Promoting Cultural Identity
In the first part of this paper (A Cultural Identity between Europe and the Mediterranean), it was argued that although geography and language place Malta in the Mediterranean, practically midway between Europe and Africa, our political and cultural aspirations lie further north. Moreover, Maltese perceptions of the Mediterranean are limited to its geographical dimension and to commonplaces about the region.
An informed reassessment of Malta’s cultural baggage by the Maltese would bring our Mediterranean roots to the fore. But this process should not be infected by the same viral clichés that the Mediterranean tourist industry sells to its clients, because that would, at least partially, distort the truth, or truths, and lead us nowhere. It was suggested that Malta should, perhaps for the first time in its history, choose to be Mediterranean. In other words, it was nature that first chose the Mediterranean for the Maltese; now it is high time for the Maltese to make this choice themselves - a cultural decision.
One possible objection is this: the Maltese have been Mediterraneans without being aware of the antropological implications of being Mediterranean from time immemorial. Whether they realise it or not, whether they decide it or not, they are and will always be Mediterranean. But in reality, cultures, like plants and creatures, are being wiped off the face of the earth by forces which are greater than them: some people would call these forces cultural globalization, or homogenization, or homologation. Whatever you call them, whatever they are, they’re consciously or unconsciously pushing whole cultures to the fringes and then letting them fall off alone.
A Determined, Enigmatic Poet
What follows is an attempt to analyse the role of the Maltese writer in Malta’s search for a cultural identity, taking the lead from a fictional character created by Maltese post-Independence novelist Frans Sammut in Samuraj (1975). The fictional character is called Xandru, Maltese for Alexander. He is perhaps one of our small literature’s most enigmatic figures.
Xandru is about 22 years old. He describes himself as a free butterfly. He is an unemployed, skinny young man with long hair who presents himself as a poet. Both Xandru the Poet and Samwel, the protagonist of the novel, are ill at ease with the small, rural community in which they live; both despise the way the community tries to control their lives. One of the important differences between the Poet and the protagonist is, however, that the Poet is a thinker, an intellectual. The protagonist moves away from the rest of the community because he feels them breathing down his neck; on the other hand, Xandru the Poet faces them squarely and fights back. The different ways their stories end reflect their different approaches: Samwel takes his own life because in the circumstances he feels he has no alternative; but the Poet is taken away by force by the nurses of the mental institution. Samwel takes his own path to the very end; the Poet fights back and loses: his seemingly unlimited freedom is much more fragile than he thought: imprisonment is a phone call away.
The Poet’s story would not have been relevant to us today if it had not been a metaphor of Malta’s creative environment. The novel I am referring to is full of images of frigidity and infertility. Many important characters are unable to have children: the protagonist, on the other hand, refuses to have children because he does not want to inflict on his offspring the suffering his father inflicted on him. This is symbolized by the fact that Samwel, the protagonist leaves his fertile fields fallow like his father did before him. Samwel himself realises that the sorry state of his potentially fertile fields would bring tears into his proud grandfather’s eyes. When he eventually embarks on a plan to revitalize his farm and makes noteworthy progress, he is spiritually ambushed by the village community.
The Poet’s story must be seen in this wider context: the asphyxiating village kills every form of life. The Poet’s freedom cannot last long, because he uses it to challenge the community’s right to dominate the lives of ‘erring’ individuals like Samwel. His challenge cannot be ignored, not only because he targets the Church, which is by far the most powerful institution in the village, but also because it undermines the moral, social, political, and economic power of the community. The Poet threatens the status quo, the established order, and this marks the end of his apparently boundless freedom: the butterfly, as he himself unwittingly predicts, is caught in a net and taken away for re-education or permanent exile. This makes Xandru the Poet the novel’s greatest outsider.
Xandru is an enigmatic figure because the characters in the novel repeatedly suggest that he is out of his mind, that the look in his eyes is not normal, that he has the devil inside him. Even his friend Samwel sees this devilish look in his blood-red eyes, but we are not given any independent confirmation, so to say. Everything from his physical appearance, to his ideas and his language make him the ultimate ‘Other’. The parish priest talks about his ‘crazy eloquence’. Like Samwel he doesn’t seem to have a family, either, and this symbolically means that nature has itself uprooted him. The family is the focal institution in the Mediterranean, and socially and culturally speaking, both Samwel and Xandru lack that focus, that point of reference.
The parish priest with whom Xandru argues with vigour describes him as a poetaster and considers him insane even before the young poet jumps onto his desk to dance and destroy whatever comes into his path. But the priest’s judgement of Xandru’s ability to write poetry is both unfair and uninformed. Xandru complains to Samwel that in Malta poets and artists in general are not judged on artistic merits: it’s not a question of how good your poetry is, but of who you are, or what your connections are. In such a frigid environment, real, free art cannot flourish.
This talk about whether Malta offers fertile ground for art to grow is very much in line with the symbolism of infertility with which the novel abounds. Today we know, of course, that no art can be judged on its own merits, because those exclusive, objective, ideal merits do not exist. But Xandru’s point about the fertility of the cultural environment is clear enough, especially when one keeps in mind that the anonymous Village (written with a capital V throughout the novel) is a metaphor of Malta. The priest, who is the most powerful person in the village, the leader and the epitome of the community, cannot understand Xandru’s anger because he cannot understand, or accept, Xandru’s unorthodox ways and his iconoclastic views about the Catholic Church and its behaviour in the Village. The parish priest cannot understand why Xandru takes somebody else’s suffering so much to heart. Xandru claims that for the parish priest, people are just numbers; ‘The individual’, he tells the parish priest, ‘means nothing to you.’
The poet makes a number of clear cultural choices which are relevant to us today: he writes in Maltese, his native language, but he also adopts ‘haiku’, a Japanese poetical form. He is aware that people ignore poets and artists, and that many neither understand nor appreciate his poetry; for him, connecting with one person is enough. What he cannot put up with, though, is people abusing their power to subdue the individual.
His meetings with Samwel show that he is both sensitive and perceptive. When he meets the parish priest face to face for the first time he is immediately aware of the priest’s patronizing/condescending attitude and then of his attempts to ridicule him. These attitudes are part of the priest’s attempts to browbeat the young infidel, to dominate him, even to monopolize his language, but Xandru sticks to his guns and to his challenging language which contrasts sharply with the priest’s stock answers and absolute truths. This is an important cultural and intellectual statement which is, needless to say, relevant to us today too.
Another point to be made is that Xandru is close to nature. His sensitivity towards people who are victimized by the community and by the institutions and his affinity with nature are manifestations of his spiritual and intellectual openness. It is the creative openness which the Maltese need to foster if they are to reassess their cultural identity and plan ahead. Xandru is respectful of his immediate natural environment and this is something the Maltese will have to keep in mind when re-examining their cultural heritage and their way forward. The conservation of what is left of their natural environment should be at the top of their agenda, but most Maltese politicians refuse to tackle the issue head on because they calculate that it does not make any electoral sense.
Xandru describes himself as a free butterfly, but the butterfly is only as free as the community allows it to be. Without the community’s consent, Xandru’s creativity is seriously hampered. Moreover, although the individual’s freedom to be creative is an important issue here, we are talking about a whole nation’s cultural journey: this demands more than mere consent. This demands conviction.
© Adrian Grima (June, 1999)
Published in The Sunday Times, Malta, (17-24 October, 1999)