From the Archives: Édouard Glissant & Derek Walcott in Conversation about the Epic
Martinique-born writer and thinker Édouard Glissant (1928–2011) and Saint Lucia–born poet and playwright Derek Walcott (1930–2017) discussed the epic after a reading they gave together at Poets House on April 11, 1991. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.
Editor’s Note: Glissant uses the term “errantry,” a key term of his philosophy of a Poetics of Relation; errantry suggests an act of navigating and acknowledging multiplicities of cultural influences.
ÉDOUARD GLISSANT: Religious or not, The Iliad or The Odyssey or ancient Testaments or Koran or Icelandic sagas or Mahabarata, et cetera, [are] all books of errantry and not of dogmatism. Dogmatism is gone after with the use of these books, but these are books of uncertainty and errantry. You can see this in the tragedy of the Greeks. Oedipus cannot see at first the truth that is in him. He must go to step by step to find it.
Thinking about the roots of identity processes in Western cultures, my conclusion is that at first these processes needed a kind of opaqueness, I call it opacité, translating from the French. A kind of opaqueness was needed to oppose and reject the other, and to have some ecran—screen—between identity and other. In Western cultures there is no myth, no great myth, that includes the other. All the myths are “out for myself.” Yes, there are myths [that include the other] but not at the roots of Western culture.
I think that what we need today is not an epic for “my identity” or “your identity” or “his identity.” We need an epic for the fragile and dying identity of earth and mankind. This is the identity we have to look at. And I can realize this identity through my identity. I do not have to abandon, to renounce, my identity to realize this “mankind’s identity,” which is agonisant—dying, in the throes of death…
One of the great, great, great tasks of this time is to understand the other, to live with him, or to accept him. And I will claim for me and for you and for all, the right to opaqueness, and to opacité. You can be what you are and I don’t need to understand that, or to reduce you to a transparency, to live with you or love you or accept you.
I think that will be, must be, my conception of the epic, of the rules of the epic—that my identity is not the root identity but a relation identity, and my opaqueness should be accepted by you and your opaqueness by me.
DEREK WALCOTT: The subjects of epic have to do with huge tracts of subject: devastation, war. In the Caribbean, simply on the scale of measurement, we’ve had enough to earn the idea of epic. We’ve had enough genocide and we’ve had enough war. You have slavery—epic subject. So many million at the bottom of the ocean—epic subject. All the Indians gone—epic subject.
The difference is that epics are generally written with some idea of a manifest destiny for the hero. The hero sets off, and the hero goes through lots of problems and quests and eventually the hero gets somewhere and you have the founding of the new hope, the new order, the new Rome.
The Caribbean cannot presume that kind of destiny. That’s one way it falls short of having an epic hero….The whole idea of the destiny of the hero is not something that the Caribbean is interested in….It is not because it is powerless that it is not interested. It is because what has evolved in the Caribbean is a society that does not need an epic….I’m saying that if you use those terms of reference for what is contained in an epic, all the requirements for an epic are there. But the idea of one emblematic hero for the Caribbean…is not part of the Caribbean experience. Nor is it the wish of the Caribbean experience, as it was the wish of the British or Roman Empire to have such a figure.
And the final thing that I would say is that any Caribbean writer, simply from the scale of history, the width of the experience of the past, and also the immensity of the real ocean that that writer is on, is immediately undertaking every morning—no matter how small the poem—the equivalent of a quest….If I do not entertain the idea of the poem being called an epic, it is because…to say you have written a poem that makes these people heroic is insulting to them.
ÉDOUARD GLISSANT: I can’t understand why we think of epic in terms of heroic or noble. For me the epic voice is not heroic or noble; I disagree with Derek [Walcott] on this point. Speaking of Western cultures, the greatest epics are based not on victory but on defeat, or on trickery. The Greek epic turned on trickery, not on victory. La Chanson de Roland is a defeat. They were defeated by the Arabs and they made an epic poem of it. The sagas, the Icelandic sagas, are always recounting death and destruction and defeat. That is why I said that epic is fundamentally errantry and not dogmatism. I can’t imagine epic as victory. And think about the Civil War in the States. Who created the epic from this war? The vanquished, the people from the South. Real epic like Faulkner or false epic like Gone With the Wind. The people who won the war didn’t need the epic, because they won.
Édouard Glissant was the author of eight novels, nine volumes of poetry, one play, and 15 collections of essays. His writing is known for its complex reflections on colonialism, slavery, racism, and cultural diversity. In 1992, Glissant was short-listed for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Derek Walcott was an Obie Award–winning playwright and the author of numerous collections of poetry, including his epic poem Omeros. In 1992, Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature.