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Fatal Attractors: Adam, Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Walcott, and Re-Righting the Caribbean

Chantal Zabus
p. 57-72


Empathetically hinging on postcoloniality and postmodernism, Walcott’s poetry raises theoretical issues such as why, generally, postcolonial and, in particular, Caribbean writers like Walcott, choose not to “look in [their] hearts and write” and, instead, write back, rewrite and, in so doing, re-right. I here address this question, which Walcott’s oeuvre elusively toys with, with particular reference to Adam, Ulysses, Crusoe, while singling out Crusoe as the ‘fatal attractor’ that forces Walcott to wrestle with a “multiplicity of Crusoes” (involving a complex father-son relationship) and makes him veer away from those legendary ‘fatal attractors’ that are women. In so doing, Walcott’s oeuvre moves us away from the “rhizome” theory to a “state of exception.”

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  • 1 Africa is from the Latin Africanus, from the land of the Afri, an ancient people of North Africa, w (...)
  • 2 I am not adverse to this approach since I have myself demonstrated correspondences between the Gree (...)

1Walcott is not the first to suggest that “Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe are as much the heritage of black men and women as of white men and women” (Harris 1998: 127). Wilson Harris indeed has, as have many others before him. As if to validate the fact that Caribbean (and African writers, for that matter) can lay such a claim to a European heritage, the Cuban Antonio Benítez-Rojo in The Repeating Island (1992) has even suggested that “Africa and Aphrodite have more in common than the Greek root which unites their names” (16), when in fact they are not etymologically related.1 This does not discount the many “latent cross-culturalities” (Harris 1994; qtd Maes-Jelinek 1998) and possible cartographic connections between Greece, Africa, and the Caribbean.2 The “lost animist” in “Origins,” one of the first poems in Collected Poems 1948-1984, is likewise “[b]etween the Greek and African pantheon” (CP, 12).

  • 3 Derek Walcott at the event crowning the Derek Walcott Colloquium, “E. A. Markham and Derek Walcott (...)
  • 4 “Mimetic power” is after Auerbach’s Mimesis (1957).

2In In the Shadow of Divine Perfection, Lance Callahan has argued that Homer is “much more closely aligned with the cultural products and practices of Afro-Caribbeans than of imperial Europeans” and comes to the conclusion that “Homer is the spiritual inheritance of the Caribbean writer, as cultural ethnarch of the Peoples of the sea” (119 & 121). Clearly, claiming a cultural heritage outside of one’s immediate purview begs questions relating to influence and originality. Despite Walcott’s claim, taking his cue from Boris Pasternak, that “great writers have no time to be original” because “things repeat themselves and you don’t imitate death” and, further, “poetry does not deal chronologically,”3 it remains that Walcott quotes, say, Defoe, but Defoe did not quote Walcott. Callahan contends that Omeros “subsumes a host of post-structural concerns regarding the nature of originality” (113, my emphasis). John Thieme in Derek Walcott (1999) has traced references to Homer in Walcott’s oeuvre, from the early essay “What the Twilight Says” (1970) to Omeros (1990), and concludes that “Walcott creates a Caribbean world of parallel status and originality with comparatively little sense of vicarious dependence on Homer”(154, my emphasis). Rei Terada in Derek Walcott’s Poetry: American Mimicry (1992) calls “originality” a “primary Western paradigm” along with “mimetic power”, which Derek Walcott “re-evaluates” (183, my italics).4 The linchpin of the debate therefore lies in the very concept of originality, which is central to both postmodern and postcolonial theory, since they are both concerned with rewriting and revisiting the cultural authority of canonical works. As we shall see, Walcott has gone through several phases of ‘writing back’, ‘rewriting’, and ‘rerighting,’ with its obvious ethical connotations. In the process, he has shown great concern with the act of writing and that of reading.

  • 5 From writing, i.e., composing (“making sense”); righting, i.e., reforming (“setting right”); wright (...)

3In “On Originality,” Edward Said has observed that since “the writer thinks less of writing originally, and more of rewriting, the image of writing changes from original inscription to parallel script, from tumbled-out confidence to deliberate fathering-forth. . . .” (135). Incidentally, the image of “fathering forth” excludes women from the creative engendering of art forms, a point to which I shall return. Largely speaking, any writer is a writer-in-progress, a rewriter, “re(w)righter,”5 or reteller of (his)stories making imitative or, at best, imaginative use of sources harking back atavistically to a point of origin (Zabus 2001: 192-203). Rewriting thus entails both writing palimpsestically, sedimentarily, in draft form, and writing toward an original, both an aboriginal and an unusually creative form. It is not by chance that “original” as in “The original idea was to have this” and “original” as in “What a most original idea!” are connected. In that sense, Adam, Crusoe, and Ulysses are consecutive drafts of the same figure and they grade into each other, giving Walcott’s poetic oeuvre a rippling, ebb-and-flow quality.

  • 6 A classic example of this is John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1967) set in and revisiti (...)

4As a genuine category of textual transformation, which is different from but which possesses the ability to encompass sources – imitation, parody, pastiche, satire, duplication, repetition (both as debasement and challenging recurrence), allusion, revision, and inversion – rewriting is the appropriation of a text that it simultaneously authorizes and critiques for its own ideological uses. The rewrite transcends and challenges the text’s core elements, without any time constraint, which means that there could be a one-century remove between the ‘original’ and the rewrite, as is usually the case with post-modern texts,6 or twenty-six centuries, as between Homer and Walcott. The rewrite can thus be seen as a kind of “Freudian sublimation” extolling “the second chance above the first” (qtd Painter 100), the second text above the original, the second Caribbean Eden above the first, following the aesthetics of error and misconception that, to Walcott, is characteristic of Caribbean culture. Hence the “various Adams” in Omeros (180) and, more to our purpose, “the multiplicity of Crusoes” in the Collected Poems, as we shall see.

  • 7 As Jean-Pierre Durix has observed, Omeros acknowledges the fact that “only the patronizing artist c (...)

5Rewriting changes what the text intends to tell us. This is especially relevant to postcolonial writers ’writing back’ to canonical works, with the aim of redressing wrongs, of rerighting, of making things right, as if texts were ethographies—aesthetics and ethics all in one. In that sense, writing back corresponds to an early phase in Walcott’s writing. In “What the Twilight Says” (1970), Walcott aims to ’write back’ to the “myth of the uncreative parasitic, malarial nigger, the marsh-numbed imagination that is happiest in mud” (33). That is why, presumably, he constructed a personal mythology or constellation, the true “stars” of which are the Caribbean islanders, as he put it in Another Life (1973). Yet, as he distrusts history and the epic, and deems it “wrong to ennoble people” (qtd Bruckner 397), the islanders are lined up in a tragic abacus“These dead, these derelicts/ that alphabet of the emaciated” (CP 164), at the risk of freezing the ‘folk’ on the Caribbean Grecian urn.7

6Walcott soon recanted the idea of ’writing back’ and therefore of tit-for-tat revanchism, to deal with less litigious concerns. In “The Muse of History” (1974), Walcott denounced the sterility of “a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters,” which could only lead to a “dominated future” (Walcott 1996: 115 & 112). Likewise, the later Walcott takes a stand against composing works which “litigate against the dead, sue History and demand compensation,” which he deems a “simple” task compared to that of “extricating Caribbean art from the webs of empire” (Walcott 1996: 93). In this acknowledgment of an impossible return to the roots, he differs from, say, the Bajan poet Kamau Brathwaite who, in his early poetry, advocated a return “back back/ to the black/ man lan’/back back/ to Af-/ rica” (42) or Austin Clarke, who lamented, in 1970, the lack of racial vindictiveness in West Indian literature, the way J. M. Coetzee was reproached with playing postmodern games while Soweto was burning.

  • 8 Prospero and Crusoe are radically different protagonists situated in different epochs, pursuing dif (...)

7As a result of his positioning between a literature of revenge and a literature of remorse, due to his own hybrid provenance, Walcott is not interested in the confrontational model provided by the Prospero-Caliban relationship in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), but rather in the more ambiguous figure of Crusoe. This type of castaway as an emblem of the Caribbean condition is, however, historically fraught with ironies, since Crusoe’s ship and the slave ships on the Middle Passage followed opposite routes. In addition, Crusoe limns an odd biography in Caribbean literature, which has privileged The Tempest. Indeed, major Caribbean postcolonial authors such as George Lamming, Aimé Césaire, and the already mentioned K. Brathwaite have reshuffled the textual priorities of The Tempest, and have thus contributed to what I have called a “Calibanic genealogy” (Zabus 2002: 43-80). Likewise, in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Australia, and Québec, Caliban has become the inexhaustible symbol of the colonized insurgent. Not only is there a fundamental difference between Crusoe and Prospero, there is also a crucial one between The Tempest and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Both texts are indeed myths of origin and colonization, feature quite prominently the shipwreck and the island, and have been read as Caribbean texts, presumably because of the archipelago’s “primacy in the encounter between Europe and America,” as Peter Hulme has shown (3). However, both myths are markedly different in that Robinson Crusoe leads to the establishment of the colony, The Tempest to its dissolution, which explains why postcolonial writers have seized on Prospero rather than on Crusoe.8

8However, on one occasion at least, Walcott has construed the Crusoe-Friday paradigm as a master-slave and therefore oppositional relationship in his play Pantomime (1980),in which he labeled the menial tasks the colonized had to perform a 300-year-long “pantomime”: “For three hundred years I served you. . . . I did what you did, boss, bwana, effendi, bacra, sahib . . . that was my pantomime” (112). But admittedly, Walcott’s poetry and his plays often part ways, as in the case of Omeros and The Odyssey. A Stage Version (1990).

  • 9 Saint-John Perse, Pictures for Crusoe in Eloges and Other Poems, Bollingen series (Princeton Univer (...)

9The original figure that haunts Walcott’s poetry the most is not Homer or Shakespeare or Dante, nor their progenies, but rather the figure of Crusoe. In that sense, Walcott belongs to an older generation of Caribbean poets like the Guadeloupean Saint-John Perse and his “Pictures for Crusoe” (1971), or the Trinidadian John Lyons in his “Crusoe’s Thursday” (1994).9 Adam, Homer’s Ulysses, and, by proxy, Dante’s Ulysses, are indeed “strange attractors” (Callahan 118), pulling Walcott into the Mediterranean orbit, but Crusoe is more of a fatal attractor because, unlike the others, he is a writer. As a writer, Crusoe was sure to appeal to the young Walcott, eager to try out his pen. What is more, Crusoe is a writer who self-consciously stages his ontological crisis in an autobiography of sorts. It is not in Crusoe’s diminishing supply of ink that we must look for an understanding of the explosion of the journal structure in Robinson Crusoe, but in Defoe-Crusoe in the throes of fathering the novel, of losing his waters. Defoe in labour. Like Crusoe, Walcott wanted to become an original writer and an autobiographical one at that. Like the father whom Crusoe left behind, thereby committing the one “Original sin,” Walcott’s father, an amateur poet, died young. In Epitaph for the Young (1949), Walcott writes: “If I had a voice, you had not died so young” (24; qtd Fumagalli 292). Walcott’s poetry is the ‘voice’ responding to the father’s injunction to his son to write and thus outwrite him. Walcott’s poetic career indeed ghosts the presence of his (dead) father, the way Crusoe’s disturbing severance with his father haunts his voyage. Very movingly, the autobiographical persona of Omeros awkwardly blurts out: “‘Sir’—I swallowed— ‘they [father and son] are one voice’” (68). But one must also look into Walcott’s colonial education to explain the mesmeric centrality of Crusoe in his poetry.

  • 10 Derek Walcott at the event crowning the Derek Walcott Colloquium, “E .A Markham and Derek Walcott R (...)
  • 11 Froude writes: “If ever the naval exploits of this country [Britain] are done into an epic poem—and (...)

10Before being a writer, Walcott was foremost a reader, the practice of reading being the monopoly not only of readers but of authors, as well, who not only read other authors but also “misread” them, as Harold Bloom puts it in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), and thereby clear imaginative spaces for themselves. These anxieties of indebtedness belong with larger anxieties of anteriority, sprinkled with Proust’s toxins of admiration (Bloom 5 & 11). Walcott has said that he set great store by the reader, whom he has fondly called “hypocrite lecteur” as well as “mon double, mon frère,” after Baudelaire’s own seductive accolade.10 In the oft-quoted “The Figure of Crusoe” (1965), Walcott refers to Defoe’s book as “the first West Indian novel” (in Hamner 36). For Walcott the schoolboy, as he reminisces in “Crusoe’s Journal,” Robinson Crusoe was “our first book, our profane Genesis” (CP, 92). In Europe, too, the use of Defoe’s novel and of Crusoe’s realization of intellectual freedom has a long history of being used for educational purposes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had proposed the novel as “the one book that teaches all that books can teach” for the education of Emile (Rousseau 210). But before Crusoe, there was Adam and the rerighting of the Caribbean as a second Eden after ’the Fall,’ i.e. the conquest by the European colonial powers. Instead of writing back, for instance, to James Anthony Froude in his book, The British in the West Indies, significantly subtitled The Bow of Ulysses,11 or to Anthony Trollope, or, before them, to Columbus’s image of the Caribbean inhabitants as ‘Adams before the Fall,’ (qtd Hulme 27), the early Walcott usurps the figure of Adam as the Caribbean arch-namer of things, “dedicated to purifying the language of the tribe” (Walcott 1970: 9), like the Walt Whitman of Leaves of Grass. Unlike the Adam of Genesis, who is exiled from Eden, Walcott’s New World Adam is exiled to Eden in what Fred D’Aguiar has called “a pre-lapsarian world […] inhabited by a post-lapsarian consciousness” (in Brown 1991: 160). The idea of the Adamic poet is, appropriately, first introduced in the poem “Origins” (CP, 11-16), where the act of naming, of “Christening” anew augurs the later, laborious Adamic “task of giving things their names” (CP 190), as it is spelled out by Alejo Carpentier in The Lost Steps. Adam appears as the first, original poet, yet mimicking God, the Greek poiein referring to the act of creation, of making things with words. Yet, short of paring his fingernails like Joyce’s God-like artist and priest of the imagination, Walcott is aware of the fact that naming is a dubious enterprise because “to name is to contradict,” for naming should subserve the “awe of God or of the universe [which] is unnamable” (CP 198). Admittedly, in true patriarchal fashion, between the Judeo-Christian God and Adam, there is little room to squeeze in Eve, who makes a fleeting appearance in, e.g. “Adam’s song” (CP 302). Eve or Helen has not been given a voice yet.

  • 12 It was named after the Beagle Channel through the islands of Tierra del Fuego at the Southern tip o (...)

11In order to regain his ‘paradise lost,’ this Caribbean Adam has to work, and the work is poetry, “perfection’s sweat,” as Walcott put it in his 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In the poem “New World” in Sea Grapes (1976), the post-Eden Adam has been forced to labour and sweat, a new numismatist with his “coined snake”: “Adam had an idea./ He and the snake would share/ the loss of Eden for a profit/ So both made the New World. And it looked good” (CP, 301). Being the spirit of profit, the snake could have also provided Crusoe with companionship, instead of a parrot and cats. Or was that too obvious? “Natural History” in Sea Grapes (1976) conjures up the marooned Crusoe after a second ’Middle Passage’ but also Charles Darwin, yet another Adamic namer, whose evolutionist views located life as originating in the sea, possibly the very sea that saw his voyage to the New World in 1831 on HMS Beagle.12

12The grading of Adam into Crusoe in Walcott’s poetry makes sense if one considers the Crusoe-myth as a variation on the larger Edenic design. In the already mentioned essay “The Muse of History” (1974), the early Walcott advocated “belief in a second Adam, the re-creation of the entire order, from religion to the simplest domestic rituals” (p. 115). The Crusoe Poems—“The Castaway”, “Crusoe’s Island” and “Crusoe’s Journal”—are punctuated by the dailiness of “domestic rituals,” including defecation—“Morning: contemplative evacuation…, CP, 57)—, and the Puritan ethos of Defoe’s first novel, which must have had a special appeal to Walcott, given his own Methodist background—“the passionate, pragmatic/ Methodism of my infancy, […]” (Another Life, CP 166). In its early Christian Protestant denomination, Methodism originated in the evangelistic movement of Charles and John Wesley and George Whitefield in the eighteenth century, not incidentally Defoe’s age. This second Adam is Crusoe, who will later morph into the Ulysses of Omeros. Crusoe therefore lies palimpsestically between Adam and Ulysses in Walcott’s oeuvre.

  • 13 Saint-John Perse also imagined Crusoe as a ’taciturn man’ around whom Friday laughed and timidly ’k (...)

13Walcott’s admiration for Crusoe is an Old World fascination rather than a New World or postcolonial concern. It is not by chance that Walcott’s Crusoe (but also Saint-John Perse’s13) reminds us of James Joyce’s appreciation of the castaway, whom he called ‘the English Ulysses,’ forgetting that, unlike Crusoe, Ulysses is an unwilling voyager trying to return home. Joyce’s Crusoe, with “in his pocket a knife and a pipe, becomes an architect, a carpenter, a knife grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-maker, and a clergyman. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity” (qtd Shinagel 357). Walcott himself argues in “The Figure of Crusoe”:

I am claiming nothing exaggerated when I state that Crusoe, through Defoe’s multiple combination of adventure story, religious Protestant tract of trust and self-reliance, and Christian zeal for converting brutish tribes, not with the belligerence of Kipling, but with honest, tender belief in the superiority of his kind, has given us a more real symbol than critics claim for Prospero and Caliban. Crusoe is no lord of magic, duke, prince. He does not possess the island he inhabits. He is alone, he is a craftsman, his beginnings are humble. He acts, not by authority, but by conscience. (37)

14Like Joyce, Walcott sets the seal of literary approval on this hero of nascent individualism, who leaves home and family for the classic reason of homo economicus. One should recall that Crusoe leaves “the upper station of low life” and “the state wherein God and Nature has placed” him and considers his filial disobedience as his “Original sin” (Defoe 216). He thereby originates a twisted genesis, where he is cast out of the parental (and divine) cocoon but, in typical Puritan fashion, Eve is not part of his elopement plans. Also, as Ian Watt has sternly observed, “Crusoe actually gains by his ‘original sin’, and becomes richer than his father was” (65). His is a lucrative Odyssey. Profit is Crusoe’s only vocation. For Walcott, poetry is a vocation, but he is also concerned with his “economic future,” as Bruce King puts it in this volume. In pursuit of riches, Walcott left St Lucia, one of the tiniest islands in the world’s creation, to move to the United States, his second “Crusoe’s island.”

15Walcott rewrites and re-rights (rather than ’writes back’ to) Defoe’s somewhat monolithic Crusoe and graces him with “several shapes,” which, however, occlude any female companion. John Thieme has appropriately referred to these shapes—“… Adam. Christopher Columbus, God, a missionary, a beachcomber, and his interpreter, Daniel Defoe”—(in Hamner 36) as “a multiplicity of Crusoes who collectively dismantle the very idea of hierarchical positioning” (Thieme 78). Ultimately, as Thieme suggests, “his Crusoe is Proteus” (78). Proteus has the power of prophecy and is symbolic of “unattached identity” (Fokkema 110) but one often forgets that, in Greek mythology, the sea god changed shapes in order to avoid answering questions. This Protean “multiplicity of Crusoes” in Walcott’s poetry could therefore be symptomatic of elusiveness, non-commitment and dividedness, which can be observed through the use of personal pronouns in the Crusoe poems.

16The Crusoe-persona in “The Castaway” appears as a first-person narrator, whereas Crusoe is referred to in the third person singular in the other two poems. Conversely, Friday always appears in the collective (“we” in “Crusoe’s Journal”, “they” in “Friday’s progeny” at the end of “Crusoe’s Island”). Why such a splitting or Spaltung, as psychoanalysts would have it? It may be symptomatic of the gap between, as Stewart Brown has argued, the poet-hermit making the bonfire of creation on the beach, “writing private poems of inward observation, and his sense of a kind of vocation to be the West Indian poet, the public voice of the society’s culture” (Brown 1996: 210).

17In “Crusoe’s Island,” for “the second Adam since the Fall” (CP, 69), the island is a pastoral retreat in which the persona, aged “past thirty,” like Walcott at the time, “labour[s] at his art” (CP, 68). As in Wordsworth’s “Prelude” or Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” “[he is] borne by the bell/ Backward to boyhood” (CP, 70). Yet, maturity forced itself upon him because of the untimely death of his father, which he equates with the loss of his faith—“My father, God, is dead” (CP, 68). “Friday’s progeny,/ the brood of Crusoe’s slave” (CP, 72) is here represented by “the black little girls in pink/ Organdy, crinolines, …” (CP, 72), who, in their collectivity, are estranged from the Crusoe-like, singular “I.”

18“Crusoe’s Journal” opens with an excerpt from Defoe’s novel, in which Crusoe reflects: “I looked now upon the world as a thing remote, which I had nothing to do with” (CP, 92). This epigraph nicely sets the stage for the theme of alienation, which affects both the “I” and the collectivity, in a case of schizophrenic dispossession that is favorably matched by the lonely figure in “The Castaway.” Just as the “critical I,” after Norman Holland’s apt phrase, is never “separate, autonomous, or finite” but rather “decentered, imperfectly known, systematically elusive, not simply ‘in’ the person being interpreted, but ’between’ interpreter and interpretee” (Holland 29), the persona’s ‘critical I’ is here trying to hyphenate Crusoe and Friday, self and nation, which Walcott called “this disturbing society.” As with Walcott’s Eve-less Adam, the “disturbing society” is made of Friday’s and Crusoe’s children (Hamner 37), without the slightest mention of the women, who engendered these progenies on Crusoe’s autarkic ‘I-land.’ Walcott’s Crusoe poems fail not only to acknowledge the feminine in the process of creation but also the eradication of the Amerindians, let alone the hardships of slavery and indentureship. “Crusoe’s island,” as the title indicates, is his and as such, is de-historicized.

19To me, the “multiplicity of Crusoes,” that John Thieme has identified, is of the psychoanalytical kind. This “Crusoe Complex,” as one might call it, seems to find a comfortable niche alongside other complexes, like the Caliban dependency complex dear to the French ethno-psychiatrist D.O. Mannoni, the Nero complex dear to Albert Memmi, and the Prospero complex (Zabus 2002: 22-36). More largely, as John Thieme’s “multiplicity of Crusoes” ties in with Edouard Glissant’s conceptualization of the Caribbean as rhyzomatic (Glissant 1997), pointing to multiple origins, this other, more pathological “multiplicity” confirms the view of the Caribbean as a “state of exception,” which is understood as what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a member and cannot be a member of the whole in which it is always already included, as Giorgio Agamben put it (2003: 1).

  • 14 Warm thanks go to Philippe Hackens for bringing my attention to this text but also for his contribu (...)

20The Crusoe complex, as it is articulated in “The Castaway,” comes surprisingly close to what Lacan said about the figure of Crusoe when discussing the imaginary alienation:14

We are under the impression that it is because the psychotic has not acquired or has lost that Other (the paternal Imago) that he encounters the other, purely imaginary, emaciated and fallen with whom he can only have a relation of frustration— that other denies him, literally kills him. That other is that which is most radical in the imaginary alienation.

21He proceeds to provide an example,

that of the isolated character on a desert island. Robinson Crusoe is indeed one of the themes of modern thought […] What happens when a human subject lives all alone? (Lacan 236, my translation)

22We know from a book that Defoe must have read, The Voyages and Travels of J. Albert de Mandelslo, of the two cases: “of a Frenchman who, after only two years of solitude on Mauritius, tore his clothing to pieces in a fit of madness brought on by a diet of raw tortoise; and of a Dutch seaman on St. Helena who disinterred the body of a buried comrade and set out to sea in the coffin” (Secord: 28-29). Needless to say, Defoe’s epic of solitude differs from the usual fate of real-life castaways. Walcott’s castaway behaves as if any action on his part would be conducive to fear or even panic: “action breeds frenzy” (CP, 57). Eager to avoid Crusoe’s “famed industry” (Terada: 184) and frenzied attempt to recreate perfidious Albion, Walcott’s Crusoe “lies,” “[a]fraid lest [his] own footprints multiply” (CP 57). What follows is almost patterned after Lacan’s description of “a semi-alienated discourse” since the external world seems invested by “a meaning ready to spring up from all corners” (Lacan 237) with threatening echoes: “cracking a sea-louse, I make thunder split.” Nature multiplies the castaway’s imaginary fears, like those of the Ancient Mariner. The acuteness of his senses measures up to the disturbing “I” in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” If the Godlike persona listens attentively enough, he can “hear a polyp build” (CP, 58).This image is, in essence, different, say, from “[t]he cracked egg hisses” in Another Life (CP, 152), which connotes blissful domesticity. By contrast, the polyp is an uncanny image of asexual reproduction, of anarchic growth, but also of Crusoe-like self-sufficiency, as the polyp, in “Origins”, “seeks … to take root in itself” (CP, 14). The polyp image contains a reverse parthenogenesis, whereby the feminine appears as dispensable in the act of creation, as in Genesis.

23Admittedly, this element of alienation, coupled with the persona’s metempirical, extra-sensorial attunement with nature, was already very much present in Defoe’s text, in the footprint episode. It starts this way:

It happen’d one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surpriz’d with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an apparition; I listen’d, I look’d round me, I could hear nothing, nor see any thing; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one. I could see no other impression but that one. (Defoe 230)

  • 15 See Valérie Bada on Robert Hamner’s review of Walcott’s play, The Odyssey, around the linguistic co (...)

24Generations of readers and critics have commented on this passage, which is imbued, like the rest of this Puritan autobiography, with the fear of being devoured by beasts and cannibals alike and of being dematerialized but one should, with more common sense, wonder why Crusoe only sees one naked footprint: does that mean that Friday is one-legged? Or is it because the subsequent encounter between Crusoe and Friday will be on a one-to-one basis? Sadly, Walcott’s eponymous Castaway never encounters signs of Friday-like otherness and the footprints are his own. The result, however, might be the same as in Defoe’s novel, for Defoe’s Crusoe is, “after innumerable fluttering thoughts,” “like a man perfectly confus’d and out of [his] self,” and feels the need to go back to his “fortification,” which he later calls his “castle” (Defoe 230). In “The Castaway,” the “castles” (CP 57) are, like a child’s, annihilated by the surf and the “self” is abandoned along with “art” (CP 58). Unlike Defoe’s Crusoe who returns home, Walcott’s orphaned persona is abandoned by all, including God. His dominion “multiplies,” neither as “in an insect’s eye” (CP, 165) nor in the John Donne-like tears of the beloved, but into voidancy. This senseless multiplication reminds the reader of J. M. Coetzee’s Portuguese Captain, Cruso, who, in Foe (1986), yet another rewriting of Robinson Crusoe, tirelessly builds useless “terraces” (Coetzee 54) in an absurd attempt at empire-building, an extension of the original Crusoe’s Protestant love of tabu-lation and classification. V.S. Naipaul’s dire comment that “nothing was ever created in the West Indies” thus becomes “nothing will always be created in the West Indies”: “we in the Caribbean,” said Walcott, “know all about nothing” (in Hamner 54 & 57). That “nothing” reflects the Caribbean historical trauma rooted in the void created by the European conquest and the institution of slavery that transported ‘nobodies’ to a ‘nowhere’ where their culture and individuality were reduced to “nothing.”15 There lies its “state of exception.”

25Walcott’s Crusoe persona, in his own “multiplicity” and dividedness as well as in his yearning for the Lacanian Father imago, serves as a draft for the multiple retelling of the Odysseus-Telemachus story in Omeros, a story which can be read, as Terada does, as “a parable of paternal, hence genealogical, mystery”(Terada 184), in which the figure of Walcott talks to his father Warwick, who dies, “like Hamlet’s old man” (CP, 68), of an ear infection but presumably not by poisoning.

  • 16 For a feminist appraisal of Walcott’s poetry, see Elaine Savory Fido.

26Bruce King writes in his Preface to Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life that he came to see Walcott as “a new Robinson Crusoe, a Castaway who survived by creating a Caribbean culture for himself … His Friday and Muse was a woman, but which one?”(King, viii). Friday is here represented as a female Muse but, short of queering the Crusoe-Friday relationship, Crusoe does say that what he desires is a male slave (Defoe 341) and with Friday, he enjoys “an idyll without benefit of woman”—“a revolutionary departure from the traditional expectations aroused by desert islands from the Odyssey [onward]” (Watt 68). Charles Dickens once decided on the basis of Defoe’s treatment of women that he must have been “a precious dry and disagreeable article himself,” which cannot be said of Walcott, but the alienated persona of the Crusoe poems shares with Defoe’s the concern with “personal autarchy” (Watt 86), which excludes women.16

27It is true that these “attractors” are fatally alone. Indeed, Defoe’s (and Walcott’s) Crusoe does not miss any female companionship on the island, and, upon his return, his wife’s death is narratologically ousted by plans for a further voyage (Defoe 341). Prospero’s wife in The Tempest presumably died of natural causes until one suspects that her body may have played a prominent part in the duke’s occult science. Friday’s woman is nowhere in sight, and Caliban contemplates Miranda as a potential ’property woman’ but has no other bride. Ulysses is an adulterer, and Penelope is definitely a stay-at-home wife. Adam has Eve but admittedly, she has a poor reputation as “History’s first bad girl” (Norris 5). As James Wieland contended, these male figures’ destiny is “to wander isolated and alone.” And as is obvious from “Crusoe’s Journal,” “their isolation offers the possibility, if not the certainty, of access into vision”(Wieland 173 & 174). Artistic vision seems to go hand in glove with heroic solitude. Yet, Walcott later departs from that stance when, in Omeros, he dissociates vision from misanthropy and allows the legendary, original fatal attractors—women—to gravitate around the visionary artist. With Helen singing her own hymns, the lone wanderer is humanized and the exceptional state of the Caribbean is re-righted.

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1 Africa is from the Latin Africanus, from the land of the Afri, an ancient people of North Africa, whereas the name of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, fertility and love, is derived from the Greek, aphros, meaning foam; she is literally “foam-born.”

2 I am not adverse to this approach since I have myself demonstrated correspondences between the Greek and Yoruba (Nigerian) pantheons. See Zabus 1998.

3 Derek Walcott at the event crowning the Derek Walcott Colloquium, “E. A. Markham and Derek Walcott Read and Talk” (published in this issue), Sorbonne Nouvelle, 17 March 2006.

4 “Mimetic power” is after Auerbach’s Mimesis (1957).

5 From writing, i.e., composing (“making sense”); righting, i.e., reforming (“setting right”); wright (ing), i.e., constructing with craft, as in the “playwright.” Zabus 2002: 1-7.

6 A classic example of this is John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1967) set in and revisiting Victorian England in 1867.

7 As Jean-Pierre Durix has observed, Omeros acknowledges the fact that “only the patronizing artist can fix a people in their folk culture, which then becomes static and a parody of creation, an object of tourist consumption.” In Durix 26.

8 Prospero and Crusoe are radically different protagonists situated in different epochs, pursuing different goals, and compelled for different reasons to leave their native Western homes, Milan and York, respectively. Their initial situation is also very different. Originally Prospero is too engrossed in the study of magic to be troubled by mere political intrigues. This oblivion results in his being ‘hurried aboard a bark’ (The Tempest, I.2.144), that is ultimately stranded on an island between Tunis and Naples. On the other hand, Crusoe’s ‘Original Sin’ initiates a series of “Strange Surprizing Adventures” that culminate with his shipwreck “on the Coast of America, near the mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque.” Although both Prospero and Crusoe are shipwrecked on a mysterious island, the impetus that prompted their departure and the journey to the island differ considerably. Also, if we agree to call Prospero and Crusoe usurpers, is not Prospero more the usurper than Crusoe? Whereas Prospero’s usurpation of Caliban’s territory makes him a flagrant colonialist, Crusoe’s colonial spirit is disguised by the fact that Friday lands on Crusoe’s territory and that Crusoe saves his life. Yet these facts or ficts, rather (as one might call ’factual fiction’ or fiction based on facts), should not lure us into thinking that Crusoe is less of a colonialist, for he is a colonizer who accepts the colonial situation. The colonial relationship appears thus more ready-made than in The Tempest not only because of Friday’s grateful willingness to be colonized—“At length he came close to me, and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and, taking my foot, set it upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave forever” (Defoe 214)—but also because of Crusoe’s immediate acceptance of his tutelage, a subtler version of the colonial bond. Indeed, the impulsiveness of his gesture and Crusoe’s readiness to accept Friday as “a servant, and perhaps, a companion or assistant” (Defoe 212), reinforce the already existing bond between rescuer and rescued and consolidate the later bond between missionary and convert. Dissimilarities between Prospero and Crusoe definitely abound.

9 Saint-John Perse, Pictures for Crusoe in Eloges and Other Poems, Bollingen series (Princeton University Press, 1971) and John Lyons, “Crusoe’s Thursday” in Behind the Carnival (Smith/Doorshop Books, 1994). Both are anthologized in Brown and McWatt, 3-6 and 146.

10 Derek Walcott at the event crowning the Derek Walcott Colloquium, “E .A Markham and Derek Walcott Read and Talk,” Sorbonne Nouvelle, 17 March 2006 (published in this issue).

11 Froude writes: “If ever the naval exploits of this country [Britain] are done into an epic poem—and since the Iliad there has been no subject better fitted for such treatment or better deserving it—the West Indies will be the scene of the most brilliant cantos.” Qtd Terada, p. 183.

12 It was named after the Beagle Channel through the islands of Tierra del Fuego at the Southern tip of South America. This poem is not part of the Collected Poems; it is to be found in Sea-Grapes, 36.

13 Saint-John Perse also imagined Crusoe as a ’taciturn man’ around whom Friday laughed and timidly ’kneed.’ In “Friday” in Pictures for Crusoe, p. 5 (in Brown and McWatt, 5).

14 Warm thanks go to Philippe Hackens for bringing my attention to this text but also for his contribution to my Tempest-Crusoe Seminar at the Université catholique de Louvain, 1997-1998. See Hackens: 106-107.

15 See Valérie Bada on Robert Hamner’s review of Walcott’s play, The Odyssey, around the linguistic constellation “nobody/nowhere/nothing.” Bada, 10.

16 For a feminist appraisal of Walcott’s poetry, see Elaine Savory Fido.

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Bibliographical reference

Chantal Zabus, “Fatal Attractors: Adam, Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Walcott, and Re-Righting the Caribbean”Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 28.2 | 2006, 57-72.

Electronic reference

Chantal Zabus, “Fatal Attractors: Adam, Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Walcott, and Re-Righting the Caribbean”Commonwealth Essays and Studies [Online], 28.2 | 2006, Online since 15 January 2022, connection on 14 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Chantal Zabus

Université Paris 13

Chantal Zabus is Professor of British and Postcolonial Studies at the Université Paris 13. She is the author of Tempests after Shakespeare (Macmillan/Palgrave, 2002); The African Palimpsest (Rodopi, 1991; rpt 2006); and Between Rites and Rights: Excision in Women’s Texts, forthcoming with Stanford UP. She has also edited Le Secret, with Jacques Derrida (Louvain 1999) and Changements féminins en Afrique noire (L’Harmattan 2000).

By this author

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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