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Goodbye, Columbus

The Argentinian novelist Abel Posse wrote his 1987 novel Perros del paraíso in explicit dialogue with Carpentier’s (and with many other works). When Columbus fizzes with sexual ecstasy in the presence of Queen Isabella, Posse stops to tell the reader:

Seeing the queen, in person, his flesh shrank, and he was incapable of rising to action. (That is why the great Alejo Carpentier errs when he describes a complete and uninhibited sexual union between the navigator and the sovereign. Carpentier is led to this forgivable error by an admirable proclivity for the democratic. But the scene he depicts is absolutely unrealistic. The plebe, physically, was totally intimidated. His metaphysical daring, in contrast, was absolute, hence his ability to achieve the liberation of panorgasm.)

Metaphysical daring” is the mark of Posse’s Columbus, who is mystically called by the sea in his youth. The tone is that of comic epic, surreal and verging on the slapstick:

Only a man who knows that the earth is flat—even though the world is round—has the courage to sail toward the Indies! Once it had been tailors who persecuted him; now it was the Holy Brotherhood….

He knew the frustration of the scientist who faces the impenetrable wall of ignorance.

Posse wittily inverts, here, the myth that Columbus had to contend with clerics who believed the world is flat—a myth popularized in Washington Irving’s immensely successful Columbus biography of 1828. In fact, both Columbus and his opponents knew the globe is round; but Columbus thought it was much smaller than his better-informed critics did. It was he who adduced scripture and theology to buttress his weak geography. In effect, he prevailed because of his superstitions—or, as Posse puts it, he was the flat-earther.

Posse does not see Columbus as an entire stranger to the world he intrudes upon. Called there by a metaphysical uneasiness in his own sphere, he is a kind of wandering Jew—Posse adopts the claim popularized by Salvador Madariaga for Columbus’s Jewish antecedents—who wants to escape the “disease of doing” and achieve a rest in simple being:

Unconsciously, whether as self-punishment or self-acclaim, he had been transformed into the first complete South American. Although he had not been born of carnal union between races, he was the first mestizo. A mestizo without an umbilicus. Like Adam.

Though these novelists use the license of fiction in matters like Columbus’s relations with Isabella and his access to secret maps, they present a figure as challenging and complex as their historical model. Columbus was more a mystic than the shrewd Yankee navigator Samuel Eliot Morison made of him. A believer in eschatological prophecies, he thought his discoveries would bring on the end time already initiated by the defeat of the Moors and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Gold from his “New World” would arm an expedition to retake the Holy Land, completing history. As Todorov argues, “There is nothing of the modern empiricist about Columbus…. Paradoxically, it will be a feature of Columbus’s medieval mentality that leads him to discover America and inaugurate the modern era.”11

For Kirkpatrick Sale, Columbus is less a mystic than a madman, driven only by his craziness and cruelty. If we wonder how he could have accomplished what he did, the answer is that he was borne on by a Europe just as crazy, but equipped with technological powers as irresistible as they are mindless.

Sale’s book has a comic-epic audacity of its own. He is on to something when he makes Columbus the deadest whitest male now offered for our detestation. If any historical figure can appropriately be loaded up with all the heresies of our time—Eurocentrism, phallocentrism, imperialism, elitism, and all-bad-things-generally-ism—Columbus is the man. But in pursuit of this dead-male white whale, Sale has developed fixations of an Ahab dimension. It is not enough to say that Columbus initiated genocide for Tainos and Aztecs and Incas; he infected the entire world. He stands guilty of lèse-nature. He raped the globe. He brought to the idyllic world outside Europe’s dread itch for control “an ancient phobia against the forces of nature and the earth goddesses.” He had an “ecohybris” to which we can trace all the disturbances of our time. Like all Europeans, he hated forests and mountains.12 He is the best example of European man’s “obsessive will to try ‘subduing nature.”’

This description of Europe, though given new vehemence by recent developments, is oddly familiar. Though Sale ranges far and wide in his hunt for ammunition in this take-no-prisoners assault on the imprisoning of the earth by Europe, he neglects the author he most resembles. It was Spengler, after all, who called European culture Faustian, and used Columbus as a symbol of its desire to reduce even space to a function of the will, of our “spiritual will-to-power.” 13

The bent of the Faustian Culture, therefore, was overpoweringly towards extension, political, economic or spiritual. It overrode all geographical-material bounds. It sought—without any practical object, merely for the Symbol’s own sake—to reach the North Pole and South Pole.14

In short, it raped the globe.

The Faustian culture has an “adamantine will to overcome and break all resistances of the visible.”15 And Spengler, like Sale, connects this desire for control to the norms and methods of modern capitalism—to reductive accounting procedures and the substitution of money for value.16

There is a striking resemblance between Spengler’s “Magian culture” and the animistic world of earth-goddesses Sale finds in the pre-Columbian Americas. The Magian culture is healing, uniting, and at rest, as opposed to the driving and dividing restlessness of Faustian man. It incloses and includes as in a womb-cavern. “The Magian man, with his spiritual kind of being, is only a part of a pneumatic ‘We’ that, descending from above, is at one and the same in all believers.”17 So, in Sale’s rosy reconstruction of Native Americans’ “pre-contact” life, people coaxed food from a cooperating nature, rather than compelling it from a resisting soil. They tickled crops from the earth with a planting stick rather than wounding their mother with the trenches of a plow. This loving treatment was actually more efficient since

they had learned [how? by wounding experiments on their own?] that opening up and turning over whole fields would only decrease nutrients and increase erosion, or because their thought-world would not have allowed such disregardful violence.

When (rarely) the precontact natives had to kill something, they did it with nonpolluting bow and arrow, “far easier, faster, and safer than the musket.” Their healthy regime and holistic medicine preserved themselves as well as the environment—so successfully that

There is only one way to live in America, and there can be only one way, and that is as Americans—the original Americans—for that is what the earth of America demands. We have tried for five centuries to resist that simple truth….

Spengler’s views are treated with a merited disdain these days. His mental schemata fit imperfectly if at all the cultures he tried to force them down on; but at least he knew that historical cultures have limits, and did not think one could be called up again at will, to replace its own replacement. Nor did he judge all other cultures by the standard of any one of the four he invented. Sale is as guilty of “precontactism” as are his enemies of Eurocentrism—with the additional disadvantage that his precontact culture is so heavily the product of wishful thinking.

Sale’s book is regrettable because it may tempt some to see in the coming controversies over Columbus a mere hatred for “the West,” a kind of catch-all leftist grumbling. But there are grave doubts and fears to be entertained when we call to mind what Columbus has meant for our past. It is not a simplistic, or even a left-wing, reaction to take these matters seriously. In fact, one of the great questioners of Columbus’s value to his descendants was that pious Tory Samuel Johnson. Sale mentions other critics of Columbus, but neglects the sustained polemic of Dr. Johnson against the European conquest of the Americas.

One would expect an ardent Christian like Johnson to praise the taking of the gospel to a new part of the globe. But he sees the conquest more as opportunities for Christians to sin against their own religion than to share it with others. Writing in 1759 of the explorers encouraged by King Henry the Navigator, he said:

Much knowledge has been acquired, and much cruelty been committed; the belief of religion has been very little propagated, and its laws have been outrageously and enormously violated. The Europeans have scarcely visited any coast but to gratify avarice, and extend corruption; to arrogate dominion without right, and practise cruelty without incentive. Happy had it then been for the oppressed if the designs of Henry had slept in his bosom, and surely more happy for the oppressors.18

In just this way Saint Augustine, after noting the blessings of empire (principally the communication encouraged between different peoples), says they are not worth the sins involved in expansion by conquest—“not when provided by the slaughter of human beings, the effusion of their blood.”19

Johnson wrote about Henry the Navigator during his country’s war with the French and Indians for their North American colony. He ridiculed England’s “right” to the country taken from its original inhabitants. He called his nation’s presence there a usurpation, “the dispossession of the natural lords and original inhabitants,” more despicable when it made pretense of treaties:

And indeed what but false hope, or resistless terror can prevail upon a weaker nation to invite a stronger into their country, to give their lands to strangers whom no affinity of manners, or similitude of opinion can be said to recommend, to permit them to build towns from which the natives are excluded, to raise fortresses by which they are intimidated, to settle themselves with such strength, that they cannot afterwards be expelled, but are for ever to remain the masters of the original inhabitants, the dictators of their conduct, and the arbiters of their fate?…It cannot be said, that the Indians originally invited us to their coasts; we went uncalled and unexpected to nations who had no imagination that the earth contained any inhabitants so distant and so different from themselves. We astonished them with our ships…. To this influence, and to this only, are to be attributed all the cessions and submissions of the Indian princes, if indeed any such cessions were ever made, of which we have no witness but those who claim from them, and there is no great malignity in suspecting, that those who have robbed have also lied.20

Almost twenty years after writing that passage, Johnson connected the conquest of the Americas with its original conqueror, Columbus, who was

under the necessity of travelling from court to court, scorned and repulsed as a wild projector, an idle promiser of kingdoms in the clouds: nor has any part of the world yet had reason to rejoice that he found at last reception and employment.

In the same year [1498], in a year hitherto disastrous to mankind, by the Portuguese was discovered the passage of the Indies, and by the Spaniards the [mainland] coast of America.21

So the National Council of Churches is in good company when it officially deplores the sinful conquests by which Europe came to these shores. Whatever the wilder claims of people like Kirkpatrick Sale, it is hard to impeach the moral witness of Dr. Johnson. He was an anti-imperialist when the Empire was young and growing, when he had to strain very hard to find an ally:

I love the University of Salamanca; for when the Spaniards were in doubt as to the lawfulness of their conquering America, the University of Salamanca gave it as their opinion that it was unlawful.22

  1. 11

    Todorov, The Conquest of America, pp. 12, 17.

  2. 12

    In fact, Europeans have had an affection for hills and mountains partly imbibed from the Psalmist (for instance Psalms 71.3, 72.3, 121.1) and passed on by passages like Saint Augustine’s first homily on the Gospel of John—a text surprisingly similar to Ruskin’s scriptural treatment of “The Mountain Glory” in Modern Painters, Vol. 4.

  3. 13

    Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, translated by Charles Francis Atkinson (Knopf, 1936), Vol. 1, p. 330. On Columbus, see p. 334 and Vol. 2, p. 490.

  4. 14

    Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, pp. 335–336.

  5. 15

    Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, pp. 185–186.

  6. 16

    Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 2, pp. 489–493.

  7. 17

    Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 2, p. 235.

  8. 18

    Samuel Johnson, The World Displayed, quoted in the Yale edition of The Works of Samuel Johnson, Vol. 10, The Political Writings, edited by Donald J. Greene (Yale University Press, 1977), p. 421.

  9. 19

    Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book 19, chapter 7.

  10. 20

    Samuel Johnson, “Observations on the Present State of Affairs,” in Political Writings, p. 187.

  11. 21

    Samuel Johnson, “Taxation Not Tyranny,” in Political Writings, pp. 421–422.

  12. 22

    James Boswell, Life of Johnson edited by George Birbeck Hill, revised by L. F. Powell (Oxford University Press, 1934), Vol. 1, p. 455. For Johnson’s other comments on the sins of conquest in the Americas, see Boswell, Vol. 2, pp. 27, 476–477; Vol. 4, p. 250.

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