Unweaving the Social Fabric: An Aetiology of Epithelialization of the Wounded Self in Omeros
This research aims to analyze Derek Walcott’s epic poem, Omeros through the lens of Critical Disability Studies. This research falls under the paradigm of medical humanities. The goal of this research is to unravel the social fabric to study the set of beliefs about diseased individual particularly in the character of Philocete whose wound is of particular significance in the text. The medical term ‘aetiology’ which refers to the cause and origin of the disease and ‘epithelialization’ which refers to the healing process are carefully selected. These terms are not only used here to refer to medical conditions but also to the emotional condition of the diseased individual. Towards this individual, the society begins to adopt a critical attitude and identifies the individual to be socially unacceptable. Critical Disability Studies brings into discussion the tormented self of the sick person and aims to heal the emotional wound.
Studies Done on Omeros
Omeros is the most significant work of Derek Walcott which is analyzed by various critics according to its multidimensional scope. Its themes, characters and language has been studied using certain lens which have explored deeper aspects of this work. The book Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World discusses in detail contemporary epics from various parts of the world. In chapter 14, “Walcott’s Omeros: A Classical Epic in the Post Modern World makes an in depth analysis of Omeros as a modern epic. To justify this point, the writer negates it being monologic as per the epistemological views about Western Epic rather he is of the view that it maintains its dialogue with the contemporary concerns. “Derek Walcott’s Omeros as a Palimpsestuous Adaptation: A Postmodernist Reading”, studies Walcott’s work in the light of Sara Hutcheon’s theory of adaptation. The paper unfolds the intertextual elements used in Omeros, thus paving the way for a rich analysis. The researcher also finds postmodern elements in this epic as it is a modern adaptation. Marthias Ororo Orhero, in “Rewriting the Caribbean Experience in Homerian Style: A Study of Themes, Style and Vision in Derek Walcott’s Omeros” in Annals of Humanities and Development Studies, discussing salient features of the work comments that although it lacks the heroic grandeur of the epics of Homer, it talks about low Caribbean characters and their struggle in society. The researcher compares the stylistic element of Walcott with Dante. The work also discusses colonization and slavery and the use of rich imagery. Hopkins, in Derek Walcott, Omeros and Epic, discusses the issue of individual and national identity as a thematic concern in Omeros. She observes the poetic inspiration of Walcott in choosing the names of the characters based on the Greek epic even the name of the character Seven Seas and the title Omeros itself is based on Homer’s work. In her observation, in this reworking of the traditional epic, Walcott challenges its stature as how these epic characters have lost their significance and regained another stature. Novillo-Corvalan, P. in “Literary Migration: Homer’s journey through Joyce’s Ireland and Walcott’s Saint Lucia”, discusses the linguistic, thematic and historical relation between Walcott’s work to that of Homer and James Joyce. The fact that Joyce and Walcott both have postcolonial background is also significant here. Jehan Ramzani’s book The Wound of History: Walcott's Omeros and the Postcolonial Poetics of Affliction published in 2020 focusses on the implications of wound. According to the thesis presented in this book, Philocete’s wound represents an allegory of African Caribbean suffering under the colonization of Europe. Thus the wound becomes a national allegory.
Analyzing the Wound
This research studies Derek Walcott’s most significant epic work Omeros using the framework of Critical Disability Studies. The character of Philocetes has a wound on his shin which is described by Walcott using rich imagery. Classical mythology uses various versions of the character of Philocetes. Sophocles wrote a play tilted, Philocetes. In Homer’s epic, Philocetes was a minor character. In Walcott’s work, this wound is allegorical. Even the plight of some other characters is discussed in the poem with reference to this wound. The wound thus becomes symbolic of suffering. According to some critics Walcott being a Post-colonial writer has used the imagery of wound as a national allegory. The plot that has been woven around this wound and the cultural and social implication involved in it is the subject of this research. It analyzes how literature responds to sickness and disability that creates binaries in the society and how does literary space give voice to the otherwise marginalized individuals. Garland-Thomson writes, “Disability—like gender—is a concept that pervades all aspects of culture: its structuring institutions, social identities, cultural practices, political positions, historical communities, and the shared human experience of embodiment” (24). According to this view, disability like an ideological construct pervades all facets of a society thus it becomes a shared human experience. This experience thus becomes a source of debate in medical humanities and in Critical Disability Studies, where the ultimate goal is to curate this experience to be more socially acceptable.
The epic opens unravelling the perpetual wound of Philocete:
“For some extra silver, under a sea-almond,
he shows them a scar made by a rusted anchor,
rolling one trouser-leg up with the rising moan
of a conch. It has puckered like the corolla
of a sea-urchin. He does not explain its cure.
Sea almonds grow on sandy shores. Their leaves and bark has medicinal properties to dress the wound and expedite its healing. That is why Philocete mentions it. Jahan Ramzani in his article, “The Wound of History” unfolds the manifold meanings of the wound. He says that it tells about the sufferings due to racial prejudice. He says that the wound trope dives into the “whirlpool of metaphorical resemblance and difference” (415). The symbol of wound does not only represent physical but also emotional, psychological and historical suffering here.
‘The rest walked up the sand with identical stride
except for foam-haired Philoctete. The sore on his shin
still unhealed, like a radiant anemone. It had come
from a scraping, rusted anchor. The pronged iron
peeled the skin in a backwash. He bent to the foam,
sprinkling it with a salt hiss. Soon he would run,
hobbling, to the useless shade of an almond,
with locked teeth, then wave them off from the shame
of his smell, and once more they would leave him alone” (9).
The verses quoted above mention the wound of Philocete he received that from a rusted anchor. It is unhealed since then. It is as fresh as a sea anemone. The imagery of vibrancy is used to connote the extent of pain that is associated with the wound. His pain is further highlighted with the limp that makes his disability visible to everyone around. With that there is an idea of shame due to the smellscape that accompanies the wound. It makes the position of Philocete socially awkward pushing him more and more to a secluded space.
“His skin was a nettle,
his head a market of ants; he heard the crabs groan
from arthritic pincers, he felt a mole-cricket drill
his sore to the bone. His knee was radiant iron, his chest was a sack of ice,
and behind the bars of his rusted teeth,
like a mongoose in a cage, a scream was mad to come out; his tongue tickled
its claws on the roof of his mouth, rattling its bars in rage” (4).
Walcott uses creatural imagery to highlight his pain and irritation. It is not only the knee but the whole body responds to the pain. The suppressed agony and perpetual pain makes him enraged. Philocetes attributes his wound to his ancestry and compares it to the ‘Cross’ that he is carrying. The ‘cross’ being a Cristian symbol of sins of humanity that Jesus Christ took on his shoulders, Philocetes carries the burden of ancestral pains on his shoulders.
Or else why was there no cure?
That the cross he carried was not only the anchor's
but that of his race,
for a village black and poor as the pigs
that rooted in its burning garbage,
then were hooked on the anchors of the abattoir’ (19).
He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles of his grandfathers. The ‘chained ankles’ are a visual imagery of black slavery which was the product of colonization. This wound also bespeaks of the experience of the body being colonized by the wound. His psychological idea of wound that he is carrying through generations co relate with Philocete’s idea of wound in Sophocles play Philocetes. Both of them feel themselves to be ostracized from their respective context. Philocete inquires,
‘Where was this root? What senna, what tepid tisanes,
could clean the branched river of his corrupted blood,
whose sap was a wounded cedar's?
What did it mean, In this name that felt like fever?
Well, one good heft of his garden-cutlass
would slice the damned name clean from its rotting yam’ (20).
The verses quoted above inculcate the trauma one experiences in finding one’s origin and roots. Philocete’s pain thus aggrandizes to engulf historical realm. He questions the origin of black people. The wound is thus symbolic of the loss of history of black people as well who had crossed the Atlantic. Critics associate the experience of social segregation due to disability with the same lens as racial prejudice works. They theorize that, “something similar happens in critical theory—where, for example, Deaf/disability studies likens disability experiences to that of race, while race theorists describe their own oppression as disability. In each case, rather than interrogate the relationship, each group borrows the other’s oppressive associations in an attempt to explain its own oppression” (Erevelles and Kafer 217). Thus the boundaries of disability studies stretch to incorporate the proliferation of racial injustice in the society. William M. Jonson in his essay, “Normality, Ideology, and Inquiry into Human Life in the Thought of Georges Canguilhem” writes about the medical practice of Canguilhem who was a French historian, philosopher and physician and was trained between the two world wars. In discussing about various connotations of the word ‘normal’, he says that it is the continuity of life when it comes to individuals. His doctrine differs from that of an evolutionist. Interestingly he examines the metaphysical character of death and disease. Walcott also associates the sacred aspect of healing with the wound. “He would wait in the No Pain Cafe all day. There he would lean down and anoint the mouth of the sore on his shin” (18). Literature thus play its role in curating the pattern of suffering. By the time epic reaches its end, we move towards the healing process.
The Recreation of Classical Epic
Derek Walcott is the winner of Nobel Prize in literature. He is a West Indian poet and playwright. His work is rooted in the Caribbean experience. He began writing poems much earlier in his life and produced remarkable works of poetry. He was also a trained painter. The work under discussion, his book length poem Omeros was published in 1990. It is the reworking of the classical epic, Iliad and Odyssey by Homer. Homer’s myths have been re told through centuries, but his poem superimposes Walcott’s themes. Although the names of the characters are of the Homeric origin but their troubles and personas have contemporary cultural value. Omeros is like a novel in verse form. It configures the fight of the Caribbean fisher men on the epic scale to equate the situation of Trojan War. The expanse of three continents has been traversed as the setting of this work generally, but particularly the locale is Caribbean. It is divided into seven books which can be divided into three parts on the basis of three major spatial shifts. The first part is book one and two, where the setting is St. Lucia. In book three, four and five the setting is Africa, North America and Europe. Book six and seven can make the third section where the setting again is St. Lucia. There are four interrelated plots in the story. The first plot is of the relationship of Helen, Achilles and Hector. The second plot is the story of Major Plunkett and his wife Maud. The third plot involves the story of Philocete with his wound which is healed my Ma Kilman and the fourth plot involves the narrator, the poet himself. Making a journey through the artist’s consciousness the plot involves an episode where the poet meets the soul of his dead father and some desires are fulfilled. The focal point of this research is the unhealing wound of Philocete which takes its reference from the character of Philoktetes in Homer’s Illiad.
The present research is qualitative in nature. It uses textual analysis as research method. The primary text is Walcott’s epic poem Omeros. For conducting this research, the secondary sources used are library resources, articles from journals and reputed web sources. The theoretical frame work used for this research is Critical Disability Studies. It falls in the ambit of Medical Humanities. Medical Humanities is an interdisciplinary field which includes various forms of knowledge that are related to literature and their application to the field of medical practice. The time of Enlightenment observed a divide between reason and imagination and prioritized reason. Medicine and arts were obviously considered poles apart according to this view. The combination of clinical or medical practice with literature thus seems a naive idea. In recent years however there is an emergence of popular wave in academia with regards to medical humanities. Especially when the world has experienced and is still dealing with the aftershocks of the pandemic both psychologically and physically, the significance of medical humanities has greatly enhanced. People are reading literature about the epidemics of the history to curate their experience of Covid. Medical science being purely scientific field of inquiry aims to find diagnosis, cure and physical care of the patient. Humanities offers insights to the emotional suffering, trauma and social and cultural implications of disease and disability. Medical humanities being an amalgamation of both provides a merger of two branches of knowledge and thus has manifold significance. It narrativises the experience of health and ill-health which is essential to understand the suffering. Medical science claims to be neutral and objective. Medical humanities critically challenges this notion. Humanities joining hands with medicine makes it more approachable to the public. It offers an intermediary space to reflect on the human perspective amidst the process of disease and diagnosis. Under the umbrella of medical humanities Critical Disability Studies has taken shape. Critical Disability Studies or CDS according to its theorists does not only take into consideration, the physical or mental impairment but social norms that channelize social stigmas are a matter of concern for the literary researcher in Disability Studies. Julie Avril Minch who has worked in disability studies writes about the job of a researcher in Disability studies is the: “scrutiny of normative ideologies [that] should occur not for its own sake but with the goal of producing knowledge in support of justice for people with stigmatized bodies and minds”. Thus CDS is emancipatory in nature. It analyses how disability is socially constructed. It is also related to politics as it studies how the dynamics of powerful versus powerless or able versus disable work. The able in this context are the ones who are normal. The Disability Studies Reader defines Norm as: The concept of a norm, unlike that of an ideal, implies that the majority of the population must or should somehow be part of the norm. The norm pins down that majority of the population that falls under the arch of the standard bell-shaped curve. This curve, the graph of an exponential function, that was known variously as the astronomer’s “error law,” the “normal distribution,” the “Gaussian density function,” or simply “the bell curve,” became in its own way a symbol of the tyranny of the norm. Any bell curve will always have at its extremities those characteristics that deviate from the norm. So, with the concept of the norm comes the concept of deviations or extremes. When we think of bodies, in a society where the concept of the norm is operative, then people with disabilities will be thought of as deviants. This, as we have seen, is in contrast to societies with the concept of an ideal, in which all people have a non-ideal status. (3)
Healing of the Wound
Ma Kilma who is a traditional African wise old woman (Obeah) finally discovers an African plant that would heal the wound. The traditional African folk medicine is found to provide cure. The healing of the wound is associated with the success of the community. Healing also gives a sense of optimism for positive future. This healing for the poet can be symbolic of homecoming to St.Lucia. Healing is linked with the reconciliation of characters and with selfdiscovery. “He felt the sore twitch its wires up to his groin. With his hop-and-drop limp, hand clutching one knee, he left the printed beach to crawl up the early street to Ma Kilman's shop” (10). Ma Kilman”s place is the point where the process of healing begins. Linton discusses the idea of including disable into the mainstream society, “Disability studies’ project is to weave disabled people back into the fabric of society…as full citizens whose rights and privileges are intact, whose history and contributions are recorded, and whose often distorted representations in art, literature, film, theater, and other forms of artistic expression are fully analyzed” (525.). Cambell mentions the same social phenomenon that, “The regimes of ableism have produced a depth of disability negation that reaches into the caverns of collective subjectivity to the extent that the notion of disability as inherently negative is seen as a ‘naturalized’ reaction to an aberration’ (Campbell 166). Thus ableism being the powerful, confines the space of disable. Ramzani here elaborates the role of poetry, that the surgery of poetry disfigures a character with wounds to repair historical injuries. The wound which is a manifestation of historical injuries begins to heal. Thus according to Critical Disability Studies, the literary work makes a diagnosis of the disease or disability and then finds the ways it has to make its way through the meta discourses of normalcy within the society.
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