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The Rest vs. the West

Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450-1650

edited by Claire Farago
Yale University Press, 394 pp., $45.00


José de Acosta did not mind confronting problems. A brilliant speaker and efficient administrator, he dominated the Jesuits’ mission in Peru in the 1570s. Acosta taught, preached, organized church councils, rewrote the liturgy, and went on expeditions into the interior of the country, even though he suffered grievously from melancholy, which, many believed at the time, afflicted men of high talent. Later, back in Spain, he wrote one of the most influential historical works of the later sixteenth century, a Natural and Moral History of the Indies, which appeared in 1590. Translated into Italian, French, English, Dutch, and Latin, it found a public everywhere in Europe.

Acosta’s historical theories were as bold as his missionary practices. When he realized that the Torrid Zone, declared uninhabitable by Aristotle, had a large population and in many areas a temperate climate, he declared without hesitation that “the philosopher” had been wrong. Aristotle had followed the historians and cosmographers of his time, whose knowledge was limited. Though he was and remained a good Aristotelian, Acosta had the courage to admit that the thinker he most admired, and whose methods he used, did not know everything—still a rare virtue in an age when doctors trained at the greatest medical school in Europe, Padua, had to swear an oath to defend Aristotle’s authority.1

Acosta produced the first full-scale effort to describe for a wide European public the societies, religions, and cultures of the New World. But even he could not solve all the intellectual problems that his huge tasks of research and writing posed. In particular, he worried about whether he himself really could reconstruct in solid detail the history and cultures of lands that lacked a written tradition like the Western one. Would he, like Aristotle, wind up a laughingstock, the helpless victim of unreliable informants?

Acosta’s fellow Jesuit Juan de Tovar had sent him an illustrated history of Mexico to use in his own work. Turning to Tovar for advice, Acosta wrote him in 1586 to ask a series of pointed questions. “What certainty or authority,” he wanted to know, “does this narrative or history have?” How could the native inhabitants of New Spain, who did not have a system of alphabetic writing, preserve the memory of events over a long period? And how could they preserve the precise wording of the speeches of their “ancient rhetoricians”? Tovar answered in detail and encouragingly. The Mexicas, he admitted, had used images rather than alphabetic script to record their tradition, and images were less precise than words. But their symbols had enabled them to record “all the events and memorable occurrences that they had in their histories”—that is, in their calendar wheels, and Tovar enclosed a copy of one of them. At the same time, their highly trained memories preserved their ancestors’ eloquent speeches without any deviation, metaphor by metaphor and word by word. Tovar assured Acosta that native sources would yield a proper history.2 Acosta evidently agreed, since he incorporated parts of Tovar’s letter directly into his book.

A generation ago, this exchange seemed to embody one of the great intellectual events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Europeans’ long, slow, painful realization that the world contained civilizations not mentioned in the Bible or the histories of the Greeks and Romans. J.H. Elliott treated the discussion between Acosta and Tovar as one of the more dramatic episodes in this eventful story, which began in the mid-sixteenth century. Apologists for modern tendencies insisted that the invention of gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press had made the modern world more cosmopolitan and more powerful than the ancient one. Early Europeans, more and more scholars reflected, must have resembled not the robed sages of Raphael’s School of Athens but the naked inhabitants of pre-Conquest Virginia and Mexico: they had been not the masters of a universally valid Great Tradition but the prisoners of a little one, not venerable philosophers but blue-painted worshippers of savage gods. Francis Bacon, as always, put the common wisdom with uncommon brilliance: antiquity, he said, was not the old age but the youth of the human race, and had no special claim on the respect of later times. The myth of the ancients’ omniscience—the traditional belief that the arts and sciences had existed in their purest imaginable form at the beginning of time—melted, very slowly, into air.

Some observers of keen sensibility, like Bartolomé de las Casas and Michel de Montaigne, came to believe that the discoveries challenged not only ancient Europe’s intellectual reputation, but also modern Europe’s moral standing. Some of the nations the Europeans had conquered had developed sophisticated arts and crafts, systems of roads, and forms of poetry, even though they had had no access to the intellectual and cultural treasures of the West. Christian colonists had come, moreover, not as missionaries and teachers but as predators. The atrocities such invaders had committed against peaceful Caribbean islanders and Incas suggested that Europeans, not Indians, were the real barbarians.3 Antiquity lost authority; modern life lost luster; true civilization suddenly proved hard to locate—and might turn out to inhabit Paraguayan forests or Peruvian mountains rather than European cities. Tovar’s letter—with its demonstration that a tradition radically different from the Western idea of narrative history could still preserve the basic facts—fitted naturally into this larger story.

First published in 1970, Elliott’s book—which remains by far the best introduction to the problems posed by discoveries such as Tovar’s—was only one of several bold efforts since the 1920s to reconsider the history of Europe’s relation to the rest of the world. Scholars broke open new veins in the seemingly exhausted mines of European intellectual history. Sergio Landucci showed that efforts to describe and understand primitive societies occupied dozens of early modern jurists and philosophers—and did so long before Lahontan and Lafitau, the Enlightenment thinkers traditionally singled out, for good or ill, as anthropology’s founding fathers, were born or thought of.4 The late Giuliano Gliozzi combined the erudition of a traditional humanist with the indignation of a Sixties radical. Mounting an extensive enquiry into Renaissance efforts to find biblical or classical passages that identified the New World’s inhabitants and explained how they reached their homes, he emerged with a fierce denunciation of humanists, historians, and theologians. Gliozzi argued that these intellectuals had prostituted their erudition to the service of their states, tearing passages from ancient texts and twisting them to justify modern empires.5

More recently still, younger scholars have scrutinized the documents of European colonizers with equal intensity, but from a different angle of vision. Sabine MacCormack and Fernando Cervantes—to name only two—have concentrated not on scholarly libraries and collections in Europe but on churches, convents, and plazas in the Americas. They have shown in detail how European intellectuals, coming as missionaries, brought with them historical and theological scripts which they tried to make the inhabitants of the New World conform to. And they made clear that many natives rejected these, or insisted on performing them in ways distinctly their own—like those inhabitants of New Spain who drove the Dominican Diego Durán wild with frustration by coming to church only for those feasts that corresponded with sacred dates in their pre-Christian religious calendar, until he shrugged in despair, picked up a feathered staff of his own, and joined their procession.6 Few fields of cultural history, in short, can rival this one for consistent fertility and compulsive interest.

During the last five years or so, however, the herds of scholars who have browsed in tranquility for so long among the records of missionaries and inquisitors have been startled to hear repeated critical rumbles. Many of these began as noises off, originating in quite different fields of study. Edward Said’s study Orientalism, for example, filled many Western scholars with disquiet about the ways in which they and their predecessors had spoken for, rather than listened to, those they referred to as inhabitants of “the Orient.” The precise and original monographs of historians in the Indian Subaltern Studies school showed that the categories and certainties of Empire looked quite different when viewed not from the top of a heap of archival documents preserved in a cast-iron Victorian panopticon in one of Europe’s capitals, but from the colonial perspective of the towns where “riots” and “revolutions” took place.

The theorists who dominated so many humanities departments challenged all conventional ways of writing history. And the large numbers of students identifying themselves as Hispanic, Asian, and Native American who entered elite universities demanded courses and textbooks that did not identify with Europeans and conquerors. Specialists in many disciplines began to recast in radically new terms the discussion of the cultural collision between the West and the Rest. The rumbles have begun to sound like thunder—especially during and after the quincentennial celebrations of 1992, when revisionists and their critics, caught up in equal and opposite fits of moral indignation, denounced one another from every pulpit they could reach.

The atmosphere in which these discussions take place is heavily charged. Even the subtlest historians and social scientists tread the bloody crossroads where cultures meet with the breathless caution of soldiers in a minefield. Many seem almost paralyzed with fear at the possibility of exploiting the colonized or colluding with the colonizers. But even the most careful precautions do not ensure safe passage. Grave scholars make comic appearances, belaboring one another with bladders and slapsticks, each accusing the other of speaking for the native instead of hearing the native’s voice, of making the native too radically Other or too imperialistically the Same.7 Others disappear into an almost mystical state of self-scrutiny, indulging to extremes that truly ineffable scholarly pleasure, the public revelation of their own bad faith. The historiography of the discoveries sometimes seems likely to turn from a real library into an imaginary but gruesome butcher shop—rather like the curiously Goyaesque cannibal slaughterhouses, hung and strewn with smoked human limbs, that early sixteenth-century artists and pamphleteers conjured up to adorn a Caribbean of the mind.

Most of the revisionists agree on certain cardinal points. All exchanges of ideas and images, they argue, are conditioned by the situations—the resources and problems, strengths and weaknesses—of their protagonists. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European intellectuals spoke from a position of power, native inhabitants of the Americas from one of weakness. European intellectuals, enjoying the support of powerful states and the conquering Christian church, wrote in the languages and genres that would reach worldwide audiences. Native Americans, by contrast, used languages not designed to be printed or accessible to readers outside their own regions. Inevitably, Western voices drowned non-Western ones in public discussions of society and history.

And all too many modern scholars have forgotten that Europe’s intellectual projects won out less for intellectual than for political and military reasons. Often they have ignored texts and images that served the immediate needs of smaller, less powerful publics in the New World itself. Where their predecessors detected the clean, cool odor of ethnographic saintliness in the letters exchanged by Tovar and Acosta, in short, the revisionists detect the putrescence of bad faith. The missionaries’ effort to write a new kind of history formed part of an effort to colonize minds as well as lands. Their creation of an anthropological approach to inquiry served to justify a spiritual and political conquest.

  1. 1

    José de Acosta, Historia natural y moral de las Indias, edited by J. Alcina Franch (Madrid: Historia 16, 1987), Book I, Chapter 9, pp. 82-86.

  2. 2

    The letters of Acosta and Tovar appear in J. García Icazbalceta, Don Fray Juan de Zumárraga, primer obispo y arzobispo de México, edited by R. Aguayo Spencer and A. Castro Leal, Vol. 4 (Madrid: Porrúa, 1947), pp. 89-93.

  3. 3

    J.H. Elliott, The Old World and the New, 1492-1650 (Cambridge University Press, 1970); Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  4. 4

    Sergio Landucci, I filosofi e i selvaggi, 1580-1780 (Bari: Laterza, 1972).

  5. 5

    Giuliano Gliozzi, Adamo e il nuovo mondo (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1977).

  6. 6

    Sabine MacCormack, Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru (Princeton University Press, 1991); Fernando Cervantes, The Devil in the New World: The Impact of Diabolism in New Spain (Yale University Press, 1994).

  7. 7

    See, e.g., the remarkable exchange between Garanath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (Princeton University Press, 1992), and Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example (University of Chicago Press, l995), and the discussion of both books in these pages by Clifford Geertz (The New York Review, November 30, 1995). See also Geertz’s essays on a number of related questions in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (Basic Books, 1983).

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