Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Image of the Island

In Act I, Scene ii of The Tempest, there's a speech by Miranda, which, as a footnote on page 20 of our edition tells us, "early editors often gave ... to Prospero." I agree with Dr. Maya that it makes more sense dramatically that those lines are indeed spoken by him. Hence we have the deposed Duke of Milan claiming that he "[t]ook pains to make [Caliban] speak" (I. ii. 354), replacing his "gabble" with proper "words." Caliban agrees with him--with a twist: "You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse" (363-64).

However, does that necessarily mean that Caliban did not have a language before Prospero arrived? Has he perhaps internalized Prospero's (implicit) opinion that such "gabble" is not worthy of the name language? If--and I must thank Prof. Little from Team Omega for this example--he had no "words," then how does he know the name of Setebos, his "dam's god" (374)?

For me, this connects with Montaigne's thinking on barbarism: "every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to" (Essays 82). One explanation I have heard of the etymology of the word "barbarous" is that the Greeks heard foreign languages as mere "bar-bar-bar"--gabble, in other words. One man's eloquence can be another man's nonsense. One people's poetry can be another people's gibberish. In Ireland I have heard--now, these are not typical opinions, mind--English denigrated as "trash" and Irish (Gaelic) dismissed as a "bog language." In his memoir of the Irish War of Independence, On Another Man's Wound, Ernie O' Malley recalls that in the small country town he was born in at the turn of the 20th century, "use of Irish [was] fit only for the uneducated." Let's be clear about that: this was Irish people who had that attitude towards their own ancient language. Such people, who repudiated their native culture and embraced (with perhaps some cursing) the culture of England, the colonizing culture, were known as Shoneens, or "Little Johns." (Having gone to Trinity College, Dublin, founded by Queen Elizabeth I, I'm a bit of a Shoneen myself.)

So, one the one side, we have the native who takes up, with a considerable degree of ambivalence, the language of the newcomer (can we call Prospero a colonizer?), and on the other side, the newcomer who does not recognize or acknowledge the culture, the human artifice, of what's there already (remember, that the "[s]cene" of the play is described--see page 2--as "[a]n uninhabited island"). This brings to mind a well-known and thought-provoking essay by Chinua Achebe about another significant "colonial" text: "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad'sHeart of Darkness." I don't entirely agree with Achebe's argument, but I think it's an important piece of criticism:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Two French Skeptics

I hope you all caught that interesting paradox towards the end of Dr. Ferguson's lecture yesterday on Montaigne and the experience essay: that Montaigne, champion of the particular, the personal, the experimental (writing essays being a form of testing) was also a faithful Catholic; that he remained a member of the Church he was born and baptized into--precisely because it was customary. Look at what he says about Luther on p. 370: that "he left behind in Germany as many--indeed more--discords and disagreements because of doubts about his opinions that he himself ever raised about Holy Scripture." Is it a case of "better the system you know" than a new-fangled imposition?

What Dr. Ferguson said reminded me of what our Honors College colleague Dr. David Mikics said, in an interview I'd read just a few days before, about another significant (but much more recent) French skeptic: Jaques Derrida, the godfather of deconstructionism. I was fascinated by this (italics are mine):

Derrida once said that nothing meant more to him than being a Jew—although, he added, being a Jew meant so little to him. The ambivalence is telling. Derrida had a fraught relation to religious ritual (he remembered with disgust that, in the Algeria of his youth, members of the synagogue would pay for the privilege of carrying the Torah). Like Freud, he refused to have his sons circumcised. Yet he wrote obsessively about Jewish topics, and his strongest intellectual influence in his later work was the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas. Lévinas embodied ethics and responsibility, the demand to be one’s brother’s keeper and to love one’s neighbor. These were crucial values for Derrida, and they consorted strangely with his aggressive skepticism about knowledge and truth. I think that, in the end, Derrida believed with Lévinas that ethics, the command to care for our fellow human being, is simply revelation; it cannot be philosophically demonstrated, and so it is immune to skepticism. This idea is profoundly Jewish. Derrida may not have trusted in the covenant—I can’t tell whether he did or not—but he was a Jew who saw the primal fact of ethics disclosed in the Torah and the prophets, rather than in Plato or Heidegger.

So here we have two French thinkers, four centuries apart (Montaigne was born in 1533, Derrida in 1930), both reaching the limits of skepticism and communing with ("embracing" seems too strong a verb) their religious heritage.

Or does skepticism have limits?

Here's the link to the full interview with Dr. Mikics. [RCremins]