Goodbye, Columbus

The Harp and the Shadow

by Alejo Carpentier, translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen
Mercury House, 159 pp., $16.95

The Dogs of Paradise

by Abel Posse, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
Atheneum, 301 pp., $17.95

The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy

by Kirkpatrick Sale
Knopf, 453 pp., $24.95

A funny thing happened on the way to the quincentennial observation of America’s “discovery.” Columbus got mugged. This time the Indians were waiting for him. He comes now with an apologetic air—but not, for some, sufficiently apologetic. There are plans to blockade harbors when replicas of his caravels arrive in 1992. Statues of the man have become the sites for demonstrations. He comes to be dishonored.

This is a far cry from the Columbian Exposition of 1893—all those white buildings on Lake Michigan, defying the Mauve Decade with their classicism. Columbus was still moving westward in triumph then—on his way to the Philippines. He was at last reaching his original goal, the Orient. It was in his spirit that the French took over Laos in 1893.

When was the last time Americans could rally in an undivided way around Columbus? It was probably in January of 1961, when right and left could still shiver together at the call: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” So we took up the French cause in Indochina.

Yet it would be wrong to think of the new cynicism about Columbus as a “post-Vietnam” attitude. That casts the matter in too narrowly American terms. The point of Vietnam is that our nation intruded in the last act of the anticolonial drama without knowing what the play was all about. Chasing Communists, we ran into a shuddering great structure that had collapsed everywhere else. We arrived just in time to have the last standing section of the complex fall on our heads.

We still do not understand what hit us—which explains the naive assumptions with which the Reagan administration began the planning for the quincentennial. This is the first major Columbus observance since the collapse of European imperialism. Distracted by the cold war, Americans ignored the major historical development of our time—the reworking of a quarter of the globe’s maps, the emergence of over a hundred new nations, the rearrangement of the lives of a majority of the inhabitants of the earth. These are peoples who did not discover but were discovered; who were conquered, and colonized, and—the conquerors still believe—civilized. These people see the civilizers in a different way, all those Prosperos with their magic books and convenient religion and wonderful profits. What is happening to Columbus, at the moment, is Caliban’s revenge.

The point of this postcolonial world is not simply that what Henry Kissinger referred to as “the so-called third world” slipped away from Europe’s direct political control. The new nations did not stop at remaking their own maps. They have changed the meanings of all the words that were used to control them. They are remaking the maps of the cosmos carried in Western heads. Even the man appointed by Reagan to head the quincentennial commission is learning, belatedly, not…

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