A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, he needs no new recognition. He was as great a poet as one can imagine. His non-fiction is fantastic. In a post-Fanon, post-Césaire world, he refashioned the meaning of the Caribbean for more than one generation of intellectuals. That is the world. For me, right here, there was no greater influence on my work in Africana studies.
I came to Africana studies on a strange path. My PhD was in post-World War II French philosophy and the phenomenological movement. When I finished my doctorate in 1996, then got the dissertation (or some form of it) accepted as a book a couple of years later, I was faced with something unexpected, even a bit of a crisis: who am I as an intellectual going forward?
Two moments changed my life. Because, for me, my intellectual work is not extraneous to my life; in fact, they are deeply interwoven, for better or worse. What moves me? What makes me think?
I watched Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in my apartment in Delray Beach, FL while on a postdoc in 1997-1998. For some reason, Shoah was in the common VHS collection (yes, those old days) at the condo complex where I rented. Mr. Lubin, my landlord, pointed me to the shelf for borrowing videos. Most were black and white American classics, but for some reason they also had Shoah. I watched it. Then I watched it three more times over the next two weeks. It challenged me because it seemed an impossible work: a representation of what is unrepresentable. That was my new project, post dissertation and book. And that returned me to Adorno, Benjamin, and other Jewish thinkers before and after the Holocaust who were trying to reckon with the violence of anti-Semitism, then the violence of genocide, and then the aftermath of what it means – or if it is even possible – to be.
My work re-started there. I presented a bit of it in Lima at a conference on phenomenology and representation. After the day of my session, there was a banquet for participants and organizers. I sat, just by chance, next to Salomon Lerner, the rector at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, who, by coincidence, would later become the lead commissioner of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (I interviewed him and translated it, published in the journal Humanity.)
While I chatted with Lerner, small talk really, he asked about my work. I told him about my interest in trauma and violence, and of course the problem of representation. He asked if I was European. No, I’m from the U.S. and don’t at all identify with Europe. He followed up with a simple question, full of the overly polite praise of kind person: “Pero, Juan, you are so brilliant, why don’t you bring your prodigious gifts to bear on the Americas? After all, the name ‘Americas’ is synonymous with violence, trauma. You should work on that too!”
A couple of years later, I would tell Lerner in his office that this comment changed everything for me. He looked puzzled. “I don’t recall that. But it is true!”
What that meant for me was two things. First, I was trained in the great books tradition in college. That meant that I began with the origins of the tradition. Folks like Walker and Delany in the U.S., Firmin and others in the Caribbean. I read and read. Second, because I think it is important to be honest as an intellectual, I remained oriented by my original question. How do we make sense of traumatic violence? What remains to be thought? And what are the terms of that thinking? I haven’t left these questions, really.
This brings me back to Walcott.
Adorno’s musing that perhaps there should be no poetry after Auschwitz always struck me as the measure for any and all discourse about the Americas, just as it was, before he dialed it back, for Adorno’s Europe. At some level, everything must answer to this question: should there be, and so how can there be, anything after catastrophe?
This focused my research on thinking deeply and broadly about the Middle Passage. Walcott’s work is the master course in this kind of thinking.
Let me say something about four moments in his work.
First, the final paragraph to his essay “The Muse of History.” To my mind, this is one of the very best essays from the second half of the twentieth century, in any language and from any place. It is brutally honest. And it ends with tenderness and fury, a moment (or monument?) in which Walcott repudiates all paternity, marking himself, and the Caribbean as such, as an orphan. It’s worth typing out.
I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribesman not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet enobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in that wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and our gift.
It’s an astonishing close to an essay. Beautiful and devastatingly sad. In that way, exactly the St. Lucia beach or the beach of any island in the Caribbean, full of world-stopping beauty but also saturated with a sadness of history and memory that can never be reconciled to it. For all the ink spilled on notions of creolization, Walcott really began and ended so much of what needs to be said in this one passage.
A second piece. Walcott’s lecture upon receipt of the Nobel Prize, the famous essay “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory,” is impossible to quote. Because the entirety of it is one long quotable. But I mostly love Walcott’s reflection on the sigh of history, or the sigh of History, and how the spectacle of Ramleela in Trinidad cannot be understood on conventional models of thinking roots, expression, and identity. That is the whole essay, in truth, but I love this particular passage so much:
The sigh of History rises over ruins, not over landscapes, and in the Antilles there are few ruins to sigh over, apart from the ruins of sugar estates and abandoned forts. Looking around slowly…I wanted to make a film that would be a long-drawn sigh over Felicity. I was filtering the afternoon with evocations of a lost India, but why “evocations”? Why not “celebrations of a real presence”? Why should India be “lost” when none of these villagers ever really knew it, and why not “continuing,” why not the perpetuation of joy in Felicity and in all the other nouns of the Central Plain: Couva, Chaguanas, Charley Village? Why was I not letting my pleasure open its windows wide? I was entitled like any Trinidadian to the ecstasies of their claim, because ecstasy was the pitch of the sinuous drumming in the loud speakers. I was entitled to the feast of Husein, to the mirrors and crepe-paper temples of the Muslim epic, to the Chinese Dragon Dance, to the rites of that Sephardic Jewish synagogue that was once on Something Street. I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad.
I teach this passage regularly. It always makes my eyes water. In it, all the answers to my questions, born from Adorno’s text and Lanzmann’s film, but remade and reinvented and reshaped by the experience of the Americas. Traumatic violence breaks apart. If we imagine life after to be the restoration of a whole, then we cannot but conclude, like V.S. Naipaul did (and he is the target of Walcott’s Nobel lecture), that the Caribbean – and the black Americas more broadly – is only broken, never whole. But that’s the trick, that’s the paternal game. An orphan narrative is different. An orphan narrative is its own kind of story. It sees a world already made out of fragments. That world making is and has been and will be. It is all the times at once, plenty and enough and excessive in all the best ways. Therein, poetry is made after catastrophe. A different aesthetic, but not a new one. It is, for Walcott, the aesthetic that has already defined life in the Caribbean. His work is a witness, not an invention. I love that.
A third text, one less prominent: “A Letter to Chamoiseau.” I love this piece because it is a passing of the torch, but not without some bite, a review of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco that is full of love and just a little bit of scorn. (Orphans still have fathers, I guess.) I won’t elaborate all of that, it’s an easily found and lovely read (in What the Twilight Says, reprinted from a popular magazine of some kind, I forget). It shows Walcott’s awkward relationship to Creoles of various kinds, both in his own characterization and in the anxieties he has about translation and the possibilities of language. But I really love the close:
So across the channel from where I live, a great book has been written; the pale blue silhouette of Martinique is sometimes so clearly edged that one can see the pale hue of houses, or what I think are houses, where you, Chamoiseau, live – a book that for its accuracy of feeling, its intimacy, belongs to the vendors selling t-shirts and their children screaming in the shallows, one that has entered our vegetation, as familiar as the thorny acacias along the beach, one with the cemetery stones bordered with conches, one with the cooing of ground doves in the brown season, and one with the melody of the bird in the dogwood’s branches, common to Martinique and St. Lucia, the champs-oiseau with its melodic voice and amplitude of heart.
Just gorgeous. Offering love and adoration for Chamoiseau inside the Caribbean landscape, full of smells and sounds and playful language. Thank you for that, Derek Walcott.
A fourth and final text.
In the end, for me, his truly greatest work is the short poem “The Sea is History.” Published in the 1977 collection The Star-Apple Kingdom, the poem is matched, to my mind, only by Édouard Glissant’s “The Indies” as testimony to the painful and complex origins of the black Americas. “The Sea is History,” which Glissant himself quotes at the opening of Poetics of Relation, is an archaeology of memory of the Middle Passage. That is, Walcott moves the imagination to the bottom of the Atlantic, seeking the materials and materiality of loss, then birth; this is the origin, the site of loss. For all the promise of Felicity, for all the champs-oiseau of Creole literature, there is also the pain of beginning. The entirety of the poem is worth reading. Here are the opening stanzas to close my small contribution to saying goodbye to Derek Walcott:
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,
that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor
the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,
and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages
looking for History.
That is how one writes poetry after catastrophe. Answering to, measured by, what cannot be answered or measured. I’ve read this poem so many times. I’m always full of tears and at a loss for words, except to point, with my finger or head or eyes as I teach it or think it or feel cratered by it – a pointing that can only go back to Walcott’s words, his genius. That is what can be said.
Thank you, Derek Walcott.
Rest in peace, Derek Walcott.