Mastering the Signs

Nineteen ninety-two will soon be upon us. Already the committees are being assembled, the foundations being approached, the first tentative projects discussed. Some will propose the construction of monuments; others, the publication of documents; and everyone will propose a conference. But do we need more monuments, or more documents? Do we even need more conferences? What is it, after all, we are celebrating?

In 1892 the answer would have been easy. Then people were celebrating the heroic spirit of man (or, more specifically, Western man), his pioneering vision, his unending quest for discovery. Christopher Columbus symbolized to perfection those qualities without which Europe could never have achieved its scientific and technological triumphs, or have remade the world in its image. Already in Bacon’s New Atlantis a statue of Columbus occupied a place in the gallery devoted to “all principal inventors.” But his apotheosis came in the nineteenth century, when Columbian man seemed to hold the world in his grasp, while pre-Columbian man was relegated to the ash-heap of history.

Time, however, plays strange tricks, and the world of 1892 now looks almost as remote as that of Columbus himself. The confidence with which Western man surveyed the mass of human kind only a short while ago has been dissipated; and where confidence is lacking, centenaries—those artificial constructs of the calendar—convey at best an ambiguous message. Nowhere have the consequences of this loss of confidence been more apparent than in the realm of historical writing. While the more traditional approach to the history of Europe’s overseas discovery and expansion continues to be cultivated, often in works of high quality, there has been a marked tendency in recent years to jettison the oldstyle Eurocentric interpretation and rethink the “expansion of Europe” as an encounter of civilizations. Unease and guilt have had their leveling effect. Now we seek not to dominate but to understand the “Other.”

The ranks of those who are concerned to explore the understanding of the Other in a historical setting have recently received a distinguished recruit from semiotics, in the person of Tzvetan Todorov. Mr. Todorov begins his book with a disclaimer. While choosing to “narrate a history,” he insists that his main interest is less a historian’s than a moralist’s; “the present is more important to me than the past.” One would hope that any historian would say the same. But in any event the metamorphosis of Mr. Todorov from semiotician to historian malgré lui, however transitory it may prove, can only be welcome news to those who are glad to see complex historical problems tackled by scholars with vigor, determination, and high intelligence, irrespective of their guild affiliations and professional credentials.

The historical problem that he has chosen to investigate for the purpose of his inquiry into “the discovery self makes of the other” is as complex as they come: the discovery and conquest of America, which he rightly describes as “the most astonishing encounter of our history.” He opens with two chapters on Columbus as…

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