Summer reading and writing

plaza de las tres culturas2

The memorial at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, commemorating the final defeat of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521.  The last three lines of text read: “It was neither triumph nor defeat; it was the painful birth of the mestizo people that is today’s Mexico.”

Last week was my college’s Finals Week, so now the summer has arrived.  This academically-oriented to-do list for this summer that follows is, as the list progresses down the page, admittedly more aspirational in nature than anything else, seeing as well off even the margins of this particular list lie new-baby-oriented and puttering-around-the-house to-do lists.  But list-make we must.

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“The earth is round, like an orange”: Some notes on Marti and the Neo-Baroque, with an assist from Garcia Marquez

Sliced Osage Oranges (Maclura) Isolated on White

Curiously, this is the first result that appeared when I conducted an image search at DuckDuckGo for “The earth is round, like an orange.”  As Kansans and other South Central U.S. people know, this is the fruit of the Osage orange tree, which goes by several other names depending on the region you find yourself in.  The fruit is inedible, but the Indians in what is now Arkansas used its wood to make bows, and the first white settlers here planted rows of these trees to serve as windbreaks and fencelines.  It seems strangely appropriate to me that a search for an image to accompany a post on the neo-Baroque in the New World would turn up this, an image of an indigenous plant whose surface is about as Baroque as you can get.  Image found here.

Early in Gabriel García Márquez’s magnificent novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), we find José Arcadio Buendía immersed in his studies and neglecting the domestic affairs of his household, much like Don Quixote at the beginning of his own novel. However, while José Arcadio is not studying books of knight errantry but instruments of navigation and Portuguese maps, the effect his studying has on him is a remarkably similar one:

Suddenly, without warning, his feverish activity was interrupted and replaced by a kind of fascination. He spent several days as if he were bewitched, softly repeating to himself a string of fearful conjectures without giving credit to his own understanding. Finally, one Tuesday in December, at lunchtime, all at once he released the weight of his torment. [. . .]

“The earth is round, like an orange.”

Úrsula [his wife] lost her patience. “If you have to go crazy, please go crazy all by yourself!” she shouted. “But don’t try to put your gypsy ideas into the heads of the children.” (14)

In a novel filled with Baroque moments (in the Foucauldian sense of “[s]imilitude [no longer being] the form of knowledge but rather the occasion of error, the danger to which one exposes oneself when one does not examine the obscure region of confusions” (The Order of Things, 51; see a (much) fuller discussion here), this is merely one of those moments.  But for the purposes of this post, not to mention my larger study, it is also a crucial one: as I argue in the post I linked to in the previous sentence, the Baroque begins with Columbus’s claims on his third voyage that the planet is in fact shaped far differently from its assumed shape so as to make his encounters with the landmass of South America square with then-accepted descriptions of the world.  Indeed, when José Arcadio demonstrates to the men in his village of Macondo, “with theories that none of them could understand, the possibility of returning to where one had set out by consistently sailing east” (14), he becomes a kind of Latin American Columbus, one who looks to the east this time as the source of knowledge,  as well as an analogue of Don Quixote.

But what prompts this post is García Márquez’s novel’s extraordinary opening sentence and how it positions the reader relative to the events it refers to: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (11).  This sentence not only simultaneously presents to us the future and the past of this man; it also, we perceive, grants us equal footing with its omniscient narrator relative to the narrative’s place and time, from which we also are privileged to survey the whole, or any one segment, of that place and time, and often, as with that first sentence, looking forward and back in time.  The world of García Márquez’s novel is not our own; we can observe it at our leisure and as we wish.  This ability we as readers have to survey the whole of this narrative at once de-centers, Baroque-like, its author’s authority: José Arcadio’s realization that the world is orange-shaped is madness within his world, but we in ours recognize it as wisdom.  (And to be sure, the very opposite kinds of recognitions occur just as frequently throughout the novel as well.)  Thus, the reader becomes more fully a participant in meaning-making in this fluid, dynamic narrative space, joining in the activity of pointing and naming objects in this still-new world (11).

At first glance, José Martí’s best-known essay, “Our America” (1891), seems to place us in a similar position relative to Latin America (the “Our” of the title) as the speaker in its first paragraph regards the region as a blissful Macondo-like village unaware of the political and cosmic forces that could destroy it.  At one point, Martí writes that the nations of Latin America “arise and salute one another.  ‘What are we like?’ they ask, and begin telling each other what they are like” (294).  However, the penultimate sentence of the following passage, the essay’s first paragraph, signals to the reader that Martí’s voice in this essay will not be an epic but a prophetic one.[1]:

The prideful villager thinks his hometown contains the whole world, and as long as he can stay on as mayor or humiliate the rival who stole his sweetheart or watch his nest egg accumulating in its strongbox he believes the universe to be in good order, unaware of the giants in seven-league boots who can crush him underfoot or the battling comets in the heavens that go through the air devouring the sleeping worlds.  Whatever is left of that sleepy hometown in America must awaken.  These are not times for going to bed in a sleeping cap, but rather, like Juan de Castellanos’s men, with our weapons for a pillow, weapons of the mind, which vanquish all others.  Trenches of ideas are worth more than trenches of stone.  (288)

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Lewis and Clark as “peculiarly American” writers

I’ve been gearing up to get some writing done now that the semester has ended, and while reviewing work on Cabeza de Vaca I’d written back in the summer, I found myself recalling some writing and thinking I’d done about the journals of Lewis and Clark from a long time ago.  Specifically, I have found myself thinking how the Journals participate in a kind of writing produced in this hemisphere from the very earliest days of the Encounter, writing initially resulting from Europeans’ completely-unanticipated encounter with the material fact of the land, flora, fauna, and peoples (not only indigenous peoples but also, within a few generations, the bewildering variety of peoples of mixed race) of this hemisphere–a manner of writing, by the way, that persists into our own times.  This is an idea I keep returning to in my work; no doubt that will continue to be the case.


A page from Meriwether Lewis’s journal for February 24, 1806.  The fish is a eulachon, or candlefish.

Way back when I was still at the University of Mobile, I once tried to teach an abridged version of the Journals as part of a course on the themes of nature and wilderness in 19th-century American writing.  At the time, I was struck by a dramatic shift in the rhetorical style of the entries: while the expedition is moving across the Plains (which, relatively speaking, was familiar territory for the expedition, even if only indirectly via the French), the entries have a staccato, just-the-facts-ma’am style to them.  However, almost immediately upon entering the Rockies–land which no white man had yet seen–the language switches to a much more narrative style: the prose becomes, in effect, another map of the journey, another record of the expedition’s movement through space and time that had not been so necessary while they were still on the already-mapped Great Plains.  In addition, the Journals have several pages like the one you see here: drawings of animals and plants and topographical features compete for space on the page with language describing it.  It is as though Lewis and Clark felt that even the material reality of the various specimens the expedition collected and sent back to Thomas Jefferson, along with language used to describe them, did not suffice to convey the experience of these items.  Frank Bergon, in his introduction to the edition I taught that class from, captures the style of the Journals well when it makes that stylistic shift:

Conventional rhetoric and cultural assumptions also break down as the facts of the actual country, animals, and native peoples of the West give shape to new forms of perception.  Language itself has to be altered to describe a new country and its native inhabitants; words coined and twisted and adapted to the occasion in the journals produced the addition of more than one thousand new words to the American language.  In gradually abandoning attempts to present their experience through conventional aesthetic forms and expressions, the explorers seem to let the wonder of the country and its incredible wildlife speak more and more through plain fact and events.  (xviii)

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Columbus, Foucault, and the New World as Keplerian Baroque Space

Mid-summer progress report:

I’ve been engaged in some reading and rereading in anticipation of getting started on the third chapter of the book project, which will chiefly consist of readings of Cabeza de Vaca as he presents himself in Castaways and Cooper’s Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie.  I have also been editing the preface, the Columbus chapter, and the Faulkner and Amado chapter with the goals of trying to tighten up the writing.  Finally and most significantly, in the Columbus chapter I’ve incorporated an argument about the Baroque that you’ll see in this post.

A while back, I wrote in this post about Foucault’s reticence as to the causes of the shifts in ideas about language and space that are his subjects in, respectively, The Order of Things and “Of Other Spaces.”  For Foucault, the Baroque is the aesthetic of those shifts, but he seems deeply suspicious of it, if not actively dismissive of it: in it, “[s]imilitude is no longer the form of knowledge but rather the occasion of error, the danger to which one exposes oneself when one does not examine the obscure region of confusions” (The Order of Things, 51).  Anyway, while in that earlier post I name the Encounter as the cause of those shifts Foucault describes, in the excerpt below I develop that more fully with an assist from Cuban novelist and theorist Severo Sarduy’s essay “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler” (found in Baroque New Worlds, one of the titles I mentioned here).  I think this excerpt is pretty self-contained; just in case, though, “Carpentier” refers to Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s essay “Problemática de la actual novela latinoamericana, and “Benítez-Rojo” refers to Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s book The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective.

I am hopeful that someone out there in the Interwebs who knows more than I do about Foucault and/or Sarduy will bump into this and leave a comment.  Thanks in advance.



Mappamonde, Gerard Mercator, 1587.  Via.

[The] dynamism inherent in this New World Baroque as described by Carpentier gives us some insight into his response to his argument that this hemisphere’s lack of a style conveys well the truths of this region.  Moreover, other writers and critics likewise, in their own ways, either name the dilemma(s) New World writers encounter, or name it/them and then propose ways of framing New World experience similar to Carpentier’s own solution and his rationale for it.  That solution lies not so much in postmodernism’s lack of a center and distrust of Grand Narratives but, rather, in the Baroque’s honoring of dynamism, its lack of fixedness, which creates a space within which the interactions of cultures and the land provide a common ground for this hemisphere’s writers.

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Proving What the Books Say Is True: Don Quixote as Columbus in Foucault’s The Order of Things

Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things is at least as remarkable, to me, for what it does not say in its opening chapters as for what it does say.  As its readers know, its second and third chapters (“The Prose of the World” and “Representing”) describe the dramatic shift in Europeans’ understanding of language’s relationship to the world that occurred between the 16th and 17th centuries: a shift from a time when “[t]he truth of all these marks–whether they are woven into nature itself or whether they exist in lines on parchment and in libraries–is everywhere the same: coeval with the institution of God” (34) to a time when, with the important exception of literary language, “the arrangement of signs was to become binary, since it was to be defined, with Port-Royal, as the connection of a significant and a signified” (42).  However, Foucault offers no explanation for why this shift occurred.  He does indirectly give a name to the time during which it occurred–the Baroque (he devotes a single, rather dismissive paragraph on p. 51 to a description of its attributes)–and identifies Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the Baroque’s avatar, but he has nothing more to say on the matter.

In his early speech (which later became an article) “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” Foucault names Galileo’s confirmation of Copernicus’s heliocentric model for what we now call the solar system as the cause for the intellectual shift from medieval to Renaissance understandings of space.  Thus, we know that Foucault is more than capable of identifying significant events whose consequences reverberate through time and culture.  Yet in The Order of Things, he does not.

I do not pretend to know why Foucault is silent on the cause for this profound shift in Western thought, but I can tell you what I think he should have said that cause was: Columbus’s arrivals in the Americas. There’s nothing like a culture’s encountering two enormous landmasses completely unaccounted for by the Bible to thoroughly shake that culture’s previously-unquestioned assumption that language is “coeval with the institution of God.”  However, perhaps Foucault does mention the Americas-as-cause indirectly, through a bit of projection.  In the preface to The Order of Things, he mentions the ficciones of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as an inspiration for his idea of heterotopias, and several of the examples of heterotopias he provides in “Of Other Spaces” are from the Americas.  To some extent, then, Foucault thinks of the Americas and at least some of its cultural products as disruptive in comparison to European conceptions of space and language.  Meanwhile, in the sub-chapter on Don Quixote in “Representing,” Foucault could not have provides us, through his discussion of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, a better description both of how Columbus understood the space through which he sailed and how his understanding looks to us today.

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“His normal sensitivity to negro behavior”: Looking for black and heterotopic spaces in Go Down, Moses


Eudora Welty, Home by Dark/Yalobusha County.  1936.  Via.  This is also the cover image for the 1990 Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses.

What follows is some thinking-out-loud that will be part of the chapter on Go Down, Moses and Tent of Miracles–specifically, an attempt to tie together land and cultural expression in the two novels.  (Progress report: It’s coming along, but it has felt at times like I am a vulture circling high in the sky over an animal to make sure it is dead before I will alight on it.  I’m pretty sure it’s dead now.)

It’s below the fold to spare those who won’t be interested; here, though, is the tl;dr version: 1) At the time he wrote it, Go Down, Moses was Faulkner’s most intimate exploration of not just black-white relations but of black lives and black interiority.  Still, though, it is a novel that is ultimately more concerned with white attempts to come to terms with the post-bellum South.  Thus, those glimpses of black lives we have are (mis)read by whites, but some of them resist any attempt to read them.  This brings me to: 2) You can learn a heck of a lot about how to read Faulkner from Minrose Gwin.

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Book Project Notes: Transcribing and Re-orienting Chapter II


The first-edition (1942) jacket for the novel Faulkner wanted to be called simply Go Down, Moses. Image found here.

It’s been a while since I have reported on my progress on the book project.  I thought I’d use this post to both comment on that and to do some sketching out of some work on it I’ll be taking up over the Christmas break.  To spare the uninterested, the rest of this post will appear below the fold.  If you do click to read on, apologies in advance for some of the Inside Baseball quality of what you’ll run into.

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Agamben’s Concept of Homo Sacer

I first learned of political philosopher Giorgio Agamben earlier this year via this long review article by Adam Kotsko in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Since then, I’ve not exactly been a diligent student of his, but Kotsko’s discussion of Agamben’s book The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, struck me as having resonances with Foucault’s notion of heterotopia which, as the tens of readers of this blog may recall, has considerable importance for my book project.  My long-time Internet friend Kári was kind enough to send me a copy of that book when he learned of my interest in Agamben, and he also has the useful habit of posting things about Agamben on his Facebook feed from time to time.

Anyway, speaking of Facebook, this morning the video below popped up as a Suggested Post; it’s an 8-minute condensed presentation of Agamben’s central idea, the Homo Sacer, or “sacred man,” and its gradual loss as monarchies have evolved into democracies (and totalitarian states) and biology has become the chief determinant of the individual’s value in society.  If any of this sounds the least bit interesting to you, I encourage you to watch this.