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«The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry? Author(s): Derek Walcott Source: Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Feb., 1974), pp. ...»

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The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?

Author(s): Derek Walcott

Source: Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Feb., 1974), pp. 3Published by: Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami

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DEREK WALCOTT

Director, Trinidad Theatre Resort Port-of-Spain, Trinidad

THE CARIBBEAN:

Culture or Mimicry?

W e live in the shadow of an America that is economically benign yet politically malevolent. That malevolence, because of its size, threatens an eclipse of identity, but the shadow is as inescapable as that of any previous empire. But we were American even while we were British, if only in the geographical sense, and now that the shadow of the British Empire has passed through and over us in the Caribbean, we ask ourselves if, in the spiritual or cultural sense, we must become American.

We have broken up the archipelago into nations, and in each nation we attempt to assert characteristics of the national identity. Everyone knows that these are pretexts of power if such power is seen as political. This is what the politician would describe as reality, but the reality is absurd. In the case of my own identity, or my realness if you like, it is an absurdity that I can live with; being both American and West Indian is an ambiguity without a crisis, for I find that the more West Indian I become, the more I can accept my dependence onAmerica as

–  –  –

a professional writer, not because America owes me a living from historical guilt, nor that it needs my presence, but because we share this part of the world, and have shared it for centuries now, even as conqueror and victim, as exploiter and exploited.

What has happened here has happened to us. In other words that shadow is less malevolent than it appears, and we can absorb it because we know that America is black, that so much of its labor, its speech, its music, its very style of living is generated by what is now cunningly and carefully isolated as "black" culture, that what is most original in it has come out of its ghettos, its river-cultures, its plantations. Power itself is ephemeral, unstable. It is the least important aspect of any culture, who rules.

So, in the Caribbean, we do not pretend to exercise power in the historical sense. I think that what our politicians define as power, the need for it, or the lack of it should have another name; that, like America, what energizes our society is the spiritual force of a culture shaping itself, and it can do this without the formula of politics.

To talk about the contribution of the black man to American culture or civilization is absurd, because it is the black who energized that culture, who styles it, just as it is the black who preserved and energized its faith. The most significant experience in America's recent past is this revolution, and it is a revolution that was designed by the poets and intellectuals of our powerless archipelago, by West Indians like Garvey, Cesaire, Fanon, Padmore, and Stokely if you wish, and so our definitions of power must go beyond the immediately political.

We can see this and still keep distinctions. In fact it is only because these leaders could make distinctions that they could see the necessity for certain actions. And that is what I mean by being both West Indian and American. This is not schizophrenia. Remember our experience of different empires. Those experiences have been absorbed. To us, in many ways, America is a young country, and that is why the metaphor exists in the minds of every revolutionary. Many of us in the Caribbean still hold the ideal of the archipelago, just as you here hold to the Walcott / CARIBBEAN CULTURE OR MIMICRY? [5] metaphor named America. If I speak in the tone of metaphor among men who are more practical in their approach to problems, it is because I do not think that as men of the Americas, we are different. Our society may be less complex. It is obviously powerless. What I hope to explore is that society's validity, its reality.





To begin with, we are poor. That gives us a privilege. The poor always claim intimacy with God over the rich. Emergent countries simplify man's political visions in like manner because they are reduced to essentials. Like faith, it remains the American problem, how to be rich and still good, how to be great and exercise compassion.

Perhaps powerlessness leaves the Third World, the ex-colonial world, no alternative but to imitate those systems offered to or forced on it by the major powers, their political systems which must alter their common life, their art, their language, their philosophy. On the other hand, the bitterness of the colonial experience, its degradations of dependency and its cynicism of older "values" tempts the Third World with spiritual alternatives. These alternatives will be violent, the total rejection through revolution, for example, or cunning, or conservative, by which I mean the open assimilation of what is considered from the metropolitan center to be most useful. But whichever method is applied, it is obvious that the metamorphosis is beginning. Large sections of the population of this earth have nothing to lose after their history of slavery, colonialism, famine, economic exploitation, patronage, contempt. But the tragedy is that most of its politicians are trapped in the concept of a world proposed by those who rule it, and these politicians see progress as inevitability. They have forgotten the desperate authority of the man who has nothing. In that sense Naipaul is right, that their mimicry of power defrauds their own people.

Such politicians insist on describing potential in the same terms as those whom they must serve; they talk to us in the bewildering code of world markets, and so forth. They use, in short, the calculus of contemporary history, and that gives them and us the illusion that we really contribute to the destiny of

[6] JOURNAL OF INTERAMERICAN STUDIES AND WORLD AFFAIRS

mankind, to foreign policy. We align ourselves to this bloc or that, to that way of life or the other, and it is this tiredness, which falls so quickly on the powerless, that horrifies Naipaul;

but the truth is that there is something else going on, that this is not the force of the current, and that its surface may be littered with the despairs of broken systems and of failed experiments, that the river, stilled, may reflect, mirror, mimic other images, but that is not its depth.

It could not be. You see, the degradations have already been endured; they have been endured to the point of irrelevancy. In the Caribbean history is irrelevant, not because it is not being created, or because it was sordid; but because it has never mattered, what has mattered is the loss of history, the amnesia of the races, what has become necessary is imagination, imagination as necessity, as invention.

The phrase "the mimic men," which so many Englishspeaking West Indian intellectuals have so eagerly, almost masochistically taken to themselves, originates in the East Indian novelist Vidia Naipaul, who uses it as the title for one of his novels. Mr. Naipaul's epitaph on all West Indian endeavor has not aborted the passion with which West Indian culture continues to procreate this mimicry, because life, if we can call it that in the archipelago, defiantly continues.

To mimic, one needs a mirror, and, if I understand Mr.

Naipaul correctly, our pantomime is conducted before a projection of ourselves which in its smallest gestures is based on metropolitan references. No gesture, according to this philosophy, is authentic, every sentence is a quotation, every movement either ambitious or pathetic, and because it is mimicry, uncreative. The indictment is crippling, but, like all insults, it contains an astonishing truth. The only thing is that it is not, to my mind, only the West Indies which is being insulted by Naipaul, but all endeavor in this half of the world, in broader definition: the American endeavor.

I use the word American regardless of genetic variety and origin. Once the meridian of European civilization has been crossed, according to the theory, we have entered a mirror Walcott / CARIBBEAN CULTURE OR MIMICRY? [7] where there can only be simulations of self-discovery. The civilized virtues on the other side of this mirror are the virtues of social order, a lineally clear hierarchy, direction, purpose, balance. With these things, so we were taught, some social justice and the exercise of racial memory which is tradition.

Somehow, the cord is cut by that meridian. Yet a return is also impossible, for we cannot return to what we have never been.

The truth in all this is, of course, the amnesia of the American, particularly of the African. Most of our definitions of American culture are fragmentary, based on the gleam of racial memory which pierces this amnesia. The Old World, whether it is represented by the light of Europe or of Asia or of Africa, is the rhythm by which we remember. What we have carried over, apart from a few desultorily performed customs, is language.

When language itself is condemned as mimicry, then the condition is hopeless and men are no more than jackdaws, parrots, myna birds, apes.

The idea of the American as ape is heartening, however, for in the imitation of apes there is something more ancient than the first human effort. The absurdity of pursuing the anthropological idea of mimicry then, if we are to believe science, would lead us to the image of the first ape applauding the gestures of what we must call the first man. Here the contention crumbles because there is no scientific distinction possible between the last ape and the first man, there is no memory or history of the moment when man stopped imitating the ape, his ancestor, and became human. Therefore, everything is mere repetition. Did the first ape look at his reflection in the mirror of a pond in astonishment or in terror? Could it, or he, identify its or himself, and what name was given to that image? And was it at that moment of the self-naming grunt, a grunt delivered either in terror or in amusement, that the ape became man'?

And was that the beginning of the human ego and our history?

Advance some thousand years, protract the concept of evolution to the crossing of the mirror and the meridian of Alexander VI, and, like that instant of self-recognition or self-disgust, which are the same, what was the moment when

OF STUDIESAND WORLD

[81 JOURNAL INTERAMERICAN AFFAIRS

the old ape of the Old World saw himself anew and became another, or, was paralyzed with the knowledge that henceforth, everything he did in the New World, on the other side of the mirror, could only be a parody of the past? Of course there is no such moment, just as there is no such moment for science of the transition from ape to man.

Columbus kneels on the sand of San Salvador. That is a moment. Bilbao, or Keats's Cortez looks on the Pacific. That is another moment. Lewis and Clark behold whatever they beheld, and that is yet another moment. What do they behold? They behold the images of themselves beholding. They are looking into the mirror of the sea, (the phrase is mimicked from Joseph Conrad), or the mirror of the plain, the desert, or the sky. We in the Americas are taught this as a succession of illuminations, lightning moments that must crystallize and irradiatememory if we are to believe in a chain of such illuminations known as history. To make a swift leap, probably without the.mimicry of Aristotelian logic; because these illuminations are literary and not in the experience of American man, they are worthless. We cannot focus on a single ancestor, that moment of ape to man if you wish, or its reverse, depending on what side of the mirror you are favoring, when the black felt that he had crossed the meridian, when the East Indian had, or the Portugese, or the Chinese, or the Old World Jew. There was no line in the sea which said, this is new, this is the frontier, the boundary of endeavor, and henceforth everything can only be mimicry. But there was such a moment for every individual American, and that moment was both surrenderand claim, both possession and 'dispossession. The issue is the claim.

The moment then, that a writer in the Caribbean, an American man, puts down a word-not only the first writer whoever he was, in Naipaul's view, but every writer since-at that moment he is a mimic, a mirror man, he is the ape beholding himself. This is supposed to be true as well of the dancer, the sculptor, the citizen, anyone in the Caribbean who is fated to unoriginality. So, of course, is Mr. Naipaul, whose curse extends to saying of this place that "nothing has ever been Walcott / CARIBBEAN CULTURE OR MIMICRY? [9] created in the West Indies, and nothing will ever be created."

Precisely, precisely. We create nothing, but that is to move from anthropological absurdity to pseudo-philosophical rubbish, to discuss the reality of nothing, the mathematical conundrum of zero and infinity. Nothing will always be created in the West Indies, for quite long time, because what will come out of there is like nothing one has ever seen before.

The ceremony which best exemplifies this attitude to history is the ritual of Carnival. This is a mass art form which came out of nothing, which emerged from the sanctions imposed on it.

The banning of African drumming led to the discovery of the garbage can cover as a potential musical instrument whose subtlety of range, transferred to the empty oil drum, increases yearly, and the calypso itself emerged from a sense of mimicry, of patterning its form both on satire and self-satire. The impromptu elements of the calypso, like the improvisation and invention of steelband music, supersedes its traditional origins, that is, the steeldrum supersedes the attempt to copy melody from the xylophone and the drum, the calypso supersedes its ancient ritual forms in group chanting. From the viewpoint of history, these forms originated in imitation if you want, and ended in invention; and the same is true of the Carnival costume, its intricate, massive and delicate sculpture improvised without a self-conscious awe of reality, for the simple duplication of ancient sculptures is not enough to make a true Carnival costume. Here are three forms, originating from the mass, which are original and temporarily as inimitable as what they first attempted to copy. They were made from nothing, in their resulting forms it is hard to point to mere imitation.



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