Sunday, July 15, 2012

We Calibans

Two weeks ago, on a Thursday, I got off the Subway and it was raining. I went walking down to the Williamsburg waterfront. The place was empty, although on a clear night, strollers block the paths and couples pack the benches. Across the East River, the Empire State Building had been lit purple, blue, orange, yellow, and green for pride week; to the left, trains crossed the Williamsburg Bridge. It was close to midnight and I walked past the open lot where the flea market sets up every weekend and past the ferry, down to the rail at the edge of the water. I found a dry place to sit on the ground, facing the river, cross-legged under a rain shelter for ferry passengers. I had decided to bring The Tempest with me to read.

I get to the passage where Miranda recalls teaching Caliban to speak:

... I pitied thee;
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not (savage)
Know thine own meaning; but would gabble, like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known...
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.
And I thought to myself: What a virtuoso passage! Aren’t we all always Miranda, and Caliban too? Don’t we strive restlessly to give opportunities to ourselves, to better ourselves? And don’t we all misuse or squander the opportunities?

But then I realize the brutality of the comparison. For Caliban, who is trapped, and whose physical freedom is exterminated, can language amount to more than an extra facet of enslavement? There is a technique of colonial management that was developed to maximum sophistication by the British, who taught the Brahman elites of colonized India to speak and read English. The deliberate aim was to create a class of Indians who “thought British.” Nietzsche said that all thought is trapped in the “prison house of language,” meaning that thought always flows through language’s canals and channels. If that is true, then Miranda did not only teach Caliban language, but also, perhaps, dug furrows in his mind.

Language could rebound to Caliban’s advantage; the colonizer’s weapon could always fall into the hands of the colonized. Yesterday in 1789, the French third estate stormed the Bastille, shouting: “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Two years later, the black slaves working the sugar plantations of Haiti used the same slogan when overthrowing their French masters.

Language has a finite number of combinations, but infinite speakers—that's the trouble. It is like the subway, which has a fixed set of routes but endless riders. You are inevitably reusing lines already used millions of times. When you are taught a language you are shackled to the language’s past. For Caliban, that past is decidedly inhospitable. And Caliban will never develop his own language, for the teacher has what the game theorists call “the first proposer’s advantage.” The first solution to a problem gets adopted a high percentage of the time, even if the proposal is unfair. Proposing an alternative solution is a perverse waste of resources—reinventing the wheel.

The only appropriate response is defiance: “the red plague rid you / for learning me your language.” Brooklyn is full of Calibans: rebels against an inherited way of being, who will ultimately wind up disappointed repeaters of the past. 

Posted by Jarad

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