[Diego Rivera: La Civilización Totonac (1950)]
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). 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', 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, 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, 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' - 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,
- 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.
- 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'.
- 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.'
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'; 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). 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)]
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.
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)
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) 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). 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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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,
1830-1914. 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.