June 20, 2007

Why I Trust Derek Walcott More Than My Pastor

Derek WalcottI could have been a Spelling Bee champion. I had memorized all the words in the small booklet that Mrs. Pennycooke, my primary schoolteacher, had given to the finalists. It was down to Kathy F. and me. We were spelling in top form, and we'd made it through the booklet without a mistake. And then, out of the blue, Mrs. Pennycooke said to me, "Mr. Philp, spell banana." I was confident. I puffed out my chest and spelled, "B-a-n-a-n-n-a!" I was wrong. Kathy spelled "banana" correctly and went on to represent Mona Primary in the Spelling Bee. When I told my pastor about what had happened, all he said was, "Pride goeth before a fall." He was probably right, but I didn't want to hear that. My confidence was shattered, and, yes, my pride was hurt. It was as if I had committed a sin.

And in my pastor's world, I had probably committed several mortal sins. In his binary universe of sin and redemption, purity and uncleanness, the Devil was always on the prowl and contended with God for the souls of sinners like me so that he could thwart the divine order. Moral purity, which was supposed to encompass my entire life, was linked specifically to hair, dress, and speech. Any deviation or lack in any of these areas was tantamount to a declaration that you were encamped with the Devil's faction. So as I grew older, I kept my face clean, went to the barber regularly (or my father made sure), and spoke, wrote, and spelled the Queen's English correctly. It was God's will.

Then, the Jamaican revolution during the seventies with Bob Marley, Rastafari, and Michael Manley changed all of that for me. I realized that by that if I followed my pastor's logic, the Caribbean was a zone of sin because of linguistic and racial miscegenation. Still, as I made my way through Jamaica College listening to reggae, devouring the books in the library, playing football, and wondering if I'd ever write good fiction, my pastor’s voice remained in my head. And even as I read more and more books by Caribbean writers and got rid of the ideas that Africa represented "impurity and immorality" and Europe represented "purity and morality," I fretted over my immortal soul. This is not to say that some of the binary oppositions did not materialize in my readings. I suspect now that the placement of Walcott and Brathwaite in opposite camps may have to do with this tendency. Read Walcott and go to heaven; read Brathwaite and go to hell.

Imagine, then, my surprise a few years ago as I was reading Omeros in which Walcott meditates on the themes of character, observation, and language, and I came upon this passage:

Then everything fit. The pirogues crouched on the sand

Like hounds with sprigs in their teeth. The priest

sprinkled them with a bell, then he made the swift's sign.

When he smiled at Achille's canoe, In God We Troust,

Achille said: "Leave it! Is God' spelling and mine."

In this very telling scene, the position of the priest as a representative of the patrician order and European tradition, and Achille as the natural Caribbean man who inhabits a universe where "Ogun can fire one with his partner Zeus" intrigued me. The priest's bemusement with Achille’s character is reflected in his condescending smile. Achille responds to this seeming moral indictment because he cannot spell the word, "trust” with the retort, "Leave it! Is God' spelling and mine." A battle over individuality, morality, divinity, and spelling was being fought on a Caribbean beach. I loved it.

That passage was also a point of confluence for me. For despite what some of their followers claim, Brathwaite and Walcott have many traits in common. For example, both Walcott and Brathwaite are fascinated with the slippages and neologisms that have become part of the Caribbean vocabulary and how they convey identity. In this way, Walcott and Brathwaite distinguish themselves from many of their contemporaries such as VS Naipaul. In the world of Brathwaite and Walcott, speech is tied to individuality and naming is a divine function because it creates an order that is tied to the landscape and people. Defects occur when the speakers take on lifestyles that are not true to their character or when they inflict cruelty on others through greed. However, in the moral universe of Naipaul's comedies of manners, characters who are grammatically challenged howl in "broken" English from the depths of the ninth circle.

However, in Omeros, Achille’s speech demonstrates his supreme trust in the natural world of action and consequences and the lessons gleaned through observation. As the speaker in Chapter XV states, "Observation is character"(85). As I read and re-read the scene, I became immersed in Achille's seamless universe--so seamless, in fact, that he traverses time and space to encounter his ancestor, Afolabe, who was renamed "Achilles" by a "small admiral with a cloud/ on his head" (83). With Achille's simple assertion, he affirms his identity and whatever the priest assumed was irrelevant because Achille's spelling bore the mark of his personality--his individuality. Achille's individuality which was manifested in his work was linked to divinity: "Is God' spelling and mine." In other words, even in the seeming disorder of the misspelling, action, and consequences (con: with; sequence: order) a visible object was created and made Achille one with his work. Creation is an aspect of divinity. If Achille and is work are one, then there can be no error, mistakes, or sin--no matter what the priest or the tradition thought. Also, despite the misspellings that occurred in Achille's life and that of his ancestor, Afolabe, the divine order could not be upset. With any action, consequences follow a pattern, so Achille as an observer of these cycles can make the proclamation, "Leave it," or let it be?

I wish my pastor had read more of Walcott.



Anonymous said...

Banana is still spelt "banana".

Unknown said...

Your pastor was obviously brainwashed into thinking that English was good and Caribbean was bad.

FSJL said...

'Either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation'.

Geoffrey Philp said...


Unknown said...

What a beautiful reflection; and how right you are: to create is Divine. Thank you for sharing this; I've read three of Walcott's plays within the past month or so, and now you have me intrigued about Brathwaite; I'm not familiar with her/his works. I'm a doctoral student in theatre in Georgia. I haven't read Omeros either. Gosh, I've really got some reading to do!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Roy. Walcott's work in the theatre as compared to his poetry is very interesting. His plays reflect the folk sensibiliteies of the Caribbean whereas his early poems tended to be Eurocentric in terms of the synthesis he is trying to achieve. Brathwaite begins in West Africa and his synthesis is of Africa and the Caribbean.
By the time Walcott gets to Omeros, he is attempting all three: The Caribbean, West African and European.