Th e Hermeneutics of Culture in D. Walcott’s “The Prodigal”
In postmodern poetry, religious motifs have always played an intriguing role. The practice of religious hermeneutics, of translation, and of the development of new literary and cultural forms of expression have proved to be so interdependent as to be inseparable. Writers from former colonies have a radically unique relationship to this knotted complex of religion, nation and culture. In this paper I will examine this phenomenon by analyzing a text by Caribbean Nobel laureate Derek Walcott that grapples with the issues of hermeneutics, translation and hybrid identity. Th e Prodigal: A Poem is constructed around the tension between being a part of the ‘Western world’, with its canonical cultural and political history, and being a native of Saint Lucia. It takes up James Cliff ord’s notion of cultural travel by showing how European identity is predicated on the travel of ideas within the small geographic space that is Western Europe. Drawing on centuries of European literature, Walcott reverses the canonized metaphors of travel that characterize literature about his own home: in his text, Saint Lucia is the unmarked, fixed place, and Europe becomes the exotic village of anthropological studies. In doing so, Walcott makes deft use of the biblical figure of the Prodigal Son, well aware of how dependent European literature
is on biblical traditions. In fact, as I will suggest in my paper, it is not the bible as a fixed, canonical text that we find underlying European myths. It is rather a long process of translation and interpretation and re-translation in which Christian images, metaphors and stories are passed on. This constant act of hermeneutic attention to that specific text and its critics has become such an integral part of European literature and culture that it allows Walcott to easily use it to discuss the contradictory identity of a black writer, writing in English, “a hieratic language he will never inherit”. In his travels through Europe, Walcott interweaves language and world, working out a sense of self, an identity paradoxically both predicated on European culture and independent of it.