[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)]

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