Traveling with Joyce: Derek Walcott's Discrepant Cosmopolitan Modernism

By Pollard, Charles W. | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Traveling with Joyce: Derek Walcott's Discrepant Cosmopolitan Modernism


Pollard, Charles W., Twentieth Century Literature


Consider the following description as a question on a final exam in a course on modernist literature:

Please identify the twentieth-century author who was born on an island controlled by the Roman Catholic Church and the British Empire, twin forces that shaped his self--portrait of the artist as a young man. Educated by Irish priests, he was drawn to the mystical ritual of the church but rebelled against its suffocating orthodoxy. Educated in the colonial system, he grew to resent English rule yet cherished the English language and literary tradition. People accused him of forsaking his indigenous language, but he aspired to use English to shape the consciousness of his race. He was haunted by the death of a parent, a death that he could not respond to adequately but that becomes emblematic of his vocation as a writer. It was this vocation that compelled him to flee the provincialism of his island home although he continued to focus on writing about that island.

Two answers could be correct--James Joyce and Derek Walcott. This telling biographical convergence should cause us to reconsider the accepted critical oppositions of modernism/postmodernism and colonialism/postcolonialism. In fact, Walcott responds to Joyce's modernism in increasingly sophisticated ways throughout his career, to the point that he creates a New World cosmopolitan modernism that decolonizes the English literary tradition through mastering it. It is an example that reorients our understanding of the cosmopolitan breadth of modernism, the cross-cultural complexity of postcolonialism, and the growing globalization of twentieth-century literature written in English.

Of course, modernism has long been recognized as a cosmopolitan literary movement. In 1945, Delmore Schwartz declared that T. S. Eliot was an "international hero" (120) and "citizen of the world" (127), and 50 years later, Derek Attridge makes the same claim for James Joyce, describing him as the "most international of writers in English" (ix) and an artist with a "global reputation" (x). Similarly, Fredric Jameson has called for a rewriting of Joyce as a "creole," "multiethnic," "Third World" and "anti-imperialist" writer (302), and several critics have begun to look more closely at Joyce as a postcolonial writer. (1) However, with one notable exception, criticism of Joyce and his modernism has tended to view this cosmopolitanism almost exclusively in terms of the international scope of his allusions rather than in terms of his international influence on subsequent writers. (2) In other words, we know a lot more about Joyce's debt to Homeric myth in Ulysses or to the Egyptian Book of the Dead in Finnegans Wa ke than we know about his significance for contemporary writers from Africa, Asia, or South America. Similarly, postcolonial literature has too often been viewed, by writers and critics alike, as a stripping away of colonial Eurocentricism, including the principles of modernism, to revive indigenous cultural expressions. (3) Walcott rejects this simplified narrative of the postcolonial condition; instead, he splices together the multiple and overlapping legacies of the colonizer and the colonized in the Caribbean to claim the rich diversity of the region's cultural resources while still recognizing the trauma of the colonial experience. Joyce created his cosmopolitan modernism by recasting Ireland's cultural parochialism in the context of Europe's originating myths; Walcott renews and broadens that cosmopolitan modernism by representing how the Caribbean experience has been shaped by the myths and histories of Europe, Africa, and the New World.

Narrow historical or ideological approaches to the literature of the twentieth century unduly limit our understanding of the potential cosmopolitan intersection of modernism and postcolonialism, for they neglect the ways in which modernism's tenets and texts have migrated in the postcolonial world and been changed by the journey Walcott has traveled with Joyce throughout his career, but it is not until Omeros that he is able to successfully navigate this relationship and to create his own New World modernism. …

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