Early-summer reading

Baroque New Worlds

The cover for Baroque New Worlds.

Despite the radio silence here at the blog since my last post (apologies for the mixed (technologies) metaphor there), I have been doing some final editing and emendation of already-written chapters, soliciting colleagues to have a look at said chapters, and (as this post’s title indicates) getting some reading done.  Now that the semester is done and I am done with doctors’ appointments and have returned from a visit with my daughters and my mother, I am about ready to settle into working on the next chapter, which uses as its starting point Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his eight-year (1528-1536) journey across Texas and northern Mexico and will lead to a discussion of texts that, in various ways, use, modify, and otherwise play with language so as to better convey the experience of living in this hemisphere.  Before I get to that, though, I have some minor additions to make to the earlier chapters, for which I have two books to blame (and be grateful).

Here at home, I had no history of debates in Brazil regarding the question of race–that is, until I ordered Lilia Moritz Schwarcz’s The Spectacle of the Races: Scientists, Institutions, and the Race Question in Brazil, 1870-1930.  Even better for my purposes, the period covered by Schwarcz’s book corresponds almost precisely with the career of Pedro Archanjo in Amado’s Tent of Miracles.  In that regard, it proved to be useful in providing context for the events and intellectual dynamics at the School of Medicine that occur in the novel: Amado explains them clearly enough, but they still seem odd when compared to university settings in this country, and what (little) I do know of Brazilian intellectual history was not enough to clear up those oddities.  Schwarcz fills in the gaps for me, noting, for example, that it was only after Brazil became a republic in 1889 that it established the first true universities.  Thus it was that theories of race (and, for that matter, proposed legislation based on those theories) would naturally have emerged at a Brazilian school of medicine because of its faculty’s research in epidemiology and their noting higher rates of disease and criminality in mixed-race and Afro-Brazilian populations as compared to white populations.  (It goes without saying, given how eugenics and social Darwinism were the chief scientific theories in Brazil at the time, that no thought was given to how socioeconomic factors almost certainly were the primary drivers for crime and disease among these people.)  Thus, when, late in Tent of Miracles, Nilo Argolo proposes legislation that would send all people of mixed race into the Brazilian jungles to isolate them from white Brazilians in the interest of protecting whites from further miscegenation and snatching Brazil “from the abyss into which it was in danger of being thrust” (334), it is perfectly in keeping with the turn-of-the-20th-century intellectual times.

Not all of that will find its way into the chapter, of course, but knowing that history will lead to some tweaking of language here and there.  I’m not so sure I can say the same of what I’ve taken away so far from my reading of Baroque New Worlds.  This book, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup, is two things.  First, it’s a collection of essays on theories of the Baroque ranging from its 19th-century reassessments by Nietzsche to contemporary examinations from throughout the Americas.  More importantly, though, through its selections the editors make the explicit claim that the Baroque, though brought to this hemisphere along with the Spanish and Portuguese via the Church, has in the succeeding centuries become (and here the editors are interpreting the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima),

neither a mere reflection of, nor mere resistance to European colonizing structures–neither simply mimicry nor simple subversion.  It is not solely Europe’s story but rather a multidimensional American aesthetic that includes mimicry and subversion, of course, but also the more ambiguous process of selection, synthesis, exaggeration, sublimation, mediation, and revision–including the revision of European culture itself.  (8; italics are the editors’)

Needless to say, this is a pretty good description of (cultural) mestizaje; and, indeed, various writers included in this anthology aver that the New World’s Baroque would not have occurred here if not for the commingling of European, indigenous, and African peoples.  Also important in these essays (and here’s where they intersect with my project’s concerns) is that their collective discussion of the New World Baroque at least as much an approach to interrogate or disrupt received/imported/imposed/established orders as it is an aesthetic sensibility.  Thus, while I wouldn’t go as far as Alejo Carpentier in claiming that the art of this hemisphere has always been Baroque, I do find myself agreeing that New World iterations of the Baroque are rooted in landscape; thus, I’m tempted to say that Columbus’s re-conceiving of the planet as pear-shaped (so as to try to make sense of the previously-unanticipated large landmass–South America–he encountered on his third voyage) is a Baroque act, though one borne of desperation rather than of aesthetic intention or desire.  Similarly, when Angela Ndalianis speaks of the Baroque’s tendency toward theatricality as being crucial to the early history of cinema, she describes that tendency as “an aesthetic of astonishment” (qtd.in Zamora and Kaup, 31 n.27), this will prove to be, I think, an exceptionally handy phrase, given that from the get-go for this project my discussion of the rhetoric used in narratives when a character is revealed to be of mixed race has described that moment as “Astonishment.”  And, as it happens, a whole lot of theatricality is embedded in those moments.  The Baroque’s tendency toward de-centeredness, which allows for the simultaneous rendering of multiple points of view, gives me a way, I think, of talking about (some) casta paintings as being both affirmations of Spanish racial categories and arguments against the social and legal implications of those same categories.  And so on, and so on.

All that said, even though (as the editors note) the Iberian Baroque did not lend itself well to intellectual colonization of these lands, neither does a New World Baroque lead to a politics that would be of much use to those interested in building nations whose leaders’ interests are not determined by graft or corruption or fear but by a desire to serve their people.  Lezama Lima, though, does argue that the Baroque’s New World iteration is a decolonizing ideology; thus, it’s a direct rebuttal of Hegel’s assertion in The Philosophy of History that life in this hemisphere “is the reflection of a foreign life.”  I mention this because it seems to me that much commentary about the Americas to this day seems rooted in an assumption that its history is best read through a Hegelian/Marxist/materialist lens, with (often) little regard for what the peoples of this hemisphere might have to say about their own history, culture, etc., and thus ends up misreading this hemisphere’s culture or seeing it as exotic more than substantive.  Europe-splaining, to coin a phrase.  Baroque New Worlds is a compilation of a century’s worth of intellectual history that is one version of what those peoples have had to say about life here, and is well worth at least your time, if not also your money, if you want to know more about that version.  As for me, the ideas here will, I hope, add some depth and luster to my discussions and arguments.

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One thought on “Early-summer reading

  1. Pingback: Columbus, Foucault, and the Keplerian Baroque | Domestic Issue

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