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:

No comments:

Post a Comment