The Dystopian Freedom: An Analysis of Derek Walcott’s “The Star Apple Kingdom”
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quite and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rat’s feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar (Eliot, n. pag.)
Darker grew the cloud as the storm brewed in the dying days of the worlds, rift apart between the wars – a subsequent loss of trust, humanity and integrity took place. Once the apocalyptic memory began to subside, it brought through TS Eliot, a sudden gush of the Indian Upanishadic dictate: the famous story of the birds in the Manduka. What Eliot sought to explain through the Indian text was man was at the same moment, filled with negativity and bereft of desire. The desire of the ideal state was fast regressing while there came, a growth of mutual hatred in each other’s ideals. It was imminent to convey through this stream that modern era was set to fall short of the fulfilment of harmony. Since the advent of postmodern era, most of the nations lost their yearning of the ideal state that modern age was concerned about. The loss of order, integrity and faith should have actually ushered in an idea – the idea of vendetta, as resonated in through the 1605, Guy Fawkes episode of The House of Lords blow-up conspiracy:
“Remember, remember the fifth of November of gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gun powder treason should ever be forgot.” (McTeigue)
Vendetta was not always a mask of destruction; it was also a means of assertion, of pride against the world fraught with prejudice. A black skinned world imprisoned in the panopticon of the white counterpart began to pant with rage and kept on attempting to break in to liberate themselves off the chains since the sixteenth century. Their vendetta arouse out of the desire of a world to win even before the freedom of the United States. It is this vendetta that attracted the gaze of renowned Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott in whose world the idea was still absent – the vendetta of Black Power.
In the mid-twentieth century, the world observed the agitation of the Blacks against the prejudiced Whites. From Scotsboro trial (1933-34) to Martin Luther King Jr’s non- violent demonstration (1963), the United States rang with the outcry of Black Power and assertion. At an arm’s length of the cartographical location, Caribbean Islands was untouched by that political upheaval. However the history of the Caribbean Islands bears an extremely opposite montage of its mid-twentieth century stand. Post Columbus visit, the Caribbean Islands became the central hub of different nations, for example, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and France. Within a very short span of time, the islands went bereft of the Amerindian aboriginals. This hollowness or vacuum was stuffed with the emergence of the Black slaves from Africa. Between 1492 and 1870 the total number of Black slaves ‘imported’ to these islands by the British, Dutch and French colonizers were 1,665,000, 500,000 and 1,600,200 respectively (King, Russell. 24). Their importation aimed to cater the labour required in sugar cane plantations and sugar mills. Though this venture of the European colonizers was not always a peaceful one, battling this apocalypse, various records of slave revolutions are found in the Caribbean Islands during 1522 to 1832 (Rogozinski 159-160). Later on the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 and Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 passed in the British Parliament led to the total extinction of slavery in the Caribbean Islands (Charles H. 51-66). Searching for cheap labour, European colonizers started to bring in a huge number of man force from South Asia specifically India and China. In 1836, Indian labourers were sailed in to the Caribbean Island for the first time. These South Asian labourers were termed as ‘indentured labour’ by the British government. Since the start of the twentieth century the Caribbean turned into a melting pot of different races and ethnicity. The cartographical proximity of the United States and the Caribbean Islands resulted in the islands’ involvement in the two World Wars. But, strangely the Caribbean Islands could not assert the independence through the movements that were inculcated by other nations in the post-World War scenario. In spite of being stuffed with a majority of Blacks, the islands could not find a mutual unanimity between themselves. Between 1958 and 1962, the most of the British-controlled islands were joined together and an attempt was made to create West Indies Federation. But, ultimately, that endeavour was failed. This collapse of West Indies Federation basically closed the chance of constructing a new identity based ideology which might have captured the political tabula rasa of the newly born country. Finally between 1962 and 1983, the islands achieved freedom from colonial subjugation individually. Unlike other colonies, freedom was achieved without shading even a drop of blood; sovereignty was realized not through the barrel of gun, or through political activism, but through silent negotiations of transfer of power. “Freedom rang”, but it rang without the intoxication of indigenous culture, it rang without the celebration of personal freedom, space, and values. The freedom thus appropriated from the colonial masters, lacked the essence of self – “the black self”. It resonated without the assertion of the black values, and idiosyncrasies of black culture. But it continued with the ‘given’ values and cultural codes of the colonial power and the old world order continued without disruption and they could never celebrate the element of difference or distinction like many other colonies on whom freedom dawned after a protracted night of colonial subjugation.
Like other movements of political ideology, self-assertion and recognition of any particular race, clan, nationality, religion, linguistic group and community, ‘Black Power’ is an overtly political slogan which was intrinsically related with the movement of African descent. The movement was aimed to actualise the element of self-esteem among the people of African origin, and attempted to promote the culture, values, religion of the ‘Black’. It aimed at creating a space for itself, both cultural and political, in a world dominated by the white. Richard Wright was the first person to use this term “Black Power” in 1954 in his book with a similar trial. Later on 29 May 1966, Adam Clayton, an American statesman, in his speech at Howard University, refers to this concept of Black Power. He argued that the primal exercise of Black power is to restore parity, equality among the Black and the White – “to demand these God given rights is to seek black power” (Shapiro, n. pag.). Hence the concept of Black power was impregnated with the element of rebelliousness. Clayton’s speech at Howard University was an invocation to the black community to asseverate their rights to equality, the path to that end was immaterial. Many votaries of Black Power have different opinion regarding its establishment in the political order of the world. In 1959 Robert F. Williams, President of the Monroe, North Carolina Chapter of NAACP advocated the use of violence towards that end. Prominent Black leaders like Ella Baker and James Forman also supported the use of violence to realise the desired goal. But legendary activist and Nobel award winner for Peace, Martin Luther King Jr., has always vehemently protested the use of violence for vindication of the rights of the black people in America. King like Gandhi, has always propagated the acceptance of non-violence in their pursuit to achieve the ever eluding dream of making a claim over the land of dreams. In his speech in 1967, King said, “Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout ‘White power!’ – when nobody will shout ‘Black Power!’ – but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.” King in his book – Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? – considers Black Power as the principal impediment in establishing a cordial relationship among the two communities. King said:
In the final analysis the weakness of Black Power is its failure to see that the black man needs the white man and the white man needs the black man. However much we may try to romanticize the slogan, there is no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white paths, and there is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity. We are bound together in a single garment of destiny. The language, the cultural patterns, the music, the material prosperity, and even the food of America are an amalgam of black and white. (King 117)
But unfortunately the younger generation failed to share the vision of King. They rather reposed their faith in the old school of thought, comprising Black activists like Frederick Douglas. In the words of Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. ... Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will (Bobo, n. pag.)”.
The concerted effort to mobilise Black Power during nineteen sixties and seventies in United States of America might have affected the Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott. Thus when in 1979 St. Lucia island achieved freedom, it failed to overwhelm him in a manner as a historic moment like independence of one’s own country should do. When few parts of the Occident and the Orient were witnessing a transition phase from the modern era to the postmodern, the seamless transition of St. Lucia into the lap of freedom did not fill the heart of the poet with hope and joy. He never felt the urge to peer into the future of the country with dreamy eyes. In 1963, when Martin Luther King was delivering his historic speech, “I Have a Dream”, at the same point of time (1958-1962) the process of the formation of West Indies Federation in the British occupied Caribbean islands got suspended. Walcott could never accept this change. In 1962, when two principal islands of the Caribbean group of islands got independence from the British subjugation, the old world order was never replaced by a new vibrant ideology, life in those islands carried on with their wretched routine existence. In the due course of time, other islands of the Caribbean group of islands achieved freedom, and attained a state of simulacra.
In 1979, after St. Lucia achieved its freedom, Walcott voiced his dissent through this poem, “The Star Apple Kingdom”. The poem can be perceived as Walcott’s loss of a utopian state, a dream state that would work for the welfare of the people, replace the rotten, tyrannical and totalitarian regime. The independence not only failed to assert the ideology of the Black Power, but it also witnessed the overwhelming presence of the colonial system in the functioning of the state machinery; it also failed to draw curtain on the miseries of the citizens. The poem “The Star Apple Kingdom” by Derek Walcott principally is divided into three parts to narrate his sense of disappointment, they are: the propensity to cling with the age old socio-political tradition, celebration and veneration of western ideology over indigenous myth and culture and absence of polemical protest in response to exploitation of the citizens. The poem expresses its mistrust on this current socio-political condition through narrative technique and symbolism. The first stanza of the poem delineated the disintegration of the concept of an ideal state, and consequently replication of the constructed ideology of the colonial framework. The prevalent state has been narrated through the employment of the Caribbean myth and history:
“There were still shards of an ancient pastoral
in those shires of the island where the cattle drank
their pools of shadow from an older sky,
surviving from when the landscape copied such objects as
‘Herefords at Sunset in the valley of the Wye.’” (Walcott, n. pag.)
The initial three lines of the stanza describes the natural beauty of the land, which has succeeded in preserving its characteristic; but the poet is miffed at the constant attempt of transforming the landscape into “Herefords at sunset in the valley of the Wye”. The abhorring tendency of transforming the rustic ambience of Caribbean islands into the picturesque surroundings of United Kingdom is an attempt to perpetuate the values instilled by the colonial masters. Hence the first stanza symbolically insinuates at the deterioration of the idea of an ideal state. It is almost a surrealistic portrayal of an apocalyptic decay:
And there were, like old wedding lace in an attic,
among the boas and parasols and the tea-colored
daguerreotypes, hints of an epochal happiness
as ordered and infinite to the child
as the great house road to the Great House
down a perspective of casuarinas plunging green manes
in time to the horses, an orderly life
reduced by lorgnettes day and night, one disc the sun,
the other the moon, reduced into a pier glass:
nannies diminished to dolls, mahogany stairways
no larger than those of an album in which
the flash of cutlery yellows, as gamboge as
the piled cakes of teatime on that latticed
bougainvillea verandah that looked down toward
a prospect of Cuyp-like Herefords under a sky
lurid as a porcelain souvenir with these words:
‘Herefords at Sunset in the Valley of the Wye.’ (Walcott, n. pag.)
The quoted lines through different examples comments upon the deformation of an ideal state; phrases like ‘reduced into a pier glass’, ‘diminished to dolls’ highlights the glaring state of affairs in the Caribbean island. The poet is also highly critical of the sense of ‘History’ in the independent St. Lucia and Caribbean islands. The History of the state never acknowledges the slave tradition and extinction of aborigines, but has blatantly complied with the colonial version of history, approved by parish (a Church territorial unit): “... in tongues/ of Mission School pickaninnies, like rivers remembering/ their source, Parish Trelawny, Parish St David, Parish St Andrew... (Walcott, n. pag.)”.
The third stanza of poem witnesses the entry of male character, who represents the eternally exploited inhabitants of the land, and has always dreamt of an ideal state. But lack of guidance has transformed hope into despair. The male character displays characteristic resemblance with different places of the Caribbean island. The ‘Great House’ on the other hand represents the contemporary government, which in turn shares a complex equation with the people of the land; they are forced to reconcile with the failure of their dreams. The pain of a failed aspiration, desire, is equated with a barrenness, creativity is nipped from its root:
He saw the fountains dried of quadrilles, the water-music
of the country dancers, the fiddlers like fifes
put aside. He had to heal
this malarial island in its bath of bay leaves,
its forests tossing with fever, the dry cattle
groaning like winches, the grass that kept shaking
its head to remember its name. No vowels left
in the mill wheel, the river. Rock stone. Rock stone. (Walcott, n. pag.)
In the fourth stanza, the male character enters into a state of trance. This state of trance is an amalgamation of different Caribbean myths, but it lacks the romanticism of a formative nation. Negating the organised movement of the Black Americans in the neighbouring country, the dreamlike state is an indictment of the continuation of the colonial tradition. Between 1967 and 1979, St. Lucia was considered to be an associated state of the United Kingdom and even after its political independence, it became an active member of Commonwealth of Nations and accepted Queen Elizabeth II as its titular head. The poet could never come to terms with the shameless reconciliation of the state with its colonial masters, who in the past had carried out systematic persecution of the common masses. Even in the post-colonial era this symbolical subjugation was never acceptable to Walcott. He has vehemently supported the emergence of the Black power in the neighbouring country. Walcott has always been critical of religion, he considers the inability to protest, and failed attempt to establish an ideal state as the vitiating influence of religion. He has tried to establish that religion has debilitating influence on masses, it robs them of their willingness to act. The male character in the poem is not immune to the influence of the religion, he has lost his assertive power and has transformed himself into a docile, law abiding citizen of a presumably free state.
Revolution as a force is represented by a female character, she upholds the spirit of revolution and tries to mobilise the inert male character to act. She tries to draw him out of the paralyzing effect of religious faith:
... a black woman, shawled like a buzzard,
climbed up the stairs and knocked at the door
of his dream, whispering in the ear of the keyhole:
‘Let me in, I’m finished with praying, I’m the Revolution.
I am the darker, the older America.’ (Walcott, n. pag.)
The final stanza is a description of that revolutionary spirit:
She was as beautiful as a stone in the sunrise,
her voice had the gutturals of machine guns
across khaki deserts where the cactus flower
detonates like grenades, her sex was the slit throat
of an Indian, her hair had the blue-black sheen of the crow. (Walcott, n. pag.)
In spite of the repeated attempt of the female spirit, she could not draw him out from his trance like state. The female character is the unfulfilled desire of a state of rebellion for an ideal state, an ellipse between the desire and the reality, the vision and the chaos, the fertile and the sterile. The male character represents the contemporary reality, rootlessness and milieu of cultural callousness:
Now she stroked his hair
until it turned white, but she would not understand
that he wanted no other power but peace,
that he wanted a revolution without any bloodshed,
he wanted a history without any memory,
streets without statues,
and a geography without myth. He wanted no armies
but those regiments of bananas, thick lances of cane,
and he sobbed, 'I am powerless, except for love.'
She faded from him, because he could not kill;
she shrunk to a bat that hung day and night
in the back of his brain. (Walcott, n. pag.)
Though the poem is a lament of an elusive freedom and the absence of a rebellion to establish an ideal state, it is also an assertion of poet’s faith in the idea of revolution. His despair, gloom, failed hopes and aspirations could not shake his unflinching faith in the “idea” of revolution.
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- Walcott, Derek. The Star-Apple Kingdom. 1979. (Web. 20 March 2017). <https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-star-apple-kingdom/>