Cultural Appropriation and the West

Not four months back our ears were still ringing with the shrill accusations of “cultural appropriation” leveled against those Whites who, for the duration of a mere Halloween eve, had dared costume themselves in the garb and aspect of peoples alien to them—Geishas or Indians or African tribesmen or what have you. Now, we find glowing announcement of a new television portrayal of the Iliad, which will boast a few curiosities: most important of which, for our purposes here, is the presence in the cast of Black actors, who will assume the roles of Achilles, Zeus, Athena, and the mythological founder of Rome himself, Aeneas.

Athena—the new and the old. The face of Progress itself, no doubt.

It is interesting to review the articles that have been published so far on this series; most maintain an almost pious silence regarding the racial question, and do not so much as mention the fact that the casting here is, to put it mildly, unorthodox. Merely reading these articles, without glancing at the accompanying photographs or videos, one would conclude that the only “innovation” of this series is in its taking the perspective of the Trojans rather than the Greeks, and its treatment of Helen as an oppressed housewife who finally gets fed up and runs away with the pool boy. These producers and article-writers alike would evidently like us to watch without noticing—which is, sadly, all too common in our days. Naturally, we neglect this invitation to blindness.

Nor will we belabor the more obvious double-standard, which is really too blatant to merit comment. (Imagine how these same pundits would react if someone were to suggest, say, a remake of Roots or Malcolm X featuring Whites in a number of key roles, blackfaced, to be sure, to keep historical accuracy—which, however, certainly does not seem to have much troubled the producers of this latest farce!) We ask rather: can this production be considered an act of cultural appropriation in the truest sense of the term? Which in turn begs the deeper question—what is cultural appropriation?

We might approach this question through the statements of one commentator, who greets this new series with open arms, going so far as to declare, “It’s what Homer would have wanted.” Leaving aside the question of how a second-rate scribbler might be on such intimate terms with the Bard’s intentions, his article goes on to argue that it is silly to take offense at a Black Achilles but not at an Australian Paris. This point, at least, is a good one: for does the Iliad, strictly speaking, not belong to the Greeks—and to be precise, the Ancient Ionians? And if that is so, then is it not equally the case that practically all use that is made of it is susceptible to the same charge of “cultural appropriation”?

Ingres’ Zeus. Evidently the poor devil of a Frenchman didn’t even know “what Homer would have wanted.”

Yet no one can deny that the Iliad has transcended the narrow borders of its birth altogether, and has become, as is commonplace to say nowadays, a part of our “Western heritage,” one of the “founding texts” of the Western canon. This book, which made its mark on the wider Greek culture, and thence on the Roman—this poet, against whom Virgil strove in vain, who arose to inspire the Italian versewrights of the Renaissance, whose figure and work are echoed in Cervantes and Shakespeare and Melville, whose example is graced by Dante’s favor, and Goethe’s, and Thoreau’s—this poesy, which was translated into English by men of the rank of Hobbes, Dryden, Alexander Pope and T. E. Lawrence—this Homeric tradition, I say, is an integral piece of the West. The Iliad belongs, by right of heritance, to every man who by his flesh and spirit can call himself a son of the West.

Let us be clear: we are not speaking of a work of “world literature,” which is one of these uncharacterizable and nebulous concepts like “humanity” and “equality” that everyone knows how to mouth, and no one to define. It is obvious that the works of Homer might be admired by non-Westerners, might with profit be studied by them, and might even in exceptional cases be lived by them, but these works do not belong in spirit to the “world”; they belong in spirit to the West alone, in precisely the same way that other parts of the globe have a right to Confucius, to the Buddha, to the Upanishads. We of the West have spiritual access to the Iliad, at least potentially, in a way that other peoples do not and cannot. It does not matter if we are born in Athens, in Berlin, in San Francisco, in London or Paris or Rome; this work is a work of our blood, of our Western Culture.

The existence of such a thing, of a Western Culture, is often taken for granted. Yet, as we shall find, it is the key to the entire problem of “cultural appropriation.” It is really remarkable that such a Western Culture should exist at all. We are speaking here of a culture which transcends all mere political and sociological boundaries within the West, all boundaries between the sub-ethnicities and sub-sub-ethnicities of the West, and even to some extent geographical boundaries as well, insofar as it has overleapt whole oceans and continents, to plant itself in the hearts of our colonized kith abroad. It indicates the existence of an occult kinship between all the divers parts of the West, in the form of a Western spirit. That, in our present moment of need, should be most invigorating for what it suggests about the possibilities for our future.

Now, a wakeful critic will make an easy retort to everything that has just been stated: Homer therefore belongs as much to Blacks born in the West as to Whites. For they, too, are “Westerners,” and have as much a right to this Western Culture as anyone else. It is thus only just that Blacks be accepted for roles in the representations of what is a part of their culture as much as ours.

But is this finally and unambiguously true? Will a Black man born to a Western society understand Homer? Will he understand Homer, that is to say, exclusively in a Homeric and Western spirit? Or will he “understand” him, at least in part, in an African spirit? Will he not change him to suit his particular needs and inborn tendencies, his particular and radically different heritage? Or if he leaves Homer unaltered, will that not be a sign that this Black individual himself has been in some way “appropriated,” that he has been robbed of any residual traces of his own heritage, his African heritage? Is he not compelled, by his very pride in his own traditions and birthright, to stamp their sign onto the work he now undertakes? And is this not the real meaning of “cultural appropriation”—imposing one’s own forms on another’s ethos?

The problem we have outlined here is nothing more nor less than the problem of the multi-cultural society itself. We are tempted to say that, insofar as this new “Iliad” remains loyal to the original (supposing this is even possible when golden-maned Achilleus and Athena of the sea-blue eyes are represented by Blacks), it will be but hollow; insofar as it departs from the original, it will represent rather an instance precisely of “cultural appropriation.”

The Athena of Botticelli—behind the times as usual.

Now, these ideas will be strongly resisted in the present atmosphere, because they attempt to ascribe “cultural appropriation” to some group other than Whites, whereas it is tacitly understood by all contemporary commentators that “cultural appropriation” can be committed only by Whites. It is almost even obligatory sooner or later to put a Black actor into the role of Zeus; it is not acceptable in the least to put a White actor into the role of Rumi. And this is so, quite despite the question of historical accuracy or inaccuracy, which obviously has nothing whatever to do at bottom with the question of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is that specific sin which Whites perform against the “cultures” of non-Whites; it is the latest and most subversive element of their long history of violent colonialism, imperialism, and foreign domination.

We of the Right often like to point out the hypocrisy of such positions, and more often then not we leave the matter there—as if by merely noticing the contradictory nature of these ideas we had already taken a great step toward overthrowing them. Yet there is an evident problem with this tack: it is utterly ineffectual. It does not seem at all to bother those who hold these “contradictory” beliefs. Their holders do not seem minimally troubled to hide their “inconsistency.” But this would suggest that there has been no contradiction at all—that these men actually consider themselves in some deep sense coherent. How is this possible?

We have tentatively defined “cultural appropriation” as the imposition of one’s own forms on another’s custom or ethos, an imposition which must result in a spiritual transformation of the custom or ethos in question. It is evident that to truly appropriate a culture in this sense, the appropriating culture itself must be powerful. Weak “cultures” do not have the luxury of such appropriation; they must resort, as all weaker parties, to infiltration. And indeed, this term would be much fitter description for this new “Iliad series, and like minstrelry: not cultural appropriation, but cultural infiltration, a slow invasion which can come only from within. Cultural appropriation indicates conquest by means of supple and form-giving powers; it indicates the work of a culture potent enough to subsume other ways of life into its own and to reinterpret them by its own standards and in the light of its own ideals. Appropriation is the right of the strong.

Lawrence of Arabia, reading Homer and ready to lead the Arab Revolt. Cultural appropriation, friends?

Understood in this way, a number of mysteries unravel before us: in the first place, why the charge of “hypocrisy” carries us nowhere in these arguments. For in point of fact, there has been no hypocrisy on the part of these critics. They are at bottom right: cultural appropriation really is almost the exclusive preserve of Western Culture, precisely for the unique excellence of that culture in its artistic and philosophical heritage. This Western heritage has not so much as an analogue in most parts of the world, and has shown, until its recent wane, a nigh inexhaustible abundance of vital and cultural form-giving powers. It has been able in consequence to appropriate countless aspects of the non-Western world with an astounding ease; innumerable peoples and customs have fallen beneath its thrall, as if helpless in the face of this onslaught.

This dynamic can be seen nowhere so clearly as in another recent “cinematic experience”—namely, Black Panther. This project was a conscious attempt to portray a “Black Culture” uncontaminated by non-Black interference. Yet the results leave something to be desired. For the portrayal of this “Black Culture” exists wholly within the cultural sphere crafted by non-Blacks, and principally by Whites alone. Black Panther was originally a character invented by two Jews in a principally Jewish art form (comic books), in a genre invented largely by Whites (science fiction), in a medium which owes its existence to the same (cinema). It portrays a technology which is the somewhat imaginative extension of that produced almost single-handedly by the West. It speaks an eminently Western language (English) and moves in Western artistic tropes and Western intellectual structures and Western morals, if oftentimes corrupted ones. Even the very term “Afrofuturism,” which this film has proudly adopted as its own, was first coined by a non-Black. Whatever its intent might be (going “beyond the limitations of the white imagination,” for instance), it is clear that what has happened here is really the opposite of that which was intended.

The President of a majority Black country, wearing White garb. What man among us would say he has succeeded in appropriating anything?

This pattern can be seen across the globe, time and time again. Very few peoples have had the inner strength and resiliency to resist the cultural hegemony of the West. The West imposes form; it does not receive it. It is no wonder then that those who suffer this imposition, in a ressentiment as predictable as it is natural, should seek to demonize the West in any way they can. The very concept of cultural appropriation is a slander cast against the strong by the weak. We have every right, then, to take it as a compliment.

We should waste little wrath against a Black Achilles. Our energy would be far better spent in rekindling our ancient pride in the enduring caliber of our West, and re-appropriating our own culture, that glory of the West, which will permit us to look down on all such “remakes” as this “Iliad as the sideshows they are. More importantly yet, moments like these provide us occasion to realize what is ours, what belongs to us exclusively as Westerners, and what no other peoples in all the world, save in exceptional cases, can touch in any essential way. There is something invigorating about this realization, and something to give roots and cohesion to our increasingly rootless and scattered people. If we are but wakeful in our defense of what is ours, we might find a unified Occident arising visibly before our startled eyes: for all of what we have said is subtle but sure proof, hidden as it were in plain sight, that the Occident, as a spiritual and cultural unity, exists already—

John Bruce Leonard
John Bruce Leonard, Editor-in-Chief of Arktos, studied philosophy, letters, and languages in a university curriculum based exclusively on the great books of the Western Tradition. After taking his degree in Liberal Arts he moved permanently to Italy, where he nourishes his ever-living preoccupation with the heritage and the future of Europe.