Nineteen ninety-two will soon be upon us. Already the committees are being assembled, the foundations being approached, the first tentative projects discussed. Some will propose the construction of monuments; others, the publication of documents; and everyone will propose a conference. But do we need more monuments, or more documents? Do we even need more conferences? What is it, after all, we are celebrating?

In 1892 the answer would have been easy. Then people were celebrating the heroic spirit of man (or, more specifically, Western man), his pioneering vision, his unending quest for discovery. Christopher Columbus symbolized to perfection those qualities without which Europe could never have achieved its scientific and technological triumphs, or have remade the world in its image. Already in Bacon’s New Atlantis a statue of Columbus occupied a place in the gallery devoted to “all principal inventors.” But his apotheosis came in the nineteenth century, when Columbian man seemed to hold the world in his grasp, while pre-Columbian man was relegated to the ash-heap of history.

Time, however, plays strange tricks, and the world of 1892 now looks almost as remote as that of Columbus himself. The confidence with which Western man surveyed the mass of human kind only a short while ago has been dissipated; and where confidence is lacking, centenaries—those artificial constructs of the calendar—convey at best an ambiguous message. Nowhere have the consequences of this loss of confidence been more apparent than in the realm of historical writing. While the more traditional approach to the history of Europe’s overseas discovery and expansion continues to be cultivated, often in works of high quality, there has been a marked tendency in recent years to jettison the oldstyle Eurocentric interpretation and rethink the “expansion of Europe” as an encounter of civilizations. Unease and guilt have had their leveling effect. Now we seek not to dominate but to understand the “Other.”

The ranks of those who are concerned to explore the understanding of the Other in a historical setting have recently received a distinguished recruit from semiotics, in the person of Tzvetan Todorov. Mr. Todorov begins his book with a disclaimer. While choosing to “narrate a history,” he insists that his main interest is less a historian’s than a moralist’s; “the present is more important to me than the past.” One would hope that any historian would say the same. But in any event the metamorphosis of Mr. Todorov from semiotician to historian malgré lui, however transitory it may prove, can only be welcome news to those who are glad to see complex historical problems tackled by scholars with vigor, determination, and high intelligence, irrespective of their guild affiliations and professional credentials.

The historical problem that he has chosen to investigate for the purpose of his inquiry into “the discovery self makes of the other” is as complex as they come: the discovery and conquest of America, which he rightly describes as “the most astonishing encounter of our history.” He opens with two chapters on Columbus as an interpreter of the Caribbean and its peoples, but devotes the rest of his book to the conquest of Mexico and Spanish perceptions and descriptions of the peoples of Mesoamerica. He does not concern himself with the conquest of Peru, for which the documentation is less accessible and in many ways less satisfactory for the kind of exercise on which he is engaged.

From this it will be seen at once that Mr. Todorov has not exactly launched out into terra incognita. The literature, both on Columbus and the conquest of Mexico, is overwhelming. Mr. Todorov has read widely in it, as well as in the published sixteenth-century letters and descriptions, from which he quotes extensively. He knows, too, how to tell a good story. But potential readers will want to know whether he tells it differently from the way it has already been told a thousand times before. In other words, can a semiotician bring special insights to bear which will enable him to extend the boundaries of understanding drawn by conventional historians? The question suggests why his book is an interesting test case with potentially important implications.

Historians have advanced many reasons for the remarkable success of a handful of Spaniards in overthrowing the empire of Montezuma. These range from the military advantages deriving to the Spaniards from their possession of the gun and the horse to the deep internal divisions among the subject peoples of Montezuma’s empire, and the doubts and hesitations of Montezuma himself. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and most historians nowadays would probably favor some combination of the three, while attempting to explain the apparently inexplicable behavior of Montezuma by referring to the conceptual, social, and political background of the Mesoamerican world to which he belonged. In this they would probably go farther than many archaeologists and anthropologists specializing in preconquest America, to judge from Religion and Empire, by Geoffrey Conrad and Arthur Demarest. Conrad and Demarest take their colleagues to task for the reductionist tendencies of their “cultural materialism” and seek to restore “human volition” to the theory of cultural evolution, as it relates to the story of the rise and fall of the Aztec and Inca empires.


Mr. Todorov, while not denying the conventional explanations advanced by historians and archaeologists, seeks to find a common basis for them, and he locates it in the problem of communication. “By his mastery of signs,” he writes, “Cortés ensures his control over the ancient Mexican empire.” Similarly, Todorov’s reading of the Indian accounts of the conquest makes it clear to him that “everything happened because the Mayas and the Aztecs lost control of communication.” To argue this thesis he presents a fascinating assortment of quotations from both Spanish and indigenous sources.

While the form of the argument may be new, it does not seem to differ greatly in substance from discussions of the conquest of Mexico that suggest that Cortés managed to adapt better to the challenges posed by Montezuma’s empire than Montezuma to the challenges posed by Cortés and his Spaniards. Take, for example, their contrasting methods of warfare. Jacques Soustelle wrote many years, ago: “The Spaniards and the Mexicans were not really fighting the same kind of war. On the material plane, they fought with different weapons; on the social and moral, they had totally different concepts of war.”1 A convention of warfare in which the principal object is to capture rather than to kill the enemy, in order to provide victims for sacrifice, gave obvious advantages to the Spaniards, who regarded the killing of the enemy as a fundamental object of fighting battles.

While the invaders enjoyed the initial advantage of surprise, there was much to perplex them in the new world of Mesoamerica that was unfolding before their eyes; but whether in warfare or in political maneuver their success does indeed seem to suggest that they made more sense of what was going on in the midst of confusion than did their opponents. To use Todorov’s terminology, they read the signs better. This in turn enabled them to adjust to new situations or, alternatively, to manipulate the signs to their own benefit. But this pushes us back to the much more difficult question of why this should have been so.

Here Todorov advances an argument that seems to me to need more substantiation than he gives it. The Spaniards, he tells us, were “more ‘advanced’ than the Aztecs (or to generalize: societies possessing writing are more advanced than societies without writing).” Literacy, in fact, becomes a critical element, and perhaps the critical element, in the encounter of civilizations. But are we really entitled to say of the Spain and Mexico that came face to face for the first time in 1519 that one was a “literate” society and the other was not? On the one hand we have the conquistadores, many of whom were unable to read or write. I do not know of any analysis of the literacy rate among the followers of Cortés, but according to James Lockhart, 76 of Pizarro’s 168 “men of Cajamarca” were almost certainly functioning literates, 41 were not, and nothing is known of the remaining 51.2 Among this particular group of men, the literacy rate seems to be higher than that of the society from which they came. The upper levels of Spanish society were literate, the middle levels partly so (perhaps a third to a half), the lower levels hardly at all.

If Spanish society was not all that literate, was Mexican society really a society without writing? Conrad and Demarest have a nice quotation from a sixteenth-century Mexican source which certainly gives one pause:

Those who observe the codices, those who recite them.
Those who noisily turn the pages of the illustrated manuscripts.
Those who have possession of the black and red ink and that which is pictured;
they lead us, they guide us, they tell us the way.

The quotation would not be totally inappropriate if applied to the priests and bureaucrats of sixteenth-century Spain. Against this, Todorov would argue, however, that “stylized drawings, the pictograms used among the Aztecs, are not a lesser degree of writing: they note the experience, not the language.” The conclusion follows that “since writing cannot assume the role of memory support, speech must do so”; and, as a result, the priests, with their mastery of ritual discourse, control a society which, by virtue of their mastery, is “past-oriented” and “tradition-dominated.”

Yet these very epithets could be, and frequently are, used of Spanish society in this same period. But even granting for the purposes of the argument that the Aztecs were more tradition-oriented than the Spaniards, a case that rests on the assumption of a sharp dichotomy between oral and written cultures poses obvious problems. The history of the Andean civilization of the Incas, who lacked even Mesoamerican pictograms, suggests that writing is hardly a sine qua non for sophisticated rational thinking. But, if I understand him aright, it is not rational thought that Todorov finds lacking in the Aztecs, but lack of the capacity for improvisation. “Masters in the art of ritual discourse, the Indians are inadequate in a situation requiring improvisation, and this is precisely the situation of the conquest.” Against them must be set that arch-improviser, Hernán Cortés, the product of a literate society.


Does a mastery of ritual discourse, however, really inhibit improvisation? The skill of the Aztecs in rewriting their history to suit their own convenience suggests that the arts of improvisation were hardly alien to them. Moreover, once the first shock of surprise was over, there are plenty of instances of adaptive capacity among the indigenous peoples of America as they battled with the Spaniards. Cuauhtemoc himself, Montezuma’s successor, fought back with skill and cunning. May there not perhaps be other, and more convincing, explanations for Cortés’s triumph over Montezuma?

One possibility, which should not be automatically discounted just because it happens to be unfashionable, is that a great deal turned in 1519 on the accident of personality. Anyone who follows in detail the maneuvers of Cortés during the period of the conquest is likely to come away with the impression that he is studying not just a superb military leader, but also a political genius. Confronted on every side by the alien and the incomprehensible, he displays an almost uncanny skill in dealing simultaneously with Montezuma and with his own superiors in the Caribbean and in Spain. Todorov sees this as an example of the “modernity” that distinguishes him from an essentially “medieval” Columbus; but Cortés stands out among his contemporaries as a man with a supreme confidence in his own destiny, and a quite remarkable ability to size up a situation and respond with a prompt decision.

Montezuma, on the other hand, appears hesitant and indecisive, even to the point of exasperating his own subjects when they looked to him for leadership. What we cannot know about this shadowy figure is whether this reflects his own temperament, or is a result, as Todorov suggests, of an incapacity inherent in the nature of the society over which he presides to cope with a situation outside the bounds of its experience. Montezuma’s apparently craven response to the coming of the Spaniards has frequently been explained by his supposed identification of Cortés with Quetzalcoatl, the god who would one day return from the east to resume his rule of the Mexica. But, as Todorov himself accepts, there are grounds for suspecting that this is no more than a postconquest fabrication designed to explain the apparently inexplicable. A less spectacular, but perfectly “rational” explanation for his behavior—an explanation which Todorov does not mention—is that, in receiving Cortés in Tenochtitlan, Montezuma was guided by a standard practice which accorded immunity to ambassadors.3

We shall never really understand Montezuma’s motivation—the puzzle has too many missing pieces. A wise and learned man, he was reacting to a wholly novel challenge in ways that conformed perfectly to the expectations and responses dictated by the mental universe in which he operated. This is Todorov’s point. But I would argue that Cortés was no less perplexed than his opponent, and read the signs no better. He, too, responded to the novelty of the challenge in ways that conformed to the workings of his own mental universe; but, as luck would have it, he found himself in a situation in which his behavior patterns worked to his advantage, while those of Montezuma became a liability. Specifically, Cortés own political difficulties with his immediate superior, the governor of Cuba, made it essential for him to portray Mexico in his written reports as an independent empire. Somehow he had to engineer the transfer of this empire directly to the Emperor Charles V, bypassing his enemy, the governor of Cuba, who would claim that the mainland of Central America properly fell within his own area of jurisdiction.

The need to represent himself as the direct personal agent of Charles V dictated Cortés strategy. At all costs he had to reach Montezuma, as the sole source of authority, and induce him, by fair means or foul, to make a formal submission of his sovereignty to another emperor thousands of miles away. The capture of Montezuma, and the “voluntary” transfer of his empire, therefore became Cortés’s supreme objective. It would be hard to think of a crazier strategy when one considers that in the ritualized hierarchical society of the Mexica it was forbidden to commoner subjects to look upon their emperor, and still less lay hands upon him. But its very craziness helped ensure its success. The sheer unthinkability of laying hands on Montezuma made his seizure possible.

If this interpretation is correct, Cortés’s undoubted gift for improvisation was a less important element in his success than his tenacious pursuit, for his own political purposes, of a strategy that made absolute sense to a man reared in a world wedded to legalistic formulas of power and sovereignty, and no sense at all to his Mexican opponents. It was a stroke of luck that this strategy was applied in the one region of Mesoamerica where it had a real chance of success. Against the Mayas, with their fragmented political units, it would have served no purpose. But against the Aztecs, with their system of authority concentrated in the person of an almost deified tlatoani, it worked to perfection. In removing the head of the Aztec imperial structure, Cortés left it powerless.

Where Todorov ascribes the triumph of Cortés over Montezuma to his “mastery of signs,” my own instinct, then, would be to regard this as an encounter at long distance between two intelligent but baffled adversaries, each carefully collecting and sifting the clues, until one of them finds to his surprise that he has the magic combination that miraculously opens the lock. But this remains a matter of guesswork and personal interpretation, and it concerns only the confrontation of Cortés and Montezuma, and not the wider confrontation of Spaniards and Aztecs. Here, if Todorov’s thesis of the superiority conferred by literacy does not carry conviction as an explanation of the Spaniards’ success, I am more persuaded by another argument which he advances but fails to develop.

This argument, which is not a new one, is concerned with the differing conceptions of time held by the two societies. For the Christians, time was essentially linear—“an infinite progression,” in Todorov’s words, “toward the final victory of the Christian spirit.” For the Aztecs, time was cyclical. “Because of their cyclical conception of time,” Conrad and Demarest write in Religion and Empire, “Mesoamerican peoples would project events backward to create a mythical precedent in an invented or distorted account of earlier times. Conversely, their histories would often mold more recent events into the structure of earlier occurrences or reversed legends.” This made for confusion and unreliability in their codices. More importantly, it also made for a fatalism which can rapidly undermine confidence once things begin to go wrong. Omens and portents heralded a disaster already inscribed in the books. There could be no escape from the anger of the gods.

But why should the gods have been angry with the Mexica at the moment of the Spaniards’ arrival? Here we must address ourselves to the question of “imperial cosmology,” which is excellently discussed by Conrad and Demarest. Their book, although full of vigorous debate, is perhaps too much a book with a mission for the general reader. Much time and energy are devoted to castigating fellow anthropologists and archaeologists for their narrow materialist interpretations of the process of cultural evolution, and the history of the Aztec and Inca empires are used as test cases to prove the importance of ideology in promoting cultural change. Presumably the lesson was needed, although it will hardly come as news to historians who are steadily recovering from their own bad bout of reductionist sclerosis. In any event, it enables the authors to provide valuable if compressed accounts of the rise and fall of the two great pre-Columbian empires in terms of their ideologies.

These ideologies are described as religious. Inca ideology was based on a tradition of formalized ancestor worship, Aztec ideology on a solar cosmology of human sacrifice. Conrad and Demarest’s discussion of the rise of the Aztecs reveals them as a people skilled in the manipulation of symbols. But they also effectively describe how the very successes of the Aztecs sowed the seeds of future disaster. The relentless pressure toward limitless conquest in order to provide captives for sacrifice was basically unsuited to the formation of a stable political structure which would guarantee continuing Aztec dominance over Mesoamerica. This was the dilemma that confronted Montezuma on his succession, and that he seemed unable to resolve.

At this point Conrad and Demarest become as determinist as those whom they attack. “It was impossible to convert the Mexica imperial system to a stable state without destroying the fundamental values which held that system together…. Thus Montezuma II’s attempts to prevent the empire from marching on toward disaster were doomed from the start.” Perhaps. But other empires, like that of the Ottomans, suffered from a comparable dilemma, and yet succeeded in making the transition. It may be that the central tenet of Aztec ideology—the need for human sacrifice—was such as to make impossible any transformation that would not have wrecked the system. But this is something we shall never know. The arrival of Cortés abruptly terminated Montezuma’s reformist experiments.

Those experiments resulted in defeats and fewer captives for sacrifice, and therefore angered the gods; and, as Todorov points out, the gods were ominously silent on the arrival of the Spaniards. It was a silence that itself spoke volumes. In the words of Diego Durán, that wonderful sixteenth-century recorder of the vanishing world of the Aztecs: “they had no further answer from their oracles; then they regarded the gods as mute or as dead.” The death of the gods entailed the defeat and destruction of their people.

It was these vanquished, leaderless, and demoralized people whom a handful of sixteenth-century Spanish friars sought to understand, in order to win their conversion to faith in a single God. Todorov looks in turn at the most famous among them—Las Casas, Durán, Sahagún—in an attempt to examine the way in which they approached that intractable problem of the Other. His analysis, based on close critical scrutiny of their writings, displays his skills at their best. These are texts that have been examined and discussed by generations of scholars, but Todorov brings to them a critical eye and a freshness of approach that often enable him to make new and revealing points. He is perceptive, for instance, on Durán as the representative of a hybridization of cultures; and even the jaded topic of the polemic between Las Casas and Sepúlveda acquires new life in his hands as he seeks to show how and why the portrait of the Indians drawn by Las Casas, who knew them so well, was in some respects poorer than that of Sepúlveda, who had never crossed the Atlantic.

Against this, however, must be set a number of passages about communication and otherness that derive from some personal vision that is likely to remain obscure to those who move in different worlds. Of the encounter of the Indians with the Spaniards, for example, he writes: “This victory from which we all derive, Europeans and Americans both, delivers as well a terrible blow to our capacity to feel in harmony with the world, to belong to a preestablished order.” This seems to me closer to mysticism than to history. But then, Mr. Todorov has specifically stated that his main interest is less a historian’s than a moralist’s.

How, then, are we to judge this singular excursion into a realm previously occupied by more mundane scholars—by historians and those reductionist anthropologists who receive such short shrift from Messrs. Conrad and Demarest? By turns perceptive and exasperating, Mr. Todorov has at least forced us to look again at the extraordinary story of the first encounter of Europeans and Americans. Much of what he says has, I believe, already been said by others using less fashionable terminology, but it is none the worse for that. Where he strikes out with an original argument about literate versus oral societies he leaves this reader, at least, unconvinced. Yet at the same time his very persistence in concentrating upon the problem of communication as the central problem in the encounter of civilizations suggests that there is work awaiting us all before 1992. As his own best pages make clear, it is work that involves a rather old-fashioned activity, an examination of the texts.

This Issue

July 19, 1984