21 October 2007

Walcott, Universality and Criticism

“how chose/ Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?/ Betray them both, or give back/ what they give?”

-- Derek Walcott, ‘A Far Cry from Africa

It is interesting to think how something like an informal discussion in class about Walcott’s poetry could teach me the extent to which certain types of criticism can be damaging. The thrust of the discussion was on the poet’s sense of fragmented identity and divided allegiance with a special emphasis on language and history. In a classroom full of Indian students only too familiar with this type of division, a comparison between the Caribbean and Indian context was inevitable. But the comparison somehow led to the declaration that Walcott’s concerns are “universal in nature”.

There are several things wrong with such a statement. I do agree that it is relevant (and important) to see how we, with our colonial inheritance, face a dilemma similar to that expressed in Walcott’s poetry over the use of language. It is equally significant to argue that, like in Walcott, our knowledge and response to history is similar. (By studying British literature, for example, I am aware of Britain’s political history. Yet I can not say the same is entirely true for some periods within Indian history, despite studying Indian writing.) But at no point of time am I willing to concede that Walcott is a “universal poet”. The reason for this is not only because I acknowledge the existence of people who happily face no such dilemma, of societies who have been fortunate enough to not be colonised, but also because of the connotations of such form of a reading. It would, for instance, be considered wrong today to read Shakespeare as illuminating the universality of human experience considering that this ‘universal experience’ usually connotes Eurocentric bourgeois ideals. Much the same way, it would be a mistake to accord a ‘central’ position to a different set of values/ themes/ concerns with the sole purpose of universalising them. Moreover, the argument that the text is a medium through which ‘experience’ can be directly transmitted from author to reader is problematic as well disallowing for its socio-political contextualising. Is it relevant to say that Walcott’s inability to completely denounce or embrace his cultural heritage is something every human being experiences without actually looking into the nature of that cultural heritage itself?

It is not simply a matter of preferring a particular critical approach to another. What is at hand is looking at what the critical approach consequently implies. Relegating Walcott’s lament “of being white in mind and black in body” to an aspect of the ‘human condition’ is a silencing so many immediate social concerns that Walcott and other writers from the Caribbean seek to voice. Such an approach then does more harm than good.


Imani said...

I really loved some of what you said here. I long started to think that this "universal" criterion has, unintentionally or not, been a way for Western critics to automatically ignore or dismiss any non-European literature that doesn't seek to appear immediately "relatable". And if any non-European writers have a few too many local themes they are glazed over or worked into some kind of "universal" framework. So annoying.

metaphysicallycomplicit said...

Yes, I agree. But even more than annoying, its extremely dangerous, I think. A whole generation of readers are conditioned into using only that "universal framework", diffusing the political potential of a lot of texts.