Monday, April 26, 2010

Race in the Symbolic Universe 1: Caliban

The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery. . . . For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.
—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

There's a young black boy on my job and those white cats have made him tell them so many lies about what they call his love life that he can't tell whether he's coming or going. They want to believe that we screw like dogs or cats—you know, just go out there and get you a piece, just like they might scratch their backs or get a glass of water. . . Another thing, if we were just like dogs, then all the rotten things they have done and are doing to us would be okay!
—Clifford Yancy, in John Langston Gwaltney, Drylongso

This is a series of short pieces dealing with the representation of race in American culture:
  • Shakespeare's Caliban
  • Sam Clemens at the Cotton Club: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Inter-Racial Sex: A Passage to India and Light in August
  • The Hollywood Version: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  • The Funkified Standard Version of the American Dream: The Cosby Show
The first follows immediately in this post. I’ll post the rest over the next week or three.

Shakespeare's Caliban

The symbolic universe of white America originated in Europe. And Europeans had, by the late Renaissance, developed an image of blacks. In The White Man's Burden, Winthrop D. Jordan showed that Europeans were disposed to see blacks as strongly emotional and sensual, qualities they were coming to reject in themselves. In the late Renaissance blacks were likened to beasts. In Bacon's New Atlantis (1624) the "Spirit of Fornication" was depicted as "a little foul ugly Æthiop" (Jordan, p. 19). Jordan notes that Englishmen "were especially inclined to discover attributes in savages which they found first, but could not speak of, in themselves". Thus before the European settlers of North America had any substantial contact with Africans, they had a lascivious place prepared in their symbol system through which to understand and interact with them.

We can see this symbol system in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Its central figure, Prospero, is a magician who calls storms into being and conjures visions before the eyes of the other characters. In this conjuring he enacts the dramatist's role. Prospero is Shakespeare's symbolic representation of his own role in life and The Tempest is his statement about the nature and purpose of dramatic art. In this play Shakespeare presents his symbolic universe, a symbolic universe which has been central to the imaginative life of European culture. In his plays Shakespeare drew on a wide variety of sources, but The Tempest is his own through and through. In it, he distilled all he had embraced in his career and presented the essence. What role does he assign to Africans?

There is one character in the play, Caliban, who is generally thought to embody European views of Africans. Stephano, one of the strangers shipwrecked on Prospero's island, remarks thus of Caliban on first seeing him (2.2.58-72):
What's the matter? Have we devils here? Do you put tricks upon 's with savages and men of Inde, ha? I have not scaped drowning to be afeard now of your four legs. . . . This is some monster of the isle, with four legs, who hath got, as I take it, an ague. Where the devil should he learn our language? . . . If I can recover him, and keep him tame, and get to Naples with him, he's a present for any emperer that ever trod on neat's leather.
Caliban was, in point of mythical fact, the son of Sycorax, a witch who lived on the island when Prospero arrived. Prior to the time of the play, Prospero taught him to speak and made him his slave. Then Caliban fell from Prospero's favor after attempting to rape Miranda. During the play Caliban is part of a ludicrous plot to overthrow Prospero—which will then give him sexual access to Miranda. Thus Caliban is plagued with the sexuality which Europeans have been seeing in non-Europeans, especially Africans, ever since they began to trade with and to conquer them.

However, when the overthrow plot is finally foiled, Prospero asserts of Caliban that "this thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine" (5.1.275 - 276). What does Prospero mean by this? Having regarded Caliban as his slave, there is no point in acknowledging that relationship, for that ownership and masterhood is taken for granted. The only thing which makes sense is that Prospero is now taking responsibility for Caliban's rebellious and sexual ways. That means that, in some sense, Prospero now regards them as his own rebellious and sexual ways. Prospero and Caliban are one being, with Prospero representing the conscious desires and Caliban the unconscious.

We don't have to push this very far to get into waters deep and dark. For, Caliban had originally fallen from favor for attempting to rape Miranda, Prospero's daughter. If Caliban is but an agent for Prospero's own repressed desire, then it was Prospero who had, unconsciously, desired to rape his daughter. With this acknowledgement, we are now in the psychological realm pioneered by Sigmund Freud. The notion of unconscious sexual desire between members of the same family was shocking in Freud's day, as it is in ours. But in our day, incest has become the kind of shock which is discussed on talk shows and in tabloids. We are, at last, trying to deal with such matters.

Modern film-makers, for example, can be freer and more explicit about the relationship between the conscious and unconscious than Shakespeare could ever have been. For example, Forbidden Planet is a science fiction film from the mid-fifties and was based loosely on The Tempest. Instead of a nobleman/magician marooned on an island in the Mediterranean we have a brilliant scientist, one Dr. Morbius, marooned on a distant planet. Instead of the sprite Ariel to do Prospero's bidding, we have Robbie the Robot. Instead of Caliban the man-monster, we have the Monster from the Id. Recognizing the symbolic connection between Caliban and the id of Freudian psychology, these film-makers made that connection explicit by naming the monster after that very id. In the movie, the monster arose when Morbius's unconscious somehow linked up with a fantastic power-generating system left behind by an ancient, and now dead, civilization. A connection which Shakespeare had only hinted at was made more explicit by post-Freudian film-makers of the fifties.

Returning to Shakespeare, the point is that, however great his artistry, he was not exempt from standard European prejudice. He painted Caliban with the same brush Europeans used to paint their pictures of Africa and Africans. However, he did, just barely, manage to indicate that the colors and forms in that picture came, not from Africa, but from himself, from Europe. Whatever Africans were really like, their picture was European, painted to meet European psychological needs. Caliban was Prospero's creature, acting out those desires which Prospero himself could not acknowledge.

The Tempest was written in 1611 and first performed in 1612. The first blacks, twenty of them, arrived in North America at Jamestown in 1619. While a culture's symbolic universe can change over time, the necessary time span is greater than the seven or eight years between The Tempest and Jamestown. The symbolic universe Shakespeare presented in his play is the same one inhabited by the Jamestown colonists. Their twenty blacks would represent the same forces to them that Caliban represented to Shakespeare and his audience. African cultural reality would be forced to bow to the intense pressure of European psychological need.

cross-posted at The Valve

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