My colleague George White, Jr. offered commentary on Disturbers of the Peace during a celebration of the book’s release at York College in Spring 2014. He was kind enough to provide the text of his commentary, which I post below.
On Disturbers of the Peace
March 27, 2014
by George White, Jr.
Toward the end of Shakespeare’s play Othello, the title character addresses the men who betrayed him and urges them to remember him as a noble general whose lone fault might have been that he loved too much. In particular, he says to them “I have done the state some service.” I am reminded of this passage because of the remarkable work of Dr. Kelly Baker Josephs in her new book Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature. Disturbers of the Peace is well thought-out, thoroughly researched and superbly written. Dr. Josephs informs her critique of Caribbean literature with a sure grasp of Caribbean politics and deep knowledge of revolutionary psychology, among other things. The book accomplishes a number of things, not the least of which is revealing the ways that Caribbean authors used the metaphor of insanity to demystify power.
Chapter 4 of the monograph addresses Derek Walcott’s award-winning play Dream On Monkey Mountain. In brief, the play revolves around the character Makak, who is imprisoned and interrogated by a colonial officer, Col. Lestrade. Makak claims to have been visited by a moon spirit who told him that his destiny was to become an African king. Lestrade, the other prisoners, and even Makak’s best friend, Moutstique, think that Makak is crazy. The play unfolds as Makak, Moustique, and Lestrade make physical and spiritual journeys that lead to transformations both profound and profane. Specifically, Dr. Josephs illuminates the ways in which Walcott uses “madness” or “insanity” as a glue to bind people together in order to understand their world and to change it. It may seem odd to imagine that hallucinations can provide clarity but Dr. Josephs persuasively argues that Walcott did exactly that. More to the point of the wonderful Introduction to Disturbers of the Peace, our author draws out the various levels of Walcott’s madness.
To my untrained eye, there are several layers to Walcott’s madness as elucidated by Dr. Josephs. As part of this larger discussion, I will only focus on three. First, it must be said that any society founded at the intersection of White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Capitalism (among other ills) is, by its nature, insane. What Dr. Josephs teases out through her keen eye is that the insanity of Western societies creates a particular “order;” illogical, immoral, and contradictory it may be, but it is an order. Accordingly, anyone who challenges or troubles the societal status quo must be insane – insane to be able to see through the gauze of supposed “normalcy,” insane to name it, and insane to try to fix it. This level of “madness” reminds me of something MLK once said. King remarked that if America’s definition of a “well-adjusted” person was someone who tolerated abuse and injustice all around them, then he would prefer to be considered “maladjusted.”
At a second level, Walcott’s multiple definitions of sanity and reality also seem to muddy the idea of “free will.” Using Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, our author reminds us that the maintenance of the power relationship between oppressor and oppressed rests, in large part, on the consent of the oppressed. It is the colonizer who always demands that the colonized (in this case, people of the Caribbean) exist in the spaces between two worlds. Through Walcott’s characters, he suggests that madness thrives in the gulf between the supposedly civilized Western world and the supposedly uncivilized, poverty-stricken Third World. Through the inductive lens of Dr. Josephs, Walcott’s play questions whether or not the oppressed resist their oppression out of volition or out of a compulsion to stop the incoherence of their existence.
Walcott seems to suggest that the oppressed can fall prey to a wicked madness is they imagine that they can be free by simply inverting the hierarchies that the Western world uses to control them.
At a third level, Dr. Josephs’ analysis points out Walcott’s insistence that his play be interpreted and re-interpreted by each subsequent director or theatre company. The play’s shifting meanings seems to be a response to Fanon’s warning that revolutionaries should not “withdraw into the twilight of past African culture.” Dr. Josephs’ interpretation shows that the lead character, Makak, actually loses his potency as a transformative prophet when he becomes a king. At the same time, the lack of sanity in Dream on Monkey Mountain also bridges the gulf between language and action, artist and audience. In keeping with Fanon, Dream on Monkey Mountain reminds the wider audience that freedom cannot come from simply inverting the hierarchies that currently enslave us. As well, Walcott may be suggesting that the oppressed should know that there is no “perfect” freedom, that change is the order of nature.
Ultimately, Dr. Josephs’ critique shows us that struggle is constant and, in many ways, is its own reward. In her skillful hands, “madness” flows like unforgiving water, over, under, around, and through social stratification, illusions of respectability, and rabid individualism. Dr. Josephs’ analysis urges us to keep fighting, even as the sand shifts under our feet. If humanity is a collective “state,” then Dr. Josephs has done us a tremendous service.