Reviewing Derek Walcott’s Omeros

                                        I said, “Omeros,”

and O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was
both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,
os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes

and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.
Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes
that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.

(Omeros bk. 1 ch. 2 sec. 3)

Derek Walcott’s masterful Omeros is a palimpsest. As an epic poem, it is deeply indebted to Homer; as a portrait of St Lucia, it is bound to the daily rhythm of island life. It is this tension between rootedness in the Caribbean and participation in the “global republic” of English (to borrow from Paula Burnett) that Walcott explores in his imagination of a postcolonial world. Reading Omeros means inhabiting the contradictions inherent in the postcolonial condition. Walcott’s poetic work is an extraordinarily successful exploration of modern life, all accomplished in poignant and achingly beautiful lyric verse.

The poem is structured as an odyssey, shifting from the present-day Caribbean to modern-day Europe and seventeenth-century Africa before returning to Walcott’s home island. The narrative is divided into seven books that provide a structure for the 64 chapters, each of which comprises a handful of sections. Yet the plot, such as it is, can be roughly split in three. In the first part, Achille and Hector (two fishermen) are competing for the affections of Helen against the backdrop of modernizing St Lucia. The second part of Omeros shifts to a broader view of the world by considering Philoctete and Ma Kilman. Their connections with Africa are visceral, spiritual, and deeply allegorical; in the case of Philoctete’s wound, the legacy of slavery quite literally bleeds into the present. The narrator dwells both on the horrors of the Middle Passage and the contradictions of the contemporary metropole before returning to the St Lucian town of Gros-Ilet in the concluding section. To end, the narrator turns away from history to instead depict the tourists who flood St Lucia’s beaches today: “barefoot Americans strolling into the banks— / there was a plague of them now, worse than the insects / who, at least, were natives” (1.10.3). In this third and final section, Hector dies driving these same tourists from the airport to a hotel, while Achille remains afloat as a fisherman. Continue reading Reviewing Derek Walcott’s Omeros

Engaged Scholarship and the “Organic Intellectual”

As a concentrator in Archaeology here at Brown, I am also a member of the Engaged Scholars Program. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the nature of engaged scholarship and my relationship with it. I wanted to summarize and comment on three seemingly disparate strands of engaged scholarship that I’ve recently come across: the more traditional idea of service learning; Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the “organic intellectual”; and Cornel West’s more recent evolution of this idea, as demonstrated through an essay on Martin Luther King, Jr. I end by drawing together these three thinkers and articulating a critique of dominant understandings of engaged scholarship.

Tania Mitchell

This semester,  I am in SOC 0310: Theory and Practice of Engaged Scholarship (with Allen Hance and Lynsey Ford). We’ve been talking a lot about what engaged scholarship means for the program, particularly as an evolution of “service learning.” The traditional idea was that students gain valuable skills and experiences through direct service. More recently, Tania Mitchell has encapsulated a trend away from this idea towards a kind of “critical service-learning,” which emphasizes the importance of critical reflection as a way of addressing structural and systemic issues that underlie the most apparent problems. Brown offers a number of courses that fit within this philosophy, and has recently approved the introduction of a course designation in Community-Based Learning and Research (CBLR). Indeed, I would argue that the idea of service learning (mostly in its critical form) is at the heart of engaged scholarship as the Swearer Center currently understands it. Other definitions abound. For example, as used by New England Resource Center for Higher Education, engaged scholarship focuses on the role of faculty “in a reciprocal partnership with the community, is interdisciplinary, and integrates faculty roles of teaching, research, and service.” This definition (focused on faculty) has greater ambit than the idea of service learning, which is focused on student experience. I feel that this difference points at the crux of the issue with engaged scholarship as it is currently understood — more on this later. Continue reading Engaged Scholarship and the “Organic Intellectual”

Western writing and the Church of the East in China

I wanted to write about a fascinating object called the Nestorian Stele, a block of stone inscribed with Chinese and Syriac in 781 CE. The stele is entitled Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin (大秦景教流行中國碑; pinyin: Dàqín Jǐngjiào liúxíng Zhōngguó bēi; the stele is commonly known simply as jingjiaobei). It describes the establishment of a Nestorian Christian church in China in the late antiquity, known as Beth Sinaye in Syriac and jingjiao in Chinese. The monument was erected in 781 by the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong to commemorate 150 years of Christianity in China, which had arrived with Syriac missionaries in 635 (for a concise yet thorough description see Lawton 2008). In 845 CE, the monument was buried during a period of religious suppression and was only rediscovered in 1625. From then on, there has been a steady but small stream of Western interest in the object; in 2008, a book by Michael Keevak was published entitled The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916. Continue reading Western writing and the Church of the East in China

Reading Spivak with Said

I wanted to jot down some initial thoughts about Spivak’s famous piece “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Despite the obscurantism and the great attention required to really parse Spivak’s text, reading it is ultimately a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience. The question that pervades the essay is essentially identical to that posed by Edward Said in “Always on Top” (published in the London Review of Books): “What does one do about the representation of undocumented experiences — of slaves, servants, insurgents (such as those at Morant Bay) — for which we have to depend on socially elevated, literate witnesses who have access to official records?” Said’s answer to his own question can be gleaned from his article in Critical Inquiry entitled “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors”, and more indirectly through Orientalism. Like Foucault, Said is invested in rigorous empirical work that informs, interrogates, and integrates critical theory; hence why Said responds to the criticism that his “work is only negative polemic which does not advance a new epistemological approach or method” (210). Said concludes by advocating the work of “engaged historians” whose “instigatory force … is of startling relevance to all the humanities and social sciences as they continue to struggle with the formidable difficulties of empire” (225). Continue reading Reading Spivak with Said