Forging the Maltese Imaginary

Babelmed | 11/03/2004

Metaphor has played a fundamental role in the “forging” of the Maltese national imaginary that lies at the junction between “real history” (or “the real story” – in Maltese, as in Italian, “storja” can mean both “story” and “history”), and literary texts. In the Deleuzian sense, the imaginary, writes Thierry Fabre, “is not the unreal, but rather the indecipherability of the real and the unreal, the intermediary world between factual discourse and fictional discourse.” Generally speaking, the conventional conceptual metaphors of the mother, home, traveller, and village, are rooted in conventional conceptions of the nation, while the representation of the nation as the sea marks a return to and a reinterpretation of the figure of the mother. While conventional conceptual metaphors, like that of the nation-as-mother, have the potential to structure the concept of the nation by imagining the unimagined, by giving structure to a concept that has no structure, fresh conceptual metaphors simultaneously create and defy that new structure with their indeterminacy.

The Nation-Mother

The most important metaphor for the nation, that “totally discoursive being,” is that of the mother. The protagonist of Ġużè Aquilina’s influential romantic historical novel Taħt Tliet Saltniet, who is presented as the ideal Maltese citizen, compares Malta to a poor, uneducated, sick widow that is totally dedicated to her children but lacks the physical strength and the material resources to take care of them. She is in a sorry state, “Malta l-għażiża li, f’qalbu, kien ixebbah lil mara marida qiegħda tistenna t-tabib li jagħtiha s-saħħa.” The widow is Aquilina’s image of the mythicized self-sacrificing epic motherhood applied to the nation: the children of the nation-mother have lost their father and now, like the widow’s children, they are about to lose their mother. In the novel, the arrival of the British colonial father figure, who resembles the stereotypical self-confident, male doctor of Maltese romantic historical novels, restores the health of the nation-mother and re-establishes order in the nation-home. In fact, at the end of the novel, the narrator points out that the newly-wed protagonists have raised the “English” (probably meaning “British”) flag on the roof of their home, the ideal Maltese home.

The novelist’s portrayal of the metaphorical figure of the dedicated but politically ineffective nation-mother is undermined by the cultural idealizations and generalizations of the maternal. Because of the conservative ideas about the Maltese nation that it promotes both in its narrative and in its didactic passages (the two are often inseparable), the text assumes that motherhood is a universal condition and that the concept of the nation is indistinct from that of the traditional nuclear family, but in reality motherhood, like the nation, “is constructed socially and materialized within a specific set of economic and material conditions which interlock and interact with equally specific expectations and values associated with the role.” To talk of the maternal, writes feminist critic Pam Morris, in the absence of historical and social specificity is “meaningless.” The naturalizing language of dominant (male) discourse mythicizes “woman” as “mother” in order to impose on women “the rigid obligation of the reproduction of the species” and the role of representative of the norms of the patriarchal culture.

The romantic figure of the nation-mother often ignores the very diverse realities that are hidden beneath the image of the culturally constructed national community: this metaphor has managed to “cultivate an intimacy,” to foster a sense of belonging to the “group,” but to read the imaginary it creates as some kind of essential reality would be profoundly misleading.

Forging the Maltese Imaginary

The Nation-Mother is associated with the land and rural culture
The conventional metaphor of the nation-mother lies at the heart of a series of concentric circles of metaphors of the nation that include that of the family, home and rural village and the disorientation of the post-Independence nation-traveller is caused, in part, by the fact that it distances itself from this oikos. Like “l-omm għaqlija,” the prudent mother of Dun Karm’s sonnet “Kewkbet is-Safar,” the nation-mother is associated with the land and rural culture rather than with the town or life at sea; it is linked with the family and the home rather than with the individual and adventure. Ironically, while Dun Karm and other romantic poets utilized metaphors of “Motherland” and “Mothertongue” to construct, or reconstruct, a national identity, they mythicized the “Woman” and ignored the fact that women were (and are) “marginalized” from actual public life, thus effectively mythicizing the concept of the nation and marginalizing it from everyday life.

In a paper in English read at the Old Boys Academy, St Aloysius College, one of Malta’s most renowned colleges (run by the Jesuits), on 26 March, 1921, called “Love of Home, Love of Country,” and reproduced by Louis Grasso, Ġużè Galea writes that the “home is the cradle of all that is just, saintly, noble and good. It teaches men to dedicate their spirits to exalted ideas, their hands to work, and their hearts to God.” Love of home and love of country “are associated with each other and one is the consequence of the other” because the many noble principles learnt at home are then “exercised” on behalf of the country. “In the progress and well-being of a country lies the happiness of the population, the enjoyment of the homes.”

From the idealized Nation-Mother to the prostitute or half asleep
When the post-Independence writers unsettled the idealized nation-mother by reinterpreting it as a woman that is either a prostitute or half-asleep, they were building on a variation that Dun Karm, Rużar Briffa and other pre-Independence writers had experimented with in order to shake the Maltese out of their torpor. But the works of Mario Azzopardi, Frans Sammut, and others develop this theme further by exploring the complex relationship between the young male protagonist representing the new Malta, and his nation-mother, or grandmother. In Sammut’s Samuraj, in which the main characters are heavily influenced by their absent mothers, the protagonist is torn by the vivid images of his weak, battered mother and by the awareness of his inability to detach himself completely from her. Like Samwel the “new” Malta is unable to disengage itself from the brave and battered, but ultimately “obsolete” idealized mother of its colonial past. “Self” begins with loss, the separation from the mother which impels the individual into a larger world, and unless the “son,” the nation-traveller, lets go, he can never emancipate himself. In the difficult relationship between the nation-mother and her formally independent son in the poetry of Mario Azzopardi, as in Samuraj, both protagonists end up being victims and aggressors; their mutually harmful incestuous relationship is a metaphor of the island’s inability to come to terms with its colonial past, with the oppression it suffered and the guilt of submission and complaisance it chose not to confess.

The issue of the unhealthy relationship between the Maltese and their romanticized nation-mother had already been taken up by Juan Mamo in 1930-31 with the publication of Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka. Mamo is aware that the appropriation of discourse by the colonized is a vital issue and he uses his narration to challenge the colonial administration, but also the social élite, the literary establishment, the Church, the uneducated majority, the (non-) heros of his story, and even himself. Mamo gains control of his identity by travelling, in real life and in fiction, by distancing himself from the oikos of concentric circles (the mother, home, family, village, Church, country) in order to re-create it.

Forging the Maltese Imaginary

The building-up of Maltese identity
With the identification of the nation with the rural village and traditional peasant values, the eighteenth-century writers and those who followed in their path tried to give an exclusivist intepretation of ethnic identity and this is evident in the portrayal of the idealized community of farmers of Għajn Żejtuna in Ġużè Galea adventure novel, Raġel bil-Għaqal. The hamlet lies in a secluded valley and the male farmers (the women are not mentioned), who are of course close to nature, are uncontaminated by the city and foreign influences; they are hard-working; brave; humble but proud of their community, which takes precedence over the individual; physically strong; cunning; and loyal to each other. But in reality, despite the important differences between the urban Harbour area and the rural villages, places like Malta have for centuries been complex locations where numerous communities and experiences have crossed paths; the “place called home” to which Dun Karm’s seafarers return in “Kewkbet is-Safar” and to which Oliver Friggieri’s nation-ship must return in “Protesta Maltija,” was never an unmediated experience.

Because the Maltese nationalists of the nineteenth and twentieth century were constructing an ethnic identity and not writing history, although the writing of history played an important part in the task they set themselves, the discrepancies between their narration of the nation and the historical facts were not a major issue. “Nationalists often tend to elaborate myths by recombining traditional motifs, chronicles, as well as documents of the period, together with epics, rather than invent traditions without any basic documentation” and the Maltese nationalists of the nineteenth century “adjusted history” to their particular needs, using a “very selective memory for the myth they wished to propagate.” Carmel Cassar notes that in nineteenth century Malta, “the memory of a heroic past was above all a yearning to revive forgotten national myths, and to dignify the rightful claims of the island,” so the past was made to respond to the needs of society. Ultimately their aim was to support the “imaginary existence” of a separate Maltese nation, the fundamental characteristic of which was based on “the notion that the Maltese comprise one large family, with the national heroes as fathers, and the patria (Malta) as the mother. The people themselves were represented as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the mother country.” As Edward Said says in relation to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Culture and Imperialism, the literature they produced reflected their individual ideological projects, their personal experiences, their impressions, their reading, together with the requirements and conventions of narrative: there is “no such thing as a direct experience, or reflection, of the world in the language of a text;” the metaphorical narratives of Malta are an attempt to “represent” the nation, “to enter the battle” over Malta.

Daniel Massa: the alternative motherland lies in the sea

Daniel Massa’s alternative motherland lies in the sea, with its deep roots in the human psyche and its affinity with “the vastness of the unknown – perhaps the unknowable – the untamed, the formless, and the unpredictable;” as Patricia Ann Carlson points out in her forward to the book Literature and Lore of the Sea (1986), the sea is associated with a wealth of archetypes: the initiation; the voyage; the ship as microcosm; the phenomenal beast; a cosmology of constant flux; the uneasy division between order and chaos; the temptress; the eternal mother; the conflict between human and nonhuman. Massa’s choice to position his ideal motherland in the deep sea has the advantage of bringing to the nation this wealth of mental associations and experiences, the common Mediterranean heritage, and therefore it allows the poet to reinvent the nation, a mimetic but also a political feat in its own right. This conceptual metaphor is connected to the figure of Malta-as-mother, because the sea is experienced as a womb, a place where a truly independent Malta can take root far from the oppressive memory of the colonial past; from the new, post-Independence “colonizers;” from the quiescence and fatalism, the sense of inferiority and dependence arising out of the country’s paternal tradition. The poet’s main weapon is language and its remarkable ability to “redescribe” reality through metaphor, to appropriate the nation. Despite his doubts about his own guilt and the strength of his word, he knows that his decision to use language, and especially fresh metaphor with its potential for indeterminacy, for depth, for cultivating intimacy, is an act of defiance in itself, a declaration of faith in the freedom of the individual person and nation.

Novel conceptual metaphor gives the writer the possibility to create the Maltese nation and at the same time to go astray, to get out of the concentric circles that hem that nation-narration in; it has the ability to create and recreate the imaginary at the same time; and the Malta that it forges is also, inevitably, a forgery.

Adrian Grima

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