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Caliban and Other Essays

Roberto Fernandez Retamar

Translated by Edward Baker Foreword by Fredric Jameson

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

Caliban:

Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America

A Question

A European journalist, and moreover a leftist, asked me a few days ago, “Docs a Latin-American culture exist?” We were discussing, naturally enough, the recent polemic regarding Cuba that ended by confronting, on the one hand, certain bourgeois European intellectuals (or aspirants to that state) with a visible colonialist nostalgia; and on the other, that body of Latin-American writers and artists who reject open or veiled forms of cultural and political colonialism. The question seemed to me to reveal one of the roots of the polemic and, hence, could also be expressed another way: “Do you exist?” For to question our culture is to question our very existence, our human reality itself, and thus to be willing to take a stand in favor of our irremediable colonial condition, since it suggest that we would be but a distorted echo of what occurs elsewhere. This elsewhere is of course the metropolis, the colonizing centers, whose “right wings” have exploited us and whose supposed ‘ ‘left wings” have pretended and continue to pretend to guide us with pious solicitude—in both cases with the assistance of local intermediaries of varying persuasions.

While this fate is to some extent suffered by all countries emerging from colonialism—those countries of ours that enterprising metropolitan intellectuals have ineptly and successively termed
barbarians, peoples of color, underdevela

This article appeared for the first time in
Casa de Las Americas
(Havana), 68 (September-October 1971). It is that journal, and that issue specifically, to which the author refers in the text.

oped countries, Third World—I
think the phenomenon achieves a singular crudeness with respect to what Marti called "our
mestizo
America." Although the thesis that every man and even every culture is
mestizo
could easily be defended and although this seems especially valid in the case of colonies, it is nevertheless apparent that in both their ethnic and their cultural aspects capitalist countries long ago achieved a relative homogeneity. Almost before our eyes certain readjustments have been made. The white population of the United States (diverse, but of common European origin) exterminated the aboriginal population and thrust the black population aside, thereby affording itself homogeneity in spite of diversity and offering a coherent model that its Nazi disciples attempted to apply even to other European conglomerates—an unforgivable sin that led some members of the bourgeoisie to stigmatize in Hitler what they applauded
as
a healthy Sunday diversion in westerns and Tarzan films. Those movies proposed to the world— and even to those of us who are kin to the communities under attack and who rejoiced in the evocation of our own extermination—the monstrous racial criteria that have accompanied the United Sates from its beginnings to the genocide in Indochina. Less apparent (and in some cases perhaps less cruel) is the process by which other capitalist countries have also achieved relative racial and cultural homogeneity at the expense of
internal
diversity.

Nor can any necessary relationship be established between
mestizaje
[“racial intermingling, racial mixture”— ed. note] and the colonial world. The latter is highly complex
1
despite basic structural affinities of its parts. It has included countries with well-defined millennial cultures, some of which have suffered (or are presently suffering) direct occupation (India, Vietnam), and others of which have suffered indirect occupation (China). It also comprehends countries with rich cultures but less political homogeneity, which have been subjected to extremely diverse forms of colonialism (the Arab world). There are other peoples, finally, whose fundamental structures were savagely dislocated by the dire activity of the European despite which they continue to preserve a certain ethnic and cultural homogeneity (black Africa). (Indeed, the latter has occurred despite the colonialists’ criminal and unsuccessful attempts to prohibit it.) In these countries
mestizaje
naturally exists to a greater or lesser degree, but it is always accidental and always on the fringe of the central line of development.

But within the colonial world there exists a case unique to
the entire planet:
a vast zone for which
mestizaje
is not an accident but rather the essence, the central line: ourselves, ‘ ‘our mestizo America. ’ ’ Marti, with his excellent knowledge of the language, employed this specific adjective as the distinctive sign of our culture—a culture of descendants, both ethnically and culturally speaking, of aborigines, Africans, and Europeans. In his “Letter from Jamaica” (1815), the Liberator, Simdn Bolfvar, had proclaimed, ‘ ‘We are a small human species: we possess a world encircled by vast seas, new in almost all its arts and sciences.” In his message to the Congress of Angostura (1819), he added:

Let us bear in mind that our people is neither European nor North American, but a composite of Africa and America rather than an emanation of Europe; for even Spain fails as a European people because of her African blood, her institutions, and her character. It is impossible to assign us with any exactitude to a specific human family. The greater part of the native peoples has been annihilated; the European has mingled with the American and with the African, and the African has mingled with the Indian and with the European. Born from the womb of a common mother, our fathers, different in origin and blood, are foreigners; all differ visibly in the epidermis, and this dissimilarity leaves marks of the greatest transcendence.

Even in this century, in a book as confused as the author himself but full of intuitions
(La raza cosmica,
1925), the Mexican Jose Vasconcelos pointed out that in Latin America a new race was being forged, “made with the treasure of all previous ones, the final race, the cosmic race.”
2

This singular fact lies at the root of countless misunderstandings. Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Arab, or African cultures may leave the Euro-North American enthusiastic, indifferent, or even depressed. But it would never occur to him to confuse a Chinese with a Norwegian, or a Bantu with an Italian; nor would it occur to him to ask whether they exist. Yet, on the other hand, some Latin Americans are taken at times for apprentices, for rough drafts or dull copies of Europeans, including among these latter whites who constitute what Marti called “European America.” In the same way, our entire culture is taken as an apprenticeship, a rough draft or a copy of European bourgeois culture (“an emanation of Europe,” as Bolivar said). This last error is more frequent than the the first, since confusion of a Cuban with an Englishman, or a Guatemalan with a German, tends
to
be impeded by a certain ethnic tenacity. Here the
rioplatenses
appear to be less ethnically, although not culturally, differentiated. The confusion lies in the root itself, because as descendants of numerous Indian, African, and European communities, we have only a few languages with which to understand one another: those of the colonizers. While other colonials or ex-colonials in metropolitan centers speak among themselves in their own language, we Latin Americans continue to use the languages of our colonizers. These are the linguas francas capable of going beyond the frontiers that neither the aboriginal nor Creole languages succeed in crossing. Right now as we are discussing, as I am discussing with those colonizers, how else can I do it except in one of their languages, which is now also
our
language, and with so many of their conceptual tools, which are now also
our
conceptual tools? This is precisely the extraordinary outcry that we read in a work by perhaps the most extraordinary writer of fiction who ever existed. In
The Tempest,
William Shakespeare’s last play, the deformed Caliban—enslaved, robbed of his island, and trained to speak by Prospero—rebukes Prospero thus: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!”(l. 2.362-64).

Toward the History of Caliban

Caliban is Shakespeare's anagram for “cannibal,” an expression that he had already used to mean “anthropophagies,” in the third part of
Henry JV
and in
Othello
and that comes in turn from the word
carib.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, whom they resisted heroically, the Carib Indians were the most valiant and warlike inhabitants of the very lands that we occupy today. Their name lives on in the name Caribbean Sea (referred to genially by some as the American Mediterranean, just as if we were to call the Mediterranean the Caribbean of Europe). But the name
carib
in itself—as well as in its deformation,
cannibal—
has been perpetuated in the eyes of Europeans above all as a defamation. It is the term in this sense that Shakespeare takes up and elaborates into a complex symbol. Because of its exceptional importance to us, it will be useful to trace its history in some detail.

In the
Diario de Navegacion
[Navigation logbooks] of Columbus there appear the first European accounts of the men who were to occasion the symbol in question. On Sunday, 4 November 1492, less than a month after Columbus arrived on the continent that was to be called America, the following entry was inscribed: “He learned also that far from the place there were men with one eye and others with dogs’ muzzles, who ate human beings.”
3
On 23 November, this entry: “ [the island of Haiti], which they said was very large and that on it lived people who had only one eye and others called cannibals, of whom they seemed to be very afraid.” On 11 December it is noted “ . . . that
caniba
refers in fact to the people of El Gran Can,
1
’ which explains the deformation undergone by the name
carib
—also used by Columbus. In the very letter of 15 February 1493, “dated on the caravel off the island of Canaria” in which Columbus announces to the world his “discovery,” he writes: “I have found, then, neither monsters nor news of any, save for one island [Quarives], the second upon entering the Indies, which is populated with people held by everyone on the islands to be very ferocious, and who eat human flesh.”
4

This
carib!cannibal
image contrasts with another one of the American man presented in the writings of Columbus: that of the
Arauaco
of the Greater Antilles—our
Taino
Indian primarily—whom he describes as peaceful, meek, and even timorous and cowardly. Both visions of the American aborigine will circulate vertiginously throughout Europe, each coming to know its own particular development: The Taino will be transformed into the paradisical inhabitant of a utopic world; by 1516 Thomas More will publish his
Utopia,
the similarities of which to the island of Cuba have been indicated, almost to the point of rapture, by Ezequiel Martinez Estrada.
5
The Carib, on the other hand, will become a
cannibal—an
anthropophagous, a bestial man situated on the margins of civilization, who must be opposed to the very death. But there is less of a contradiction than might appear at first glance between the two visions; they constitute, simply, options in the ideological arsenal of a vigorous emerging bourgeoisie. Francisco de Quevedo translated "utopia” as “there is no such place.” With respect to these two visions, one might add, “There is no such man.” The notion of an Edenic creature comprehends, in more contemporary terms, a working hypothesis for the bourgeois left, and, as such, offers an ideal model of the perfect society free from the constrictions of that feudal world against which the bourgeoisie is in fact struggling. Generally speaking, the utopic vision throws upon these lands projects for political reforms unrealized in the countries of origin. In this sense its line of development is far from extinguished. Indeed, it meets with certain per-petuators—apart from its radical perpetrators, who are the consequential revolutionaries—in the numerous advisers who unflaggingly propose to countries emerging from colonialism magic formulas from the metropolis to solve the grave problems colonialism has left us and which, of course, they have not yet resolved in their own countries. It goes without saying that these proponents of "There is no such place" are irritated by the insolent fact that the place
does
exist and, quite naturally, has all the virtues and defects not of a project but of genuine reality.

As for the vision of the
cannibal,
it corresponds — also in more contemporary terms—to the right wing of that same bourgeoisie. It belongs to the ideological arsenal of politicians of action, those who perform the dirty work in whose fruits the charming dreamers of utopias will equally share. That the Caribs were as Columbus (and, after him, an unending throng of followers) depicted them is about as probably as the existence of one-eyed men, men with dog muzzles or tails, or even the Amazons mentioned by the explorer in pages where Greco-Roman mythology, the medieval bestiary, and the novel of chivalry all play their part. It is a question of the typically degraded vision offered by the colonizer of the man he is colonizing. That we ourselves may have at one time believed in this version only proves to what extent we are infected with the ideology of the enemy. It is typical that we have applied the term
cannibal
not to the extinct aborigine of our isles but, above all,
to the
African black who appeared in those shameful Tarzan films. For it is the colonizer who brings us together, who reveals the profound similarities existing above and beyond our secondary differences. The colonizer’s version explains to us that owing to the Caribs’ irremediable bestiality, there was no alternative to their extermination. What it does not explain is why even before the Caribs, the peaceful and kindly Arauacos were also exterminated. Simply speaking, the two groups suffered jointly one of the greatest ethnocides recorded in history. (Needless to say, this line of action is still more alive than the earlier one.) In relation to this fact, it will always be necessary to point out the case of those men who, being on the fringe both of utopianism (which has nothing to do with the actual America) and of the shameless ideology of plunder, stood in their midst opposed to the conduct of the colonialists and passionately, lucidly, and valiantly defended the flesh-and-blood aborigine. In the forefront of such men stands the magnificent figure of Father Bartolome de las Casas, whom Bolivar called “the apostle of America” and whom Martf extolled unreservedly. Unfortunately, such men were exceptions.

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