Book Project news

John processing Nash

Yes, I’d fallen asleep.  But I was thinkin’ stuff, I tell ya!  (Photo by Megan Buaas)

Spring break is here for us, and for me in particular that means a window of time has opened up that has let me return to book-project work in earnest, if only for a little while.  (In case you are wondering about how the recent posts on Edna Ferber’s Show Boat fit in, I had already written much of that material and thought that re-engaging with it might shake some new ideas loose, which it did.  At least some of that work will find its way into the book.)  So far this weekend, I have made a substantive content/organizational decision, and I will be doing some additional writing for a chapter that’s about ready to go but still feels thin.

In looking ahead to the next chapter to be blocked out, I decided that what I had originally planned (a discussion of Garcilaso de la Vega “El Inca,” Faulkner’s Light in August, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, casta paintings from Mexico, and the Virgin of Guadalupe) would be too unwieldy.  So for the moment it has become two chapters: Faulkner and Paz will be in the new chapter, along with discussions of other works whose subject is people of indeterminate ethnicity and how their presence destabilizes social and political orders predicated upon rather clearly demarcated ethnic boundaries.  Now, I hope, everything will have some space to breathe.

The additional writing will appear in a chapter whose central figures are Cabeza de Vaca and Natty Bumppo as he appears in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  Each figure, his thinking and deeply-held beliefs transformed by his long sojourn among indigenous peoples, struggles to find language to make his thought understood to his audience. The rest of the chapter takes up discussions of other writers who through various experiments with language seek to convey something of the experience of living in this hemisphere.  The additions will be discussions of José Martí’s essay “Our America,” José Carlos Mariátegui’s arguments for shaping Marxist theory to conform to the historical and economic realities of this hemisphere, and, I hope, something about liberation theology.

Below the fold, the curious can find rather chatty discussions of the chapters as I presently have them imagined.  Any comments/advice/warnings would be most welcome.

The first chapter explores the multiple scientific and rhetorical contexts within which Columbus made his voyages to this hemisphere and then interpreted what he saw in his ship logs and his letters to the king of Spain.  Even if Columbus himself did not recognize, or publicly acknowledge, that the set of knowledge and assumptions about the globe which he brought with him to this hemisphere simply did not square with what he actually observed on his four voyages in the Caribbean basin[1], others in Europe certainly did—most notably Peter Martyr, who is attributed with coining the term New World.  However, using the terms Americas and New World interchangeably, as many contemporary scholars and critics do when writing about this hemisphere’s history and culture, catches us in something of the same bind in which we find Columbus, that of not conveying as truly as possible our attempts to depict the cultural life of this hemisphere.  I believe that we can resolve this dilemma by reappropriating New World and defining it in a less-abstract way than Martyr did.  Following chiefly Martinican novelist and theorist Edouard Glissant’s argument that in Caribbean literature the land functions as a character, and by reading Columbus’s re-imagining of the planet’s shape through the lenses of Michel Foucault’s curious reticence regarding the Western Hemisphere and Cuban writer Severo Darduy’s Keplerian-inflected Baroque aesthetics, I will suggest that this new definition of New World, recast as a heterotopic space, acknowledges the land as a site of resistance to European attempts to read it—a resistance, by the way, that even Peter Martyr’s coinage New World could not overcome.[2]  Thus, this new way of conceiving this space, in inextricable combination with the individual and the community, gives rise to this place’s history and culture, becoming more, and other, than an extension of Old World history.  This historical process has acquired various names over time: creolization, mestizaje, miscegenation, or any number of other terms for interracial commingling.  I will close this chapter by offering a critique of a 20th-century critic’s reading of a 19th-century poem written by a black Brazilian Abolitionist poet in order to show that another reading of the poem, what I call a New World reading, not only reveals a more affirmative racial politics but also allows us to see, both here and elsewhere in the literature of this hemisphere, a resistance to those terrible, familiar dichotomies.  But this resistance does not offer only opposition to the larger dichotomies of History; it presents a complex response to them, something that I call “the encounter with the Encounter.”

The second chapter pivots from the first with an extended reading of U.S. writer William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (in particular two of its sections, “The Bear” and “Delta Autumn”) and Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s Tenda dos Milagres (translated as Tent of Miracles), two very different novels as regards their main characters’ (and their writers’) attitudes regarding the subject of miscegenation that nevertheless share striking similarities in the two novels’ language and events regarding that subject.  Through that reading, I will develop further the notion of the encounter with the Encounter via a phenomenon in those texts that I call Astonishment: a character’s or a narrator’s (or even, at times, the writer’s and/or the reader’s) shocked realization that he or she now finds him- or herself in the heterotopic space of the New World, which leads him or her to borrow from the rhetoric of apocalypse (in its twin biblical senses of destruction and revelation).

Astonishment reveals that in New World space, the languages of historical space fail to convey the experiences of those who find themselves in that other space, and we will explore that theme in the third chapter.  Through readings of the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s harrowing account of his eight-year journey across southern Texas and northern Mexico and Natty Bumppo’s adventures in U.S. writer James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, we will see each man struggle, within himself and with others, to reconcile their announced cultural identities with the fact that their respective extended sojourns with indigenous peoples have profoundly altered them.  They will fail in their attempts because they lack what Cabeza de Vaca calls, in a slightly different context, “a language.”  (I intend for the italic to indicate a specificity to this desired language—not just any language would serve here, but neither would any existing language) to perform that task.)  The second half of the chapter will look at works by several representative writers and thinkers from throughout the hemisphere, including Cuban poet and political activist José Martí, Peruvian economic theorist José Carlos Mariátegui, and Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who, in various ways in their work, seek to create “a language” so as to speak more faithfully to the experience of living in this hemisphere.

Cabeza de Vaca’s and Natty Bumppo’s respective failures share much in common with the recurring New World trope of the semiotically-unstable sign of the person of mixed race.  While Cabeza de Vaca and Natty Bumppo are not racially mixed, their respective experiences have so marked them that we and/or others may think of them as having become culturally miscegenated.  This fact causes deep anxiety, both in the people with whom they ostensibly identify and within themselves, and each adopts different strategies, neither entirely successful, that seek to ameliorate that anxiety among their fellows.  Whereas the previous chapter explores the absence of and desire for “a language” within New World space, the fourth and fifth chapters will discuss examples of the Americas’ proliferation of textual and visual languages that attempt to account for and police the emergence, over the course of just a few generations, a bewildering variety of, and names for, mixed-race peoples.  Equally important in this discussion, we will examine how people of mixed race think about and through those vocabularies that purport to classify and regulate them. Chapter Four will examine passages from the Peruvian cronista Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries of the Incas, as well as examples of the New Spain and Peruvian genre of casta paintings (a genre of paintings, unique to this hemisphere, that consists of sets of paintings which depict racial types and their offspring), and how some of those paintings both demarcate the state’s rhetoric regarding racial types and trouble that same rhetoric’s implicit assumptions regarding status via their depictions of the home lives of these racial types.  The chapter will conclude with a discussion of the narrative of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearances in 1531, some visual depictions of those appearances, and the tensions among various elements of the Church and those who venerate her.  Our Lady of Guadalupe serves as perhaps the supreme example of the indeterminacy of the mixed-race sign, one so unstable, in fact, that no one person or group can fully control all that she has come to signify or, indeed, may yet come to signify.  Chapter Five will discuss, among other works, Faulkner’s Light in August, Mexican writer Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, and U.S. writers Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera and Richard Rodriguez’s Brown as texts which depict and discuss people of indeterminate ethnicity and how their presence destabilizes communities predicated upon the clear, understood, and maintained boundaries between/among races and ethnicities.

The final chapter opens with a retelling of the story of Gonzalo Guerrero, one of several Spaniards marooned on the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula when a storm destroyed his ship in 1511, who eventually assimilated into a Maya community (he married and had children by a woman of the village), and who refused to join Cortés’ expedition when it initially landed nearby in 1519.  The chapter then moves on to discuss a range of literary and non-literary texts centered around the theme of interracial mixing, or its strong-but-unspoken possibility (as in U.S. writer Edna Ferber’s Show Boat).  These texts range from Mexican thinker José Vasconcelos’ eugenics-fueled celebration of miscegenation as leading to the eventual unification of all the world’s peoples in La raza cósmica to U.S. novelist Thomas H. Dixon’s explicitly racist novel The Sins of the Father.  It will conclude with a discussion of the legal controversy surrounding U.S. writer Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, her parodic rewriting of Gone With the Wind, which imagines the Scarlett O’Hara character as being of mixed blood.  Though in the strictest sense a hemispheric and chronological survey, this chapter will make use of the ideas and arguments developed in the preceding chapters to guide our discussions of these texts.

[1] Nicolas Wey Gómez’s inimitable description of Columbus’ interpretations of what he was seeing in this hemisphere is “tenacious disorientation” (The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies [The MIT Press, 2008], xvii).

[2] Foucault defines heterotopias as spaces which “secretly undermine language, . . . [which] desiccate speech, stop words in their tracks” (The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences [Vintage, 1973], xvii).  I will discuss heterotopias at greater length later in the first two chapters of this study.

One thought on “Book Project news

  1. Pingback: “Spunish language” and neo-Baroque Aesthetics: Cabrera Infante and Fuentes | Domestic Issue

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