Response to “Unpacking Caliban”


In “Echoes in the Bone,” under the “Performing Origins” heading, Roach discusses Henry Purcell’s 1688 opera Dido and Aeneas, quoting in particular the “Eccho Dance of the Furies,” where an off-stage chorus “choreograph[s] the fated catastrophe”: “In our deep-vaulted cell the charm we’ll prepare, / Too dreadful a practice for this open air.” Roach uses this example to illustrate his point that in operas of the era, “Witches, like the spirits of the dead, allowed those among the living to speak of […] the hidden transcript of succession.” Roach is referring here to the Exclusion Crisis of the 1680s, but I want to focus on another “transcript of succession”: Prospero’s seizure of the rulership of the island from Caliban. The “crisis of royal succession,” Roach writes, “is perforce a crisis of cultural surrogation, necessarily rich in performative occasions and allegories of origin and segregation,” and I think it’s valuable to focus on the origin and segregation stories that Prospero allows to be told.

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“I will kneel to him”: Caliban’s Gods

The body of folk wisdom that encircles the history of European colonization of the Americas is both deeply flawed and widely pervasive. It’s widely enough believed that a professor I took a required class for my Latin American Studies minor with this semester, skimming over the early colonial period so that we could advance towards more modern history, repeated at face value the same stories we have heard over and over: that Aztecs believed that the Spanish were returning gods, that the Aztecs believed that Spaniards on horses were centaurs, that the Spanish were able to conquer indigenous empires simply by virtue of imported technology, and so on. I was lucky enough to have taken a class on early Latin American history before this semester and had to have been exposed to more up to date scholarship on the topic, but it bothered me that these classic truisms were being reaffirmed in a scholarly setting. This may be why I was drawn to the scene in The Tempest where Caliban, coming upon the drunk Stephano and Trinculo, believes that they are gods and swears his loyalty to them in overthrowing Prospero. In many ways, this interaction reproduces the same fallacy that began to be propagated about the Spanish/Aztec (by extension, European/Native American) conflict in the decades prior to Shakespeare’s completion of the play. Continue reading ““I will kneel to him”: Caliban’s Gods”

Fear City Reemerges from Memory in the Form of a Wish

Search “new york in the 70s” through Google and you’ll notice a trend of links with titles like “1970s New York in 41 Terrifying Photos,” “A decade of urban decay,” and “New York City Used to be a Terrifying Place [PHOTOS].” Likewise, you’ll find articles that take the opposite approach and address the era’s glamour, like The Guardian’s “Why we’re still obsessed with the 1970s New York of Lou Reed and Patti Smith.” A 2015 T Magazine article calls the ‘70s the  “last period in American culture when the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow still pertained, when writers and painters and theater people still wanted to be (or were willing to be) ‘martyrs to art’ […] the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status.”

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“this beast / this child”: Why Luther B?

Why does Smith waste so much time on Luther B? In the midst of so much human tragedy, why does Blood Dazzler go out of its way to elegize a dog? Firstly, because Smith is the poet and can do as she likes. Also because the Luther B poems are not simply about the “Rottweiler, / bull, whatever that dog is” and his perspective, although I don’t think they’d be less valuable if that’s all they were.
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Inti Raymi and the Performance of Created Memory

We only ever hear one question asked in the academic decathlon central to the plot of The Day After Tomorrow: “Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro defeated this Incan emperor at the Peruvian highland town of Cajamarca. What is his name?” “Atahualpa,” Sam answers, and he’s correct. Beth suggested to us that we might consider writing on this topic, and looking for examples of how memory might be performed in the context of Peru, I thought the Inti Raymi fit the concept well. Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun, was celebrated by the Inca on the winter solstice from 1412 until 1535, when it was banned by the Catholic church. In 1944, the Inti Raymi was reenacted in Cusco for the first time in 400 years by Faustino Espinoza Navarro, a Peruvian actor and the founder of the Academy of the Quechua Language. The reenactment was based primarily on writings left by Garcilaso de la Vega, a half-Spanish, half-Inca chronicler who came of age in the years following the Spanish invasion of Peru and wrote about the Inca based on the recollections of his maternal family — a memory, in short, recreated from memories handed down to a man writing about a world that had already largely passed out of existence by the time he was writing about it. Inti Raymi has been celebrated every year since 1944 on June 24th. Though in the time of the Inca it was celebrated in the center of Cusco, it is now reenacted at the fortress of Saqsayhuaman, above the city, with an actor playing the role of the divine Inca emperor, and the animal sacrifices simulated instead of truly performed.

Inti Raymi strikes me as exactly the kind of echo in the bone Roach describes as “a history of forgetting [as well as] a history of empowering the living through the performance of memory.” The elements that would have lent the festival its weight during the height of the Inca — religious devotion, sacrifice towards ensuring a good harvest, loyalty to the Inca state — are absent in a time when the Inca religion is no longer practiced, tourism is the region’s economic backbone, and an entirely different system of government oversees people’s lives. The event has been duly criticized as catering more towards tourists than to locals: a blogger writing about the subject laments (perhaps patronizingly) the lack of access of indigenous Peruvians to a festival “regenerated for them, not by them, by an intellectual middle-class of European or mixed-blood descent, who saw in its practice a chance to romanticize and mythologize their own history and identity.” Still, I think it would be hard to entirely write off the reenactment of any violently suppressed indigenous tradition, no matter how long after its disappearance it resurfaces.

As a last thought, it would be hard to consider Inti Raymi in the context of “Echoes in the Bone” without dwelling on Roach’s comparison between Western tragic drama’s presentation of catastrophe as a “singular fate yet to be endured,” and the spirit-world ceremony’s pacing of catastrophe “in the past, as a grief to be expiated.” Which of these does the festival of the sun do, if either? Explicitly, it is a celebration and not an expiation, but it isn’t possible to conceive of the present-day festival without remembering the catastrophes of European invasion and epidemic that set the stage for the celebration’s 400-year absence. Having never seen a performance of Inti Raymi, I don’t know whether this history is addressed within the festival itself, but it seems to me that the act of revival is itself an act of expiation.