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“Quarantine Diaries,” by David Garyan (Day 23)

Quarantine Diaries – Day 23 April 6th, 2020

Trento, Italy

The Stranger Who Was Your Self

I was first introduced to Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros as a graduate student at CSULB; as I think about that time now, it seems hard to believe that was almost six years ago. Until today, not only the book but also the experience of grad school in the US had completely slipped my mind—as if it never happened.

Quite by chance, I was able to reminisce upon those days because I discovered a wonderful Walcott poem, “Love after Love,” which is so perfect for the situation we find ourselves in that I had to talk about it.

Before I go on discussing the poem, however, I would like to spend a little time on Omeros, as I have very fond memories of it; if I remember correctly, it’s the first book I read for the program. Initially, I experienced some difficulties with the text; as I continued moving along, however, the beauty of the verse, along with the images and story it told increasingly made it a bigger pleasure to read.

The sea plays a big part in the poem (as the two main characters are fishermen); however, it’s also important for the people of St. Lucia (where the poem is set) because tourism is a huge part of the economy. The sea’s importance, however, has much more to do with the role it plays in distinguishing this particular epic from the ancient epics written by Homer.

Since the name Omeros is the modern Greek variant of Homer’s name, Walcott both pays tribute to the author and the epic tradition, but also reinvents that legacy, to some extent. As he said in an interview quoted by The New York Times: “I do not think of it as an epic. Certainly not in the sense of epic design. Where are the battles? There are a few, I suppose. But ‘epic’ makes people think of great wars and great warriors. That isn’t the Homer I was thinking of; I was thinking of Homer the poet of the seven seas.” Thus, although the poem is approached through the framework of Odysseus’s longing for home, it does include the more traditional “epic” elements we expect to find in the Iliad as well; it can be argued, however, that the latter has less to do with Walcott and more to do with history.

In its colonial days, the island was caught in the middle of a power struggle between the British and French, which is not so different than the struggle between Menelaus and Paris, except the former is about a country, and the latter is about a woman. In his book, Cradle of the Deep, Sir Frederick Treves wrote that St. Lucia “is the Helen of the West Indies and has been the cause of more blood-shedding than was ever provoked by Helen of Troy. Seven times was it held by the English and seven times by the French.” The book also features a woman named Helen that two of the main characters fight over, which further adds depth and complexity to the book.

Well, before I bore you too much with literature, here’s a picture of St. Lucia, which Walcott continuously refers to as the “horned island,” and you can see why.

Having put you to sleep with poetry, let me now make you slumber with history. Women may either rejoice or grieve in light of this fact, but St. Lucia is the only country in the world to be named after a woman. Although Ireland bears the name of fertility goddess, Ériu, St. Lucia is the only one christened after a real person, Saint Lucia, who’s venerated in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Supposedly that good saint was executed because she had rejected a suitor who subsequently denounced her as a Christian. If a woman turns down a man today, the man—if he’s an angry one—might call her something much worse. At some point in time, however, Romans (especially the emperor Diocletian) considered Christians to be insane heretics, so that kind of explains it. Thus, we can say Saint Lucia’s suitor did call her a bad name and that’s why she was forced to appear in court, as you can see here; her case wasn’t helped by the fact that she was denounced precisely during the reign of Diocletian.

Anyways, it really is quite enough with history and poetry—let’s, instead, not change a thing and discuss the poem I discovered today; since it’s quite short, I’ll quote it in full below. The poem is called “Love after Love.”

I admire this poem because it reinforces the message of love I’ve always believed in: To be loved, you must love yourself. I first read True Love by Thich Nhat Hanh about ten years ago and the message was so simple, yet at the same time extremely unconventional. The obligation to find love within yourself before you request it from someone else is a philosophy that Hanh says comes directly from the Buddha.

Hanh asserts that our troubles arise from the fact that we’re kings and queens who can’t rule their own territories but nevertheless expect to be loved by others. He describes this territory as five rivers: The first is our own body, which we ignore and don’t know; the second consists of sensations, which we must control through meditation; the third is made of perceptions that allow us to interpret the world correctly; the fourth is mental formations (or personality); and the fifth is consciousness. Like bad kings and queens, Hanh says that we ignore the problems within us: “We are afraid of the suffering that is inside us, afraid of war and conflicts.” Thus, only by dealing with these problems can we restore harmony to our “territories” and in the process gain the love of those we seek it from.

That’s certainly the message in Walcott’s poem when he says: “You will love again the stranger who was your self.” I haven’t found a more immediate poem in a long time, and I was happy to discover that it related to something I had read (and like my grad studies, had also forgotten about).

Walcott’s poem and Hanh’s book are especially relevant today; at a time when we’re so busy trying to find satisfaction in the external world, it’s important to realize that perhaps we won’t find those things if we don’t already have them.

Given that no one reads poetry or even books anymore, why am I even talking about this? Precisely, let’s talk about communism. Since the US has a fanatical obsession with denouncing it, we can make Walcott and Hanh more interesting by bringing in a communist.

Let’s get right down to it, then. I recently discovered a book by Franco Berardi called The Uprising, which challenges the notion that all our problems can be tied back to the economy; in other words, growth isn’t the answer and can, in fact, be dangerous. Berardi, thus, argues that we must move away from the economic model and essentially overthrow the old world order in order to rebuild it around poetry, which will replace economics as the center of human activity.

Berardi stresses that economics isn’t an objective science designed for the benefit of all, but rather a form of political ideology that seeks to protect only the status quo; it uses mathematical language to give the impression that there’s a scientific foundation behind the discourse—economics, thus, according to Berardi, is merely a language without scientific background. Hence, to liberate humanity from the status quo’s greed, Berardi calls on poetry to replace the current “center” around which modern human existence is fixed because “only the poetic revitalization of language will open the way to the emergence of a new form of social autonomy.” Yes, I bet readers are interested now, especially US readers. Nothing stirs up more hysteria in the world’s greatest country than communism and revolution; it’s why this guy will never be president. This is poor Bernie’s expression after he was told that his presidential bid would be put on eternal quarantine.

In all seriousness, as unlikely as it sounds, is Berardi’s vision possible? I’m a big fan of it, and, like him, I’ve railed against economic growth and development. However, as I likewise mentioned, capitalism and communism do sound good on paper, but can they work in the real world? No, not really, at least not with the effectiveness they claim: Good capitalism causes massive inequalities and good communism offers very little individual freedom.

In the end, you do what your government says. Here’s the law, once again, telling me to stay inside 1984 style; still, someone does have to go out in order to tell people not to go out. For me, it’s not a problem because I’m a United States Buddhist—I can be happy without the external world. In the spirit of Walcott, I’m sitting; I’m feasting on my life. The law doesn’t concern me.

All the way from quarantined Italy: I may seem crazy now, but in a month everyone here will be no different.

Until next time.


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