June 28, 2020


In an unpublished essay composed some 10 years ago, titled ‘The Sycorax Syndrome’, English poet Christopher Middleton described the psychological impetus behind the political behaviour of a range of people — from a nation’s leader to militant groups. It strikes me as extraordinarily prescient of the current international political scene, in which the leaders of several countries — Brazil, India and the United States, especially — seem afflicted by what Middleton called the Sycorax Syndrome.

Sycorax refers to the character in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which she is first mentioned by Prospero who calls her the “foul witch” and “blue-eyed hag.” She has died before the play begins and Shakespeare’s sketching her as a witch seems designed to give credence to her mud-encrusted son Caliban’s appearance as a wild savage when he is compelled to become Prospero’s reluctant slave. After speculating about the hidden etymology of Shakespeare’s invented name ‘Sycorax’, Middleton suggests that the old witch has developed “a gross malformity” of soul: “She is vicious, a vitreous and vindictive circle”, her mind a hoop which “rolls back on itself, spins aimlessly on its axis, or it vacuously implodes”, and it is this syndrome that afflicts unthinking humanity in the world of politics and special-interest groups.

Writing nearly a decade before social media and cable television made the over-heated planet a horrified witness of the world’s major nations being taken over by self-inflated, narcissistic, small-minded rulers, Middleton describes with startling precision what we observe today: “Special interests suck self-interest into their orbits. Politicians well-meaning or vile are constantly being hooped in specious rhetoric.” As for “the glories of sublime imagination”, they mean nothing to these narcissists for whom “reality beyond the mirror of prod and snatch carries no weight at all.” They have no feeling for the arts; science means nothing to them.

Also caught in the Sycorax syndrome are terrorists and militia groups who “share this craving for catastrophe.” Some thus afflicted “are found even in placid and polite circles, such as university precincts.” Then there are “compounds where Fundamentalists swarm and prate and jump around.” Before closing his essay, Middleton observes that “the syndrome has mushroomed at an exponential rate of acceleration during the last hundred years or so, and that the new century is kicking frantically under its spell.” Compelled by capitalism and religious indoctrination to follow slogans and shun rational thought, the vast unthinking humanity, flattered to believe its ignorance is an evangelical blessing, is easily ensnared to fall into the Sycorax syndrome.

Like our present-day politicians, for whom God appears in their narcissistic mirror, Sycorax, too, had her own god — Setebos — as mentioned by her son Caliban. Robert Browning’s poem, ‘Caliban Upon Setebos’, was inspired by that reference in The Tempest, which now makes that poem an interesting footnote to Middleton’s essay. While Browning took his subject from Shakespeare, he was writing a few years after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species set off an intellectual turmoil in England, and his poem can be read as a comment on evolution, or as his response to Darwin’s implied dismissal of the Biblical God.

In the poem, Caliban’s god Setebos is a projection of Caliban’s own cultural evolution and, being at the stage of an irrational savage, he can only think of god as given to unpredictable savagery over his people: Browning presents the confusion of images in Caliban’s mind in dense, obscure language and brilliantly conveys a subtly ambiguous argument which, in a country practising public piety — as did Victorian England, with the Oxford Movement encouraging a return to the supposed purity of Catholic Christianity — can be read as a mockery of a false god or implied praise of the true God, or even a subtle rejection of both.

Shakespeare’s Caliban does not speak like a savage, for he has been instructed to use the invading coloniser’s language. The episode in which he first appears — Act I, Scene ii — presents Prospero and his daughter Miranda as having invaded his homeland, where he is deprived of his natural freedom and made to serve the coloniser. Writing nearly 100 years before Robert Clive sailed for India and launched British imperialism that would dominate the world, Shakespeare anticipates the nature of colonialism in Caliban’s speech: “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother/ Which thou tak’st from me.”

Caliban goes on to describe what the conqueror invading his homeland proceeds to do: first he is kind and generous: “When thou cam’st first / Thou strok’st me and made much of me.” The hospitable native returns the kindness: “I loved thee / And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle.” And then? The opportunist invader takes over the territory to rule it with his superior power and makes the native his slave.

To Caliban’s complaint that he has been criminally tricked, Prospero retorts that he has been kind to him, lodging Caliban in his own cell, only to need to expel him for attempting to violate Miranda’s honour: the coloniser claims that he wanted to raise the native, whom he considers to be backward, to his own quality of life, well-mannered and civilised, but the native fails to rise to expectations. Miranda adds a racist insult to the humiliated Caliban, saying that she tried hard to be his teacher and raise him above his primitive condition, but in the end she could not abide to be with one of his “vile race.”

To this, Caliban spits out one of the most memorable lines in Shakespeare: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” That thought is too profound for Miranda who, for all her cultivated good looks, has been groomed to be immersed in the brave new world of the bourgeoisie and find her happiness as one of the unthinking multitude.

The columnist is a novelist, literary critic, Professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 28th, 2020