Though I am no longer leading an English department, I feel compelled to write about the creep of imported ideologies into the ways we curate and mediate texts. The recent Roald Dahl controversy, where ‘fat’ children have been replaced with ‘enormous’ ones and women with alopecia deserve a posthumous apology, is a sign of a broader, insidious move to co-opt authorial purpose for ideological purpose.
What we gain from ideologically motivated euphemisms is questionable. Of course the language we use matters, but the assumption that language has an intrinsic power to shape reality is debatable. It’s unclear how the average fat or bald person is served by rewrites, other than perhaps a perceived redistribution of semantic power. As Iona Italia says in his excellent essay, the idea that language has some kind of inherent top-down power, and that simply by changing language we redistribute said power, is vastly oversimplified. I’m not convinced that turning Oompa Loompas from ‘men’ into ‘people’ dignifies them in any meaningful way.
Of course, glossing and editing is not new. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose tells of a time when text was power. All the world’s books could be read in a lifetime, but few had the ability to read. Thus, the meaning of the Bible was held by a few and so the ‘gloss’ had as much or more authority than the original text. This was at the heart of protestant arguments against the Catholic church in the 16th century – as portrayed in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, set in the time of Henry VIII when translating the Bible was punishable by death as it represented such a challenge to the power of the Church.
We have entered a new realm, however, where text is powerful, but perhaps not in the ways that it once was. Now, texts are reworked in the name of inclusion, not exclusion. But who really benefits? Perhaps it’s only the educated elite who benefit from having their world view mirrored – for whom changing Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s decidedly feminist words to include all people means progress.
I’ve been wondering whether it is only a matter of time before the kinds of extreme ideologies we see in the United States and the United Kingdom, whether right or left, are imported to Australia’s shores. Perhaps they will have less traction here, where we like to think of ourselves as an egalitarian country, without the need for semantic moves to redistribute symbolic power. This is not the concern of the everyday Australian. But we do have a considerable way to go in sharing power with Indigenous Australians, an issue that needs urgent redress.
Kip Williams’ production of The Tempest attempts to grapple with this important concern, but I take significant issue with his methods. The play features a diverse cast that would risk cynical accusations of tokenism were the actors not so capable. The role of Caliban is well played by an Indigenous actor Guy Simon – the parallels between the Green World and the colonisation of Australia are obvious. But the final speech by Caliban has been reworked by using a pastiche of lines from some of Shakespeare’s other plays to make a more powerful – but more laboured – comment. The mash-up acts to redress some of the unresolved issues of the original play, where Shakespeare leaves Prospero’s role in Caliban’s fate ambiguous.
What Williams has failed to appreciate, and as my 17-year-old daughter studying The Tempest pointed out, Caliban is already ‘woke.’ Shakespeare was influenced by Montaigne’s classic essay, Of Cannibals, where the author recorded an early appreciation of the people of the New World. Though Montaigne’s observations were simplistic and often incorrect, he started a conversation on the humanity and treatment of the world’s Indigenous people, a conversation that we see in Shakespeare’s multifaceted treatment of Caliban.
For those who care to look, Shakespeare’s Caliban is complex in ways that elevate him beyond the role of the play’s savage. We learn quickly of the dispossession of Caliban’s mother Sycorax, the rightful owner of the Island. Given this, Caliban’s attempted violence on Miranda is not excusable but his desire for revenge understandable. We soon learn that Caliban shared his Indigenous knowledge of the island, where he shares his story in blank verse, no accident but a decision by Shakespeare to attribute him with some nobility.
But perhaps the most notable aspect of his representation is his comparison with the fools Stephano and Trinculo, the drunks who plan to exhibit Caliban for “a piece of silver” in London. These white fools speak in blank verse, and despite their obvious ineptitude, Caliban willingly indentures himself to them. One of his most powerful lines is to Prospero where he says that he has “learned language and my profit on it is I know how to curse,” raising poignant questions about his conditioned subordination.
Shakespeare was unafraid of ambiguity and as a consequence, 400 years later audiences are forced to grapple with their own attitudes and understanding – in this case, of the costs of colonisation. The modern approach of forcing everything into our own moral and political framework diminishes the original work and is unlikely to have such staying power.
Sometimes when I write a piece, I put it on ice or delete it, only to redraft it later. This is one such piece. A recent recommendation to read The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis prompted me to finish it. He says that,
A great poet, who has ‘loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue’, may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within. The language which suffers, has also inspired the changes. That is a different thing—as different as the works of Shakespeare are from Basic English. It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: between the organic and the surgical.
It's hard to know whether such discussion of the surgical removal of the author’s intended meaning should be added to our growing list of ‘literacies’ when we have enough trouble preserving the inclusion of canonical texts in our syllabuses. But it does raise a valid discussion about the preservation of authorial intent in an age of democratisation and decolonisation of the canon. A noble goal may be to develop students who at least know enough to raise a quizzical eyebrow of their own accord.
Lovely writing, I do find the whole matter not that big a deal, for mine. Books aimed at ones so young should be managed carefully - culture evolves and improves, parochialism won’t halt this.
I question the move on psychological grounds. To change the language already assumes that people are too fragile to handle reading 'offensive' words; but if they weren't before, they will be now. Hearing these words for the first time from the playground bully is much worse than reading them in a children's book (and in a humourous context) with mum or dad.