of this have been continually elaborated upon by critics (for example King's 1995 work on Walcott's drama and his (2000) biography on Walcott. More recently, Elaine Savoury (2004: p. 729) observed that the entire Caribbean is "remarkable in having produced so many poets who are also intellectuals," including Cesaire, Glissant, Carter and, again Brathwaite and Walcott. The general picture is therefore that of very complex minds working to give expression to an already complex (even multiplex) cultural situation. The outcome of this is fairly obvious. It creates, at the receiving end, the problem of understanding "the complex Caribbean drive to realise a complex, multi-faceted, flexible sense of shape" or "the problem of the problem of form in Caribbean aesthetics" (Rohlehr, 1985, p. 2).

This multiplicity of the Caribbean aesthetic landscape and the, resultant problem of aesthetic appreciation as described by Rohlehr and many other critics; is more real than imagined. Banham, Hill and Woodyard (1994, p. 141) note with emphasis that "until the first third of the present century" (now the last century) "theatre in the Caribbean was representative of a stratified and hierarchical multicultural society." The aesthetic strands that constitute this theatrical legacy which the Caribbean artist must come to terms with are numerous and sometimes difficult to define. One immediate consequence of this combination of a multiplex cultural formation with a complex individuality (that of the artist) is that no single aesthetic output by these individuals could be seen as evincing a holistic representation. Even if the contextual input (for example historical circumstances in the Caribbean) were similar, the complex individuality and attendant idiosyncrasies of the artists would still have made for differences of perception. Hence the question as to what actually or authentically constitutes Caribbean aesthetics in general, and Caribbean theatre aesthetics in particular, has been subject of negotiation by critics of the region. Particularly contentious is the question of the place of history in the formulation of an aesthetic framework, which has generated views as diverse as there are commentators on the subject. The issue of language as a key factor in establishing a Caribbean identity is equally important. Kamau Brathwaite (1971, p.31) noted that "it was in language that the slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master." Liberation from slavery therefore also meant liberation from the "master's" oppressive language; not just because there was the need for a replacement, but more because of the need to give expression to a uniquely new existence. …