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Goodbye, Columbus

The Harp and the Shadow

by Alejo Carpentier, translated by Thomas Christensen, by 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 to use the word “discover” when talking about Columbus’s intrusion into Caribbean cultures. When I interviewed John Goudie in his Florida real estate office, he spoke of the time when “Columbus discov—uh, came upon, the islands.” (Though he later spoke of the “Age of Discovery” in the same interview.)

There is a tense little dance going on over the very terms in which to speak of the “coming-upon.” “Celebrate” is the wrong word now. The Columbian “encounter” is one way to avoid fighting words.1 The commission finally decided to call its observance the Quincentenary Jubilee. “Russell Means complained about the word jubilee,” says Goudie, “but I told him it is the Jewish word for a time of remembrance when one can redress wrongs.” (Whew—close call.)

This uneasiness about what to call the what-do-you-call-it is a symptom of the profound reconceptualization going on. Caliban does not merely slip free of the influence of Prospero’s magic books. He rewrites those books as Prospero clings to them—in fact, makes Prospero rewrite them for him. The slave is not truly free until he can destroy the supposed right to enslave him in the first place.

Decolonization of the mind can be conveniently traced in the way a Western symbol like Prospero was captured and turned against its source. In the 1950s and 1960s, third world intellectuals worked out their own position in a heated dialogue over the meaning, for them, of Caliban. In 1950 the radical French historian Octave Mannoni argued that the colonizer had created a neurotic sense of inferiority in the colonized—he called it the Prospero Complex. Frantz Fanon denied the existence of such a neurosis, as a distraction from the real and physical oppression exerted by Prospero. But the Barbadian writer George Lamming argued that Caliban must not only escape Prospero but break his scepter—the hold he had over Caliban’s mind. In 1962, Philip Mason shifted the emphasis from the relation of Caliban with Prospero and considered the two forms of anticolonialism manifested by Ariel and Caliban. Thus, in 1969, when Aimé Césaire rewrote Shakespeare’s play as Une tempête, Ariel became a mulatto “house slave” and Caliban a black “field slave.”2

By this point, the third world debate had affected the first world’s way of thinking about its own artifact. In 1970 Jonathan Miller directed Shakespeare’s play for the Mermaid Theater with Mannoni’s view in mind, and since that time “some emphasis on colonialism is now expected.”3 It is customary, for instance, to use black actors for both Ariel and Caliban, as Miller did, and sometimes to make Ariel a mulatto, as in Césaire’s play. Shakespeare has been “reverse-colonized” by the Calibans of contemporary culture.

Americans played a (typically unsuspecting) part in this process. Miller was influenced not only by Mannoni’s book when he directed his 1970 production, but by the work he had done in 1964 with Robert Lowell’s play The Old Glory (at the American Place Theater). “Miller’s decision to treat the play in terms of colonialism was influenced by his own reading of accounts of the Elizabethan voyages of exploration and a production of Lowell’s The Old Glory, with its long account of Puritan sailors making Indians drunk.”4 This interpretation was linked, in Miller’s mind, with the Vietnam experience—so much so that when Miller took the third play of Lowell’s trilogy to London, it was criticized as a straight allegory of the war in Vietnam.5 America had arrived late in the anti-imperial struggle, but in time to share its guilt. In fact, we had been more deeply implicated in colonialism than our official history ever admitted. When Fidel Castro came to power, the brothers Kennedy treated that as an invasion of “our” world by international communism. But a Cuban like Roberto Fernández Retamar saw it as a revolt of Caliban against the American Prospero. His influential essay “Caliban: Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America” (1971) cast Batista as the Ariel to America’s Prospero and Fidel as Caliban.6

The decolonization of the mind that took place during the 1950s and 1960s in the third world was followed, then, by a decolonization of the European mind, the colonizing mind, in the 1970s and 1980s—a process reflected in the explosion of critical essays on Caliban written by Europeans and North Americans.7

The Tempest has been subject to these doubts, subversions, and reversals not only because its subject is colonization. The play would have been put on the defensive anyway—as all of its author’s have been—because it is an authoritative Western text, part of the literary canon, a classic. The issues that ramify out from the revolt against European imperialism are everywhere evident around us—in the feminist and minority questioning of “dead white males” as the arbiters of our culture. The battles over a standard or core curriculum are simply this same war fought on slightly different grounds. So is the political struggle over one official language for the United States—a struggle in which one hears quoted over and over Caliban’s accusation:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

Columbus does not stumble into this tangle of disputes by accident. He, unlike Prospero, is a real figure in history. He did not discover the Americas, but he is the first European that we know of to enslave any of its inhabitants, and he initiated that course of Spanish conquest that would be responsible for what Tzvetan Todorov calls “the greatest genocide in history”—the destruction of perhaps 70 million human lives.9 Indeed, much of the recent talk about Prospero was really aimed at Columbus, as one can see in Césaire’s A Tempest, where the books that Caliban fears are explorers’ charts rather than magic texts, and “Prospero” fights clerics on issues of geography rather than his Milanese brother on the matter of succession (Act I, Scene 2).

Columbus has not only been a figure of exploitation in the past, but a useful symbol of cultural imperialism ever since—a point brilliantly made in Alejo Carpentier’s 1979 novel, El Arpa y la Sombra. Carpentier begins and ends his book with the effort of Pope Pius IX to canonize Columbus as a means of spiritual domination of the Americas. 10 When he was a young Vatican diplomat, Pius had gone on a mission to Chile, which Carpentier re-creates in his opening pages with vivid scenes of cultural estrangement that the Italian cleric hopes to overcome by a spiritual reconquest.

The body of the novel is a flashback from Columbus’s own deathbed. About to make his final confession, Columbus tries to penetrate all the deceptions and self-deceptions of his life—the masking of greed in piety, the luck he turns to Providence, his affair with Isabella seen as a betrayal of his true love. But his brain and will fail him when the confessor arrives. He cannot breathe, even under the seal of confession, his own doubts, and final defeat:

Christophoros—a Christophoros who did not quote even a single verse of the Gospels [as opposed to Jewish prophecies and apocrypha] in writing his letters and journals—was, in reality, the Prince of Calamities, Prince of Blood, Prince of Tears, Prince of Plagues—one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In the final part of the novel, the historical wraith of Columbus—having left behind him the wavering moment on his deathbed—haunts the canonization hearings in Rome, shouting unheard at his accusers, discussing his past with other specters hovering at the scene. He loses his case for canonization for one wrong reason (his mistress, his one love, not his manipulation of the queen) and for one good reason (that he enslaved human beings). He fades unvindicated with this admission: “I had rent the veil of the unknown and entered a new reality that surpassed my understanding, for there are discoveries so momentous—though possible—that by their very immensity they annihilate any mortal who dares to enter them.”

  1. 1

    Encounter is widely accepted as a translation of comunicación—the word that should be substituted for discovery (descubrimiento), according to a 1967 suggestion by Gabriel Sánchez de la Cuesta. See Paolo Emilio Taviani, Christopher Columbus: The Grand Design (Orbis, 1985), pp.538,541.

  2. 2

    Octave Mannoni, Psychologie de la colonisation (Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1950); translated by Pamela Powesland as Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (Praeger, 1956; reprinted by University of Michigan Press, 1990); Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1952), translated by Charles Lam Markmann as Black Skin, White Masks (Grove Press, 1967); George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (Michael Joseph, 1960); Philip Mason, Prospero’s Magic: Some Thoughts on Class and Race (Oxford University Press, 1962); Aimé Césaire, Une tempête (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1969), translated by Richard Miller as A Tempest (Ubu Repertory, 1986).

  3. 3

    Trevor R. Griffiths, ” ‘This Island’s Mine’: Caliban and Colonialism,” in The Year-book of English Studies, Vol. 13 (1983), p. 179.

  4. 4

    Griffiths, ” ‘This Island’s Mine,’ ” p. 177 (based on an interview with Miller).

  5. 5

    Jonathan Miller, Subsequent Performances (Viking, 1986), p. 82.

  6. 6

    Roberto Fernández Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays (University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

  7. 7

    See, for instance, Stephen J. Greenblatt, “Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century,” in Fredi Chiapelli, First Images of America, Vol. 2 (University of California Press, 1976); Paul Brown, ” ‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Cornell University Press, 1985); Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, ” ‘Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish’: The Discursive Con-Texts of The Tempest,” in John Drakakis, Alternative Shakespeares (Methuen, 1985); Thomas Cartelli, “Prospero in Africa: The Tempest as Colonial Text and Pretext,” in Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (Routledge, 1988); Malcolm Evans, “Master and Slave,” in Signifying Nothing: Truth’s True Content in Shakespeare’s Text (University of Georgia Press, 1986).

  8. 8

    See the use of this passage (and the whole play) in Dennis Baron, The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? (Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 35–37.

  9. 9

    Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, translated by Richard Howard (Harper and Row, 1984), pp. 5, 133–136. Though many of the deaths were caused by the inadvertent “bacteriological warfare” of imported diseases, Todorov argues that “the conquistadores see the epidemics as one of their [providential] weapons…[and] would not fail to make use of the disease quite deliberately [if they could].” One could compare New England Puritans’ belief that plague in Indian villages was a divine dispensation.

  10. 10

    Pius’s effort is a surprising omission from Kenneth L. Woodward’s otherwise astute book on the politics of canonization, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why (Simon and Schuster, 1990). The ideas of “Pio Nono” are disturbingly relevant now because of Woodward’s treatment of the current Pope’s desire to canonize his reactionary predecessor.

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