Two Poles of New World Writers in Derek Walcott’s "The Muse of History"

In his essay "The Muse of History," Walcott compares and contrasts two differing responses to the experience of colonization on the part of political activists, writers, and artists.  The classical view (as he terms it) ironically is more open to the new, while the radical view is obsessed with the past.   The classical view sees the possibilities of mixture and hybridity that the New World offers.  This doesn't mean that the classical view loses sight of the problems of the past (or present), but it nonetheless looks to changes that absorb previous oppressions.  The radical view, in Walcott's formulation, is obsessively concerned with what happened and the damage that oppression caused. As a result, it is unable to adapt and derives its power from an anger over the tragic victimization the oppressed underwent.  Walcott himself argues for the classical position.  His characterization of each breaks down like this:
  • History as a myth -- History is current with us; it surrounds us and yet can be reimagined for our benefit.
  • The New World is New -- It is a complex reconfiguration.
  • Adamic view of humanity -- Caribbean society can be reborn with wonder.
  • Renewal and Revision Polemic and Pathos
  • Language as capable of synthesis -- The speech of the Caribbean can adopt the best of all its influences.
  • Recognizes and has a horror of the colonial past
  • Literary tradition reconfigured -- The literary tradition is something that forms a part of us yet is renewable and adaptable.
  • History is annihilated/absorbed.
  • No innocence to return to
  • Both bitter and sweet
  • Rejects progress as a myth
  • Awe at the possibilities
  • Civilizations are "spiritual" -- They are made up of ever renewable ideas.
  • Seeks the future
  • Assimilates old faith in new ways
  • History as tragedy -- History is the record of our mistakes. We are but a disappointed fragment of past greatness.
  • The New World is Old -- It is a product of the past's oppressions and horrors.
  • Recrimination/Despair -- Caribbean society is trapped because of what has happened.
  • Polemic and Pathos
  • Language as enslavement -- The colonizer's speech keeps the colonized from speaking authentically.
  • The same
  • Literary tradition as stasis -- The tradition is something to be recovered.
  • History is revenged.
  • Innocence lost
  • Only cynicism
  • Despairs at the past
  • Yearning for the lost ruins
  • Civilizations are architectural -- They are focused on the decaying ruins of colonialism.
  • Caught in the past
  • Fears faith/ Chooses political humanism

From "The Muse of History"

"I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper 'history,' for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon.  You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribesman not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks.  I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift."