Postcolonialism and Classics

Justine McConnell (APGRD)

Derek Walcott has not, he claims, read Homer ‘all the way through’ (Omeros (1990), 283).  Despite having penned an epic poem entitled Omeros and a stage version of the Odyssey, as well as having Homeric themes, episodes, and characters featuring in many of his works, the Nobel Prize-winning writer from St. Lucia has been at pains to assert his distance from Classics, at the same time as exhibiting comfortable control over this material. His stance exemplifies the difficult yet immensely productive relationship that postcolonial writers have had with Greek and Roman classics. 

As the title of a memorable article by the acclaimed writer Salman Rushdie, ‘The Empire Writes Back’ (Times (3 July 1982), 8), reminds us, this engagement with classical material can be seen as one way in which anti-colonial writers have chosen both to protest and to break free from the oppressive weight of the colonial powers, not by rejecting all that was imposed on them by the West, but by engaging with it, appropriating it, inverting it, and thereby demanding that it be seen in a new light. 

Many factors lie at the heart of this, not least European colonial powers’ appropriation of Classics as their own, and the subsequent exportation of its study to nations subjugated under their imperial command. European language, religion, and elite culture were all imposed on these colonially oppressed nations, and the literature of ancient Greece and Rome was an important part of the colonial education system. So when writers in the twentieth century came to protest their subjugation and work towards independence, Classics was both a tool in their armoury and one of the very elements from which they wished to break free.  This led to fascinating reappraisals of classical texts from such places as the Caribbean, Africa, India, Australasia, and Latin America.

Many of these modern postcolonial works cause scholars to look again at these ancient texts and reassess traditional interpretations. In the ominous light of European colonial enterprises, the Cyclops episode of the Odyssey, for instance, may be seen to be inverted: far from being the aggressive, uncivilized brute of Western interpretation, the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus may be merely an innocent inhabitant, differing in appearance from his Greek visitors, who returns home to find intruders and thieves. And when Odysseus and his men enter Polyphemus’ house, eat his cheese, and start a fire, are they not breaking basic rules of polite hospitality just as surely as the suitors on Ithaca are? And is the Cyclops’ punishment of that transgression so much worse than Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors? Well, yes, perhaps – but only because Polyphemus eats his intruders. Yet stories of cannibalism have long been told to illustrate the strangeness of unfamiliar peoples, and it is, after all, Odysseus who is narrating this tale, from his own subjective standpoint.

Postcolonial writers who have engaged with the texts of Graeco-Roman antiquity are asserting an equal ownership of these canonical classical texts, which have become as much theirs as they ever were the possessions of the colonial rulers. Indeed some, such as the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, have demonstrated that their own contemporary cultures may have closer affinities with the classical world than much of Europe does. As Soyinka has explained,

I remember my shock as a student of literature and drama when I read that drama originated in Greece. What is this? I couldn’t quite deal with it. What are they talking about? I never heard my grandfather talk about Greeks invading Yorubaland. I couldn’t understand. I’ve lived from childhood with drama.
Quoted in K.A. Appiah, ‘An Evening with Wole Soyinka’, Black American Literature Forum 22 (1988), 782.

Likewise oral traditions, such as that from which the works of Homer developed, may have diminished in much of Western culture, but can be seen vibrantly alive in some previously-colonized African cultures, where the griot (storyteller) remains an important figure.

Postcolonial responses to the ancient world are a vital part of the reception of Classics, and form an ever-expanding body of material and performances. They compel us to challenge traditional assumptions and make connections that may previously have been overlooked, thereby shedding light on the ancient material just as ancient texts continue to illuminate the modern works.