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  • Missing Sounds and Mutable MeaningsNames in Derek Walcott’s Omeros
  • Martin McKinsey (bio)

If, as modern theory tells us, the world is shaped—and misshaped—in language, then the question of who has the power to name, who is being named, and in what language, is of paramount importance. In the age of European expansion, the naming of foreign places and landscapes was inseparable from the project of imperial annexation. “It was in naming,” writes Mary Louise Pratt, “that the religious and geographic projects came together, as emissaries claimed the world by baptizing landmarks and geographic formations with European Christian names [. . .] Here the naming [. . .] and the claiming are all one” (33). The same principle could operate at the level of the individual. Thus, in a novel of 1719, it seemed natural that a marooned Englishman should rechristen a freshly captured native: “I made him know his name should be Friday [. . .]; I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my name” (Defoe 209). In the new lands of European discovery and conquest, domination and denomination went hand in hand.

In the decolonizing world, the “nominalism of imperialism” was succeeded by what Homi K. Bhabha calls “a specifically postcolonial performance of reinscription” (231). For post-independence societies to change the names of mountains, cities, streets, and states back to their original forms or native language served a symbolic as well as political function. For individuals, also, changes of name were a way of signaling fresh beginnings and realigned vectors of national and ethnic identities; English dynastic names like Albert and James were shed in favor of ancestral or more traditional ones.1 Kimberly Bentson, discussing a similar process of “simultaneous naming and unnaming” in an African-American context, quotes Malcolm X: “As long as you allow them to call you what they wish you don’t know who you really are. You can’t lay claim to any name, any home, any destiny, that will identify you as something you should be, as something you should become” (152).

At first encounter, the premise of Derek Walcott’s Omeros seems to fly in the face of any such narrative of liberationist (un)naming, where finding the right name means discovering one’s home, one’s destiny, and who one really is. In this long poem of 1990, set largely on the island of St. Lucia, the Afro-Caribbean characters at the center of the story bear given names like Philoctete, Hector, and Achille—European names of hoariest vintage and therefore, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s account, agents of “disassociation, divorce [and] alienation” (443). Walcott goes some distance in naturalizing these names historically as the legacy of slavery, but at the same time endows them with a symbolic resonance that insists that they be approached Eurocentrically; that is, with reference to their canonical Greek originals. Jahan Ramazani, in his essay on the figure of Philoctete in the poem, raises the possibility (which he then goes on to refute) that Walcott “re-enslave[s] the descendant [End Page 891] of slaves by shackling him with a European name and prototype” (411). Others might see Walcott’s classicism as an attempt to curry favor with the metropolitan arbiters of culture in Stockholm and elsewhere, or even as a coded aspiration for whiteness.2 Walcott is no stranger to such innuendos, and indeed can be said to have anticipated them in “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry,” an early essay that interrogates the nationalist discourse of authenticity, and de-stigmatizes cultural imitation in a manner that parallels the later theoretical work of Bhabha. Walcott’s Omeros, as we shall see, is both an impressive actualization of these counter-intuitive ideas and a testament to how far beyond them Walcott’s poetic evolution has taken him.

The present essay approaches the broader issue of naming and empire in the British West Indies through an examination of a single character and a single name in Walcott’s poem. Though an important figure in Omeros—in fact, in some ways Walcott’s admitted double—the fisherman Achille has tended to be overshadowed in analytic treatments by the more symbolically fraught figures...


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