Thursday, July 17, 2008

It's not him--it's us: Some comments on Reading Columbus

Two pages from Columbus' Diario of the first voyage (1492-1493). The annotations in the left margins are by Bartolomé de las Casas, a crucial figure during the first decades of the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Image found here.

Note: This is sabbatical-project reading. I'm persuaded that if we squint at Columbus in certain ways we can perhaps see some things via analogy about this hemisphere that are, well, weird. I'll explain that a bit more further on and actually develop it over at Domestic Issue in a day or two.

Margarita Zamora, Reading Columbus (U of California P, 1993).

[EDIT: Reworked a bit in one place below the fold so that I don't sound quite so crazed--at least to myself--along with some asides (italicized so as to be easier to find) that I'd left out of the original.]

How to make sense of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea? It is no easy task, and Margarita Zamora, in this fine book, doesn't pretend to have succeeded in that task. Indeed, that isn't the task she has set for herself. She acknowledges that Columbus is an enigmatic figure; her goal in Reading Columbus is to help contemporary readers gain a clearer sense of why he seems so strange to us.

If Mexicans have something of an Electra complex with regard to La Malinche (yet, simultaneously, a rejection of Cortés, the symbolic father of the Mexican people), many people throughout this hemisphere clearly regard Columbus as Laius to their Oedipus, turning to love their land as their Jocasta. Consider, for example, this rather odd statement by Ramón Almanzar, a spokesperson for a group organized in the Dominican Republic to protest planned celebrations of the Quincentennial in that country: "We have to oppose with all our strength the celebration of this invasion that our continent suffered 500 years ago." It's an odd statement not because it is foolish but because of the phrase "our continent" in this particular context. As I said of it in my dissertation,

Almanzar's statement in effect asserts the right to read and reread history in terms that originate in this hemisphere. Inherent in it is the idea that we should no longer consider the history of this hemisphere to be a mere extension of European history. Something different has occurred here, something which made of our history an "other" history. Almanzar's "other" history includes himself, me, and all other inhabitants of this hemisphere in the rhetorical activity of returning to the past to conduct a character assassination of our cultural progenitor. Columbus' arrival, repeated by all of us, be we encounterers or encounterees, is at once our reason for being and the death of us.
Now that I've actually read Benedict Anderson's seminal accounting of nationalism, Imagined Communities (about which more in an upcoming post), rather than just read about it, I'll actually be able to back up some of that stuff (and clarify some of it, too).

But back to Zamora's book. Columbus seems so enigmatic because, on the one hand, we really don't know some fundamental things about him (just as one example: he said he was from Genoa; yet, aside from some brief passages in Latin, all his writing is in Spanish [Aside: He even wrote to his (adult) son in Spanish]; in the past, Portugal and Greece have claimed him as their own, too). Yet, on the other, we presume all sorts of things about his motives and mind-set based on the texts attributed to him and the accounts of others. Zamora's book's basic premises are that 1) Columbian scholars overlook or ignore or dismiss (depending, it would seem, on the image of Columbus they seek to promote) some pretty obvious facts and features of those texts--chief among them the fact that no Columbian text comes to us more directly than second-hand; 2) scholars don't fully (if at all) take into account the rhetorical traditions (such as the medieval notarial tradition and not one but two different narrational rhetorics of "discovery"--the travelogue and the pilgrimage) that, she argues, the texts show Columbus is fully aware of and writes within--yet, intriguingly, those traditions sometimes are at cross purposes with each other when they appear with each other cheek by jowl in them; 3) scholars in various ways often dismiss what Zamora takes to be Columbus' deep faith and his commitment to a then-widespread strain of what we would call end-times thinking. The result of all this is that, somewhat as it is Oedipus' fate not to know his own parents, it will be impossible, Zamora contends, for us to know Columbus through any of the writings attributed to him, so indebted are their present forms to various rhetorical conventions--not to mention the intervening hands of others with their own respective agendas:
I use the phrase "Columbian writing" throughout these essays in recognition of the problems inherent in the notion of authorship and, especially, in the acknowledgment of the mediated condition of the texts under consideration. From this perspective, Reading Columbus is an ironic title, since it not only is impossible to determine with absolute certainty which portions of these texts are Columbus's "very words," but the very signature "Columbus" must be seen as an aggregate, a corporate author as it were. (6-7)
Zamora's book's great strength is that it isolates each of these issues from each other, devoting a chapter to each in which she explains in great detail (some of it redundant--the one complaint I have about it) these various strands. As I said above, it's not Zamora's intent to explain Columbus so much as to contextualize him. Once we have that deeper awareness, we can begin to read these texts more clearly. Zamora's strategy is a healthy if implicit reminder that, too often, we project ourselves, our own culture's frames of references, onto people at a considerable historical and/or cultural remove from us. We--our culture's assumptions--would appear just as strange to him, were he here with us, as he does to us. We too are subject to the pushes and pulls of various rhetorics (not just languages here but also societal, familial and private forces) that make us hard to read, too--even, at times, to ourselves.

Below the fold are some ideas from Zamora's book that I'll be playing around with in connection with my project:

For one thing, I'm intrigued by Zamora's discussion of these different rhetorics jostling against each other within some of the Columbian texts. She doesn't say it, but Zamora's reiterating at various times Ferdinand and Isabella's (deliberate?) vagueness as to what Columbus' exact destination and objectives were to be suggests to me--in keeping with a discussion I have regarding Faulkner's novel Go Down, Moses as a miscegenated text not only in terms of subject matter but also regarding its genre (is it a collection of stories? A novel?)--make this in its essence an American text--even though it was written before the fact of the Encounter. The temptation is strong in me to speculate here that the New World is some sort of heterotopic black hole, affecting the writing about it even before it becomes empirically known by the authors of those texts . . . but that idea came to me a little before sunrise this morning. We'll see how it looks in full sun.

It all makes sense in my head . . .

The perhaps saner, more academically-palatable take on the struck passage: It's the patent obviousness of Columbus' enterprise (along with its newness and the fact that Columbus was estimating that the earth's circumference was only 1/3 that which most people thought it was--think about that last tidbit for a moment) that necessitates the strange, even hybrid quality of the pre-expedition exchange of letters between him and the Spanish crown. There's a combination of hedging bets and covering bases in these letters in part, yes (as Zamora and others speculate), to keep the Portuguese and others from finding out what they are doing, but also, and much more fundamentally, because no one really knew even if Columbus' expedition would come back alive, much less what it would find, how it would be received, etc.

In my dissertation, as a way of trying to set up a larger point about how postcolonial theory to my mind just didn't work when applied to the circumstances of the Americas, I suggested that Columbus' expedition and his understanding of where he was could be likened to deciding to read a text backward and yet, in the face of finding things that didn't correspond to what was expected, insisting on the same results one would get had one read the text in the usual way. This, obviously, is rather different from what Zamora is discussing in her book, but I do like the fact that she, too, sees in being more aware of all these various rhetorics a key to thinking more clear-headedly about Columbus . . . what I think I can do is suggest that, re Roberto González Echevarría's book, Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Literature, these documents--maybe even all the Columbian texts--are proto-New World texts.

But. I have to admit that I still like that bit about the "heterotopic black hole."

Next idea: Zamora begins with an idea by Paul Carter in his book on the exploration and settlement of Australia called The Road to Botany Bay "that those who wrote about their experiences did not record the journey so much as construct a figurative geography in which those historical actions would make sense." Then, using Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of the chronotope (literally, "time-space"), Zamora promotes the notion that Columbus understood himself to be simultaneously on a voyage of discovery and a pilgrimage. Only thing is, from the standpoint of narrative, these are not the same thing:
[S]tories about exploration are a modality of the discourse of adventure, where the unexpected, the dangerous, the marvelous, and the unknown predominate. What determines the extraordinariness of exploration is the character of the space traversed: unknown and unmastered, the space dictates a challenge to the traveler and motivates the writing of the story of how that challenge was met. The encounter with space informs the nature of time. . . . Pilgrimage, on the other hand, is temporally extraordinary: the places are known, but the experience of space is miraculous. . . . The spiritual journey is carried out in history and eternity simultaneously[.] (101)
For my purposes, this heads off in a couple of intriguing directions. I'm intrigued by what I see as the oxymoronic quality of the term "New World," and it seems to me that the distinction Zamora makes here between narratives of exploration and of pilgrimage can be made to parallel that. Also, all this, along with a discussion Zamora pursues a little later on the (etymological) origins of geography in writing squares up nicely with Benedict Anderson's discussion, in Imagined Communities of "homogeneous, empty time" as being vital to understanding how nations conceive (of) themselves . . . and which, as Anderson also notes intriguingly, is also the essence of the novel-as-genre's sense of time. More about this when I get to Anderson.

Just as an aside to all this: Though I won't be using them in my project, when I used this edition of the journals of the Lewis & Clark expedition in a class I taught, I was fascinated to see how, while the expedition was still following the Missouri River across the Plains--territory known from the prior accounts of explorers--the entries are flat recordings of latitude and longitude, of distances travelled that day, occasionally punctuated by short relatings of events and conversations; yet, upon reaching the Rockies--much less familiar territory--the entries instantly changed into actual narratives. I proposed at the time that these narratives were something like a tool for Lewis and Clark to help them make sense of their journey in a way that sextant readings could not. So, reading Zamora's paraphrase of Carter's thinking about travelogues was nice to see.

Big whoop--all this stuff about "time-space"--right? Well, yeah--it is, at least for Zamora. She notes the late-medieval conception of the world as having already been fully known, in general terms, via both Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman tradition. Some Columbus scholars point to a letter to his son Fernando in which he described the places he'd visited as an "otro mundo" ("other world") as evidence that Columbus knew he wasn't actually in Asia. To my mind, though, Zamora, noting that Columbus also says in the same letter that the place he referred to as terra firma is "well known to the ancients, and not unknown as the envious and ignorant would have it," argues persuasively, to my mind, that "[t]his land was 'other' with respect to the world he and his readers were familiar with; that is, the explored parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but it certainly was a world familiar to the writers of classical and Christian antiquity" (131). Like I'm any sort of expert in all this, but Zamora's reading here strikes me as right. Besides, I think: even if Columbus knew where he really was, so what? What matters is that no one else in Europe knew (aside from the Vikings, and who wanted to talk to a bunch of half-barbaric Norwegians and Swedes?): the real significance of his voyages is the absolute, utter reorientation of European (and, later, African and--even more dramatically--Amerindian) thinking--political, religious, scientific, cultural, economic--that his return and the news he brought back with him in 1493 caused. "Everything you know is wrong" comes pretty close to describing things for the peoples of three four continents for the following century or so. Few events, before or since, have so profoundly altered so many people's conceptions of themselves or of human institutions. The world became round in lived experience, no longer remaining an assumed but untested truth.

This matters to my work because I'm working on articulating a poetics of (consensual) interracial mixing as it gets articulated in historical and literary narratives; I want to claim that in these narratives there is something apocalyptic (in its dual senses of "destructive" of old orders, old ways of thinking and revelatory of new ones) in those moments when someone is revealed to be of mixed race--such moments become something like metaphors for the idea of the New World.

In sum: Columbus is one of those historical figures about whom what one says about him/her tends to reveal at least as much about the person saying these things as it does the historical figure. As I said waaaay back up there at the top, Zamora's chief service in Reading Columbus is to give the reader some historical perspective on the rhetorical worlds Columbus had to navigate--and the very helpful reminder that this textual Columbus is the result of what has survived and what others chose to allow us to see of him.


R. Sherman said...

Not that I'm qualified to do anything but lurk in this discussion, but:

The reference to "end times" thinking is interesting, because it caused me to try to remember what was going on during the 15th Century; what would be within living memory. It's a pretty good list, including the fall of the Byzantine empire, the Hundred Years War, The war of the Roses, the Inquisition in Spain (which probably affected Columbus more than we think, inasmuch as it was primarily directed at those nominal Catholics who were from the families of Jews which had converted following the expulsion) and a host of other catastrophes.

One wonders whether Columbus was attempting to jump-start a sort of temporal "Rapture" to seek a place which could ignore all the nightmares of Europe and create a Heaven on Earth for an "elect."

Just musing and probably full of crap, as always.


[BTW, its good thing, I guess, that Columbus wasn't wed to a bike for transportation. :)]

John B. said...

Hey, Randall. Thanks for reading all that.

Zamora dwells at length in her book on the apocalyptic rhetoric then floating around--and not entirely around the fringes of--the Church. Recall as well that 1492 was the year that Spain finally defeated the last of the Moors at Granada. In Spain, at least, that victory was seen as a portent of the eventual retaking of Jerusalem from the Muslims, and it was one of Columbus' hopes that whatever riches he found on this expedition could be used to finance the retaking of Jerusalem, with himself leading that army.

Zamora doesn't pass judgment on any of that, but she is right in insisting that we not see it as crazy talk but as something that more people than Columbus were quite in earnest about--that in our more secularized world it is easy to forget that European culture was shot through with religion and religious discourse. Sure, lots of it was used to manipulate and worse--so what else is new?--but with few exceptions everyone not just participated in but could not avoid being influenced by the Church.