Published in 1969 Césaire’s A Tempest, can be placed not only under a Cold War context but also at the height of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements enveloping the world from Bolivia to the Congo to Vietnam or in those continents which came to form the “Third World” and the non-aligned movement of those years. (This tri-continental movement which sought to establish true political, economic and cultural independence from the West or First World but also from the Soviet Sphere or Second World thus became known as the Third World. The Third World was much more than a geographic zone on the periphery of the Empire; it was an idea perhaps best exemplified by its political leaders, the likes of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugoslavia’s Josep Tito to name but a few). A Tempest, it could be argued can be read not only as a text that deals with the lingering effects of colonialism on the psyche of the colonized but also as a fascinating narrative that takes us from the birth of postcolonial nations after World War II to their downfall as corrupt nationalist regimes. A closer look at the characters of Prospero, Caliban and Ariel should elucidate some of the points made here thus far.
It is telling to note the language which Césaire chooses in order to describe Caliban’s plot against Prospero. Take for example Prospero’s complaint upon learning of Caliban’s rebellion: “Caliban is alive, he is plotting, he is getting a guerrilla force together and you [Ariel]—you don’t say a word! Well, take care of him [….] His punishment must be exemplary.” Caliban is framed as a “rebel” to use Ariel’s description of him and as a member of a “guerrilla force” which easily translates to that of a subversive (to use the language of the Cold War) and whose “exemplary punishment” really meant the derailment of anti-colonial and nationalist struggles for liberation and the killing of its leaders (see Lumumba, Amílcar Cabral, Guevara etc.) all rationalized by the pretext of the “containing of communism.” Also telling is the language used by Caliban to describe Prospero’s repression of his “revolution” as Caliban more explicitly calls his movement once it is foiled later in the play. Caliban, speaking of Prospero’s counter-revolutionary tactics warns: “I mean his anti-riot arsenal! His got a lot of gadgets like this… gadgets to make you deaf, to blind you [….]” etc. In short the gadgets of modern crown control and of the repression of bodies, of masses of people gathering. But perhaps the strongest passage which equates Caliban with those martyrs of the Third World whom died or were forced into exile by colonial powers comes right before his re-imprisonment by Prospero when he shouts, in what is a prophetic prediction of what often was the future of these Third World leaders: “How could I have thought that I could create the Revolution with swollen guts and fat faces! Oh well! History won’t blame me for not having been able to win my freedom all by myself. It’s you and me, Prospero!”
Of course what often ended up happening after the coming of independence and the necessary assassination and/or extradition of many of those leaders that fought for the revolution was that rise of oligarchies and corrupt nationalist regimes that were given newly found political and economic power but were held subservient to the centers of global power (i.e. Europe, the U.S. and the Soviet Union). This is where the figure of Ariel comes in. Ariel represents the oligarch, the Uncle Tom that rises through its service to the empire to become the puppet president and the oligarchs that live of off the carcass newly independent republic (Also, it can be argued Ariel could very well represent the revolutionary elite of the post-colonial state). Prospero, in an act which parallels the pageantry which often preceded the bestowing of political freedom by the colonial master, warns Ariel of the limits of this newly found freedom: “Come, come. All the same, you are not going to set my world on fire with your music, I trust.” And Ariel naturally replies with utter subservience:
“I shall be the thrush that launches
its mocking cry
to the benighted field-hand
‘Dig, nigger! Dig, nigger!’
If Caliban is the martyr that spearheads the revolution then he is also its prophet, the figure of the writer and the artist, the cultural worker which imagines or envisions the new-(wo)man; one free of the psychological pain of colonialism and who records and sings to on-going, to past and future struggles for true economic, political and cultural freedom.
Much has been written already about the figure of Prospero (in the original play) and his possible biographical representation of Shakespeare. And I wonder if the same can be made here of Caliban and Césaire? After all who is saying or is writing these lines? And are they addressed to Shakespeare as much as they are to Prospero:?
Prospero you are a great magician:
you’re an old hand at deception .
And you lied to me so much,
about the world, about myself,
that you ended up by imposing on me
an image of myself:
underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetant[…]
But now I know you, you old cancer,
And I also know myself!
And I know that one day
my bare fist, just that,
will be enough to crush your world!
The old world is crumbling down!
Césaire is not only re-making the image of Caliban in re-writing this play, but he is also re-making the image of himself, as black man, as prophet and cultural worker of the Third World’s struggle for true freedom.