"The Metamorphoses of Caliban"
En Diacritics, september 1977
"After nearly three hundred and fifty years of abuse, Caliban
is beginning to be recognized as the true hero of The Tempest.
In his play, Shakespeare introduced a monster, half-fish, half-human,
whose coarse appetites and even coarser language brutally contrasted
with the ethereal presence of Ariel, the noble features of Prospero,
and Miranda's virginal charms. The prototypes created by Shakespeare
around 1611 caught the European imagination. For centuries they
were taken by other writers, enlarged, developed, but never essentially
changed until the 1950's.(1)
It was the task of a French psychoanalyst, O. Mannoni, to save
Caliban from his detractors and present him not as an object of
scorn but as a pitiful victim of colonization. In a book originally
entitled, Psychologie de la colonisation [Paris: Editions
du Seuil, 1950], which was translated into English in a more dramatic
way as Prospero and Caliban. The Psychology of Colonization
[tr. Pamela Powesland (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964)],
Mannoni used Adler's concepts to show that the colonizer (Prospero)
was the victim of an inferiority complex, that had forced him to
leave his home country (where he was unable to cope with the challenges
of a developed society) in order to become a slave-master in an
underdeveloped society where he was able to vent his frustrations
on the colonized people. The colonized (Caliban) in turn suffered
from a paternalistic complex. Primitive societies had taught their
people to obey and reveré their ancients, that is, authority.
Thus, they were more than ready to accept slavery and colonization.
Mannoni was basing his theories on his own study of the Malgaches,
the natives of Madagascar.
Incensed by Mannoni's theories, another French-educated psychoanalyst,
the black writer Frantz Fanon, wrote a bitter rejoinder. In a book
called Peau noire, masques blanches [Paris: Editions du Seuil,
1952], translated into English as Black Skin, White Mask
[tr. Charles T. Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967)], he attacked
in particular Mannoni's interpretation of the inherited submissiveness
of the colonized people. He observed, correctly, that Mannoni had
never had the chance to study the colonized before they were colonized,
and that he had extrapolated from their condition as slaves, which
he knew, to a condition previous to slavery, of which he knew nothing.
Fanon's teacher, the black poet Aimé Césaire, one
of the forerunners of négritude, went even further in a French
reinterpretation of Shakespeare's play. Altering the title slightly
to Une tempéte [Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1969], he
presented Caliban not just as a comic monster but as a rebellious
slave who finally succeeds in becoming the king of his island, the
island which was his by birthright. (His mother, the witch Sycorax,
was the original owner of the island.) In a last peripaetia,
Caliban challenges Prospero to remain on the island and to help
him in the process of decolonization. In Aimé Césaire's
play, Caliban represents the slave who fights for his freedom, while
Ariel represents the slave who accepts tyranny and becomes his master's
errand boy and busybody. Caliban is a revolutionary while Ariel
is the intellectual who sells his rights for some crumbs from his
master's table. Mannoni, Fanon and Césaire practiced a political
reading of The Tempest: a reading which inverts the functions
of the roles the major characters play and uses Shakespeare's prototypes
to serve the needs of twentieth-century ideologies.
After Mannoni, Fanon and Césaire, the Cuban poet Roberto
Fernández Retamar, who is better known as the editor of the
important magazine Casa de las Américas, published
a short book entitled Caliban. Notas sobre la cultura de nuestra
América [México: Diógenes, 1971]. In that
book he adapts the basic ideas of those French intellectuals to
Latin American culture. Quoting extensively from them and other
writers, Fernández Retamar attempts to give a Latin American
context to the image of Caliban advanced by the French writers.
A quotation of Che Guevara, in which the Argentine guerrilla urges
Cuban teachers to "paint themselves black, [become] mulattoes,
workers, peasants," and "step down to the people"
concludes Fernández Retamar's plea to promote Caliban to
the rank of an international symbol of Latin América, [p.
This essay, written and published in 1971-the centennial year of
the birth of the Uruguayan thinker José Enrique Rodó-
was probably meant by Fernández Retamar to be read as a sort
of updating of that essayisfs most famous pamphlet, Ariel,
originally published in 1900. A few pages are devoted by Fernández
Retamar to the examination of that book. Although he underlines
its shortcomings, and agrees with Mario Benedetti that Rodó
is basically a nineteenth-century writer (a discovery already made
by other critics), he still believes Rodó was sincere in
his mistakes and that, at least, he had the merit of having seen
and identified very clearly Latin America's principal enemy at the
time, the United States.
Fernández Retamar is right on that count. Rodó was
one of the first Latin Americans to voice a mistrust of the United
States and its dangerous influence on Latin American culture. Ariel
was practically written to warn Latin América about the perils
of an excessive nordomanía: that is, the too literal
imitation of the materialistic civilization of the United States.
At the time he was writing, Rodó had the example of Argentina
before his very eyes. He felt that Buenos Aires was succeeding too
well in aping the North American cities. Rodó had also in
mind the ever present danger of North American interference in the
political affairs of Latin América.
Ariel was initially motivated by the Spanish-American war.
We know, by a confidence of Rodó's first biographer, Victor
Pérez Petit, how affected the writer was by the outcome of
the war. The son of a Catalán emigré, Rodó
loved Spain deeply. But being a Latin American at heart, he wanted
Cuba to be free from Spain. What he did not cherish seeing was Spain
humillated nor Cuba changing an old master for a new one. In spite
of his political convictions, in writing Ariel he refused
the temptation to write engaged literature, and did not reduce his
book to the category of a political pamphlet. As Rodó explained
later to Pérez Petit, he wanted to discuss it all, "very
truthfully, without any hatred, and with Tacitus' coldness."
He did it so well that one can find only two allusions to the United
States' frightening power in the published text. As he himself pointed
out in a short anonymous piece he wrote for an Uruguayan newspaper,
the book was not to be read chiefly as an attack against the United
States' influence on Latin América (El Dia, january
23, 1900). His warning did not prevent his readers (to this day)
from remembering Ariel only for its political stance against
the mighty neighbor.
What Rodó wanted was to offer Ariel to Latin American
youth as a model for the continuing education of its élite.
Ariel became for him the symbol of everything that is superior and
noble in man; Caliban was reduced to a representation of the base
instincts of the brute. A sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dichotomy
helped Rodó to distinguish and sepárate the two sides
of man. But he did more than that: Ariel was to become also
the symbol of the Latin América of the future, the Utopian
model of its mature culture. In that vast blueprint, the United
States had no place. Or, perhaps, it had only one: to serve as an
example of what the Latin Americans had to avoid.
Only one of the six parts into which the pamphlet is divided was
devoted to the evaluation of the cultural model offered by the United
States. It placed its achievements in the balance and found them
wanting. Rodó was then following a very important and profitable
trend in French intellectual thought; the harsh criticism of everything
North American. (It is still going on strongly, although now other
nations compete successfully with France in that uplifting task.)
From that point of view, the United States could easily be identified
with Caliban. Rodó took the notion from a French source,
one very clóse to him: Paúl Groussac, a French emigré
who had become Argentina's Dr. Johnson, who apparently adopted it
in a speech he gave in Buenos Aires on May 2, 1898, condemning United
States intervention in the affairs of Cuba. In that speech, Groussac
spoke of the United States' "unformed and calibanesque body"
[Rodó's Obras Completas ed. Emir Rodríguez
Monegal (Madrid, Aguilar, 1967), p. 197]. The speech met with great
success in Argentina and was commented on by none other than Rubén
Dario in a newspaper article he wrote entitled "The Triumph
of Caliban" [El Tiempo, May 20, 1898]. From both
sources, Rodó borrowed the image of Caliban as a symbol of
United States materialism. If Ariel represented in his pamphlet
the genius of air, which Rodó wanted Latin American youth
to emulate, Prospero became in turn not the harsh and tyranical
colonizer Mannoni would describe fifty years later, but the gentlest
of teachers. In a way, his Prospero is closer to the reasonable
ruler Césaire devised for the conclusión of his Tempéte,
than to Shakespeare's rather bilious original. As a matter of fact,
Rodó himself was to borrow the mask of Prospero for the title
of a collection of his best essays, El Mirador de Próspero
[Montevideo: José M. Serrano, 1913].
From the twenties and thirties on, the Latin American Marxists
have attacked Rodó for his lack of foresight in predicting
the shape of the new century. The fact that he died in May 1917
was not taken into account. Today we know that the twentieth century
only began after World War I. But for the orthodox Marxist of the
Stalinist variety Rodó was also guilty of not having paid
enough attention to KarI Marx's theories. Rodó was, of course,
aware of the existence of socialism, and even of its different branches.
(A large group of Spanish and Italian immigrants who settled in
the River Plate area were political emigres; many were anarchists.)
Although it is true that he does not mention socialism in Ariel,
one can find enough references to it in his Obras Completas
to ascertain Rodo's familiarity with the subject. Being a liberal,
in the nineteenth-century sense of the word, he respected socialism
but did not feel compelled to adopt it. He also knew more about
North American interference in Latin American affairs than his two
oblique references in Ariel may suggest. As a regular contributor
to the political pages of several Uruguayan newspapers, he had the
opportunity on more than one occasion to write about North American
intervention in México (e.g., El Telégrafo,
August 4,1915) or to denounce its expanding imperialism in Cuba
and Panamá. His knowledge of the political situation in Latin
América at the time was more complete than that which his
critics have granted him. And to prove that he was not taken by
his own lofty theories about Arielism, he even signed two of his
political articles of 1912 with the pseudonym "Caliban"
[Obras Completas, pp. 1973-1976]. In writing about the political
miseries of Latin América he probably thought that pseudonym
to be more suitable. Thus, in a way, it could be maintained that
Rodó even anticipated the use of Caliban as a symbol of Our
Unfortunately, the majority of the critics who have written about
Rodó's political ideas have only read Ariel; they
have not looked at the many political articles and speeches he made
between the publication of Ariel and his death in 1917. Fernández
Retamar himself seems to have consulted only a few pages of the
1957 first edition of the Obras Completas, which he quotes
as his main source for Rodó's text. (He seems unaware that
there is a second, aumented edition, published in 1967.) Because
of his faulty scholarship, Fernández Retamar's observations
about Rodó are largely worthless.
One of the few critics to have placed the book in its correct context
is Gordon Brotherston, in his excellent edition of Ariel for
the Cambridge University Press . Following the Obras Completas
of 1957, but enlarging its sources, Brotherston has satisfactorily
evaluated the mark left on Rodó's reading of The Tempest
by two French authors of the nineteenth century. The first,
Renán, is very well known, and often quoted by Rodó
himself with praise. In his philosophical play Caliban, a
continuation of The Tempest originally published in 1878,
the French essayist attempts to foresee what would have happened
if Caliban, instead of remaining on his island, had followed Prospero
to Italy. (Césaire, now it seems clear, only reversed Renan's
invention.) Renán had been a witness to the ravages of the
Franco-Prussian War and had seen some of the consequences of the
Commune uprising in Paris. He believed that if Caliban had gone
to Europe, he would have become a demagogue and taken the power
from Prospero. For the aristocratic Renán, it was obvious
that Caliban was a symbol of the Parisian mob who attempted to transform
France into a socialist republic.
The second French writer Rodó read in connection with this
aspect of Ariel, was Fouillée. In his analysis of
Renan's Caliban, Fouillée denounced his pessimism and aristocratism,
and rescued political democracy from Renan's unfair caricature.
Rodó borrowed Fouillée's arguments and also defended
democracy. But in writing about Caliban from a cultural and utopian
point of view, he could not resist the temptation to adapt some
of Renan's images. He was also enormously helped by Groussac's identification
of Caliban with the materialistic United States. From Rodó
on, Caliban was condemned to represent in Latin American letters
the worst aspects of democracy: materialism, utilitarianism.
All these aspects of Rodó's work seem to have escaped Fernández
Retamar's attention. He does not take into account the real context
of his texts and in his superficial and biased reading he goes as
far as attributing to one of Rodó's critics some statements
made by the Uruguayan essayist himself.(2) It is also very unfortunate
that he borrowed the closing quotation of his book from one of the
weakest of Che Guevara's speeches: to paint yourself black or mulatto,
to disguise yourself as a proletarian, to step down to the people,
these recommendations reveal the worst type of racism and aristocratism.
There is a third serious mistake in Fernández Retamar's
approach. He quotes extensively from various Latin American and
European sources but he fails to quote precisely from one that can
afford some fresh insight on the matter.
More than twenty years before Mannoni began the rehabilitation
of Caliban, the Brazilian poet and novelist, Oswald de Andrade,
had published a "Manifestó Antropófago"
(1928) [Obras Completas, VI (Rio de Janeiro: Civilizacáo
Brasileira, 1972), pp. 13-19], which dealt decisively with the delicate
subject of cannibalism. Instead of pretending that cannibalism never
existed among the natives of the Americas (as Fernández Retamar
suggests rather coyly on page 16 of his pamphlet), de Andrade postulated
cannibalism as a legitímate form of culture. In his funny
and outrageous manifestó, he combined Freud's and Nietzsche's
views on culture to produce a concept that was genuinely revolutionary.
Taking as his starting point the notion of ritual cannibalism developed
in Tótem and Taboo, he maintained that culture is
based on assimilation, and that the only true revolution is the
one which produces a transformation of the world at all levels,
not just the social or political. To liberate man it is necessary
to free his eroticism as well as his view of science, his religiin
as well as his mind. A total revolution was the primary concern
of Oswald de Andrade.
He was too advanced for his times, and perhaps, even for ours.
Today, many specialists in Brazilian literature tend to minimize
his truly poetic and revolutionary view of culture. However, in
the last fifteen years or so, the best Brazilian critics have agreed
on the importance of his work. Unfortunately for Fernández
Retamar, his ñame has not reached Cuba. In daring to face
the problem of cannibalism (and implicitly the image of Caliban)
not with shame but with defiance, de Andrade succeeded in transposing
the discussion of the true nature of Latin American culture from
the rather solemn and Frenchified atmosphere of Rodó's Ariel
(and Fernández Retamar's Caliban, helas), to the lively context
of a truly iconoclastic Latin American culture. Using a pun based
on a famous line from Hamlet, in reference to the natives of Brazil,
Tupi or not Tupi, that is the question.
Yes, the question is still: are we going to assume a Latin American
identity just by aping the French intellectuals, or are we going
to behave like the cannibals (cultural cannibals) we really are?
By defending cannibalism and dating some of his texts from the day
the Brazilian cannibals ate their first bishop (an effective if
rash way of assimilating his religious virtues), by introducing
the fruitful notion of carnival as a key to the transformation of
society, Oswald de Andrade hit on the right note. And incidentally,
as everyone who has read his text knows, he was writing long before
Mikhail Bakhtin's theories on the carnavalization of literature
had been imported into the Western world by Julia Kristeva, and
into the Hispanic world by Severo Sarduy.(3) His manifestó
and Bakhtin's book on Dostoevski came out in the same year, 1928.
And the novel Oswald de Andrade was writing at the time, Serafim
Ponte Grande, develops in fiction the same kind of carnivalesque
visión his anthropophagic manifestó had advanced.
Published in 1933, the novel was so far ahead of its time that
some thirty years had to pass before it was rediscovered by Brazilian
criticism. At the same time Oswald de Andrade was writing and publishing
his texts, a friend and namesake, Mario de Andrade, had completed
another novel, Macunaíma, which came out in 1928 and
dealt with the subject of cannibalism in the most comic way.
In both Mario and Oswald de Andrade, Latin América found
the most eloquent defenders of that much maligned hero, the cannibal,
or to call him by his proper name: Caliban. It was a defense that
did not need any European theories to support it and was based on
the comic spirit of Latin American culture. It is a pity that their
true image of Caliban took so long to come in contact with the stiff,
self-conscious and finally inauthentic one produced by these black-painted
Spanish American followers of Europe.
Emir Rodríguez Monegal teaches Latin American Literature
at Yale. His literary biography of Borges will be published soon
EMIR RODRÍGUEZ MONEGAL
(1) For a different reading of this subject, see
Marta E. Sánchez, "Caliban: The New Latin-American
Protagonist of The Tempest," in Diacritics, 6, no.
1 (1976), pp. 54-61.
(2) Compare the truncated quotation Fernández
Retamar offers of p. 192 of Rodó's Obras Completas with
the complete text.
(3) The Cuban writer Severo Sarduy was the first
to introduce Bakhtin's theories into Hispanic letters. Cf. "El
barroco y el neobarroco" in América Latina en
su literatura, ed. César Fernández Moreno [México:
UNESCO and Siglo XXI, 1972]. In a paper presented at Brussels entitled
"La parodie, le grotesque et le carnavalesque: Quelques
conceptions du personnage dans le román latino-américain"0Jjean
Franco forgets to mention Sarduy's pioneer article. Her forgetfulness
also extends to Julia Kristeva and Mikhail Bakhtin. Cf. Idéologies,
littérature et société en Amérique Latine
[Bruxelles, Université de Bruxelles, 1975], pp. 57-66.