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The Buried Mirror’

In response to:

¡Adiós Columbus! from the January 28, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

Kenneth Maxwell’s criticism of the television series, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World, does not get to the heart of the matter, nor could it be expected to [“¡Adios Columbus!” NYR, January 28]. Just why The Buried Mirror series as made was not as projected is exemplary, I think, of the difficulty of putting history on television. While there are things in that series that I would prefer to have seen done otherwise, the reasons they were not had to do largely with the realities of getting such a project funded and produced at all. In the 10 years from idea to film, Carlos Fuentes took on a far larger role than he had agreed to at the outset and throughout did yeoman service. What would surely have made a great positive difference, an organizational meeting of the original advisors—historians, an anthropologist, an archeologist, a historian-film critic—and everyone else involved at the very beginning, was a meeting that backers refused to fund.

In the end, the series does provide a worthwhile view of the history of the cultural diversity and yet overarching unity of Spanish-speaking people—the term culture here understood as Susan Tax Freeman has described it, as “a shared set of meanings and evaluations, a complex yet tightly integrated, created and dynamic construction in a state of perpetual flux and continual re-creation”; 1 and as William Bouwsma understands it, “less as a set of beliefs and values than as the collective strategies by which societies organize and make sense of their experience.”2 The Buried Mirror changed from a historian’s sweeping enquiry into the 500 years since 1492 to one outstanding controversial cultural figure’s reflections on his sense of his own heritage. It was a compromise that yet presented as it sought to do what no other of the Quincentenary of 1492 television offerings have managed: how important a sense of the past is within every present, and how myth can fill historical vacuum. Carlos Fuentes repeatedly bridges historical record and historiography, as in differentiating between an Aztec figure as artifact and as perceived today as art, or as in observing that an outsider does not see in the procession of penitentes and images of Holy Mary at Holy Week in Seville what sevillanos do, or indeed as in explaining in some detail the Virgin and the Bull as commonplace imagery over time. Whatever the shortcomings of The Buried Mirror, it is a welcome and necessary complement to near-exclusive focus on sailing ships and material goals. Ideally, we need a variety of films on heritage as seen by a variety of people, illuminating the interplay between myth and history, but this one is a beginning, a reminder that culture is dynamic, not static, constantly evolving through both conflict and cooperation within and between societies, and that history as heritage per se seems to be indispensable to human beings, never more so than now.

Peggy K. Liss
Washington, DC

  1. 1

    Susan Tax Freeman, “A Cultural Approach to Marginality in Spain,” in Marginated Groups in Spanish and Portuguese History, ed. William D. Phillips, Jr., and Carla Rahn Phillips (Minneapolis, 1989) 1.

  2. 2

    William J. Bouwsma, A Usable Past, Essays in European Cultural History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990).

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