Encomium of Helen: Derek Walcott's Ethical Twist in Omeros

By Figueroa, Victor | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Encomium of Helen: Derek Walcott's Ethical Twist in Omeros


Figueroa, Victor, Twentieth Century Literature


When the Martinican poet Aime Cesaire, one of the founding figures of the negritude movement in Caribbean letters, asked in his now-classic Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, "Qui et quel nous sommes? [Who and what are we?] Admirable question!" (12), he helped establish the framework that would dominate the work of many colonial and postcolonial writers to come. That framework is certainly central for Derek Walcott, whose work through his middle period (1) was guided by such questions as: Who and what are we, the peoples of the Caribbean? What have we lost in the experience of colonialism? Is it possible to recuperate our roots? Who will we be(come) after colonialism? Walcott, however, has consistently resisted many of the traditional answers to such questions. He has been particularly opposed to attempts to locate Caribbean identity in exclusively African roots, a position much in vogue during his early career as a poet. Rather than privileging a nostalgia for a lost Africa, or for that matter an unquestioning acceptance of Europe, Walcott has remained in agonistic balance between the diverse elements that inform his Caribbean experience and identity.

In his explorations of identity politics, Walcott has highlighted the tensions that pervade his colonial (and postcolonial) condition as experienced in his native Caribbean and as inherited from his mixed African and European descent. Thus, in what are probably his most often quoted lines, we are reminded:

    I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
    Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
    I who have cursed
    The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
    Between this Africa, and the English tongue I love?
    Betray them both, or give back what they give?
    How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
    How can I turn from Africa and live? (Collected Poems 18)

Walcott's oeuvre is a sustained attempt to incorporate and come to terms with these tensions. Where Walcott differs from many other postcolonial writers is in his refusal to respond with bitterness to the Caribbean's colonial legacy of dispossession, diaspora, and humiliation, and in declining to make his work a quarrel with history: "We owe the past revenge, or nothing, and revenge is uncreative" ("Caribbean" 57). In "The Muse of History," Walcott addresses colonial tensions with an Adamic vision of the New World, beginning anew not by cutting the ties to a suffocating past but rather by transforming the value of that past from the perspective offered by the potentialities of the present. In the work of "the great poets of the New World, from Whitman to Neruda,"

    history is fiction, subject to a fitful muse, memory. Their
    philosophy, based on a contempt for historic time, is revolutionary,
    for what they repeat to the New World is its simultaneity with the
    Old.[...] The tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor
    forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or
    culpable force.[...] The death of a gaucho does not merely repeat,
    but is, the death of Caesar. Fact evaporates into myth. This is not
    the jaded cynicism which sees nothing new under the sun, it is an
    elation which sees everything as renewed.
    (What the Twilight Says 37-38)

Walcott distances himself from writers such as V. S. Naipaul, who attacks the Caribbean's uncreative mimicry of European models, but also from the enthusiastic search for "true" single roots that characterizes movements such as negritude. (2) For Walcott, the New World is original not because it breaks away from the Old but because of its "simultaneity" with it. As a result, the New World is Adamic because in its mimicry we are, in Derrida's terms, "faced then with mimicry imitating nothing; faced, so to speak, with a double that doubles no simple, a double that nothing anticipates, nothing at least that is not itself already double" (206).

Walcott's Adamic mimicry is ultimately an attempt to defend the integrity and creativity of Caribbean cultures against the dismissive attacks of (neo)colonial judges like Naipaul. …

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