The Problem of Memory: Reading Derek Walcott’s 'The Muse of History'

Since we are witnessing the renewal of what can be termed the battle of identities, Walcott’s work may help us to not repeat ourselves, and thereby, repeat history.

Derek Walcott. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The great Caribbean poet and Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, who expired in March last year at the age of 87, had written a provocative essay titled ‘The Muse of History’ that was published in his collection of essays, Black Moods in the Caribbean, in 1974. The purpose of Walcott’s essay is not to give us yet another view of history, but to contest available views, put certain versions of history under question. Walcott ingenuously tries to bring our attention to how radical responses to the problem of colonisation may suffer from aesthetic and ethical entrapments, as much as views that are deemed conservative. I will seek to interpret Walcott by opening up a dialogic space where his ideas meet my horizon of thinking. In other words, I would prefer to be in conversation with Walcott’s insights and see how they illuminate certain political concerns in India’s context. To be interlocutors across time and place is to enlarge the horizon of an intellectual encounter, and find out what we crucially share against history. Interpreting history is also refuting history, and seeking arguments to improve its harsh ways.

Walcott calls history the “Medusa of the New World”. The rift between the new and old world was caused by what gave birth to the very idea of old and new: colonialism. The first paradox Walcott introduces is how patrician writers, aristocrats by class, who swear by the old world and would like us to pay “our debt to the great dead”, are as much in awe of the past as those revolutionaries who want to break away from it. The patricians reject the idea of historical time for the idea of myth or mythical time, which is “the partial recall of the race”.  Walcott finds this classicist attitude to history revolutionary, where contempt for history suggests a deep affinity between the old and the new world. The patricians who forward such a view of history know that the revolutionaries, by rebelling against tradition, betray “a filial impulse” and contribute, despite themselves, to the perpetuation of the old over the new. In India, this point is completely lost in the conservative understanding of revolutionary politics, where the accusation is that revolutionaries have no respect for the past.

Walcott, however, makes the point that even though revolutionaries disrespect the past, their insistence on the new world as an exceptional moment in historical time that needs to break away from the past is trapped within a colonial legacy where an artificial break between past and present, old and new, has taken place. The idea of history forwarded by the revolutionaries endorse this artifice, betraying an exceptional lack of choice if not judgement, for their idea of the new world is impossible to ground without inventing a past suitable for rejection.

The argument made with exceptional subtlety by Walcott is that the past is fed as an idea by both conservative aristocrats and the revolutionaries as different versions of simultaneity, where the schizophrenic reality of colonialism plays itself out. Colonialism, in its most lasting capacity, produces an attitude to and system of knowledge that has not yet been able to deal with this artificial break in historical time. Walcott persuades us to believe that conservatives are aware that “maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.” Is Walcott recommending assimilation as a possible attitude that may help us overcome the structure of colonial experience, knowledge and time? But the idea of “maturity”, as we know, is a Kantian ideal for gaining enlightenment and that takes us straight into the pedagogical motive of the colonial project. Or maybe the maturity Walcott suggests is a different, oriental (but not orientalised) maturity, where the colonised can shrug off meanings they attach to themselves from the coloniser’s perspectives.

Nehru in The Discovery of India sounds closest to this assimilationist project, for he neither accepts nor debunks the past. In The Discovery, Nehru observes: “I know that in India the Communist Party is completely divorced from, and is ignorant of, the national traditions that fill the minds of the people. It believes that communism necessarily implies a contempt for the past.” He goes ahead to give a paradoxical idea of progress: “National progress can, therefore, neither lie in a repetition of the past nor in its denial.” Nehru puts forward an idea of the present as a critical variation of the past. Progress is to be measured by its evaluative aspect. The responsibility expected of modern minds is to think the present by retrieving all that is valuable from the past. At other moments in the same book, Nehru endorses the erasure of the past: “Some Hindus talk of going back to the Vedas; some Moslems dream of an Islamic theocracy. Idle fancies, for there is no going back to the past; there is no turning back even if this was thought desirable. There is only one-way traffic in Time.” We were forced into modern time, and its benefits are too stark to ignore. In terms of values, Nehru was clear what those benefits were, and what India must aspire to: scientific temperament in thought, equality in social relations and industrialisation for economic growth. Nehru’s three main prescriptions for progress were part of the larger discourse of social democracy in the West. The Marxist thinker, Walter Benjamin, critiqued this idea.

For Benjamin, any theory of humanity as a whole is untenable. The concrete social reality of so-called humanity lies in its class contradictions. Progress that goes hand-in-hand with what Benjamin called the “homogenous and empty time” of capitalism is a false idea. This universal idea of progress, in Benjamin’s perspective, needs to be critiqued along with “the concept of progress itself.” But this critical approach towards the idea of progress does not deter Benjamin from offering his own (liberating) idea of what progress might mean from a revolutionary standpoint. For him, real progress is a rupture within homogenous and empty time by what he called “messianic time”. Taking recourse to theological imagery, Benjamin rather poetically advances the thought that real, or genuine progress is a rupture in the homogenous and empty time of capitalism, where the most neglected and victimised dead in history find voice. Progress, writes Benjamin, is “a storm is blowing from Paradise”.  This idea is deeply attached to how Benjamin envisages historical past. If the dead victims of history have to come alive, the past needs to be imagined and resurrected. Such an event alone will ensure a rupture in historical time and open up possibilities of a genuine future. Taking the example of Jews, Benjamin says the future in fact has always been forbidden territory and we need to seize it. The idea of the future through rupture is Benjamin’s revolutionary prescription.

Walcott in his essay treats memory, the entity that provides our psychological link with the past, as the central problem in the modern reconstruction of history, both by victors and victims. This is where Walcott decisively differs and departs from both Benjamin’s revolutionary relation with the historical past as well as Nehru’s nationalist reworking of a cultural past.

In The Discovery of India, Nehru forwards the idea of collective remembering. Credit: Photo Division

Benjamin makes the provocative argument that the task of revolutionary politics is “to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger”. The politics of memory is a rupture to the idea of tradition that exists as “the tool of the ruling classes”. The language of memory, carrying the voices of oppressed people including women, echoes “those who have been silenced”. This for Benjamin is the “secret protocol” the present shares with the past. In her conversation with Cornell West in 2009, Judith Butler endorsed this point by Benjamin, reasserting how “undocumented or un-archived history of oppression emerges within our contemporary life and makes us rethink the histories we have told about how we got from one place in history to the present.”

In The Discovery of India, Nehru forwards the idea of collective remembering: “India has a long memory.” This statement is misleading if India represents a singular identity or construct vis-à-vis its relation to memory. If India has a long memory, that memory is many memories, often in conflict with each other. Just as India’s history is far from a stable one, so is its memory. India’s long (cultural) memory is political in nature, and being political, it is a battleground of contestations.  Nehru spells out his idea of memory when he defines nationalism: “Nationalism is essentially a group memory of past achievements, traditions, and experiences.” Colonialism raised the political necessity to excavate a cultural memory that would help the nation to counter the hegemony of colonial discourse. Nehru, however, offers an interesting caution: “Human beings with their unique quality of possessing memory live in their storied and remembered pasts and seldom catch up to the present.” Memory appears to limit the idea of the past, and hinder our relation with the present.

How to address the breach between remembering and the present? Ambedkar, in Annihilation of Caste, quotes John Dewey: “Every society gets encumbered with what is trivial, with dead wood from the past, and with what is positively perverse.” Here, Ambedkar has Hindu society in mind, and he wants the Hindus to “consider whether they should conserve the whole of their social heritage, or select what is helpful and transmit to future generations only that much [my emphasis]”. Nehru writes something very similar with a paradoxical concern: “Our lives are encumbered with the dead wood of this past; all that is dead and has served its purpose has to go. But that does not mean a break with, or a forgetting of, the vital and life-giving in that past.” Nehru prescribes, neither too much remembering, nor forgetting. To it we may add Dewey’s point that there is a deep perversity at play in seeking our ties with the past. What sort of perversity? Ambedkar puts it plainly in Annihilation, “The existence of Caste and Caste Consciousness has served to keep the memory of past feuds between castes green, and has prevented solidarity.” India’s long memory includes the memory of caste and its perversities.

From Walcott’s point of view, Ambedkar is right in suggesting a relation between memory and the persistence of caste consciousness. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Walcott offers an interesting twist to the question of historical memory. He is restlessly critical of writers and poets of the ‘New World’, who continue to pay homage to what he calls the ‘muse of history’. Walcott feels the classicists alone understood the perils of understanding history through memory. If history is Medusa, memory is a tricky Muse, and it isn’t a good idea for victims of history to trust either. Historical truth is a fictional project in service of a mercurial muse, and modern (and postcolonial) writers and poets, according to Walcott, erred in producing a literature of recrimination, despair and revenge when written by descendants of slaves, or a literature of remorse when by descendants of masters. The language of both hero and victim straddle between two shallow options: polemic or pathos. History enforces in post-colonial poets and writers a sense of “shame and awe” that translates, according to Walcott, into a language of “enslavement”. We are left with mere “rage for identity” and a respect for “incoherence or nostalgia”. Walcott does not find this excess of bitterness liberating for the victim. Worse, this leaves no room for “wonder”. Wonder is the capacity to think and imagine the new, of what lies (and beholds us) outside the logic of history. The tougher choice, according to Walcott, would be to have a perspective that “neither explains nor forgives” history. The victim who has already faced enough turmoil need not pay obeisance to that history by remembering it within the limits set by (colonial, patriarchal, Brahminical) power.

Walcott finds this tough and liberating response in Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda’s poetry. These two poets evoke a vision of what Walcott calls the “Adamic” or the “elemental man”. Walcott is willing to throw the renewal of historical vitality into the mythic domain, in order to transcend the pathologies of identity. Adam is in relation to no one, except Eve. But Adam and Eve are not identities. Christianity marks their relationship with temptation and sin, a problem that does not occur in the Judaic and Islamic versions. Eve does not tempt is the first feminist assertion within mythology. It saves Adam from the accusation of sin. If Eve is not guilty of temptation, Adam is not guilty of sin. Guilt is the poison myth has bequeathed history, and we need to overcome it in order to recover the Adamic, the elemental. Is it the recovery of an origin? Perhaps, but an origin before discourse, before limits set by the morality accorded to temptation and sin. Guilt is the bastard child of that morality. What remains of the vitality of Adam? Perhaps, desire. In the freedom to desire and be desired, lies our elemental possibilities.

Since we are witnessing the renewal of what can be termed the battle of identities, Walcott’s point may help us to not repeat ourselves, and thereby, repeat history. Our relation to the other is tarnished by history. Our memory of that relation is a mess. The act of remembering enforces in us a terrible responsibility to seek that point of origin where we can lay the blame on the other for everything that went wrong for us. Along with our grievances, we enable the resuscitation of the other as a figure that haunts our memory. Do we need to pay the price of such a historical memory, where we sacrifice new possibilities for the old? Certainly not, in Walcott’s view. And that needs, apart from a critique of history, a critique of identity. That fixed origin (of a law) that denies us desire, hence, freedom.

From Walcott’s point of view, Ambedkar is right in suggesting a relation between memory and the persistence of caste consciousness. There is a necessity to disable the tool (of memory) that helps run the consciousness of caste. The “elemental privilege of naming the new world which annihilates history” in the words of Walcott, echoes Ambedkar’s dream of annihilating caste. This gesture is more radical than what Benjamin envisaged, where the anxiety to correct (and correctly remember) history dominates the will to be free. The project of annihilation (and annihilative liberation) needs a fiercer axe to disrupt the continuum of history. Nehru’s prescription of neither remembering nor forgetting comes close, but is still anxious of that elusive thing we call the present. What is the present without the past? Can the present be, without the past? Is it possible to enter another history, to meet the other without the rules of self-identity? These are questions I am left with. All I know in my heart, in the heart of this present tense of being, is that in the liberation of the other alone lies my liberation.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.