Cicero, Cato, Ovid, and Virgil in a 17th c. jail cell

Gaudeloupean novelist Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, black witch of Salem, first appeared in
French as Moi, Tituba, sorcière…noire de Salem in 1986. The novel is a historical fiction based on the real figure of Tituba, accused of witchcraft in the village of Salem in 1692. In an earlier work, La civilisation du bossale (The culture of the bush nigger, 1978), Condé explored the oral literature of Gaudaloupe and Martinique; in Tituba, slaves remake their worlds with folklore. Condé’s novel is a historical fiction set in the very time when the notion of “history” for a certain group of people was disrupted, suppressed.

Condé’s Tituba, a figure brought into being by a white man’s rape of a slave from Barbados, exists in a state far removed from the classical world fetishized by the white inhabitants of the West Indies and New England. Friends are identified by the fact that they speak the same language, have the same store of tales to share. In one scene, Tituba, implicated in the witch trials, finds herself sharing a prison cell with a pregnant white woman named Hester who has been charged with adultery. As the two women share their origin stories, Hester invokes the classical curriculum as part of European chauvinism:

“In the bowels of the Mayflower, the first ship to have landed on this coast, were my two ancestors, my father’s father and my mother’s father, two fervent Separatists who had come to build the kingdom of the true God. You know how dangerous such projects are. No need to describe the fanaticism in which their descendants were brought up. It produced a flock of ministers who read Cicero, Cato, Ovid, and Virgil in the original…”
“I’ve never heard of these people,” I interrupted.
She raised her eyes upward. “Thank goodness for that! I had the misfortune to belong to a family that believed in sexual equality and at the age when you normally play with dolls my father had me recite the classics!”

Reading this, I was struck by how the names of these famous Roman writers are used by each speaker. For Hester, listing the classical canon is an efficient way to quickly characterize fanaticism. Hester’s ancestral, biological line is patrilineal – her principal forebears are her father’s father, and her mother’s father. Cicero, Cato, Ovid, and Virgil are presented as another ancestral patrimony, a lineage of men begetting men.

The fact that Cicero comes first in the list is also significant. Since the Cato must be Cato the Elder, who precedes Cicero not only chronologically but in the fact that Cato was for Cicero a model of certain ideals regarding culture and writing, Cato’s postpositive position demonstrates the dominance of Ciceronian material in the educational context of the 17th century. Incidentally, it is also pretty amazing to read that these ministers are armed with the works of Ovid in their quest to build a kingdom of god given the
fact that the content of Ovid’s corpus is at best raunchy, at worst downright subversive. Hester’s classical knowledge is cast as a mark of male education. We get a perverse vision of “sexual equality”: Hester’s father’s desire to have her educated like a man separates her from the world of women, imagination, and creativity.

Tituba’s response is equally telling. Hester’s attempt to communicate by invoking the oppressive canon has failed, since Tituba does not share Hester’s experiences in the language of dominance. Tituba’s existence as a slave is communicated in different ways – in rape, assault, slaughter. Her forceful interruption and expression of ignorance is powerful: it is a refusal to become complicit in the project of empire with Hester, a refusal to hear more about figures who are symbolic of a culture of empire which makes both women suffer. What we have here in this scene is the staging of a failed classical invocation in order to situate both women on a spectrum of oppression.


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