[Jan Van der Straet: Amerigo Vespucci meets America

Versions of South America in English Literature
from Aphra Behn to the Present Day


John Mackenzie Ross

Ph D
University of Edinburgh

This blogsite presents a - very slightly updated - version of my PhD thesis, written while I was studying at the University of Edinburgh between 1986 and 1990. It also includes, as appendices, a few published articles which I carved - with certain revisions and modifications - out of the body of the thesis between 1988 and 1995. You can find some general reflections on the experience of working on it here.

For the moment, though, all I want to say is that if you're intrigued by the idea that there might be a region of the mind called "South America" which co-exists - in the European imagination, at any rate - with the actual geographical entity, then this set of essays could be of interest to you. I attempt to substantiate the existence of a set of tropes repeated from writer to writer (many of whom had never visited or even seriously studied any Latin American countries or peoples), then go on to try to provide a kind of conceptual map of this phantom "South America."

Clearly the same reasoning could be applied to a lot of other imaginary or semi-imaginary worlds of romance, and I guess my intention was always that this thesis might provide a template or blueprint for just such a set of comparative studies. Ambitious, no?

Anyway, check it out and let me know what you think.

- Jack Ross, Mairangi Bay, 22 July 2009

[Antonio Ruíz: El sueño de la Malinche
[Malinche's Dream] (1939)]



[Diego Rivera: La Civilización Tarasca]

Rather than being an account of 'South Americanism' to echo Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), this study of books about South America in English literature attempts to make the critical and methodological distinctions which would be essential to such an account. Its examination of the geography of the 'South America' of the European imagination therefore begins by using Roland Barthes' model – from Mythologies (1957) – of sinité as the clichéd popular stereotype of China, la Chine, in order to differentiate the physical reality of the South American continent from the literary worlds which have been promulgated under that title.

The textual strategies adopted to sustain (or subvert) these 'mythological' assumptions in a number of representative works – ranging in era from Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688) to Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), and in genre from Darwin's Journal of Researches (1839) to Conrad's Nostromo (1904) – are then detailed. Authors are examined individually, in terms of their cultural and generic context, but each book has also been chosen to contribute to an overall picture of methods of presenting the 'alien' in Western writing. To this end, authors such as W. H. Hudson, John Masefield, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, and Elizabeth Bishop are contrasted with analogous Latin American writers – D. F. Sarmiento, Alejo Carpentier, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Euclides da Cunha.

In the final analysis, this is a study of the various ways in which the words 'South America' can act as the ideological or meaning-giving centre of a text. It is therefore not surprising that only the letter of the works under discussion – their own conception of this relationship – is found to be adequate to the complexity of the mimetic problems raised as a result.

[José Clemente Orozco: Cortes and Malinche]


Acknowledgments &c.

[Diego Rivera: La Civilización Tarasca (1950)]

Table of Contents:



General Preface
  1. ‘South Americanism’
  2. Orientalism
    • The Invention of America
    • (Partial) Precedents
  3. Methodology

  1. Introduction:
    Mythologies of South America
    1. Theoretical Models
      • Roland Barthes
    2. The New World
      • Paradise
      • El Dorado
    3. The Gaucho
      • Machismo
      • Carnival

  2. Part 1: Exploration

  3. Behn and the Discoverers
    1. Saussure
    2. Synchronic Section
      • Columbus
      • Montaigne
    3. Oroonoko
      • Conventional Elements
      • Innovation – Subversion

  4. Part 2: Historians and Naturalists

  5. Darwin and the Naturalists
    1. L'invitation au Voyage
    2. The Brazilian Forest
    3. The Voyage of the Beagle
      • Gauchos and Indians
      • The Cordillera

  6. Graham and the Historians
    1. Antonio Conselheiro
    2. The Historians
      • Euclides da Cunha
      • R. B. Cunninghame Graham
      • Mario Vargas Llosa
    3. Conclusion – Ideas of South America

  7. Part 3: Romance

  8. Hudson and the Pastoral
    1. Questions of Genre
    2. Themes and Images
      • Fiction – Non-Fiction
      • South America – England
    3. Green Mansions

  9. Conrad and 'Costaguana'
    1. Landscapes of Romance
      • Critical Modes
      • Seven Examples
    2. Three South Americas
    3. Nostromo

  10. Masefield and the Quest
    1. Sard Harker
      • Mimicry
      • Peculiarities of Character
      • Landscapes
      • Small Town Paranoia
    2. Tenor
    3. Vehicle

  11. Part 4: Translation

  12. Bishop and 'Helena Morley'
    1. Translation
      • The Nature of the Artefact
      • Walter Benjamin
    2. Nightingale Fever
    3. Minha Vida de Menina
      • Society
      • Politics

  13. Conclusion:
    The Idea of the Post-modern
    1. Southern Gothic
    2. The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann
      • The City Under Siege
      • The Mansion of Midnight
      • The River People
      • The Acrobats of Desire
      • The Erotic Traveller
      • The Coast of Africa
      • Lost in Nebulous Time
      • The Castle
    3. Conclusion

  1. Select Bibliography of Primary Sources
    • European
    • Latin American
  2. Select Bibliography of Secondary Sources

  1. Imaginary Countries in South America

  2. English Fictions about South America

[Pollock Halls of Residence (Edinburgh)]


To my supervisor, Mr. Colin Manlove, for much acute criticism.

To my long-suffering readers, Jackie-Anne Jensen and K. M. Ross, for devotion beyond the call of duty.

To Gus Maclean, prince of booksellers, and the class he so consummately embodies.

And finally, to my parents, without whom this stay in Edinburgh would not have been possible at all.


I hereby certify that this thesis was composed by myself, and is entirely my own work.


A Companion Volume to the thesis, in three parts - a 'Chronology of Europe in South America', a 'Chronology of Latin American literature', and a series of bibliographies and discussions of 'South America in Popular Culture' – exists, and may be consulted on application to the author.

[Maldición del malinche]


Companion Volume

Table of Contents:

  1. A Chronology of Europe in South America
    1. Major Authors
    2. Secondary Authors
    3. Chronology
      • Bibliography

  2. A Chronology of Latin American Literature
    1. Major Authors
    2. Secondary Authors
    3. Chronology
      • Bibliography

  3. South America in Popular Culture
    1. Film
    2. Television
      • Abstract
      • List of Programs
      • Bibliography
    3. Visual and Performing Arts
      • Reviews
      • José Donoso: A Seminar
      • List of Events
      • Bibliography
    4. Cartoon
      • Abstract
      • List of Cartoons
      • Bibliography
    5. Travel
      • Abstract
      • List of Books
    6. Popular Fiction
      • Abstract
      • List of Books
    7. The South-West
      • Abstract
      • List of Films
      • List of Books

  1. Theoretical Preface (September 1988)
  2. Reference Guide (March 1988-October 1989)

  • Select Bibliography of Secondary Sources

[Edward Said: Orientalism (1978)]


General Preface

[Diego Rivera: La Civilización Totonac (1950)]


'South Americanism'

In Journeys through the Labyrinth, his recent ‘interpretive history of the Latin American novel in the twentieth century’ (Martin, 1989, p. xi), Gerald Martin remarks, almost as an aside:

One Hundred Years of Solitude, the first Latin American novel ever to achieve international best-seller status apparently on its own terms, raises the question of what those foreign – especially Anglo-American – readers saw in the book, and whether there is not some need for a book on 'South Americanism' to match Edward Said's book on Orientalism. America has acted as Utopia or as Exotic Other ever since it was discovered. and as a combination of natural paradise and political fantasy since the nineteenth century. (Martin, 1989, pp.224-25)

This thesis. I hasten to add, is not intended to be that book – but it does, perhaps, represent some of the groundwork which would be necessary for such a study. Certainly it attempts to examine many of the questions raised by Martin here and at other points in his rather labyrinthine argument.

Why, for example, are Anglo-American readers especially' attracted by what he calls elsewhere 'the tropical "Greeneland" of heat, vultures and hopelessness’ (p.292)? Is it, as he claims, simply because the stereotyped Latin America' associated with such a 'caricatured "magical realist" style',

allows such readers both to enjoy the voluptuous delights of barbaric Otherness whilst satisfying the inherent sense of cultural superioritv and ethnocentric attitudes that go with an ex-colonial mentality. (Martin, 1989, p.313)

Quoted in isolation, this rather programmatic answer may seem to verge on self-parody, but to take it thus would not do justice to the difficulties of Martin's position. His task is, after all precisely not to become entangled in questions of the image of Latin America in European tradition – 'Latin Americans need to discover their identities before they decide to discard them' (Martin, 1989, p.366). In terms of the alternate study which he himself envisages, though, such an answer raises as many questions as it solves. Why do the 'voluptuous delights of barbaric Otherness' as laid out in (mis)readings of One Hundred Years of Solitude appeal more to Anglo-Americans than, for example, the French? Neither the English nor the French ever had a colonial presence in Latin America to compare with that established by them in Africa or the Middle East – also fruitful sources of 'barbaric Otherness' in literature. Is it, then, to be ascribed to a difference in temperament between the two nations – the fact that, as Martin puts it, 'what the British persist in calling "South" America was actually "Latin" (p.142), and therefore more 'Exotic' and 'Other' to Anglo-Saxons than to their fellow Latins, the French and Spanish?

These are large questions, and somewhat beyond the scope of a literary inquiry such as this; but they do at least indicate the possible ramifications that such an interrogation of some of the classic gringo texts about South America entails. ('South' rather than 'Latin' – pace Martin – because the geographical division of Panama understandably appeals more to outside commentators, whose acquaintance with the region may be confined to books and maps, than the somewhat intangible cultural divide between Ibero and Anglo-America). They also explain why this study is being conducted under the aegis of a Department of English, rather than Hispanic Studies or even Comparative Literature. A number of Latin American works are cited and discussed in the text, but it is in terms of their influence on Western writers and theorists, rather than in their own right as contributions to their indigenous culture(s).[1] What interests me, for the purposes of this study, is therefore the distortion rather than the truth, the inappropriate rather than the appropriate contextualization, the misreading rather than the 'correct' interpretation. It is easy enough (and undoubtedly necessary) to see Western images of Latin America as the rubble of an exploded 'colonial mentality', but it seems to me perhaps more fruitful to attempt to introduce some finer distinctions into our picture of the assimilation of an alien environment into our own literary culture. Martin's emphasis on the 'nineteenth century' may also be seen, in these terms, to be more the result of his own expectations of Imperialist backlash than the actual intellectual genealogy of such iconographic representations.

To make my own position in relation to these 'post-colonial' questions somewhat clearer. it might be best for me to abandon the rather generalized tone of these opening remarks and lapse into autobiography. The history of my work on this topic is that of a series of false starts – false starts each with something significant about it – and it may therefore be useful to say a little about these dead ends in order to explain the course I have finally taken.

I began with the discovery, while reading John Masefield's novels Sard Harker (1924) and Odtaa (1926), that there was something identifiably 'South American' not only about their setting, the imaginary Caribbean republic of Santa Barbara, but also about the kinds of action described – revolutions, bandits speaking a strange argot, canyons filled with blood. It was a landscape made familiar by American Westerns and the 'magic realism' of García Márquez and his colleagues as much as by boys' Romances about Cortés, Drake, and the Spanish Main. If that had been all, one might have been tempted to write it off as a clichéd European view of New World peoples and landscapes, but there was something in it that was more cerebral, as well. For Masefield, it seemed to be operating as a kind of country of the mind – a metaphysical stage where certain realities of life could be highlighted without the distraction of quotidian detail.

My conclusion was that a distinction could legitimately be made between these two things: the geographical South America. a part of Latin America with its own characteristic landscapes and peoples: and the literary 'South America', constructed in European writing and thought over the last five hundred years – overlapping, but not at all identical with the former. I therefore began, in a paper entitled 'John Masefield's South America'[2], by looking for themes or factors in Masefield's treatment of South America which could be paralleled in the works of other imaginative writers - among them Conrad, Aphra Behn, W. H. Hudson, as well as Latin Americans such as García Márquez, Pablo Neruda and Octavia Paz. And (in retrospect, inevitably) I found them. I found, for example, an interesting continuity in these writers' treatment of women as idealized figures of South America - Hudson's Rima, the spirit of the forests in Green Mansions (1904), can be matched against Conrad's 'beautiful Antonia' in Nostromo (Conrad, 1986, p.33), for whose sake the geographical division of the 'Occidental Province' Sulaco from Costaguana is accomplished by her lover Decoud; or, for that matter, with Pablo Neruda's picture of the continent as a woman:

Amada de los rios, combatida
par agua azul y gotas trasparentes,
como un arbol de venas es tu espectro
de diosa oscura que muerde manzanas

(Neruda, 1983, p.16)

'Beloved of the rivers, beset
by azure water and transparent drops
like a tree of veins your spectre
of dark goddess biting apples'
(Neruda, 1970, p.173)

There was nothing in all this, however, or in the other threads of 'quest imagery' and 'the imaginary country' (which I also discussed), which gave me a clue to the essential 'South American-ness' of Masefield's inspiration - beyond the fact that all of the writers treated had reimagined South America in their own image. The identification of women with countries, and of their bodies with physical details of topography was obviously a generic theme of Romance[3], and could not per se characterize the spirit of a particular place. The problem I was attempting to solve could be expressed in terms of the question: Could the atmosphere of South America in literature be distinguished from that of other alien environments such as Africa, South-East Asia or the Pacific? And, in terms of the critical methodology which I was employing, the answer appeared to be 'no'.

My next task became, therefore, the search for a theoretical model which would allow me to put such a question more effectively. I found this in Roland Barthes' book Mythologies (1957) and (specifically) in a distinction made by subsequent critics, including Paul de Man[4], between 'mythological' (i.e. naive) and 'fictional' (sophisticated and subversive) employments of the same set of motifs. My way forward now became clear - first, to isolate some representative 'myths' of South America to match the clichéd views of China described by Barthes (1982, pp.191-247), and then to give an account of their systematic elaboration in various works of 'fiction' (in the above, specialized sense).

The mythological paradigm is, however, essentially a truism. It is useful as a way of characterizing common perceptions of a place, and such notions can undoubtedly be seen to function in any artistic portrayal of that place, but it turns simply into another catalogue of defining elements if used as one's sole method of analysis for those works themselves. The problem can be illustrated by the fact that mythologies, as presumed constants, cannot be used to differentiate between Latin American and European portrayals of the same continent - or, indeed, to discover if such a distinction is in fact justified. Also, the elements of imagined versions of South America - godlike/ beastlike natives; welcoming/ forbidding mountains, rivers and plains; forests of 'incense-bearing trees'[5] - would inevitably be found to recur in descriptions of any of the other 'alien' regions listed above. Since the particularity of my project depended on making just such a distinction, I felt that the essence of a literary 'South America' must lie somewhere else.

My third start, then, consisted of an examination of the different approaches of a series of individual authors to 'South America' as the ideological centre of the works, fictional or non-fictional, for which they chose that setting (bearing in mind the inevitable ambiguity of such a term). In order to cover as many aspects as possible, I identified each of them with a particular generic approach to the problem of re-imagining or re-creating a place - historiography, travel-writing, the novel, the Romance, even the act of translation itself. This had the advantage of finally getting away from the idea of 'South America' as an amalgam of particular sets of things: curare, condors, castanets - the Amazon, the Pampa, the Andes - Indians, gauchos, and rubber-barons. It also provided a vehicle for talking about the various contingent ways in which the words 'South America' can establish a meaning for themselves.

Its disadvantage as a model, however - besides its diffuse character - was the essentially static readings it provided. I attempted to examine different treatments from a number of different angles; but without an ideological thread to connect them, this promoted a confused and finally unhelpful approach to the problem of the true nature of literary 'South American-ness' with which we started ­- Masefield becoming just another example, instead of the key.

So, to summarize, of the three approaches tried by me,

  1. The first looked at some of the common features of Romance to be found in treatments of South America.
    • The advantage of this was that these features were undoubtedly there to be found; but the disadvantage was the lack of any specific connection to South America as a quality.

  2. The second employed Barthes' 'mythological' model.
    • The advantage of this was its success in classifying some important structural features of the popular view of South America; but the disadvantage was that a mere list of features was not much help in analyzing the specific strategies of 'fictionalizers'.

  3. The third took a series of authors and studied their individual approaches to the problem of making a 'South America' in their own image.
    • The advantage of this was that it finally dispensed with the list of things allegedly characteristic of South America; but the disadvantage was that it was static and unprogressive by nature, which promoted confusion.

At this point it became essential to ask whether the problem lay on a level deeper than that of methodology. Martin, Barthes, and Said do, after all, share a strong sense of the political purpose of their theoretical paradigms - indeed, it might well be that a quest such as my own for the significance of the Latin American equivalent of chinoiserie is in itself an ideologically insensitive one, given the current social and economic turmoil in the region (undoubtedly to some extent the result of such pre-digested notions of a backward and picturesque South America). It might be seen as helping to perpetuate misunderstandings, rather than clearing them up.

Let us then examine the question a little differently, by looking at some other approaches to the same or similar problems of definition (which must, after all, bulk large in the thinking of anyone concerned with the general field of cultural relations between Europe and the developing world - whether during the era of colonialism, or in the present day).

[Edward Said: Orientalism (1978)]



one must repeatedly ask oneself whether what matters in Orientalism is the general group of ideas overriding the mass of material - about which who could deny that they were shot through with doctrines of European superiority, various kinds of racism, imperialism, and the like, dogmatic views of 'the Oriental' as a kind of ideal and unchanging abstraction? - or the much more varied work produced by almost uncountable individual writers, whom one would take up as individual instances of authors dealing with the Orient. (Said, 1985, p.8)

This statement from Edward Said's influential book on the Western concept of 'Orientalism' as a branch of study puts the methodological difficulties which stand in the way of such an inquiry with impressive candour. As he acknowledges, and as few of those who have followed in his footsteps since Orientalism appeared in 1978 have cared to admit, the choice which must always be made is whether it is the overriding assumptions and cultural codes of each text which are to be teased out, or whether each individual author's 'orientation' with regard to this set of attitudes should be examined separately. Nor is the question purely a matter of emphasis. As Said comments towards the end of his book:

Islam has been fundamentally misrepresented in the West - [but] the real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer. (Said, 1985, p.272)

It is a familiar device of rhetoric to imagine the two opposing sides of an argument as representing two absolute poles of meaning. Said, here, counters criticism of his own interpretations of interpreters (just as historically contingent as their own, presumably), by seeing such critiques as amounting to ideological relativism. Since no debate is possible without some fixed points of reference, he therefore sets up an oblique justification for his own political 'decoding' of three centuries of Western thought. He quotes with approval R. W. Southern's 'demonstration that it is finally Western ignorance which becomes more refined and complex, not some body of positive Western knowledge which increases in size and accuracy" (62), but fails to explain how such a seemingly immutable process can be corrected by simply documenting such distortions. 'Ignorance' surely only exists in contradistinction to 'knowledge' - and unless one has some stable ground on which to found one's claim to possess the latter, argument becomes simply an exchange of words based on the personal interests of those involved.

Islam has been fundamentally misrepresented in the West, as Said says, but the question that remains is whether the kind of ideological overview which he has so brilliantly achieved in Orientalism is the best intellectual counter to this misrepresentation. In one sense, of course, it is - as everyone now has a list at their fingertips of 'Eurocentric' distortions of the Other; but it is surely naive to imagine that this represents a new way of thinking, emancipated from the past. 'Orientals', Indians, South Americans, can be as securely patronized from within a context of post-colonial guilt as they ever were by Imperialists. As Said puts it:

It is perfectly natural for the human mind to resist the assault on it of untreated strangeness: therefore cultures have always been inclined to impose complete transformations on other cultures, receiving these other cultures not as they are but as, for the benefit of the receiver, they ought to be. (Said, 1985, p.67)

The important thing, therefore, is to be self-conscious about the ways in which these mechanisms operate in oneself - and, by extension, in the culture of which one forms a part.

Said's position is a carefully thought-out one, and he does not lightly set aside such issues. Some more recent books, however, show the dangers of simply aping his conclusions without studying the method of his text. Rana Kabbani's Europe's Myths of Orient (1986), for example, reduces the history of Western relations with the East to a kind of comic-strip, awaiting the services of a textual critic before such a tissue of falsehoods can be evaporated. A classic example of her methods can be found in the following statement about 'seraglios':

These descriptions [of seraglios) were a self-perpetuating topos, repeated and copied again and again since they corresponded exactly to Western expectations. (Kabbani, 1986, p.18)

So, in other words, Westerners knew what they expected of seraglios, and repeated descriptions of them because they satisfied such expectations. But how could the first descriptions have been composed according to these 'expectations', since the West needed to read the descriptions before they could 'repeat and copy' them because of their fidelity to the aforementioned pre-conceived views? It is an argument in a circle, but it is more than that. The reason why Kabbani's statement comes to grief is because she never makes any attempt to distinguish between the reality of the East and the iconography built up around it by the West. She assumes that any Western description must consist entirely of the latter, and therefore spares herself the trouble of finding out anything first-hand about, say, seraglios. In this she imagines herself to be following Said, who says that the evidence for such 'representations' of the Orient, 'is found just as prominently in the so-called truthful text (histories, philological analyses, political treatises) as in the avowedly artistic (i.e., openly imaginative) text':

The things to look at are style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances, nor the correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original. (Said, 1985, p.21)

Kabbani takes this to mean that one need only look for 'style, figures of speech, setting .. .' etc. in any text chosen for study, and that the 'correctness of the representation' is irrelevant. In fact, of course, what Said is saying is not that 'seraglios' (for example) exist solely as a 'self-perpetuating topos' - but that the way in which they are described is a fruitful source of information on larger attitudes towards the East. For Kabbani, it is enough that they are described at all; for Said, the actual terms of each description are significant.

The source of dispute can be found stated again in Patrick Brantlinger's book Rule of Darkness (1988) - about Imperialism in nineteenth century British writing. He specifies at the outset:

Among some critics there is an evident desire to downplay politics altogether; my own view is closer to Fredric Jameson's, He contends [in The Political Unconscious (1981)] that 'the political perspective' is ... more than a mere 'supplementary method ... auxiliary to other interpretive methods current today'; such a perspective is rather 'the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation.'

and continues:

This is true not because class consciousness or economic forces 'determine' in some absolute, one-dimensional manner the ideas and values expressed in literature but simply because literature is inevitably social: it is written in society, by social beings, addressed to other social beings (Brantlinger, 1988, p.10).

The 'argument from absolutes' identified earlier with regard to Said is seen here in its most virulent form. 'Politics' is identified (as usual) with a particular view of politics - 'class-consciousness [and] economic forces' - but, lest the evident absurdity of anyone claiming to be able to disentangle such forces from such a limited set of data be recognized, he goes on to identify this fact with the other 'fact' that 'literature is inevitably social: it is written in society ... '. A truism is thus used to reinforce a polemical view by making alternative points-of-view seem to deny the validity of the truism. Criticism is, indeed, always 'political' - and writing is written in society - but it does not follow that the criticism that best acknowledges this is that whose methodology most insists on charting 'class consciousness and economic forces' (i.e. the symbolic terminology of Marxism).

Returning to the central question under discussion, the proper methodology for treating Western views of South America - and its two concomitant branches: how to distinguish such views from other generalized views of the 'alien'; and whether the 'South America' of imaginative authors like Masefield should in fact be equated with the South America of geography - it is clear that many of these questions have already been faced by Said. He himself acknowledges, however, in the quotation at the head of this section, that an ideologized 'political' perspective cannot be adopted without the loss of a power to discriminate between specific individuals' employment of 'South Americanism' (to reiterate Martin's original term). Studies like Kabbani's show the danger of such an abdication, while the difficulties of a political absolutism are pointed up by the contradictions inherent in Brantlinger's position (despite the cogency of many of his readings).

In short, then, despite my basic agreement with many of Said's points (the 'evidence' to be gleaned from the 'so~called truthful' text; his twin methods of 'strategic location' and 'strategic formation'[6]; and the distinctions he makes between the West and other cultures, 'To the Westerner ... the Oriental was always like some aspect of the West' (Said, 1985, p.67), I feel that his method has many of the defects of my 'Romance' classification of South America. It depends on a preconceived intellectual model for its ordering (in the one case, genre theory, in the other, post-colonial politics), and is unspecific in its approach to the nature of the places described. In Said's case, given the fact that his subject is the extension of the 'Orient' to cover a myriad of diverse cultures and experiences, this is quite pardonable - indeed, practically inevitable. A similar analysis of 'South Americanism', however, could not be as specific to its equivalent of, in V. G. Kiernan's phrase: 'Europe's collective day-dream of the Orient' (Said, 1985, p.52).

[H. Marion Palmer: Donald Duck sees South America (1945)]

The Invention of America

The answer to our problem now becomes clear: the fault that lies at the root of the entire history of the idea of the discovery of America consists in assuming that the lump of cosmic matter which we now know as the American continent has always been that, when actually it only became that when such a meaning was given to it, and will cease to be that when. by virtue of some change in the current world concept, that meaning will no longer be assigned to it. (O'Gorman, 1961, p.42)

Having examined one possible approach to the problem of characterizing the European literary construct 'South America', it is now necessary to look at another important branch of theory associated with the subject. By and large, there are two major lines of approach to this question of the 'invention of America' which have to be distinguished. On the one hand, we have a series of Latin American perspectives - beginning with the book by Edmundo O'Gorman cited above and continued by Gabriel García Márquez (1982), Carlos Fuentes (1987), and Mario Vargas Llosa (1987). The endeavour here is essentially to distinguish the reality of contemporary Latin America from the fiction of America created by Columbus and other theorists of his 'discovery'. As Vargas Llosa puts it:

In the eighteenth century, in France, the name of Peru rang with a golden echo, and an expression was then born 'ce n'est pas le Pérou' - which is used when something is not as rich and extraordinary as its legendary name suggests. Well, 'Le Pérou, ce n'est pas le Pérou'. It never was, at least for the great part of its inhabitants, that fabulous country of legends and fictions (Vargas Llosa, 1987, 15).

The other approach is what might be called the 'Anglo-American' one, beginning, again, with O'Gorman's lectures at the University of Indiana, and continued in a series of diverse studies by R. W. B. Lewis (1955 - a study of the' Adamic ideal' of the 'authentic American as a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentialities. poised at the start of a new history' (p.l)), Hugh Honour (1975 - an English art historian's view of how Europeans have tended 'to see in America an idealized or distorted image of their own countries. onto which they could project their own aspirations and fears' (p.3)), and Peter Conrad (1980 - an Australian cultural critic's account of a set of English literary visitors' 're-inventions' of America).

To this short list one could undoubtedly add a myriad of other names - D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), Stefan Zweig's Brazil, Land of the Future (1942), Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques (1955), P. Rayner Banham's Scenes in America Deserta (1982), Jean Baudrillard's Amérique (1986); even films like Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984), or Percy Adlon's Bagdad Cafe (1988) - but the few that I have mentioned can be taken to represent a certain scholarly concensus.

O'Gorman's argument (it seems best to begin with him) hinges on an essentialist notion of the nature of 'contemporary thought'. He claims that Columbus is enshrined as the 'discoverer' of America rather than its 'inventor' because of a philosophical fallacy - the idea 'that the lump of cosmic matter which we now know as the American continent has always been that'. Columbus could not have discovered it, as he had not yet conceptualized it. He concludes his ingenious demonstration by stating that it is this very process of invention which constitutes America's importance in world history:

It was the Spanish part of the invention of America that liberated Western man from the fetters of a prison-like conception of his physical world, and it was the English part that liberated him from subordination to a Europe-centered conception of his historical world. (O'Gorman, 1961, p.145)

This rather naive view of the beneficent nature of first Spanish and then American expansionism - fruit of an absolutist and idealist conception of historical progress - is corrected by Carlos Fuentes, in his own parallel summation of the mythological status of America in European thought:

This is America. It is a continent. It is big. It is a place discovered to make the world larger. In it live noble savages. Their time is the Golden Age. America was invented for people to be happy in. You cannot be unhappy in America. It is a sin to have tragedy in America, There is no need for unhappiness in America. America does not need to conquer anything. It is too vast. America is its own frontier. America is its own utopia.

And America is a name. (Fuentes, 1987, p.3)

Within its own context - a study of the 'mythical history' of America as recorded and parodied in García Márquez's Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] (1967) - Fuentes' logic is unassailable. Latin Americans must combat European 'fictions' of their identity in order to survive; and literature, rather than historiography, is the most appropriate arena in which to do so.

Our Anglo-American theorists, however, have a much less urgent brief ­hence their easy acceptance of the term 'America' as denoting simultaneously the United States and the two continents of North and South America. It is not that the books which I have mentioned do not contain a good deal of valuable analysis of the ways in which America has acted as a distorting mirror - part Utopia, part Dystopia - for the European mind; it is just that their authors do not appear to think it necessary to distinguish effectively between this imaginary America and the reality of its inhabitants' lives. Conrad, Honour, and (to a lesser extent) Lewis talk happily of the fact that 'When a European sets out on his first journey to America he knows, or thinks he knows, not only where he is going but what he will find when he arrives. So did Columbus' (Honour, 1975, p.3).[7] But if these imaginations are always fallacious, would it not be better to speak of a self-perpetuating 'New World' myth than of a series of travelogues centred around a single fixed America?

My own position as a New Zealander, writing as a commentator on European views of South America, forbids me to adopt either the 'engaged' perspective of a native Latin American or the cultural security of this dominant Anglo-American tradition. I observe with interest, therefore, these two intellectual genealogies of the idea of 'America' (with a tinge more respect for the Latin American view), but neither offers me a methodology which can be honestly sustained by so marginalized a critic.

But am I simply protesting too much? Is there really a problem here on the scale I have implied? To answer these questions, let us look at some studies which have attempted something more along the lines of my own inquiry.

[Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (1947)]

(Partial) Precedents

This is ultimately how the Mexican setting functions in these novels, as an infernal paradise, a dualistic image which conflates all of the horrors and hopes that constitute the spiritual lives of the four protagonists. (Walker, 1978, p.24)

The 'four protagonists' in question are the heroes of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (1940), D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent (1926), Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza (1936), and Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1947), all set in Mexico, and collectively the subject of Ronald Walker's Infernal Paradise: Mexico and the Modern English Novel (1978). The similarity to my own topic is at once striking, and it will therefore be interesting to examine some of the theoretical assumptions to be found in Walker's work.

there are important images in each work that tend to localize the quest for rebirth and give it a clearer focus. My discussions of the novels trace the use of three such images - blood, border, and barranca - which gradually become identified with the most compelling forces, at the heart of Mexican existence as seen by the English novelists. (Walker, 1978, p.25)

Essentially, then, Walker's is an inventory method of criticism - along the lines of my Romance and Mythological characterizations of South America - and with the attendant disadvantages of 1/ lack of specificity to Mexico, and 2/ the difficulty of demonstrating a more than coincidental accord in the employment of these 'images' in the works under discussion.

Walker's is, in any case, a largely documentary account. He traces (most interestingly) the movements of each author around Mexico, and looks at the travel books and notes devoted by each of them to the region before attempting a reading of their novels. The three 'images' become, as a result, more of a structuring device for traditional close readings than a theoretical statement about the nature of 'Mexico' as a European construct. Indeed, many of the claims he makes in passing would seem impossibly naive if they did not actually depend on such an established set of conventions of interpretation.

For instance:

Whether presenting impressions of the native character, landscape or politics ... or simply describing the author's travel experiences ­the best travel writing is generally characterized by subjectivity, by a deliberate focus on the author's state of mind as affected by the strange surroundings. (p.11)

Or else:

This is one of the important insights offered by the generic border experience recorded in Another Mexico [American title of Greene's The Lawless Roads (1939)]. The progressive stages ­looking across, crossing, looking back, then recrossing, and finally looking back from the familiar side to the unfamiliar - disclose, in the end, the fundamental cyclicity of experience in all regions. (Walker, 1978, p.197)

The question is, are such statements only problematic in my terms? In what sense is Walker's a study of Mexico if the experience of border crossing (one of his three 'b's') is 'cyclic' in all regions? One can see the justice of doing a reading of a series of novels which happen to be set in Mexico, and examining how they influenced one another - even of pointing out some features of Mexico ('death', borders, 'blood', barrancas[8]) which appear in all of them - but is this not a study of the 'Modern English Novel in Mexico' rather than 'Mexico in the Modern English Novel'? For the latter, one presumes, some discussion of the relationship between European and Latin American paradigms of 'Mexico' would be required.

A far more limited and therefore less helpful, though perhaps ultimately more successful study is Colin Steele's English lnterpreters of the Iberian New World from Purchas to Stevens: A Bibliographical Study (1975), All that Steele feels able to conclude after an exhaustive listing of seventeenth century translations of Spanish and Portuguese books about the New World is, 'Ironically therefore it took nearly all of the period 1603 to 1726 [the bounds of his study] for a return to the intellectual standards and discipline of Richard Hakluyt (1975, p.282). This is honest, if unexciting, but not much help for formulating larger terms of comparison between the two cultures - something which Walker at least attempts. Eventually, though, the latter leaves Malcolm Lowry to ask the larger question: 'But what is the secret of the attraction, one might say the almost teleological psychic attraction, of Mexico?'; and himself concludes:

The answers to these questions, like so many things pertaining to Lowry's life and personality, are elusive. (Walker, 1978, p.282)

A more fruitful attempt to codify the relations between Mexico and Europe is to be found in Octavio Paz's classic El laberinto de la soledad (1950). A selection of phrases from the essays included in this account of 'Vida y pensamiento de México' will show the extent to which Paz has reflected on precisely this subject.

mientras los españoles se complacen en la blasfemia y la escatología, nosotros nos especializamos en la crueldad y el sadismo. El español es simple: insulta a Dios porque cree en él. (Paz, 1988, p.70)

['while the Spaniards enjoy using blasphemy and scatology, we specialize in cruelty and sadism. The Spaniard is simple: he insults God because he believes in Him.' (Paz, 1985, p.69)]

La novedad de las nuevas naciones hispanoamericanas es engañosa; en verdad se trata de sociedades en decadencia o en forzada inmovilidad, supervivencias y fragmentos de un todo deshecho. (Paz, 1988, p.110)

['The newness of the new Spanish-American nations is deceptive: in reality they were decadent or static societies, fragments and survivals of a shattered whole.' (Paz, 1985, p.113)]

[Leopoldo] Zea afirma que, hasta hace poco, América fue el monólogo de Europa, una de las formas históricas en que encarnó su pensamiento; hoy ese monólogo tiende a convertirse en diálogo. Un diálogo que no es puramente intelectual sino social, político y vital. (Paz, 1988, p.152)

['Zea declares that until recently America was Europe's monologue, one of the historical forms in which its thought was embodied. Lately, however. this monologue has become a dialogue, one that is not purely intellectual but is also social and political.' (Paz, 1985, p.159)]

Paz sees the relationship between Spain and Mexico as a dynamic one - based at first, of course, on the latter's being a fragment 'de un todo deshecho', but in the process of becoming a dialogue between mutually dependent cultural systems. The contrast between 'blasphemy' on the one hand and 'sadism' on the other may denote, as he suggests, the residues of eschatological belief on the European side ­but it also shows the extent to which Spanish America provides a malign echo of Spanish baroque in the colonial period, Enlightenment thought after the Liberation, and now multi-national capitalism. As he puts it elsewhere ­Liberalism 'Afirma al hombre pero ignora una mitad del hombre: ésa que se expresa en los mitos, la comunión, el festín, el sueño, el erotismo' (Paz, 1988, p.115) ['championed man but ignored a half of his nature. that which is expressed in communion, myths, festivals, dreams, eroticism.' (Paz, 1985, p.119)] In other words, it is precisely the Utopian tradition of European thought about Latin America which has denied it its right to be human. Being seen successively as Earthly Paradise, Federation of free Democracies, and haven for the Western debt mountain makes a hard legacy to disown.

A creditable, but far more limited attempt to allow the continent its own voice on such questions of identity is to be found in Harriet de Onís' anthology The Golden Land (1948), which she describes as 'a theory illustrated by an anthology' (de Onís, 1948, p.vii).[9] In the following summary of the 'theory', one detects the unspoken assumptions of Western liberal thought, but also an honest attempt at allowing the other partner in the dialogue at least equal space:

For a long time, in the course of my readings in the field of Latin American literature. I had been struck by the way certain themes. certain attitudes. kept repeating themselves throughout the different phases of its development. Particularly impressive is the Antaeus quality about Latin American writers: their strength is proportionate to their union with their own earth. Keyserling has spoken of the telluric force of South America, how man is dominated by the earth, the landscape. to the point of becoming an integral part of it. Tradition plays an equally powerful role. (de Onís, 1948, p.vii)

[t is perhaps partly the date of de Onís' work - during the period (roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s) of the 'regional' or 'telluric' novelists - which misleads her, but the terms of her statement say quite a lot. The authority of Europe (Count Keyserling) and of classical tradition (Antaeus) are employed to define the 'South American' - note how the term changes from 'Latin American' further up, when speaking of their literature - as someone 'dominated by the ... landscape' and by 'tradition'. From my point of view, however, the most disappointing thing is her proposal to illustrate how 'certain themes, certain attitudes' keep repeating themselves in this writing. We have returned to the concept of the inventory - or, in other words. to the pitfalls of my 'Romance' classification of South America.

Numerous other works remain to be examined, but I imagine I have said enough to illustrate the difficulties of devising a critical methodology to deal with the question of South American identity without being in either the clear position of a native Latin American or a critic tacitly assenting to the ethnocentric dogmas of traditional Western scholarship. As Bell Gale Chevigny and Gari Laguardia put it in the preface to their recent collection of essays, Reinventing the Americas

Conceived in the Old World, the New World may be said to have been written in advance, and then rewritten in the chronicles of discovery, conquest, and settlement. (Chevigny & Laguardia, 1986, p.vii)

Despite their attention to modern gender studies and the politicized context of 'post-Said' criticism their work achieves little theoretical advance in this respect on its Anglo-American predecessors.

[Abraham Ortelius: Typus Orbis Terrarum (1570)]



The most obvious response to the previous section's rather polemical attempt to show the theoretical gap remaining in the field of 'South American' studies would be to challenge the present author to do better. One reply to such an ultimatum would be to acknowledge that many of the books which I have discussed - Ronald Walker's, Harriet de Onis's, Colin Steele's - are not even attempting to deal with these particular critical issues. Nevertheless, pointing out this failure even to see an issue to be addressed seems to me as important as trying to provide a panacea singlehanded.

I would therefore summarize the lessons learnt from this process as follows:

  1. In the absence of a contingent cultural position, such as that of a native Latin American (or a Palestinian, in the semi-parallel case of Said's strictures on 'Orientalism'), it is important to avoid simply echoing the cultural certainties of a dominant critical ideology.

  2. The obvious alternative to this would appear to be the political dogmatism of a Brantlinger or Kabbani, but the danger here is forfeiting the ability to make intelligent distinctions between the achievement of individual texts.

My conclusion, almost inevitably, is a compromise among the various alternatives presented. From Said, I have adopted something resembling his system of 'strategic location' (the general 'laws' of representation of South America, as codified in Barthes' mythological model), and 'strategic formation' (the relationship between a particular text and its cultural and generic positioning). While I continue to accept de Man's idea (adapted originally from Claude Lévi-Strauss) of the distinction between myths and already 'demystified' 11ctions, I have modified my original use of it into an essentially progressive view of the build-up of information within a single study - moving from mythological sub-stratum, to the generic and historical context of each work, and finally to the individual stratagems employed by that work in its attempt to re-create a 'South America' resembling the complexity of the actual South America.

We therefore go from:

  • The Utopian! Dystopian nature of the myths of discovery in Aphra Behn;

  • the 'factual' discourse of a travelling Naturalist in Charles Darwin;

  • the narrative shaping of historiography in R. B. Cunninghame Graham;

  • to a working model of the distinction between fictional and non-fictional
    prose in W. H. Hudson;

  • thence to the creation of imaginary countries in fiction in Joseph Conrad;

  • to South American quest landscapes in John Masefield;

  • to translation from one cultural context to another in Elizabeth Bishop;

and finally to the subversiveness of post-modern genre theory in Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972).

My standards of judgement remain personal and eclectic - reflecting my own historical and cultural subjectivity (the extent to which Latin America's economic and ideological subjection to North America resembles the culturally marginal position of New Zealand vis-à-vis Australia and Great Britain, for example) - but they are at least on record. And, since my subject is not South America but 'South America' - not so much a place or even a mental space but a form of words which acts (at least in terms of my analysis) as the ideological centre for each of the books under discussion - it is doubtful whether anyone is better qualified to speak of it than a deracinated European, brought up on images of snow and ice and London weather in a land of rainforest and continual sunshine.

It remains only to say, therefore, that the dependence on textual commentary as a form of argument which will have been apparent even in this preface is not accidental. I highlight short extracts from each work because they represent for me the principal way in which literary criticism can claim for itself a field independent of that of the history of ideas. A false stability is perhaps implied by such close attention to the exact forms of words and phrases, but this may serve also to represent my distrust of any dependence on larger sets of generalizations when treating so inherently unstable a subject.

Of the two questions discussed earlier - the implied distinction between 'South America' and the physical South America; and the ways in which this 'South America' can be distinguished from the 'Africa', 'South-East Asia' and 'Polynesia' of the European imagination - it will by now have become apparent that one cannot be treated independently of the other. Said remarks that it is 'perfectly natural for the human mind to resist the assault on it of untreated strangeness', and one might add to this that the imaginative ingredients of such 'transformations' are both limited in number and extremely malleable in character. 'South America', then, is not so much the sum of a particular set of motifs or topoi, as of particular arrangements to fit diverse circumstances. So Caliban and the 'noble savage' are not so much South American myths - though both were inspired by reports of the customs of New World Indians - as myths with certain applications in South America. This answer to the conundrum may seem still to be a trifle tentative, but for more details, you will have to read on.

[Lopo Homem: Brazil (1519)]

1. Since this is a line which is easier to draw in theory than in practice, I make a point of citing any texts which are particularly concentrated upon both in the original and in translation (that is, with the exception of works in Portuguese, owing to my ignorance of that language).

2. Delivered as a Departmental Seminar to the English Department of Auckland University on June 19, 1986.

3. Note the omnipresent 'apples' even in Neruda's allegedly indigenous imagery. Gerald Martin quotes a remark by Julio Cortázar to the effect that 'the female as "Eve" (woman of flesh and blood rather than ideal projection) arrived late in Latin American literature ... her first appearance was ... in Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924)'. (Martin, 1989, p.370).

4. 'But the fiction is not myth. for it knows and names itself as fiction. It is not a demystification. it is demystified from the start.' (de Man, 1983, p.18).

5. A conceit to be be found in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (Behn, 1915, V: pp.125-208), as well as in Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan').

6. 'strategic location, which is a way of describing the author's position in a text with regard to the Oriental material he writes about, and strategic formation, which is a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and the way in which groups of texts. types of texts, even textual genres. acquire mass, density, and referential power among themselves and ... in the culture at large.' (Said, 1985, p.20).

7. Compare Peter Conrad: 'Before America could be discovered, it had to be imagined. Columbus knew what he hoped to find before he left Europe.' (1980, p.3).

8. Defined by Walker as 'deep gaping ravines cutting into the mountainous terrain.' (1978, p.26).

9. De Onís' work may be taken as broadly representative of other European summaries of Latin American approaches to the question of their own identity. Of these, Gordon Brotherston's Image of the New World: The American Continent Portrayed in Native Texts (1979) should be mentioned, along with the recent 8-part BBC television series Made in Latin America (U.K., 1989).

Works Cited:

  • Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957. Points Civilisation. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1982.

  • Behn, Aphra. "Oroonoko." In The Works of Aphra Behn. Ed. Montague Summers. 6 vols. London and Stratford-on-Avon, 1915. V: 125-208.

  • Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism,
    . Ithaca and London, 1988.

  • Brotherston, Gordon. Image of the New World: The American Continent Portrayed in Native Texts. London, 1979.

  • Chevigny, Bell Gale, & Gari Laguardia, ed. Reinventing the Americas: Comparative Studies of Literature of the United States and Spanish America. Cambridge, 1986.

  • Conrad, Joseph. Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. 1904. Ed. Martin Seymour-Smith. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

  • Conrad, Peter. Imagining America. New York, 1980.

  • de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. London, 1983.

  • de Onís, Harriet, ed. & trans. The Golden Land: An Anthologv of Latin American Folklore in Literature. New York, 1948.

  • Fuentes, Carlos. Gabriel García Márquez and the Invention of America. E. Allison Peers Lectures, 2. Liverpool, 1987.

  • Fuentes, Carlos. "Gabriel García Márquez and the Invention of America". In Myself with Others: Selected Essays. London, 1989. pp.180-95.

  • García Márquez, Gabriel. El olor de la guayaba: Conversaciones can Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza. Barcelona, 1982.

  • García Márquez, Gabriel. The Fragrance of Guava: Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in Conversation with Gabriel García Márquez. Trans. Ann Wright. London, 1983.

  • Honour, Hugh. The New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time. New York, 1975.

  • Hudson, W. H. Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest. 1904. London, 1954.

  • Kabbani, Rana. Europe's Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule. London, 1986.

  • Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago and London, 1955.

  • Martin, Gerald. Journeys through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Critical Studies in Latin American Culture. London: Bloomsbury, l989.

  • Masefield, John. Sard Harker. London: William Heinemann, 1924.

  • Masefield, John. Odtaa. London: William Heinemann, 1926.

  • Neruda, Pablo. Canto general. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983.

  • Neruda, Pablo. Selected Poems. Ed. Nathaniel Tarn. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970.

  • O'Gorman, Edmundo. The Invention of America: An Inquiry into the Historical Nature of the New World and the Meaning of Its History. Bloomington, Indiana: 1961.

  • Paz, 0ctavio. El laberinto de la soledad. 1950. Colección Popular. Mexico, 1988.

  • Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. 1950. Trans. Lysander Kemp. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

  • Steele, Colin. English Interpreters of the Iberian New World from Purchas to Stevens: A Bibliographical Study, 1603-1726. Oxford, 1975.

  • Vargas Llosa, Mario. 'Latin America: Fiction and Reality'. In Modern Latin American Fiction: A Survey. Ed. John King. London, 1987. pp.1-17.

  • Walker, Ronald G. Infernal Paradise: Mexico and the Modern English Novel. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1978.



[Diego Rivera: The Great City of Tenochtitlan (1945)]

Mythologies of South America

[Roland Barthes (1915-1980)]


Theoretical Models

(a) Roland Barthes

There are a number of ways in which one might approach the subject of portrayals of South America in English literature. One possible beginning would be a history of Britain's involvement with the area - the exploration of Guiana, the Scottish Darien scheme, assistance given to the Independence movements during and after the Napoleonic wars - followed by an attempt to link these pragmatic concerns with a tradition of representation.[1] Or, alternatively, one could look at a series of representative novels and 'works of the imagination' and attempt to deduce from them some common traits.[2] Or one could produce a negative definition by examining the ways in which pictures of South America in literature differ from pictures of Africa, India, China, and South-East Asia - those other avatars of 'alienness'.[3]

I do not propose to attempt in detail any of the above, though the project which I shall outline contains something of each of them. One thing is certain: some method of selection must be found to reduce such a potentially overwhelming mound of data to manageable proportions. The first step towards this lies, I feel, in drawing a distinction between the South America of geography and the 'South America' of the imagination. This differentiation is to some extent justified simply by the 'literary' nature of our inquiry; but to explain its implications, I shall be making use of some terms defined by Roland Barthes in his 1957 book Mythologies.

In his essay 'Le mythe, aujourd'hui', Barthes offers the following illustration of the distinction between reality (geographical or otherwise) and myth:

La Chine est une chose. l'idée que pouvait s'en faire il n'y a pas longtemps encore, un petit-bourgeois français en est une autre: pour ce mélange spécial de clochettes, de pousse-pousse et de fumeries d'opium. pas d'autre mot possible que celui de sinité. Ce n'est pas beau? Que l'on se console au moins en reconnaissant que le néologisme conceptuel n'est jamais arbitraire: il est construit sur une règle proponionelle fort sensée. (Barthes, 1982, p.206)

['China is one thing, the idea which a French petit-bourgeois could have of it not so long ago is another: for this peculiar mixture of bells. rickshaws and opium-dens. no other word possible but Sininess. Unlovely? One should at least get some consolation from the fact that conceptual neologisms are never arbitrary: they are built according to a highly sensible proportional rule.' (Barthes, 1987, p.121)]

Three points are worth stressing here. There is a country ('La Chine'), and there is a popular conception of it ('sinité'), It is, however, also essential to note the nature of Barthes' implied observer - un petit-bourgeois français. The first two points certainly fit 'South America' as a region of the mind (one might substitute the tango. curare and condors for Barthes' temple-bells, rickshaws and opium-dens), The third is a little more problematic.

Barthes uses the term 'petit-bourgeois' advisedly, convinced as he is of the political motivations lying behind the condensation and over-simplification of experience into mythological patterns. Sinité, for him, is the bourgeois myth of China, la Chine the reality which must be screened out. In 'Continent perdu', one of the other essays in the same collection, he specifies:

Face à l'étranger, l'Ordre ne connaît que deux conduites qui sont coutes deux de mutilation: ou le reconnaître comme guignol ou le désamorcer comme pur reflet de l'Occident. De toute façon, l'essentiel est de lui ôter son histoire.(Barthes, 1982, p.165)

['Faced with anything foreign, the Established Order knows only two tvpes of behaviour. which are both mutilating: either to acknowledge it as a Punch and Judy show, or to defuse it as a pure reflection of the West. In any case, the main thing is to deprive it of its history.' (Barthes, 1987, p.90)]

This serves to make his political position far clearer. Sinité stands for the essentially ahistorical process of imagining foreign peoples either in one's own image ('pur reflet de l'Occident'), or as a kind of timeless pageant or spectacle ('guignol'), which is indulged in - almost as a function of its being - by 'l'Ordre'.

Of course, the problem still remains whether any imagination of the foreignness of a particular people or region can be exempted from this accusation - even the sensitivity of a Lévi-Strauss in Brazil, or of a Barthes before the Japanese culture of L 'Empire des signes (1970). Nevertheless, whether or not one agrees with Barthes' politics, one can acknowledge his point that the process of mythification is not arbitrary and neither are the forces behind it markedly innocent. For this reason, Barthes favours discourses which emphasize their own stylization and conventions (the language of wrestling, le catch, for instance) as opposed to those which aspire to be regarded as a part of reality. For Barthes, myth is the lowest common denominator of impressions. It falsifies by suppressing contradictions and awkwardnesses that do not fit in with its collective world-view. However:

Si paradoxal que cela puisse paraître, le mythe ne cache rien: sa fonction est de déformer, non de faire disparaître. (Barthes, 1982, p.207)

['However paradoxical it may seem, myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear.' (Barthes, 1987, 121)]

Myths are transparent - but transparently misleading. One inhabits them, as a rule, without knowing they are there. Barthes, however, is convinced of the necessity of recognizing and understanding the nature of a myth before it is possible to step outside its comforting (and reactionary) certainties.

Here the difficulty really begins. Barthes opposes mythological distortions of experience to something called 'reality' which he accepts as an a priori quality, and into whose nature he does not inquire very deeply. So far. no doubt, most of us would be in agreement with him - but this sharp distinction does tend to obscure the fact that the difference between a French petit-bourgeois' and a mandarin intellectual's perception of the complexities of a foreign country is more a matter of degree than of essence. Both must, inevitably, simplify and, as it were, 'mythologize' in order to make sense of the data which they receive. What Barthes turns out to be saying, then, must be seen more as a defence of self-consciousness in the construction and recognition of myths, than an alternative way of thought. Since a wholly unprejudiced eye is an impossibility (such an observer would have to renounce the capacity to interpret - let alone communicate - what he saw), we must accept that it is a matter of degrees of accuracy of perception rather than a simple dichotomy of reality and distortion. And. to do him justice, Barthes largely acknowledges this:

aujourd'hui, pour le moment encore, il n'y a qu'un choix possible. et ce choix ne peut porter que sur deux méthodes également excessives: ou bien poser un réel entièrement perméable à l'histoire, et idéologiser; ou bien, a l'inverse, poser un réel finalement impénetrable, irréductible, et, dans ce cas, poétiser. (Barthes, 1982, p.247)

['there is as yet only one possible choice. and this choice can bear only on two equally extreme methods: either to posit a reality which is entirely permeable to history, and ideologize: or, conversely, to posit a reality which is ultimately impenetrable, irreducible and, in this case, poetize.' (Barthes, 1982, p.158)]

These two models of reality are both compatible with Barthes' mythological hypothesis - but the modes of analysis which they respectively support might be characterized as belonging to the ideologist and the literary critic (as it is clear that 'poésie', here, implies literary artifice itself). The sharp distinction between 'myth' and 'poetry' as subjects of critical discourse should not, however, blind one to the fact that they are essentially two sides of the same coin:

La poésie occupe la position inverse du mythe: le mythe est un système sémiologique qui prétend se dépasser en système factuel; la poésie est un système sémiologique qui prétend se rétracter en système essentiel. (Barthes, 1982, p.220:

['Poetry occupies a position which is the reverse of that of myth: myth is a semiological system which has the pretension of transcending itself into a factual system; poetry is a semiological svstem which has the pretension of contracting into an essential system.' (Barthes, 1987, p.134)]

In other words, 'poetry' (or fiction, as I prefer to call it, for reasons that will shortly become clear) is a system of meaning which aspires to represent reality by laying maximum emphasis on the artifice and fictionality of its own tools, 'Myth', on the other hand, pretends to establish the facts of a situation by excluding all complexities from it.

To explain what this means in practice. it will be necessary to mention some more examples from Barthes' collection of essays. 'Le catch' is a self-conscious myth - one that highlights its own exaggeration of brawling and ,treet-fights - but it is not a fiction. However, to return to Barthes' Chinese example, while the parodic views of China recorded in Ernest Bramah's The Wallet of Kai Lung (1900) are certainly mythological, the book itself is a fiction ­- that is, a piece of writing which is playing on its own nature as writing. Fiction, in this sense, represents a level of language which is aware of the intrinsic paradox of claiming to be about 'not-writing'. It is always conscious of the accepted conventions of representation in any particular field, but it reverses, distorts, or even ironically sustains them in order to convey a more complex picture of things in general. As Paul de Man puts it in his 1971 book Blindness and Insight:

the work of fiction invents fictional subjects to create the illusion of the reality of others. But the fiction is not myth, for it knows and names itself as fiction. It is not a demystification, it is demystified from the start. (de Man, 1983, p.18)

It has always been obvious that writers were influenced by popular myths about the places they describe. What is less obvious is that their descriptions of those places must at least refer to those myths and conventions (even if only to contradict or subvert them) in order to be understood by their audience. Still less obvious - but no less important - is the fact that their writings will be interpreted according to these conventions whether they wish them to be or not. It is therefore a necessary starting-place in our exploration of European views of South America to isolate and describe some of the basic mythologies of the continent before looking at elaborations upon them.

Myths cannot (by definition) be difficult to find. A myth is a common perception - one that many people share. It is enshrined in cliches and proverbs, in popular literature and popular ideas. Barthes emphasizes that they are multiple, pervasive and ephemeral. They are also interlinked in extremely complicated ways (Barthes' principal theoretical innovation was, indeed, not so much the recognition that there were myths, as the application of semiological techniques to anatomize them). He saw them in the hairstyling conventions in Hollywood's Roman epics, in fashionable photography, even in the face of Brigitte Bardot. They are, in short, phenomena of society's surface.

The fact, however, that he so clearly contrasts 'poésie' and 'un réel entierement permeéable à l'histoire' [a reality entirely permeable to history] makes it clear that his primary intention in dealing with myths is to situate apparently 'timeless' ideologies in their contemporary context. He therefore gives examples which are designed to illustrate a number of things simultaneously: First, the inherently distorting quality of those readings and interpretations favoured by 'the Order of Things'; Secondly. the theoretical model of mythologies elaborated by him which allows them to be interpreted according to the laws of the Saussurean sign - on a secondary level of 'signified' and 'signifier'; and, last of all, since he was writing as a journalist, his essays function as parodies of the traditional bourgeois feuilleton.

In the case of South America, on the other hand, one cannot confine oneself entirely to these contemporary analyses. Myth-structures can be descried running through the entire pattern of European perceptions of the continent from the Conquest till now, and it is these which I am interested in charting. I therefore propose to reverse Barthes' expectations, and argue precisely for that model of 'poésie' as a 'système sémiologique qui prétend se rétracter en système essentiel' [a semiological svstem which has the pretension of contracting into an essential system], which he mentions only to dismiss, in order to make sense of such a diachronic as well as synchronic expanse. I shall begin by quoting passages from writers who will occupy us at greater length later in this study, and pointing out some of the tacit assumptions behind their remarks. This must, of course, be restricted mainly to the mythological level - leaving speculation about their fictional role to later chapters.

[Aphra Behn: Oroonoko (1688)]


The New World

(a) Paradise

certainly had his late Majesty, of sacred Memory, but seen and known what a vast and charming World he had been Master of in that Continent, he would never have parted so easily with it to the Dutch. 'Tis a Continent, whose vast Extent was never yet known, and may contain more noble Earth than all the Universe beside; for, they say, it reaches from East to West one Way as far as China, and another to Peru: It affords all Things, both for Beauty and Use; 'tis there eternal Spring, always the very Months of April, May, and June: the Shades are perpetual, the Trees bearing at once all Degrees of Leaves, and Fruit, from blooming Buds to ripe Autumn: Groves of Oranges, Lemons, Citrons, Figs, Nutmegs, and noble Aromaticks, continually bearing their Fragrancies: The Trees appearing all like Nosegays, adorn'd with Flowers of different Kinds; some are all White, some Purple, some Scarlet, some Blue, some Yellow; bearing at the same Time ripe Fruit, and blooming young, or producing every Day new. The very Wood of all these Trees has an intrinsic Value, above common Timber; for they are, when cut, of different Colours, glorious to behold, and bear a Price considerable, to inlay withal. Besides this, they yield rich Balm, and Gums; so that we make our Candles of such an aromatic Substance. as does not only give a sufficient Light, but as they burn, they cast their Perfumes all about. Cedar is the common Firing, and all the Houses are built with it. The very Meat we eat, when set on the Table, if it be native, I mean of the Country, perfumes the Whole Room; especially a little Beast call'd an Armadillo, a Thing which I can liken to nothing so well as a Rhinoceros: 'tis all in white Armour, so jointed, that it moves as well in it, as if it had nothing on: This Beast is about the Bigness of a Pig of six Weeks old. But it were endless to give an Account of all the divers wonderful and strange Things that Country affords, and which we took a great Delight to go in Search of; tho' those Adventures are oftentimes fatal, and at least dangerous (Summers, 1915, V: 178-79).

This passage comes from Oroonoko (1688), a novel by Aphra Behn which I propose to discuss at greater length in the next chapter. For the moment, however, I will confine myself to those aspects of her work which can be used to illustrate some of the basic myths of South America.

The first thing to be noted is the tone of the passage. It is rapturous - the description of an ideal. The 'Continent of Surinam'(Summers, 1915, V: 177) is vast, possibly larger 'than all the Universe beside'. The climate is 'eternal Spring', and the trees afford 'all Things, both for Beauty and Use'. It is not entirely safe, 'those Adventures are oftentimes fatal, and at least dangerous', but 'we fear'd no Harm, nor suffer'd any' (Summers, 1915, V: 179). It reminds one, in short, of nothing so much as Sir John Mandeville's description of the lands around 'Paradise terrestre' - Taprobane, 'the wildernesse wherein groweth the trees of the sonne & the Moone', Pantoroze, and the other 'yles of the land of Prester John', where 'fynde they all marchaundises, & popiniayes, as great plentie as larkes in our countrey' (Bramont, 1928, pp.220, 217, 215, 195, 221 & 197).

Nevertheless, Behn is not simply expressing her delight in the wonders of the new land - there is a clear political purpose in what she says. The book was written in 1688, after the first fervour of the 'scramble for America' had died down; but the other European powers were still looking enviously at Spain and Portugal's possessions in the New World. Both the Dutch and the English were concerned to extend their influence at least over the Caribbean coastline of South America. The fact, then, that a Dutch king had just ascended the throne, driving away the brother of 'his late Majesty, of sacred Memory' gives her remarks about the loss of Surinam to Holland an added point. It is true that she writes more in a spirit of 'ubi sunt' - the lost glories of America, of the Restoration court - than with a politically subversive message, but this is presumably through prudence rather than apathy. In any case, her portrait of America is no less 'valid' for the subtext discernible in what she says.

This is the first point to make about the views of the New World which we shall be discussing. Political, or any other sort of bias, does not disqualify them as examples - on the contrary, it simply makes them easier to disentangle and clarify. A knowledge of why a writer is describing South America is obviously immensely helpful in determining the extent to which they are governed by convention in what they say.

Thus, to turn to one of the first extensive eyewitness accounts of South America in English, Sir Walter Ralegh's Discoverie of Guiana (1596), flattery of a Queen back home can be more important than giving an accurate portrait of the new land:

I made them vnderstand that I was the seruant of a Queene, who was the great Casique of the north, and a virgin, and had more Casiqui vnder her then there were trees in their iland: (Ralegh, 1971, p.15)

Having succeeded in translating the Old World into the terms of the New, he goes on to record the natives' response to this revelation:

I shewed them her maiesties picture which they so admired and honored, as it had beene easie to haue brought them idolatrous thereof. (Ralegh, 1971, p.15)

Obviously this was in the hope of pleasing his patron Elizabeth sufficiently to make her favour his ambitions, but the specific mechanism he employed is most interesting. The fact that the flattery is put in the mouths of 'savages' is apparently held to be enough to make it sound disinterested. What reason, after all, could they possibly have for wanting to praise Queen Elizabeth, whom they had never even heard of before? Ralegh presumably made it all up - but if it was actually true, then it would add immeasurably to the Queen's status. Her face alone was enough to inspire idolatry in those who knew no better. Truly, in this case, ignorance was strength - their remarks, like those of children, were valued because one could suppose them to be sincere. This is indeed the first (and still the foremost) thematic significance of South America - the New World. It is fresh and unsophisticated. Life can be started again without the pressure of precedent on everv action. Mankind, both emigré and indigenous, can be seen in its purest state. Ralegh accordingly concludes:

Guiana is a Countrey that hath yet her Maydenhead, neuer sackt, turned, nor wrought, the face of the earth hath not beene torne, nor the vertue and salt of the soyle spent by manurance, the graues haue not beene opened for gold, the mines not broken with sledges, nor their Images puld down out of their temples. It hath neuer been entred by any armie of strength, and neuer conquered or possesed by any Christian Prince. (Ralegh, 1971, p.73)

This is avowedly an invitation to Englishmen both to take that gold and to settle in this new land (the principal intention of Ralegh's voyage), but Ralegh couches it in terms of a 'New World' myth that would have been familiar to all his readers, and which still survives in various forms today. The strongly sexual content in his image of Guiana as a 'virgin' territory waiting to be entered by Europe is also rather disingenuous. It simultaneously reminds the settlers he is hoping to attract of the charms of the country, and of its guileless inhabitants (both female and male).

To return to Aphra Behn. she has no patroness to placate, nor does she hope to stimulate fresh explorations, but her description, too, is conventionalized to the last degree. I mentioned, above, its resemblance to Mandeville's account of the Earthly Paradise - but probably a better parallel would be with one of the topoi in Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948). Specifically, with the locus amoenus (or 'delightful spot'). This, in Curtius' schema, includes six separate elements: Springs, Plantations, Gardens, Soft breezes, Flowers, and Bird-voices (Curtius, 1979, p.197). Only three of these appear in the description I have quoted above (plantations. gardens and flowers) - but if we turn over a page and come to the account of Behn's own residence in the New World, at 'the best House in it ... call'd St. John's Hill (Summers, 1915, V: 179), we find no fewer than five of the six:

    'the little Waves [of the river] still dashing and washing the Foot of this Rock, made the softest Murmurs and Purlings in the World'

    'a Walk, or Grove, of Orange and Lemon-Trees, about half the Length of the Mall here, whose flowery and Fruit-bearing Branches met at the Top, and hinder'd the Sun'

    'Not all the Gardens of boasted Italy can produce a Shade to out-vie this, which Nature had join'd with Art to render so exceeding fine'

    'the cool Air that came from the River, made it not onlv fit to entertain People in, at all the hottest Hours of the Day, but refresh the sweet Blossoms, and made it always sweet and charming'

    'vast Quantities of different Flowers eternally blowing, and every Day and Hour new'

    She mentions none - only 'Tygers' (Jaguars), Snakes, and electric eels. (Summers, 1915, V: 179-83)

It is not that Aphra Behn is observing the laws of classical description with any conscious intention, She is, after all, included in the ranks of the 'moderns' in Swift's 'Battle of the Books' (1704). The point of this close correspondence with Curti us' prototype is to show the essentially formulaic nature of her perception of this new 'Universe'. It was thought for a long time that Mrs, Behn had never in fact visited Surinam, and that she was merely 'romancing' when she claimed that her father had been designated 'Lieutenant-General of six and thirty Islands, besides the Continent of Surinam' (Summers, 1915, V: 177). Recent research has however shown less reason to doubt her word on this point (Dhuicq, 1979, 524-26), and one may therefore conclude that it is quite likely that she did spend some of her youth in the country. Nevertheless, her description has been shown to have been at least partly lifted from earlier works, among them Warren's An Impartial Description of Surinam of 1667 (Summers, 1915, I: xix). What this shows, above all, is the extent to which she was dependent on textual precedent for her perception of the landscape around her.

Bearing this in mind, a closer look at the passage quoted at the head of this section will betray a quite clear structure in her seemingly spontaneous description. It resolves itself. to use Curtius' model, into seven elements: 1/ Extent, 2/ Season, 3/ Shade, 4/ Trees, 5/ Fragrance, 6/ Value, 7/ Danger. The extent is more 'than all the Universe beside'; the season 'eternal Spring'; Shades are 'perpetual' ('Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a Shade (Pope, 1961, p.77)); and the trees are 'like 'Nosegays', 'continually bearing their Fragrancies'. The timber (and meat) 'if it be native, I mean of the Country' has an 'intrinsic Value' above the common, The 'Adventure' of going in search of these things is 'at least dangerous', but 'we fear'd no Harm, nor suffer'd any'. In short, it 'affords all Things, both for Beauty and Use'.

If we then proceed to link this set of clichés with the cliché 'The New World', we begin to get some inkling of how this particular myth is operating. From at least the time of Amerigo Vespucci, the 'New World' has had a particular symbolic resonance. In terms of traditional Christian theology: God made the World; He made it perfect, in all respects ideal for man (made in His image). It was then corrupted by the Fall. Was the new world fallen, though? A sober view would have to say 'yes', but it could at least provide a symbol of a world unfallen - of an earthly paradise. Thus Indians, in Aphra Behn, are 'like our first Parents before the Fall' and 'represented to me an absolute Idea of the first State of Innocence, before Man knew how to sin' (Summers, 1915, V: 131). Hence the references to Eden, Adam, Paradise, Snakes etc. which distinguish almost all European attempts to come to terms with South America. :'lot that the references are always favourable ones. The idea of South America as Earthly Paradise is one that depends on a train of thought obvious, once it has been formulated, to the European mind. The place itself is thereafter scrutinized to find evidence that conflicts with or supports this extravagant notion. Indians are not perfect, so the notion of them as 'unfallen' is always an easy one to contradict. Mrs. Behn herself treats them with a certain levity later on in her novel, and mentions that:

by the extreme Ignorance and Simplicity of 'em, it were not difficult to establish any unknown or extravagant Religion among them. and to impose any Notions or Fictions upon 'em. (Summers, 1915, V: 186)

The Indians, then, are tried against the idea - not the other way around. They are praised if they match it, and condemned and mocked if they do not. Of course, the idea itself is often scoffed at - but this, in its way, is as effective an acknowledgement of it as any other. Are Indians unfallen or not? Whichever answer you give, you are acknowledging that the question makes sense to you, and that you understand the conventions that it invites you to use in framing your reply.

Once formulated, moreover, a myth with an appeal as universal as this seems to insinuate itself everywhere. Even in Mrs. Behn's time one would have thought it was wearing a little thin. It was, after all, two hundred years after Columbus's arrival. But if anything it appears to have gathered momentum with the passage of time - its great advantage being the ease with which it could evolve to match changing circumstances. For Behn and Montaigne (in his famous essay 'Des Cannibales' (1580)), it was a relief from the artificialities of the Old World, and a chance to castigate them by contrast. Rousseau followed their example, but with a Humanist emphasis on the rectification of Europe by analogy with 'natural' man. For Latin American writers after the wars of independence in the early nineteenth century, the New World myth was an invitation to 'make it new' in a half-literary, half-social sense. Andrés Bello heralded a return to the 'world of Columbus' (Carcciolo-Trejo, 1971, p.395), echoing the spirit of Bolívar's remark:

This country was guided by an instinct that can be called the wisdom of nature itself. There were no known models for its creations, and its doctrines had neither teachers nor examples, so that everything about it was original, and as pure as the inspiration that comes from on high. (Leonard, 1968, p.7)

Even in this century, five hundred years after the Discovery (or Conquest), Jorge Luis Borges has denounced this attitude as a tiresome affectation. What is strange, though, is that he criticizes it as an innovation:

Llego a una tercera opinion que he leído hace poco sobre los escritores argentinos y la tradición, y que me ha asombrado mucho. Viene a decir que nosotros, los argentinos, estamos desvinculados del pasado; que ha habido como una solución de continuidad entre nosotros y Europa. Según este singular parecer, los argentinos estamos como en los primeros días de la creación; el hecho de buscar temas y procedimientos europeos es una ilusión, un error (Borges, 1985, I: 223).

['I now arrive at a third opinion on Argentine writers and tradition which I have read recently and which has surprised me very much. It says in essence that in Argentina we are cut off from the past, that there has been something like a dissolution of continuity between us and Europe. According to this singular observation, we Argentines find ourselves in a situation like that of the first days of Creation; the search for European themes and devices is an illusion, an error' (Borges, 1979, p.217).

Thus we come full circle. We have already analyzed Aphra Behn's description of Surinam and found it to consist of seven separate elements ­- referring to all the expectations which a European could reasonably be presumed to entertain of a place designated as 'The New World'. Enough space and land for everyone (Extent); temperate weather all year round (Season - Spring); Shade from the sun; Trees for commodities and decoration, natural Fragrance (and spices? - the original motive for these explorations); richness and Value (as defined in Europe - the Old World); and, finally, just enough Danger to make it interesting, but not enough to discourage settlement. The same sort of analysis can now perhaps be applied to the whole 'New World' myth - necessarily with less precision - but hopefully clearly enough to illuminate the broad trends of thought associated with it.

  • NEW WORLD = The Earthly Paradise

  • EARTHLY PARADISE = A Pastoral Arcadia

  • ARCADIA = Innocence

  • INNOCENCE = Innocent people

  • INNOCENTS = Noble Savages

  • NOBLE SAVAGES = Childishness and Children

  • CHILDREN = Childhood

This, of course, is a model of a model. It gives some idea of the associations which combine to make this myth a discrete entity - while mythological analysis, in its turn. is only a device for making sense of innumerable strands of human thought. Nevertheless, despite the fact that none of the transitions are particularly unexpected, they show a progression from the 'New World' to 'Childhood' which might seem a little far-fetched if it were not backed up by our diagram, and the pieces of text which have inspired it.

Freud links childhood to Paradise by emphasizing that all such myths refer to the 'undivided' world of infancy - when satisfaction followed immediately upon desire: the era of 'polymorphous perversity', before the child was taught to postpone fulfilment of its wishes. This. then, is the golden age before the Fall. The concept of 'mythologies of South America' is. however, designed precisely to enable us to discuss the links between such ideas without adopting this or any other 'explanation' of their origins. Freud's seems to me quite a cogent view, but to subscribe to his model would falsify the essentially documentary nature of this study. I am, that is, more of a geographer than a genealogist of ideas. I do not attempt to understand or 'account for' South America - but simply to examine and classify earlier understandings and representations.

We have as yet, though, examined only half of the 'New World' myth as revealed in the works of Aphra Behn.

[The Golden Man]

(b) El Dorado

As we were coming up again, we met with some Indians of strange Aspects: that is, of a larger Size, and other sort of Features, than those of our Country ... [who] told us, they had been coming from the Mountains so many Moons as there were Knots [in their 'Cotton String']: they were habited in Skins of a strange Beast, and brought along with 'em Bags of Gold-Dust; ... and offer'd to be the Convoy to any Body, or Persons, that would go to the Mountains ... And because all the Country was mad to be going on this Golden Adventure, the Governor, by his Letters, commanded (for they sent some of the Gold to him) that a Guard should be set at the Mouth of the River of Amazons (a River so call'd, almost as broad as the River of Thames) and prohibited all People from going up that River, it conducting to those Mountains or Gold. (Summers, 1915, V: 188-89)

In this passage, a little further on in Oroonoko, Behn meets some strange Indians: 'that is, of a larger Size, and other sort of Features, than those of our Country'. They use knots instead of writing, like the Incas, and come from 'Mountains' which can onlv be reached by a long river journey (Behn's ignorance of the true dimensions of the Amazon - 'almost as broad as the River of Thames' - is amusing, but not significant; she had, after all, never been anywhere near it). They also bear with them 'Bags of Gold-Dust', and the temptation they present is so irresistible that the Governor is forced to set a guard to prevent people from following them.

All this, of course, refers to the legend of EI Dorado - the gilded man - which, according to Sir Clements Markham, 'probably originated in a custom which prevailed amongst the civilized Indians of the plateau of Bogota':

When the chief of Guatavita was independent, he made a solemn sacrifice every year ... On the day appointed the chief smeared his body with turpentine, and then rolled in gold dust. Thus gilded and resplendent, he entered the canoe, surrounded by his nobles, whilst an immense multitude of people, with music and songs, crowded round the shores of the lake. Having reached the centre, the chief deposited his offerings of gold, emeralds, and other precious things, and then jumped in himself, to bathe. At this moment the surrounding hills echoed with the applause of the people; and. when the religious ceremony concluded, the dancing, singing, and drinking began.
- Descubrimienco de la Nueva Granada,
por el Coronel J. Acosta
(Simon, 1861, p.ii).

News of this, which began to reach the Spanish in the 1540's, focussed their originally more generalized greed for gold and slaves onto a single objective. The city or empire of which El Dorado was said to be ruler was generally assumed to be the last surviving offshoot of the Inca empire (hence the 'Knots' in Aphra Behn - Inca quipu strings). It was also associated with the 'Temple of the Sun' discovered by George of Spiers in 1538, and identified with the tribe of the Omaguas by Philip van Huten in 1544. At first variously located in Amazonia and Bogotá, it gradually shifted eastwards as more and more of these vast new territories were explored - finally coming to rest in the Sierra of Guiana towards the end of the sixteenth century (details from Ralegh, 1971, pp. xlv-xcv). There it became the 'Manoa' of Antonio de Berrio and Sir Walter Ralegh.

This myth has often been seen as in some sense a 'punishment' for the indiscriminate greed of Europeans, since, as Presbyter Suarez remarks, 'the Indians ... to escape torment, invented all manner of stories of El Dorado' (Ralegh, 1971, p.li). Disregarding this teleological interpretation, one can still see the importance of Suarez' remark for our purposes, as it implies very strongly that the idea of immense wealth lost in the jungle predates the specific circumstantial framework which was found for it.

The last two sections of Mrs. Behn's 'Earthly Paradise' description were not very adequately accounted for in our previous reading: the 'Price considerable' borne by the various pieces of flora and fauna described, and the danger of the journeys in search of them. They certainly serve to heighten aesthetically the sense of wonder evoked by 'my America! my new-found-land' (Donne, 1971, p.107), but they are not really represented in the table which we compiled. Behn goes on to give a long and circumstantial account of a 'tyger' hunt, which again does not match the picture of a world where the lion lies down with the lamb.

If, however, we take a slightly different slant from our cliché 'The New World', we find that this too can be included. What, after all, does one do with a new world? Alexander lamented having no more worlds to conquer - Cecil Rhodes lamented having no time left to conquer them ('there is your hinterland'), To Shakespeare's Miranda (or John Donne), a new world is a place to wonder at: '0 brave new world! That has such people in't! [Tempest, V, 1, 186-87] (Shakespeare, 1986, p.1338). To their contemporary Ralegh (and his predecessors the Conquistadors) it was a place to conquer and rule - a source of wealth and power. Money is most easily comprehensible in terms of gold, and power in terms of slaves - and both were readily available in the 'New World' of South America. I would therefore propose a pattern much as follows (along the lines of the associations of ideas recorded in the last section - but still recognizably a 'New World' topos):

  • NEW WORLD = Conquest

  • CONQUEST = Power (slaves) / Wealth (gold)

  • GOLD & SLAVES = Golden Indians

  • GOLDEN INDIANS = El Dorado

  • EL DORADO = A Lost city

This is the sort of thinking that inspired both the earliest chroniclers of South America (Hernán Cortés, Bernal Díaz, and other writer-conquistadors), and their successors - Ralegh, Fray Simon, and Aphra Behn. It is a blend of the strictly historical with the mythological. America was a new world - it must contain gold and slaves, New worlds, since Alexander, were well known to do so. Cortés and Pizarro had applied such a model to their new and alien surroundings and found it adequate. Vague stories of 'golden cities' in the hinterland had led them to Tenochtitlán and Cuzco. The myth of El Dorado, by contrast, seems if anything to have thrived upon failure. Not only did new expeditions continue to search for the 'golden man' even after the failure of Ralegh - but each new writer tried to descry the 'truth' of the matter, postulating the usual panoply of lost tribes of Israel, colonists from Atlantis, and offshoots from Ancient Egypt to supplement the original notion of a sister-empire to the Incas. Aphra Behn, as we have seen above, simply repeats the main lines of the story - carefully including all the major elements (the Inca origins, the gold, even the mountains - the few clues which the searchers believed themselves to possess).

'El Dorado' thus came to have another set of associations as well - associations bound up with the very difficulty of the quest for the city of the 'gilded man'. The terrain which the searchers had to traverse was as difficult as any in the world (few of the early expeditions had lost less than half their men ­and some had been wiped out altogether).[4] El Dorado had therefore become a symbol of the unattainable and inaccessible - and was accordingly associated thematically with the impenetrable undergrowth of the South American rainforest, the swollen immensity of its rivers, and the sheer faces of its mountains. A further paradigm therefore projects itself from the last:

  • LOST CITY = Lost, hidden

  • LOST, HIDDEN = Impenetrable forests / Impassable mountains / Unbridgeable rivers / Unbounded plains

  • FOREST = Matto Grosso, Darien

  • MOUNTAINS = The Andes, the Cordillera

  • RIVERS = Amazon, Orinoco

  • PLAINS = Pampas, Llanos

Our series of 'searchers for El Dorado' can therefore continue up to the present day and include archaeologists like Hiram Bingham (discoverer of Macchu Picchu), Stephens and Catherwood (explorers of the lost and overgrown cities of the Maya), and Colonel Percy Fawcett, whose search for a 'lost city' In the Matto Grosso ended in tragedy in the 1920s.

In literature, one should cite Romances of 'lost cities' (like John Masefield's Lost Endeavour (1910), but also the numerous works which hinge on the meaningless immensity of Amazonia and other jungle regions (Waugh's A Handful of Dust (1934), for example - or Werner Herzog's film Aguirre der Zorn Gottes [Aguirre Wrath of God](1972)). The hero of W, H, Hudson's Green Mansions (1904) retains a vague sense that he stumbled through the streets of Manoa in delirium after the death of his beloved Rima - and this half-recollection is perhaps as sensitive an employment as any.

The mythological associations of this view of 'South America' do not, however, end there.


The Gaucho

(a) Machismo

General Rosas is also a perfect horseman - an accomplishment of no smaU consequence in a country where an assembled army elected its general by the following trial: A troop of unbroken horses being driven into a corral, were let out through a gateway, above which was a cross-bar; it was agreed whoever should drop from the bar on one of these wild animals, as it rushed out, and should be able, without saddle or bridle, not only to ride it, but also to bring it back to the door of the corral. should be their generaL The person who succeeded was accordingly elected; and doubtless made a fit general for such an army. This extraordinary feat has also been performed by Rosas. (Darwin, 1891, p.53)

I mentioned 'unbounded plains' in the last section - and it is true that Doré's picture of the quest for El Dorado shows a group of knights lost on an illimitable desert - however the usual association of ideas equates the search for gold (or lost civilizations) with mountains, rivers, and trees. The plains have their own mythology, bound up principally with the charismatic figure of the gaucho.

The quotation above, from Darwin's Journal of Researches (1839), refers to his encounter with Juan Manuel Rosas, later dictator of Argentina, and at that time engaged in the extermination of all the Indians in the country. Despite the slightly patronizing air in his remarks, one can sense Darwin's real admiration for Rosas and his gauchos. He says, in fact, a little earlier: 'There is high enjoyment in the independence of the Gaucho life - to be able at any moment to pull up your horse, and say, "Here we will pass the night"' (Darwin, 1891, p.50). The first words, then, to be associated with the idea of the gaucho are freedom and independence. He represents the masculine ideal of having no ties and no domestic encumbrances. The gaucho is the man alone, the adventurer with only his faithful horse for company.

Perhaps the best summary of the gaucho lifestyle comes from Colonel Sarmiento's book Facundo: Civilación y Barbarie (1845). He describes their education as follows:

Los niños ejercitan sus fuerzas y se adiestran por placer en el manejo del lazo y de las boleadoras, con que molestan y persiguen sin descanso a las temeras y cabras; ... más tarde, y cuando ya son fuertes, recorren los campos cayendo y levantando, rodando a designio en las vizcacheras, salvando precipios y adiestrándose en el manejo del caballo; cuando la pubertad asoma, se consagran a domar potros salvajes y la muerte es el castigo menor que les aguarda, si un momenta les faltan las fuerzas o el coraje. Con la juventud primera viene la completa independencia y la desocupación. (Sarmiento, 1981, p.4l)

['The boys exercise their strength and amuse themselves by gaining skill in the use of the lasso and the bolas, with which they constantly harass and pursue the calves and goats ... When they become stronger, they race over the country, falling off their horses and getting up again, tumbling on purpose into rabbit burrows, scrambling over precipices. and practicing feats of horsemanship. On reaching puberty, they take to breaking wild colts, and death is the least penalty that awaits them if their strength or courage fails them for a moment. With early manhood comes complete independence and idleness.' (Sarmiento, 1961, 37)]

Emphasizing this last point of 'desocupación', Sarmiento specifies that 'todas las ocupaciones domésticas, todas las industrias caseras, las ejerce la mujer; sobre ella pesa casi todo el trabajo: y gracias si algunos hombres se dedican a cultivar un poco de maíz para el alimento de la familia' (Sarmiento, 1981, p.41) ['All domestic occupations are performed by women; on them rests the burden of all the labor, and it is an exceptional favor when some of the men undertake the cultivation of a little maize' (Sarmiento, 1961, 37)]. Sarmiento was Argentinian, though too much of a town-dweller to be a gaucho himself - Darwin points out that the term actually means 'countrymen' (1891, p.112), and one can already see a certain nostalgia and idealization creeping into his account:

¿Cuanto no habrá podido contribuir a la independencia de una parte de la America la arrogancia de estos gauchos argentinos que nada han visto bajo el sol mejor que ellos, ni el hombre sabio ni el poderoso? El europeo es para ellos el último de todos, porque no resiste a un par de corcovos del caballo. (Sarmiento, 1981, p.42)

['To what extent may not the independence of that part of America be due to the arrogance of these Argentine gauchos. who have never seen anything beneath the sun superior to themselves in wisdom or in power? The European is in their eyes the most contemptible of all men. for a horse gets the better of him in a couple of plunges.' (Sarmiento, 1961, 38)]

The questionable political equation of the 'independencia' of gaucho life with the 'independencia' of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata is made even more suspect when the discussion turns to the poetry of the plains. We begin to see the authoritarian outlines of the gaucho myth taking full, mystical form:

¿qué impresiones ha de dejar en el habitante de la República Argentina el simple acto de clavar los ojos en el horizonte, y ver ..., no ver nada? Porque cuanto más hunde los ojos en aquel horizonte incierto, vaporoso, indefinido, más se aleja, más los fascina, lo confunde y lo sume en la contemplación y la duda. (Sarmiento, 1981, p.45)

['what impressions must be made upon the inhabitant of the Argentine Republic by the simple act of fixing his eyes upon the horizon, and seeing nothing? - for the deeper his gaze sinks into that shifting, hazy, undefined horizon, the further it withdraws from him, the more it fascinates and confuses him, and plunges him in contemplation and doubt.' (Sarmiento, 1961, p.41)]

To freedom and independence, then, we must add an element of existential doubt - a world where one's very identity begins to shift, and where the only meaning is confined to action. Sarmiento continues:

¿Dónde termina aquel mundo que quiere en vano penetrar? ¡No lo sabe! ¿Qué hay más allá de lo que ve? La soledad, el peligro, el salvaje, la muerte. He aquí ya la poesía. El hombre que se mueve en estas escenas se siente asaltado de temores e incertidumbres fantásticas, de sueños que lo preocupan despierto. (Sarmiento, 1981, p.45)

['What is the end of that world which he vainly seeks to penetrate? He knows not! What is there beyond what he sees? The wilderness, danger, the savage, death! Here is poetry already; he who moves among such scenes is assailed by fantastic doubts and fears, by dreams which possess his waking hours.' (Sarmiento, 1961, 41)]

'La soledad, el peligro, el salvaje, la muerte' - it is easy to see that discussions of the 'significance' of the gaucho lend themselves very easily to inflated romantic flourishes: but that is not the extent of his influence on Argentine letters. Borges has deplored the tendency to take the vocabulary and attitudes of 'poesía gauchesca' as an archetype for contemporary writers, commenting that 'un colombiano, un mexicano o un español pueden comprender inmediatamente las poesías de los payadores, de los gauchos, y en cambio necesitan un glosario para comprender, siquiera aproximadamente, a Estanislao del Campo o Ascasubi' (Borges, 1985, I: 219) [''a Colombian, Mexican or Spaniard can immediately understand the poetry of the pavadores, of the gauchos, and yet they need a glossary in order to understand, even approximately, Estanislao del Campo [author of Fausto (1870)] or Ascasubi.' (Borges, 1979, p.213)]. This is, of course, due to the fact that (as Borges points out) it is only to a non-gaucho that the gaucho lifestyle and habits appear remarkable and worthy of reverence, Thus we find poems like Hernández' Martín Fierro (1872), which even Borges acknowledges to be 'la obra más perdurable que hemos escrito los argentinos' (Borges, 1985, I: 218) ['the most lasting work we Argentines have written' (Borges, 1979, p.211)], being regarded as the Argentine equivalent of the Homeric poems, 'nuestra Biblia, nuestro libro canónico (Borges, 1985, I: 218) ['our Bible. our canonical book'] (Borges, 1979, p.211).

It is scarcely possible to overestimate the influence of this myth on Argentinian literature. Ricardo Güiraldes dedicates Don Segundo Sombra (1926) - which, as Waldo Frank puts it in his introduction to Harriet de Onís' English translation of the novel, 'occupies in Argentinian letters a place not unrelated to that of Huckleberry Finn in the literature of the United States (Güiraldes, 1948, p.vii)) - 'Al gaucho que llevo en mí, sacramente, como la custodia lleva la hostia (Güiraldes, 1962, p.346) ['To the gaucho I bear within me, sacredly, as the monstrance bears the holy wafer'(Güiraldes, 1948, p.v)]. He extends these high flown sentiments to his account of the gaucho 'code' of conduct:

la resistencia y la entereza en la lucha. el fatalismo en aceptar sin rezongos 10 sucedido, la fuerza moral ante las aventuras sentimentales, la desconfianza para can las mujeres y la bebida, la prudencia entre los forasteros, la fe en los amigos. (Güiraldes, 1962, p.390)

['courage and fairness in the fight, love of one's fate whatever it might be, strength of character in affairs of the heart, caution with women and liquor, reserve among strangers, faith to friends.' (Güiraldes, 1948,p.61)]

The gaucho might be taken to represent freedom, fatalism, and justice - if one were to subscribe entirely to this reading. But there is another side as well (perhaps better represented in European than Latin American literature) but rather less favourable to this 'lone man on a horse'. W. H. Hudson comments of the gauchos he grew up among: 'they loved to kill a man not with a bullet but in a manner to make them know and feel that they were really and truly killing' (Hudson, 1925, p.124). And in his biography of R. B. Cunninghame Graham, another 'gaucho-ized' European, A. F. Tschiffely remarks:

When passing a river, if he could avoid it, no man rode into the water first, especially if he wore silver spurs or reins, for it might chance that he received a knife-thrust in the back from a too admiring friend, or perhaps merely because the sudden lust to kill, so frequent amongst dwellers of the plains, rose in the heart of the man who followed immediately behind. (Tschiffely, 1937, p.51)

We can thus see two overlapping perceptions of the gaucho - one (represented by Hudson and R. B. Cunninghame Graham) seeing him as an instinctively free, instinctively violent, child of nature; and the other (represented by Güiraldes and the 'gauchesque' poets) seeing him as the ideal 'man without women', stern and just, like the shadowy Don Segundo Sombra. Interestingly, neither group identifies directly with the gauchos - Hudson and Graham preserve their European distance, and even Güiraldes' narrator is forced to abandon his mentor when he inherits an estancia - but perhaps this is an essential part of the mystique. In any case, one might sum up the literary topos as follows:

  • GAUCHO = Freedom / Independence (Sarmiento)

  • FREEDOM = Wide plains / Horses / Violence (Hudson & Graham)

  • VIOLENCE = Impulse (Güiraldes )

  • IMPULSE = Unpredictability (Borges)


Darwin, Hudson and Sarmiento could observe the gauchos at first hand, but we are no longer able to do so. It would therefore be necessary, in order to get the full force of the contemporary gaucho myth, to add 'GAUCHO = A lost way of life'.

This myth might seem most useful for interpreting the literature of the Argentine and its closest neighbour Uruguay, but it is by no means confined to them. Similar cowboy-like figures roam the Llanos of Venezuela and the sertão of Brazil. Also, the point has been made that a certain laconic and casual attitude towards danger and death is a strand to be observed running through most of the literature of South America - and it seems appropriate to link the idealization of the gaucho with this. In Borges' later short stories, for example, the aesthetic appreciation of 'witty' behaviour - such as the story of the two brothers who, instead of fighting over a girl, decide to kill her instead (''La intrusa', in Borges, 1985, IV: 15-18) - becomes a definite motif. In his case, it recalls the similar codes of behaviour in saga literature ­where the matter-of-fact acceptance of death and 'necessary murder' is endemic. Elsewhere, however, it seems to refer directly to the strain of humour to be found in anecdotes about gauchos - such as some of those Darwin repeats about Rosas: the time that he had himself put in the stocks for infringing one of his own regulations, and then imprisoned his steward for releasing him; the court jester who remarked: 'when the general laughs he spares neither mad man nor sound' (Darwin, 1891, p.53).

This exaltation of cruelty can be traced in many works of Latin American literature, and deserves more extensive discussion on its own - for the moment, however, we can sum up the gaucho by saying that he is, in an almost Hemingwayesque sense, the 'natural man'. He reacts, but does not brood upon his decisions. He is suspicious of language and glib speech, and will kill either friend or stranger at the slightest provocation.

The association of this set of attitudes with machismo is a fairly natural one ­since women, in gaucho stories like Don Segundo Sombra, bring nothing but trouble. Its links with the motifs of violent revolution and carnival may seem a little harder to establish but, as we shall see in the next section, this too forms one of the staples of literary idealizations of South America.


(b) Carnival

Si en la vida diaria nos ocultamos a nosotros mismos, en el remolino de la Fiesta nos disparamos. Más que abrirnos, nos desgarramos. Todo termina en alarido y desgarradura: el canto, el amor, la amistad. La violencia de nuestros festejos muestra hasta qué punto nuestro hermetismo nos cierra las vías de comunicación con el mundo. Conocemos el delirio, la canción, el aullido y el monólogo, pero no el diálogo. Nuestras Fiestas, como nuestras confidencias, nuestros amores y nuestras tentativas por reordenar nuestra sociedad, son rupturas violentas con lo antiguo o con lo establecido. Cada vez que intentamos expresarnos, necesitamos romper con nosotros mismos. Y la Fiesta sólo es un ejemplo, acaso el más tipico, de ruptura violenta. (Paz, 1988, pp.47-48)

['If we hide within ourselves in our daily lives, we discharge ourselves in the whirlwind of the fiesta. It is more than an opening out: we rend ourselves open. Everything - music, love, friendship - ends in tumult and violence. The frenzy of our festivals shows the extent to which our solitude closes us off from communication with the world. We are familiar with delirium, with songs and shouts, with the monologue ... but not with the dialogue. Our fiestas, like our confidences, our loves, our attempts to re-order our society, are violent breaks with the old or the established. Each time we try to express ourselves we have to break with ourselves. And the fiesta is only one example, perhaps the most typical, of this violent break.' (Paz, 1985, p.45)]

The novel Terra Nostra (1975) by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has been described (by a Times reviewer quoted on the back-cover blurb of the Penguin edition) as 'a fresh, cruel look at western humanity'. This attitude of half-fascination, half-repulsion for the everyday cruelty which is allegedly a feature of Latin American life, can be observed in a great deal that is written about the area - South and Central America as well as Mexico. In the passage quoted above, from the essay 'Todos santos, día de muertos' in his book E1 laberinto de la soledad - interestingly, the English translator prefers the resonant title 'The Day of the Dead' - Octavio Paz attempts to analyze some of the sources of this obsession. The terminology he uses in doing so gives us a clue to the larger implications of this particular myth:

La Fiesta es una Revuelta, en el sentido literal de la palabra. En la confusión que engendra, la sociedad se disuelve, se ahoga, en tanto que organismo regido conforme a ciertas reglas y principios. Pero se ahoga en sí misma, en su caos o libertad original. Todo se comunica; se mezcla el bien con el mal, el día con la noche, lo santo con lo maldito. (Paz, 1988, p.46)

['The fiesta is a revolution in the most literal sense of the word. In the confusion that it generates, society is dissolved, is drowned, in so far as it is an organism ruled according to certain laws and principles. But it drowns in itself, in its own original chaos or liberty. Everything is united: good and evil, day and night, the sacred and the profane.' (Paz, 1985, p.43)]

Paz sees an equation between the 'hermetismo' (secrecy) that is characteristic of his region and its discharge in 'el remolino de la Fiesta' [the whirlwind of the fiesta]. The fiesta itself is merely a symbol for the 'ruptura violenta' [violent break] which this kind of society feels periodically called upon to make. One name for this kind of reversal of the conventional order is carnival or fiesta (the Saturnalia of the Romans) - another is revolution. He specifies in the second quotation that in these upheavals society 'se ahoga en si misma' [is drowned in itself], in its original 'caos o libertad' [chaos or liberty] - a good metaphor for the kinds of ideological shift required for a thinker like Sarmiento to reconcile his own 'civilized' existence with the chaotic freedom of gaucho life. Indeed, one might almost say that it is a 'town and country' dialectic inescapable for Latin Americans concerned about their own identity.

The association of political upheaval with public discharges of emotion is therefore as common in Latin American writing as it is in the sometimes facetious commentaries of Europeans such as Charles Darwin:

The revolutions in these countries are quite laughable; some few years ago in Buenos Ayres, they had 14 revolutions in 12 months. ­- things go as quietly as possible; both parties dislike the sight of blood; & so that the one which appears the strongest gains the day. - The disturbances do not much affect the inhabitants of the town, for both parties find it best to protect private property. (Keynes, 1988, p.85)

'Fiesta' and 'Revolution' are the lighter and darker sides, respectively, of the same sense of upheaval and violence. Which of them one emphasizes depends to a large extent on one's own contingent position. Against Darwin's flippancy one could therefore cite 'dictator' novels like Miguel Angel Asturias' E1 Señor Presidente (1946) and García Márquez' E1 otoño del patriarca (1975) as well as in analyses like Paz's. The train of associations seldom ends there, however - the 'religions of death' which dominated Southern America before the Spanish conquest are usually held to have something to do with this fatalistic acceptance of everyday violence, along with the atrocities perpetrated by the first settlers: the 'leyenda negra' of Spanish brutality and cruelty referred to by Ralegh in his Discoverie of Guiana.

A paradigm for this set of ideas might take the following form:

  • FREEDOM = Impulse

  • IMPULSE = Violence, cruelty

  • VIOLENCE = Revolution

  • REVOLUTION = Reversal, bouleversement

  • REVERSAL = Carnival

Thus, representations of 'South American' revolution generally include many of the concomitants of classical carnival - the pope of fools, the jester or mountebank, and also the reversal of men and women's roles. Nor do these operate solely on a political level - the idea of the 'reversal' of dead and living (referred to in the title of Paz's essay) is no less important in books such as Lowry's Under the Volcano or Asturias' Mulata de tal (1963) than the need to purge society of the meaningless masks and façades of authority.

Further associations of the 'carnival' myth in the literature of South America accordingly include the violent alternation of conservative and radical political parties - invariably defined in terms of 'black and white'; absolute good and absolute evil (though which is which depends on the writer's own bias). The motif is mocked in Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad:

Como Aureliano tenía en esa época nociones muy confusas sobre las diferencias entre' conservadores y liberales, su suegro le daba lecciones esquemáticas. Los liberales, le decía, eran masones; gente de mala indole, partidaria de ahorcar a los curas, de implantar el matrimonio civil y el divorcio ... Los conservadores, en cambio, que habían recibido el poder directamente de Dios, propugnaban por la estabilidad del orden público y la moral familiar (García Márquez, 1985, p.148).

['Since Aureliano at that time had very confused notions about the difference between Conservatives and Liberals, his father-in-law gave him some schematic lessons. The Liberals, he said, were Freemasons, bad people, wanting to hang priests, to institute civil marriage and divorce ... The Conservatives, on the other hand, who had received their power directly from God, proposed the establishment of public order and family morality.' (García Márquez, 1980, p.84)]

García Márquez' sympathies, like those of most Latin American writers, appear to be with the libelled progressives (like those of his character, the future Colonel Aureliano Buendia). In John Masefield's Odtaa (1926), however, advocacy of the 'white' position is unalloyed by irony:

the dirty way is the way the Reds take by nature, being what they are, people without dignity and without belief. (Masefield, 1927, p.55)

Again, one might make the point that the attitudes associated with being on the outside looking in are significantly different from those of the 'criollo' inhabitants of America.

One might, then, summarize these further shifts as follows:

  • REVOLUTION = Alternation

  • ALTERNATION = Political parties

  • PARTIES = Red (radical) / White (conservative) / 'Black and white' judgements

  • RED = Radical / Atheistic / 'Native' / Cruel

  • WHITE = Conservative / God-fearing / Catholic / Reactionary

Thus we can see monocular partisanship as an essential addition to the mythological train of thought running from Freedom, to Revolution, to Cruelty, to Death, to Fiesta and the 'Day of the Dead'.

It would be easy to go on to examine other myths, but it will be apparent by now that the task is a potentially infinite one. All one can do is present a selection. What is more, the law of Diminishing Returns operates particularly fiercely in this field: even the myths which I have outlined overlap with one another, and make more sense in the aggregate than they do separately. If one subjects them to too close a scrutiny they begin to dissolve into random pieces of colour - it is only from a slight distance that the picture makes sense.

Myths do exist, as Roland Barthes has demonstrated - and all of us order our lives by them, whether we are aware of the fact or not. In purely literary terms, however, a myth tends to stand for the tension between opposing tendencies ­with the oddity that even its seemingly outmoded aspects can be continuously revived, thanks to their nature as texts. There are obvious distinctions to be made between the four myths that I have discussed in this chapter - the 'New World', for example, being both the most long-lived and the most adaptable to shifts of fashion: while 'El Dorado' and the gaucho are most specifically linked to particular historical phenomena (not that that in any way reduces their significance in either the textual or worldly realms). 'Carnival', finally, is perhaps the myth which has been subjected to the the weightiest deliberations in Latin America itself. Octavia Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel García Márquez constitute a particularly impressive line of authority.

Of course, this is to some extent to be disingenuous. Another division could be made between 'myths of exploitation' and 'myths of the exploited' - associated, respectively, with the European and Latin American traditions. The 'El Dorado' myth is shamelessly acquisitive, but the insensitivity to the native cultures of the New World displayed by those who cast its inhabitants as shepherds in an Arcadian landscape has been perhaps even more damaging psychplogically in the long run. Hence the periodic crises of American 'identity' in respect to Europe; hence also the idealization of cruelty and stoicism, as personified in the figure of the gaucho, adopted by Latin Americans in order to break out of this mould.

I acknowledge the force of this reading, and hope that a count of the passages in Spanish and English in the two mythological 'sections' in question will make it clear that I do see a dichotomy in the employment of these motifs by British and South American writers (to adopt the more narrow terminology demanded by the scope of my topic). I must conclude, however, that the choice between a reading 'entièrement perméable à l'histoire' [entirely permeable to history] and one which, on the contrary, decides to 'poétiser' [poeticise], which I made at the beginning of this chapter, was not a casual one. These myths have been used to justify oppression and exploitation, and yet to equate them with that injustice tout court would be to carry the argument too far. For myself, I see more value in a reading of successive fictional 'versions' of the continent in terms of their ability to create a South America

The poets have imagined, terrible and gay. (Yeats, 1984, p.320)

A 'South America', that is, which might be in some ways adequate to the original. And it is my hope (a pious one, perhaps) that by pursuing this task more can be done to disentangle the processes involved in the persistent 'mythologizing' of other peoples and cultures, than by attempting to ignore altogether the aesthetic imperatives of richness and delight which inspired the authors I am studying.

1. As, for example, in Colin Steele's English Interpreters of the Iberian New World (1975).

2. Something analogous to Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (1977), where the literature of the First World War is broken down into a series of thematic categories allegedly central to later Modernist writing.

3. This might be done from the works of a particular author, such as Conrad: or, on a larger scale, as part of a general study of European iconographies of the Foreign - as in Hugh Honour's The New Golden Land (1975).

4. Aguirre in 1561 turned pirate and was finally executed: Alfinger in 1532 left only 'a few worn-out stragglers'; Maldonado and Tortoya's expedition were all killed or captured by the 'savage Chunchos'. (Ralegh, 1971, pp.xlviii & lxv).

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[Aphra Behn: Oroonoko (1688)]