Domestic Issue

This page will serve as a kind of “Best of” from the original Domestic Issue blog I had, combined with new material and files of chapters, etc., as they get written.  Images and a list of primary and secondary sources will appear on their own respective pages, just as they did with the original blog.


The links below are to my book project’s preface, chapters, and additional materials that I am calling appendices, as they presently stand:

Book Project Preface

Book Project Chapter I on Columbus

Appendix I: Untranslatability: Of Virgins and Natives, Beavers and Clouds


The Virgen and the castas: further comments

Sor María Antonia de la Purísima Concepción, 18th century, Ex Convento de Culhuacán (pictures), Mexico City. Click on the image to enlarge. The caption records her parents’ names, her birthdate, and the date and place she took the habit for the first time. As the picture indicates, by the time of its making the Virgen de Guadalupe had become an officially-approved icon for devout Catholics.

Image found here via a correspondent.

My source for this image was a recent visitor to this blog, and her kind e-mail, which mentioned in passing that entering a convent was a way for young women of mixed race to obtain a more-secure place in colonial Spanish America, has prompted me to pick up a loose end from my more recent posts on the Virgen de Guadalupe.

The loosest of those ends (for me) was how the Church reconciled the Virgen de Guadalupe’s association with the Immaculate Conception with her depiction as a mestiza, especially given the Church’s active role in the policing of racial hierarchies. That question begins to get answered via María Elena Martínez’s excellent book Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. Martínez notes that, whereas limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”) originated in Spain during the Reconquista as a way of determining not race but a genealogy of religious affiliation (those who could demonstrate that their families had been Christians for at least three generations (unless someone in their family had been a Muslim) were thus eligible for the higher government and Church posts–as an aside, this explains why Cabeza de Vaca refers to himself and his fellow castaways not as Spaniards but as Christians), over time in the Americas the term came to indicate racial distinctions.

The existence of the Indians were the cause of this change in the term’s meaning. They were regarded as pure, but:

Ambiguities in the purity status of native people [. . .] emanated from the very contradictions of Spanish colonialism, from a political ideology that on the one hand announced that they were untainted because they lacked Jewish, Muslim and heretical antecedents and had willingly accepted the faith, and on the other constantly iterated that they would revert to idolatry if left to their own devices and in the hands of misguided leaders. (214)

These contradictions led as well to a lack of consistency among the different religious orders regarding how to think through this question. The Franciscans, for example, didn’t regard indigenous descent that was sufficiently distant in one’s past as a hindrance to determining one’s purity (and, thus, access to sinecures in the Church and government). But the Spanish-born and those born of Spanish parents in Mexico (read: those traditionally the only ones eligible for such positions) obviously did not agree with less-strict understandings of purity (Martínez, 219).

Enter both the genre of casta paintings and the rising prominence of the Virgen of Guadalupe.

Casta paintings, as both I in this post, and Martínez assert, played a role in simultaneously defining and, intentionally or not, complicating discussions of racial boundaries during the 18th century as Spain sought to reassert its control over the colonies. Martínez pushes this further, though: “[T]he existence of multiple definitions of purity of blood, some religious, others more secular, helped fuel a creole patriotic defense of Spanish-Indian unions at a time of growing concern about mestizaje and its supposed degenerating potential” (228).

That defense received religious sanction in the cult of Guadalupe:

As the cult of Guadalupe reached its apogee, her image became part of an increasingly complex symbolism. Not only did her apparition to Juan Diego come to represent the promise of a renewed Christendom in Mexico and a kind of collective baptism of its disparate populations, but members of clergy incorporated it into a vision of New Spain as a product of two spiritually unsullied communities: one brought the Catholic faith; the other was redeemed by it. Within this vision, it was the latter community, the indigenous people, that at a symbolic level was the more important. The Virgin’s appearance on the hill of Tepeyac had accelerated the eradication of idolatry, thereby sacralizing both the land and its original inhabitants; she had made Mexico into the new Holy Land and the Indians her chosen people. (252)

Martínez then goes on to discuss the Mena painting, which you see here, and which she confirms as being the only known example of a casta painting that directly incorporates the iconography of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as something like the apotheosis of both the celebration of New Spain’s racial diversity and the anxieties attendant upon that same diversity. It occurs to me, though, in looking again at the Sor María painting at the beginning of this post, that we could also read it as a casta painting over which the Virgen presides. Though her parents do not appear in the painting, María Antonia is pretty clearly of mixed race; moreover, it was during the mid-18th century that the Church began to admit mestiza women into convents–the same time, incidentally, that the Virgen de Guadalupe had been declared by the Pope to be a Patroness of the Americas. Perhaps for María Antonia, then, the Virgen was both a model of chastity and, on a more intimate level, one of validation–an exemplar of her own (ethnic) worthiness.


“Forgetful at times of that native land”: An initial, mostly speculative response to A History of Ideas in Brazil

A temple to positivism in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Image found here.

In the interest of getting through a bunch of books I’ve obtained through interlibrary loan, I’ve had to put aside my recent obsession with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Not to worry, though: in a few days I hope to have something of a summary post that picks up where this one and this one before it leave off.

At present, I’m reading up on Brazilian positivism as treated in João Cruz Costa’s A History of Ideas in Brazil: The Development of Philosophy in Brazil and the Evolution of National History (California, 1964). To be quite honest, up to the discussion of positivism, it’s been an intellectual snooze-fest: There are only so many ways Costa can say, over the course of the 80 or so pages devoted to chronicling the three centuries before the constitutional monarchy established in 1822 that gained Brazil its independence from Portugal, “Brazil had no history of ideas, and it’s mostly the Jesuits’ fault.” (Costa is no neutral chronicler of this history: he openly mocks some of his subjects, and either he personally is no fan of the Jesuits, or he just happens to have selected sources to cite that see the Jesuits more as a bane than a blessing on the colony’s early years; a little more about that later on. I’ll just say, regarding the allegedly pernicious effects of the Jesuits, that I don’t know enough to form an independent judgment about this issue.) Part of the problem, I think, is also due to a combination of Costa’s rather haphazard organization (which compels him to repeat himself) and a less-than-smooth translation. Now that I’m (finally) up to the section on positivism, it’s doing a better job of holding my interest, if only because it was the institutionalizing of positivist principles in education and governance that marks official Brazil’s first adoption of a coherent set of ideals on which to begin building itself as a nation.

[Just as a quick aside: Brazil is one of the few Latin American countries who gained its independence relatively peacefully rather than via a violent overthrow of the metropole. Good old Wikipedia has a quickie summary of these events. Anyway, as I read all this I found myself thinking about the U.S.’s experience during the last quarter of the 18th century and wondering if that transition to independence was as smooth as it was because it was, after all, a war based clearly on a set of principles regarding good governance. Brazil, by contrast, simply wanted to remain a sovereign nation once it had been declared as such–so far as I can tell, there was no grand philosophical ideal at stake. Indeed, as noted above, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a school of thought that was identifiably Brazilian.]

But I’m not writing this because Costa’s book is tedious going. Rather, it has some rather odd moments in it that I want to talk my way through and that perhaps someone out there might find interesting, or maybe even comment-worthy.

In the middle of his fairly brutal take on the Brazilian Romantic man of letters Domingo José Gonçalves de Magalhães and his “philosophy” (our author’s quotes), Costa quotes the following passage, from Os Fatos do Espírito Humano (1865):

It is not with eyes glued to the exterior world and with senses open and attentive to perceptual phenomena that the human soul will learn to understand its true nature, its attributes, and its destiny; it is only by withdrawing to the sanctuary of its conscience, by reflecting on its actions, that it will come to penetrate the metaphysics of the spiritual world, of which it is but one of the inhabitants who travel through this external world, forgetful at times of that native land (!) from whence it comes. (in Costa, 65; I cannot determine whether the exclamation point is Magalhães’ or Costa’s)

Costa holds this passage up to ridicule as pretty weak philosophical tea, but it also happens to strike me as analogous to Costa’s book’s stance thus far with regard to the relationship between Brazilian thought and Brazil itself. In Costa’s introduction, we’re told again and again that a country’s philosophy and its history and culture are inseparable, as here:

The interest which Brazilian intellectuals today show in reëxamination of our historic experience clearly indicates that a profound change in our way of considering national problems is taking place.

But where should we start in the attempt to reach an understanding of these problems? Naturally, from the rich fabric of our Portuguese background. It is there that we find some of the threads of the colorful design we have been embroidering during four centuries. But from there we must follow other, newer trails, because the meaning of our ideas is complex and not limited to its Portuguese ancestry, which, although of incomparable importance, is not the only influence on the vicissitudes of national thought.

* * *

In spite of the fact, however, that we are “a melting pot for conflicting elements,” a “mixture,” we can and should sound the depths of our nature, to coin a nautical phrase. To do this without attempting any synthesis which could be interpreted as a formula (a formula which, given the nature of things Brazilian, would in any event be imperfect and oversimplified), we must consider the facts provided by our past, the historic facts of a destiny covering four centuries. A consideration of these facts would have no value other than that of a simple enumeration. (6-7)

To be honest, I’m not really sure what Costa wants us to consider here. Intellectually, Brazilians are more than transplanted Portuguese; we need to acknowledge that in an intellectual history. So far, so good. But we need to ignore those other “threads of the colorful design” in order to discover an unalloyed Brazilian self? That, indeed, is exactly what we should do, according to a passage quoted by Costa from Mario de Andrade’s Aspectos da Literatura Brasileira, published in 1943, “In this disorder which is Brazil, [we are] forced to make a link between unrelated creative personalities and works, in the mistaken need to establish a unity which does not yet exist. . . . The time has not yet come when the Brazilian soul can be understood by any attempt at a synthetic vision” (in Costa 6). So, at least to the point that I’ve read, Costa has hewn very closely to European ideas (along with Portuguese resistance to them, especially those of the French Encyclopedists) and to the tension between Jesuit and secular (or, at least, less dogmatically-oriented) systems of education. He mentions the indigenous and African presences but says almost nothing about their possible shaping influences on Brazilian thought. In his chapter taking up the early years of Brazilian independence, he quotes a writer of the time who said that the Jesuits’ missions among the Indians were detrimental to more fully integrating Indians into the larger society–the Jesuits sought to reduce contact between their parishioners as much as possible by, among other things, not teaching them Portuguese. (That desire to isolate the Indians might possibly have to do with the colonists’ history of rounding up the Indians to sell them or have them work as slaves, a practice the Jesuits fiercely resisted–but I digress.) Elsewhere, Costa states quite directly in a couple of places that the presence of the Negro is the single most important historical fact about Brazil but so far has said nothing more. In fairness to Costa, I am presently stopped in my reading where Costa has just begun to discuss the Positivists’ plan, published in 1880, to abolish slavery and integrate former slaves into Brazilian society; it may be that in a little bit Costa will speak to this larger issue. We’ll see. But it’s pretty clear that the Positivists didn’t consult any slaves when developing this plan, and that fact gets at this book’s strangeness.

It is as though these three groups’ living near each other for three hundred years had no effect on Brazilian writers and thinkers, except in the literature of the 19th century–except that they did, and we acknowledge that, but we can’t say anything definitive about that/those effect(s), so we’re not going to say anything about it/them at all. Or something like that. After all, Brazil was only, at the time of the writing of A History of Ideas in Brazil, a mere 142 years old as an independent nation. It is as though Costa, at least, is in denial about that mixed-culture past’s bearing on Brazilian intellectual life, even as he notes in the introduction that said past matters and must be acknowledged . . . just not right now.

As of this point in my reading of this book, Brazil as a place remains as blank as ever, what with all the looking back at Europe its intellectuals are engaged in. What, after all, is there to see when one looks inland?

This all reminds me of an overarching theme in Darlene J. Sadlier’s Brazil Imagined: 1500 to the Present, a recently-published comprehensive cultural history that I read much of about a month ago. That theme is that, from the arrival of the first Europeans to the present, Brazil has served as something like a jungle-green screen against which fantasies and nightmares, not just those of Europeans but even those of native Brazilians (the vast majority of whom know almost nothing about their country beyond their immediate region), are projected. Just as one example from her book of how this works, Sadlier discusses the rise (and popularity) of Brazilian regionalist literature in the late-19th century as “[p]erhaps . . . a way for writers to circumvent the vastness and variety that made knowing or representing Brazil as a whole implausible” (315, n. 39). In Costa’s work, then, what is projected on that green screen is recycled European intellectual life, intact and unamalgamated. The fantasy is French philosophy, its apotheosis being the (literal) church of Positivism; the nightmare is Jesuit scholasticism.

Costa so far makes clear that Positivism’s emphasis on science and the rational was seen as a proper antidote to the Church’s celebration of the mystical (though Positivism’s worship of these things itself would become mystical in nature, something its adherents seemed not to recognize). Also, it was very French, which had the chief advantage of not being Portuguese. I find myself wondering if the Brazilian intelligentsia so fervently latched on to Positivism at least in part as a subconscious recognition that Brazil’s three distinct racial types, two of whom had been deliberately shoved to the periphery of the nation’s cultural and social life, would have to be integrated in some way into white society in order to form a genuinely healthy nation and, there no established philosophy articulating the relationship between citizen and government, Positivism seemed more likely to provide sound guidance in this than did other systems of thought.

There’s more to read.


Quick notes on some current/recent reading

Engraving by Samuel Stradanus, c. 1615, the earliest known pictoral representation of miracles attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Known depictions of the apparitions and the miracle of the image would not appear until 1648. Image found here.

The recent reading: Stafford Poole, C. M., Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. I am about done with my Virgen de Guadalupe kick, my reader(s) will probably be pleased to learn. For those who want a thorough, Occam’s Razor-based examination of the historical record regarding the apparitions and the accompanying tradition, though, Poole’s book is definitely the place to start. It could use an update, seeing since its publication some additional documents concerning Juan Diego emerged during the process leading to his canonization. But it remains extremely valuable, especially for such things as providing the ecclesiastical context in both Spain and Mexico during the colonial era and the vagaries of Nahuatl poetry (chief among them, the fact that Nahuatl was a spoken and written language vital to aiding in the conversion and education of indigenous peoples up till almost the end of the colonial era). Here’s the thumbnail summary of Poole’s conclusions:

From 1531 (the year the apparitions are said to have occurred) till the 1550s, no written records of any sort exist which refer to Juan Diego or the apparitions;

beginning in the 1550s, there begin to appear references–not all of them positive–to a chapel (ermita) at Tepeyac (the hill in present-day Mexico City where the Virgin is said to have appeared) and the veneration of an object or objects there;

by 1615 (the year of the Samuel Stradanus engraving above), a pictoral tradition depicting miracles attributed to the Virgin had arisen, thus indicating the existence of an oral tradition that had given rise to them;

in 1648, there suddenly appeared (re Poole) the first narratives regarding Juan Diego and the apparitions and the miracle of the image on his ayate, accompanied by the admission of no prior written records of these narratives but that they had been perpetuated via the memory of those whose relatives or familiars had known Juan Diego;

from 1650 on, the Virgin was vigorously promoted as a sign that God had shown His favor on Mexico and, thus, on criollos (those of Spanish blood born in Mexico), and less-vigorously promoted as a means of evangelizing to the Indians.

As to the veracity of the story and image as currently-received tradition has it, Poole is careful to say that the currently-existing historical records–their words and, as importantly, their silences–don’t support that tradition . . . which is not the same thing as saying that they are untrue. Still, Poole’s incredulity that something as momentous as the apparitions and the miraculous image would go completely unmentioned in Church documents for over 100 years speaks for itself. As to the Virgin’s image’s link to casta paintings, which I speculated on here, Poole doesn’t address either those paintings or even, for that matter, the Virgin’s mestiza appearance. Still, in his thorough examining of sermons that establish a link between the Virgin and the affirmation of crilloismo, Poole helps provide tangential independent confirmation of that connection.

Speaking of casta paintings . . . I also had a look at Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life 1521-1821. It contains some examples of these paintings, one of which is the first image you see in this earlier post of mine. From its discussion of that painting, written by Ilona Katzew:

Tobacco and chocolate [depicted in the painting] were staples of the New World. Featuring these typical American products in paintings whose subject was miscegenation–believed to be especially widespread in the New World–offered a highly mediated view of life in New Spain, one that casts the colony as the producers of goods and people. (245)

Yes. And add to this Katzew’s observation elsewhere that the enactment of the mid-18th century Bourbon Reforms, among other things, sought to insist more firmly on rules based on New Spain’s racial hierarchy (casta paintings would begin to be numbered accordingly); yet, in this painting and in others depicting all but the very lowest castas, the families would be shown as prosperous and anything but the moral degenerates that the casta system implicitly claimed the less-than-pure were. The casta paintings thus became, in this argument, somewhat akin to Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter: they honored the letter of the law but violated its spirit. They, along with the Virgen de Guadalupe in a parallel course (which is to say, these traditions seem not, or only rarely, to intersect), came to be manifestations of criollo pride rather than its official inferiority relative to Spain.

There is more to say about this.

Current reading: George Washington Cable, Strange True Tales of Louisiana (1888, 1889). Over at good old Blog Meridian, I recently posted on the potential dark side of literary regionalism, of which Cable is definitely a part, but it seems to me that he himself doesn’t fall prey to that dark side, either here or in The Grandissimes. Strange Tales is a collection of (so far) linked stories that Cable claims are based on actual memoirs and diaries that have come into his possession about life in antebellum New Orleans and southern Louisiana plantation life. Let’s just say I have my doubts about those claims, but that does nothing to lessen their interest for me. [UPDATE: Via this article (.pdf), I’ve learned that Cable indeed did use a combination of actual letters and diaries, along with contemporary newspaper accounts, to produce these stories. But the collection has, overall, a unified feel not unlike Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.] And let’s just say as well that I think Edna Ferber read this book fairly attentively, but that that and other matters will have to wait for a fuller airing later on.


Strange Fruit: Some comments

Lillian Smith. Image found here; Wikipedia entry here.

I’ve just finished rereading Lillian Smith’s 1944 novel, Strange Fruit, a novel that, though still in print, I suspect not many people read today. That’s a shame, really. Given its title’s origin (the Billie Holiday song), its setting (early Depression-era rural southern Georgia), its chief subject (an interracial relationship between a white man and a black woman) and the time of its publication–not to mention the fact that it was banned in some places when published–Strange Fruit is brave in ways that better-known Southern novels whose big subject is racism finally aren’t (To Kill a Mockingbird, good as it is (and happy 50th anniversary, by the way), comes to mind here). Which, after all, is braver for a Southern novelist in the pre-Civil Rights Act South to do: to show us as we’d like to think of ourselves as being, or to show us as most of us in fact are–and why we are the way we are?

The novel’s central story is an affair between Tracy Deen, the ne’er-do-well son of a respectable and well-off white family, and Nonnie Anderson, a college-educated black woman working as a maid for another white family. If you know the Billie Holiday song, you already know, more or less, where this story is headed: Nonnie becomes pregnant by Tracy; Tracy, who seems to love Nonnie yet already seems to know that a future with her will remain at best a clandestine one, and already under immense passive-aggressive pressure to marry the nice white girl across the street, breaks off his relationship with Nonnie and seeks to find a black man to marry her so the baby will have a father; that man, named Henry, a black boyhood friend of Tracy’s who is now the Deens’ house servant, brags on his upcoming marriage in earshot of Nonnie’s older brother, Ed; Ed puts two and two together, lies in wait for Tracy along the path he (Tracy) takes that runs from the colored to the white side of town, and shoots Tracy, killing him; his family and a family friend help him leave town; a few hours later, Henry and his girlfriend will come across Tracy’s body and attempt to hide it, but other people in Colored Town see this; once Tracy’s body is found, word gets out about Henry’s having been seen moving the body; despite the strong suspicion among the more-respectable white members of the community that Henry isn’t guilty, and their attempts to stop it, Henry is lynched and then burned.

However, though the above is the novel’s central narrative, it’d not be inaccurate to say that the novel’s main character is Maxwell, Georgia, the town it’s set in. We learn about its industries (agriculture and lumber) and their accompanying labor problems (farmers are having troubles finding (black) workers to work the fields because up North are better (and better-paying) opportunities; at the mills, there’s rumbling about unionizing the workers); about how religion is regarded by various cross-sections of the town (a revival happens to be in town during the “now” of the novel); and about how blacks who served during the first world war and/or have gone to college are (in the minds of whites) quietly but firmly insisting–through the mere fact of their presence in town–on an opening-up of economic opportunity for blacks.

We also learn that Jim Crow is Maxwell’s de facto mayor and, in the wake of Tracy’s murder and Henry’s lynching, varying degrees of complicity (ranging from participating in the lynching to disapproving but staying out of the way) work to keep that mayor in power. As Tom Harris, the owner of the town’s lumber mill and thus one of its most prominent citizens, puts it (via the 3rd-person narrator), “Maxwell’s a good town, a quiet town, good place to bring your children up in–and he had brought up nine. Except for Saturday nights, a few razor fights, a dead nigger now and then, nothing violent ever happened in Maxwell. Things still went on in the southwest of the county that had no business going on. Niggers disappeared out on Bill Talley’s place too often–dropped plumb out of sight–but you didn’t have proof, and there was seldom much talk about it” (300). The part about Bill Talley is especially telling: it’s not that black people are disappearing–it’s that they’re disappearing too often that disturbs Harris. And yet the novel is at pains to show that Harris is among the most sympathetic to the plight of black people in the town: he attempts to hide Henry from the mob searching for him; and when the mob finds Henry, Harris tries to stop the lynching.

Given a novel like this, then, it isn’t surprising that Strange Fruit lacks a figure analogous to To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch. Finch stands as our proxy in Harper Lee’s novel; we can vicariously stand with him as he defends Tom Robinson, giving voice to what we know is right yet may be too afraid to say out loud. Instead, what we get in Strange Fruit is, for the most part and at best, a resigned acceptance of the status quo. The two lovers at the novel’s heart aren’t especially sympathetic: much as Tracy Deen resists being defined by the town’s definitions of Success and Respectability, he succumbs to them and in so doing rejects Nonnie; and as for Nonnie, her sister Bess characterizes her accurately as not being especially clear-eyed when it comes to seeing that there’s no future worthy of her where Tracy is concerned–or Maxwell, either, for that matter. Sam, a black doctor who clearly has the respect of the African-American community there, commands our respect as well, but only up to a point–after all, after Ed shoots Tracy, it’s Sam who drives him to Macon to hop a train back to New York and then to Washington, D.C., where Ed lives. Of the novel’s white characters, Prentiss Reid, the newspaper editor, widely known to hold radical political and religious views, writes about the lynching but pulls his punches by writing that, yes, lynching is an unpleasant business but the North is not without its own race problems; Harris, as we see above, does not approve of lynching but, because his business employs some of the very men responsible for the lynching, feels he do no more than what he had done to try to stop this particular one. Harris’s children, Charlie and Harriett, are much more vocal in their opposition to the town’s endemic racism, but Charlie notes that in order to hang on to his ideas about how to fight against Maxwell’s mindset, he would have to leave.

But leaving Maxwell, one gets the feeling, is difficult to do. A frequent motif in the novel is the evocations of roads and paths that connect otherwise discrete parts of the town to each other but which, it seems, never lead away from town. Those with the ability and/or inclination to leave are a definite minority; those who remain loathe or resent, with varying degrees of intensity, the members of those whose race they are not . . . in large measure because they recognize that without them, they could not survive–at least, not in the world as they had configured for themselves. It’s a miscegenous relationship, but a mandated one: whites are just as trapped in it (though, to be sure, in different ways) as blacks are. So, even as we recognize and applaud Charlie’s clear-headedness as he tells first his father and then his sister that he hates how blacks are treated in Maxwell, it’s hard not to feel some despair for the town if Charlie either leaves town to preserve his current thinking or stays in town and gradually loses his convictions.

I’ve already gone on enough. Strange Fruit, I think, is well worth your time, especially when read against To Kill a Mockingbird–and just so no one misunderstands me, I do very much like and respect Mockingbird. But Smith’s novel investigates racism’s essential irrationality, something which, in the mid-century South, was an important task–especially since the prevailing argument in favor of Jim Crow at that time was that system’s insistence on its rationality. More on that, by way of a discussion of Thomas Dixon Jr.‘s novel The Sins of the Father, in a future post.


Casta paintings and the Virgin of Guadalupe: a link?

Luis de Mena, casta painting, c. 1750. Museo de América, Madrid. Click on image to enlarge. Image found here.

As part of my research for the book project, the other day I revisited this post‘s accompanying image, and some further reading–especially in reading the historical record supporting the authenticity of the story and, more directly, here–I was reminded, in a different way this time, of the contested nature of just about everything regarding the story of the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego, from the very earliest days of that story (she appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531). Some (much?) of that argument, we find between the lines, was driven by rivalries among bishops and their respective orders (which I first speculated on here). Thus, it makes sense that we also have overt written and visual assertions of Juan Diego‘s worthiness as a way of asserting the truth of the Virgin’s appearance to him on the hill of Tepeyac; hence, in the frieze over the east entrance of the old basilica dedicated to the Virgin, Juan Diego’s accompanying hat and staff, which mark him iconographically not only as a shepherd but also as someone making a pilgrimage to a shrine, and the beaver in the foreground (a symbol of chastity in medieval bestiaries).

Anyway, that and the fact of the Virgin’s appearance as a mestiza to an indigenous person–that is, she appears, in effect, as always already of mixed ethnicity–made me wonder about linkages, whether direct or thematic, between depictions of the Virgin and the genre of casta painting that arose in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, in Peru during the colonial era. Those paintings are not merely secular in content, they are quite literally domestic: often their settings are the interiors of houses, or they show a family out for a promenade; some standardized depictions of castes show physical violence occurring between the spouses, their child attempting to intervene. So, off to Wichita State University’s library I went yesterday, and in one of the books I looked at I ran across the Luis de Mena painting you see at the top of this post. As it turns out, this same image also appears in Ilona Katzew’s excellent book on the subject; I own this book, but I didn’t remember seeing it in there and so didn’t bother to look again before last night. (Man: the things I tell you people.)

In a way, it’s my forgetting this image that really prompts this post.

Casta paintings that also include images of the Virgin apparently are not very common: this is the only such example in Katzew’s book, and I know I’ve not seen any others like this. At one level, that near-absence of juxtapositions is to be expected: The Virgin is, of course, the embodiment of chastity, while the most direct message of the casta paintings is, ahem, the consequences of the procreative act; moreover, though interracial marriages were officially permitted in Mexico, some, as I discussed in this post, were more approved-of than others were with regard to the social standing of the children of that marriage–more approved-of because of the matter of their racial purity. These were clearly not sacred but secular matters, as regarded the rules governing the painting guilds and their permitted subjects; to directly link the Virgin to such paintings would cross not only legal bounds but also those of propriety. I can be forgiven for not having remembered Mena’s painting, then: it’s something of an anomaly within this genre.

Katzew herself doesn’t spend too much time on Mena’s painting, either. She briefly discusses it within the context of a book by Juan Manuel de San Vicente, a book published in 1768 whose purpose was to extol New Spain’s virtues and whose language Katzew describes as an example of “creole discourses of pride” (193)–even though San Vicente was a Spaniard. This book

ends majestically with a discussion of the Virgin of Guadalupe, of whom he quotes the famous verse from Psalm 147 (20): “Non fecit taliter omni nationi” (He has not done the like for any other nation), pointing to the honor that God bestowed on Mexico by having the Virgin appear in that country. The Virgin of Guadalupe also features prominently in Mena’s casta painting along with the fruits of the land, the city’s famous retreats [shown in the upper-right corner], and the Virgin’s sanctuary [in the upper-left corner], allowing us to see how the work might have been interpreted by contemporary audiences. (194)

Katzew, as is typical of her book, doesn’t go into those interpretations. But, especially when compared to other casta paintings, it becomes pretty clear that Mena wants to insist on a more benign interpretation of these different castas by placing their depiction within a context in which Mexico’s other virtues are submitted for our admiration. The castas occupy the middle two registers of the painting; they are framed, below, by a depiction of native fruits and vegetables (it is no accident that the costumes of the figures in the casta paintings are in the same colors as the produce–as if to suggest that these many-hued people are likewise the fruit of the same Mexican soil) and, above, by the Virgin, her basilica and Ixtacalco, a popular place to visit on the southeast of the capital known for its canals. The painting’s overall message is that of exuberant variety that is clearly and distinctly Mexican, a variety, moreover, presided over approvingly by the Virgin herself.

But as soon as I saw Mena’s painting, I was immediately reminded of the painting below, which I saw for the first time when the Mrs. and I went on our Mexico City trip back in the fall of 2008:

Anon., Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de México, Patrona de la Nueva España. 18th cen. Museo de la Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City. Image found here.

(Apologies, by the way, for the poor quality of the image. For details I describe below, I’m working from a picture in a small booklet I bought at the museum.)

The Museum caters to a niche audience, obviously, but if you’ve read this far and ever find yourself in Mexico City with a few extra hours to spare at the basilica, it’s well worth the 30 peso admission fee to visit. Fortunately for the Mrs. and me, it wasn’t too crowded the day we went because when I saw this painting, I couldn’t help but stare and stare at it.

In remembering this painting, it suddenly occurred to me that it bears some compositional similarities to the standard casta painting: we have a male and female of different races (here, the female figure on the left symbolizes Europe; the male figure, dressed in indigenous garb, represents the Americas. (The male figure, by the way, is speaking the same verse from Psalm 140 that Katzew reports San Vicente as quoting regarding the Virgin’s appearance.) But other images in the painting seem to argue for the Virgin’s distinctive Mexican-ness. Directly below the angel who is directly under the Virgin’s feet (the angel, by the way, is part of her traditional depiction–it’s on the framed cloth with the miraculous image that hangs over the altar in the new basilica), we see two small scenes depicting, on the left, the Virgin’s final appearance to Juan Diego and, on the right, Juan Diego showing the bishop his ayate with the Virgin’s image on it. But those two scenes rest on the outspread wings of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, which itself is emerging from a body of water: the Aztecs’ sign from the gods to build their city on that place and, now, the emblem in the center of the Mexican flag.

Clearly, this painting functions as more than an image honoring the Virgin or as one depicting particular scenes from the story of her appearances to Juan Diego. It contains, in the allegorical figures of Europe and the Americas, themselves explicitly female and male, “parents” for the Virgin–whose respective races would account for the Virgin’s mestiza appearance, were this a typical casta painting. Moreover, her placement over the eagle on the cactus seems both to locate her in a very specific place and to explicitly associate her appearance with that earlier tradition (pagan though it was) of miraculous signs to the people in the Valle de Anahuac.

But no matter the truth of the Virgin’s origins, no religious syncretism is at work here: The Conquest was by now two centuries past for both Mena and the anonymous painter of the painting I have been discussing. San Vicente, whom I quoted above, introduced his work on Mexico by celebrating the Aztec emperors who preceded Cortés’ arrival, “because it is one of the circumstances that truly makes this city great, for having as its children (although heathen) eleven so great and illustrious emperors.” Katzew goes on to comment, “In other words, Mexico’s precolonial past is deployed to legitimize the uniqueness of the country and to set the stage for the remainder of his description [of the country]” (194). The latter half of 18th century was a time among Mexicans of growing pride of place and of culture, and the Virgin was most definitely included in that pride, so much so that in 1746 she would be declared the patroness of New Spain by the archbishop. What is at work in this painting is an allegorizing of the Virgin’s cultural parentage, and that her parentage is a miscegenated one. To see a painting of the Virgin from this time borrowing the basic form of the casta paintings is certainly startling from the point of view of religion and of veneration, but from that of culture, specifically Mexican culture, it makes perfect sense. But even more importantly, the Church’s official embracing of the Virgin as New Spain’s patroness implicitly validated the mixed-race populations who venerated her.

In a later post, I want to address at greater length something I said in this post–in particular, this:

Whatever happened in December of 1531 and the weeks and months following–whether miracle or fraud or some now-irrecoverable combination of the two–the Church lost control over the meaning of the Virgin and the resulting manner of her veneration in the instant that she appeared to an Indian as a mestiza. Which, of course, is tantamount to saying that it thus never had control over her. Such is her power in Mexico and throughout Hispanic America: that everyone knows this; all the Church can do is acknowledge it and appear to grant it official sanction as it is able via such means as papal visits and the move to canonize Juan Diego.


Natty Bumppo’s “natur”: The anxiety of bearing no cross

last-of-the-mohicansNatty Bumppo, most likely telling the young Mohican Indian Uncas how to be a better Indian. Image found here.

Note: Over at my other blog, I have two brief posts on Mohicans, here and here; this one comes out of that context, but it’s not crucial to have read them before you read this one.

The frustrating (and fascinating) thing about reading The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is that, for all its insufferable didaticism it can be difficult to know whether and to what extent certain of its more intriguing textual moments are intentional. This difficulty, I would assume, is owing to what Richard Poirier succinctly describes (77) as Cooper’s lack of stylistic defensiveness. One quick example is Cooper’s rendering of Natty Bumppo’s speaking the word nature as “natur”: Apart from seeking to signify how his character is pronouncing the word, might Cooper also intend something of a more metaphysical or existential quality as regards his protagonist’s nature? I don’t know, and there is likely no way to know for sure. I mention all this because some conclusions that follow will be more speculative than interpretive; to that end, I’ll also make reference to another book, ostensibly very different from Mohicans, to provide a little support for those speculations.

Mohicans is here because of its influence on 19th-century Latin American writers who saw themselves (and their people) in the years after independence with much the same task ahead of them that Cooper’s characters face: the establishing of a new nation, and the extent to which people will shape the land, or the land them. But Mohicans is interesting to me as well because of the presence of Cora Munro, the older of Colonel Munro’s two daughters. The colonel tells Major Duncan Heyward of Cora’s origins–significantly, after the colonel assumes Heyward is interested in marrying Cora and Heyward rather awkwardly says he is not, that his interests lie with Alice, Cora’s younger, fairer, half-sister:

[Munro says, “In the West Indies,] it was my lot to form a connexion with one who in time became my wife, and the mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady, whose misfortune it was, if you will,” said the old man, proudly, “to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class, who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people! Ay, sir, that is a curse entailed on Scotland, by her unnatural union with a foreign and trading people. But could I find a man among them, who would dare to reflect on my child, he should feel the weight of a father’s anger! Ha! Major Heyward, you are yourself born at the south, where the unfortunate beings are considered of a race inferior to your own. . . . [a]nd you cast it on my child as a reproach! You scorn to mingle the blood of the Heywards, with one so degraded–lovely and virtuous though she be?” fiercely demanded the jealous parent.

“Heaven protect me from a prejudice so unworthy of my reason!” returned Duncan, at the same time conscious of such a feeling, and that as deeply rooted as if it had been engrafted in his nature. “The sweetness, the beauty, the witchery of your younger daughter, Colonel Munro, might explain my motives, without imputing to me this injustice.” (151)

Heyward thus smooths things over with his future father-in-law, though not without a twinge of conscience as he feels compelled to lie to him even as he confronts a truth about himself. To his credit, up to this point in the novel he had been partial to Alice before being told of Cora’s ancestry; but now, as we see above, he has information that legitimizes to himself his not choosing Cora, even as he denies that his thinking tends in the same direction as that of the South. Heyward also provides here in miniature one of the novel’s chief themes: the tension between Reason and Nature as the deciding factor in determining our attitudes regarding race. As Heyward makes explicit in the passage above, the then-PC thing to say is that racism is antithetical to reason; yet the impulse toward racist (and racialist) attitudes seems “engrafted in . . . nature.” (Just as an aside, Thomas Dixon, in his novel The Sins of the Father (1912), will have his hero Dan Norton argue just the opposite: that racialism is a completely rational notion, and his adulterous affair with the mulatto woman Cleo is the result of his succumbing to what he characterizes as a failure of reason to control his baser impulses.)

I’ve not yet finished reading Mohicans, but thus far Cora, whose racial background satisfies the most essential prerequisites of the Tragic Mulatto–that she be darker-haired and -complected owing to some infinitesimal trace of black blood in her; that that trace render her unfit as a marriage partner–she is no tragic figure. That is most likely because she already knows the details of her parentage and, as a result, is (with the possible exception of the Chingachgook and his son Uncas) the most comfortable in her racial skin. That comfort, moreover, seems to give her a strength that Alice utterly lacks. It may also be, in part, why the attention the men show Cora is of a sort for which the best descriptor is “sexual.” In the most explicit expression of that attention, when the duplicitous Huron Magua (to whom Cooper also gives the French name Le Renard Subtil, just in case the reader needs a further marker of his duplicitous nature–there’s that word again) leeringly proposes to Cora in chapter XI that she become his wife, Cora more than holds her own. The fair-skinned and blonde Alice is also beautiful, but she is much more childlike and naïve; the attention she tends to attract is more paternalistic. It’s thus very odd to see Heyward describe Alice in the passage quoted above as possessing “witchery.” If witchery it is, it is Glinda-Good-Witch-of-the-North witchery.

Cora will not survive the end of Mohicans. As Doris Sommer argues in Foundational Fiction‘s discussion of the novel’s influence on Argentinian writer Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo,

[Cora’s tragedy] is announced by the fact that she is the product of a leaky grid of blood. Her blood was so rich that it “seemed ready to burst its bounds” [11 in the Modern Library edition]. It stains her; makes her literally uncategorizable, that is, an epistemological error. . . . Cooper introduces these anomalous figures [Bumppo as well as Cora] as if to pledge that America can be original by providing the space for differences, variations, and crossings. But then he recoils from them, as if they were misfits, monsters. If Hawk-eye seems redeemable inside the grid of a classical reading because, unlike the gauchos, he is a man without a cross, he is finally as doomed as they are by Cooper’s obsessive social neatness. Hawk-eye disturbs the ideal hierarchies that Sarmiento and his Cooper have in mind, because neither birth nor language can measure his worth. (58-59)

Sommer’s reading here is another way of stating the terms of that tension between Reason and Nature that I mentioned earlier regarding a society’s attitudes about race. Whatever the truth of Sommer’s claim of Cooper’s “obsessive social neatness,” though, I’d argue that within the text–or more precisely, within Cooper’s characters–that debate is far from resolved, much less resolved neatly. The extent to which Cooper is actually aware of all this messiness–for which, after all, he as the author bears some responsibility–is a question Sommer, given how she characterizes Cooper seems not even to see as a question. This question of whether writers who create racially- and culturally-miscegenated characters are fully aware of how they destabilize narrative is an important one for this project.

Despite her passion, Cora exhibits a calmness: she clearly knows herself. Nowhere, thus far in the novel, does she wrestle with questions of her identity. As readers know, though, Natty Bumppo obsessively makes claims as to his “natur,” the most familiar assertion being that he is a man whose blood bears no cross. His mantra-like iteration, once we get over the impulse to mock it, becomes curious. No one in the novel questions that he is white; it is no secret that he was born of white parents but raised by Indians. Yet, if we may indulge in a bit of psychoanalysis, that constant iteration would seem to indicate that Bumppo feels a barely-subconscious anxiety about his background. Even as he expresses what can only be termed pride in his knowledge of the woods and the ways of Indians, it is as though he worries reflexively that in the eyes of other whites the very fact that he has this knowledge (or, alternately, a lack of knowledge that other whites “should” have) marks him as different in some essential way from other whites. To take only one example of this, when he initially does not properly read the tracks left by the Narraganset Bay horses that Cora and Alice are riding–a breed of horse that Cooper had earlier provided information on via a footnote for his readers’ benefit–Bumppo feels compelled to explain why he had failed: “[T]hough I am a man who has the full blood of the whites, my judgment in deer and beaver is greater than in beasts of burthen. Major Effington has many noble chargers, but I have never seen one travel after such a sideling gait!” (113) Bumppo apparently fears that someone might interpret his ignorance of one breed of horse, fairly uncommon though it is, as a sign that he is somehow less than white–hence his felt need to say that he has “the full blood of the whites.”

At the beginning of this post, I wondered whether, by rendering Bumppo’s pronunciation of the word as “natur,” Cooper might want to suggest something more existential about his protagonist: that he at some level feels some lack in his nature that puts him at risk of being alienated from the people with whom he claims a racial kinship. It’s here that I would like to engage in a bit more speculation: that the key to Bumppo’s anxiety is suggested by a pun, which may or may not be intentional on Cooper’s part, in Bumppo’s saying that his “blood bears no cross”: that is, that while Bumppo believes in God and “Providence,” it would be a mistake to identify him as a Christian–at least, as that term is understood by the other whites in the novel. At a time when religious affiliation, a community’s being held together and affirming its members via a shared faith in God–and, more precisely, a shared expression of that faith via theology and doctrine–was an accepted part of communal life and was fully embraced by almost everyone, it is not too excessive to suggest the possibility that Bumppo’s spiritual estrangement from his fellows compels him to affirm his kinship via his consanguinity–his “natur”–all the while fearing that even consanguinity might not be sufficient.

In a heated exchange with David Gamut, a psalmodist who, along with Cora and Alice, has just been rescued from their Huron captors, Bumppo reveals that while he believes the death of the Hurons he had just killed was “fore-ordered,” Bumppo makes abundantly clear that he does not share Gamut’s belief in the Puritan doctrine of foreordination, that, as Gamut puts it, “He that is to be saved will be saved, and he that is predestined to be damned will be damned!” Bumppo rejects this on the grounds that one actually has to bear witness to what befalls a person before one can say what his/her fate is. But what would be most unsettling to the sort of Christian that Gamut apparently is Bumppo’s explicit rejection of the authority of any printed book as providing the grounds for making claims about one’s salvation or damnation:

“Book! what have such as I, who am a warrior of the wilderness, though a man without a cross, to do with books! I never read but in one, and the words that are written there are too simple and too plain to need much schooling[. . . . ] ‘Tis open before your eyes, [. . .] and he who owns it is not a niggard of its use. I have heard it said, that there are men who read in books, to convince themselves there is a God! I know not but man may so deform his works in the settlements, as to leave that which is so clear in the wilderness, a matter of doubt among traders and priests. If any such there be, and he will follow me from sun to sun, through the windings of the forest, he shall see enough to teach him that he is a fool, and that the greatest of his folly lies in striving to rise to the level of one he can never be equal, be it in goodness, or be it in power.” (109)

Yet, firm as he is in his direct rejection of the truth claims made by Christians on behalf of the Bible, it is not as though Bumppo lives without doubts. In a later scene that can only be described as poignant, Natty engages Col. Heyward in a conversation about the nature of heaven as they return to the ruins of the fort named William Henry. The exchange is so remarkable that it is worth quoting at length:

“Speaking of spirits, major, are you of opinion that the heaven of a red-skin, and of us whites, will be one and the same?”

“No doubt–no doubt. [. . . ]

“For my own part,” continued Hawk-eye, [. . .] “I believe that paradise is ordained for happiness and that men will be indulged in it according to their dispositions and gifts. I therefore judge, that a red-skin is not far from the truth, when he believes he is to find them glorious hunting grounds of which his traditions tell; nor, for that matter, do I think it would be any disparagement to a man without a cross, to pass his time–

“You hear [that noise] again!” interrupted Duncan.

“Ay, ay; when food is scarce, and when food is plenty, a wolf grows bold,” said the unmoved scout. [. . .] But, concerning the life that is to come, major. I have heard preachers say, in the settlements, that heaven was a place of rest. Now men’s minds differ as to their ideas of enjoyment. For myself, and I say it with reverence to the ordering of Providence, it would be no great indulgence to be kept shut up in those mansions of which they preach, having a natural longing for motion and the chase.

Duncan [. . .] answered, with more attention to the subject which the humor of the scout had chosen for discussion, by saying–

“It is difficult to account for the feelings that may attend the last great change.”

“It would be a change indeed, for a man who has passed his days in the open air,” returned the single-minded scout; “and who has so often broken his fast on the head waters of the Hudson, to sleep within the sound of the roaring Mohawk! But it is a comfort to know we serve a merciful Master, though we do it each after his fashion, and with great tracts of wilderness atween us[.]” (184-185, italics added)

Bumppo makes as clear as he can without actually saying it that if heaven is indeed as he has heard it described “in the settlements” (read: a white race’s heaven), it would go against his “natural longing for motion and the chase.” Nor, moreover, does Bumppo feel it would be any “disparagement” of his nature–it would not be beneath him as a white man–“to pass his time–” and he does not finish his thought, but we can fill in the blank easily enough.

It is here that we see the clearest sign of Natty’s divided self, his “natur.” He wants his fellows to be certain they see only his whiteness, but what if it happens that, upon his death, God sees only his whiteness as well and assigns him a mansion in opposition to Bumppo’s particular “disposition and gifts”–which, as he says, run counter to those of most of the fellow members of his race? To be sure, Bumppo’s anxiety also rises in part from his deference to empirical evidence as the final arbiter of what is and is not so and the lack of empirical evidence in this world regarding the exact nature of the next. The best he can do, given this circumstance, is all that any believer can do: affirm his faith in “a merciful Master” who will recognize that we serve Him “each after his fashion.” This affirmation, this hope, is doubly crucial for Bumppo in view of his earlier rejection of the authority of the Bible in shedding light on precisely this matter.

By way of underscoring the importance of this anxiety, I would like to bring into the discussion a very different text whose protagonist, like Bumppo, becomes culturally estranged from his fellows: The Naufragios (translated as Castaways (first author-approved edition published in 1555) of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Castaways is Núñez’s recounting of the failed Pánfilo de Narváez expedition to establish a colony and find riches in what is now the Florida panhandle and Núñez’s journey with four other men (all the other members of the 600-man expedition are killed or die from storms, disease, Indian attacks, and even cannibalism) from Galveston Island to the Pacific coast of Mexico: a journey of eight years’ duration. Though the book contains almost no moments of introspection on Núñez’s part, the reader can easily note his gradual transformation from a man of no little authority (he was the expedition’s treasurer) who thought nothing of, for example, engaging in the common Spanish practice of kidnapping indigenous people to serve as translators, to a man who, quite literally owing his and his few remaining companions’ lives to the mercy of the Indians they meet over the last few years, becomes the Indians’ advocate when the Spaniards who rescue the travellers want their help in capturing and enslaving the Indians. It is also almost the only source of information we have regarding many of the the now-lost indigenous peoples of the Gulf Coast of Texas and the northern Mexican interior.

Regarding the (possible) similarity I see between the Naufragios and Cooper’s novel: Núñez is of course writing his narrative after the fact, so some structuring of the book has occurred, and that is something to keep in mind regarding what follows. Towards the end of the narrative, Núñez describes his evangelizing of the Indians. Of his success, he writes, “[W]e found them in such a disposition to believe, that if there had been a language in which we could have understood each other perfectly we would have left them all Christians” (105). It is in the next chapter that the Spaniards first hear of the predations of other Spaniards on Indian villages. Núñez and his men tell the Indians that they want to meet these Spaniards in part to stop them from their raiding. What is interesting, though, is that in both the Spanish original and in the translation, Núñez refers to them not as Spaniards but as “Christians.” To be sure, this is a common practice in the chronicles of the time; surely, though, Núñez must have sensed–or hoped–that King Charles V, to whom the Naufragios is officially addressed, would grasp the sad irony of Núñez’s effective witnessing to the Indians and his demonstration of their amenability to conversion to Christianity, only to see reported, literally on the very next page, men labeled as “Christians” whose behavior runs completely counter to the examples of Christian charity set by Núñez.

The eventual meeting between these completely-naked, weatherbeaten castaways, their indigenous companions and the armed, armored and mounted “Christians” is probably the oddest moment in all the chronicles: Núñez argues, in Spanish, that the Indians not be enslaved and/but with the Indians, in the broken pidgen of indigenous words and gestures that he’s acquired, that he and his companions really are Spaniards, too–which the Indians don’t believe; meanwhile, the Spaniards, using an indigenous language, try to discredit the castaways and insist that the Indians should ignore them and listen to the “Christians” instead. Beneath the strangeness, though, I suspect that Núñez feels something like the same estrangement that Bumppo feels from the very people with whom he insists he belongs, their shared faith forming the basis for that insistence (though it may also be the case, given Spain’s particular historical moment, that self-identification by religion was, ipso facto, tantamount to self-identification by race). If he does not yet feel that estrangement but only confusion as his rescuers soon become his captors–he is imprisoned and eventually sent in chains to Mexico City, where he’ll begin to write this narrative–we can guess that he will eventually: After he is freed from jail, he is chosen to be the governor of a colony in Paraguay, but will be removed from his post two year afterward for being perceived to be more favorably disposed toward the indigenous people there than toward the colonists.

I am afraid I will have to sketch out this conclusion, at least for now. The essence of what I want to say here is that in each text what is assumed to finally, essentially–and ideally–define our relationship with our fellows but instead proves to be a source of irresolvable tension for these narratives’ respective protagonists is not race but religion. In Bumppo’s case, the combination of a different belief system and his almost-stated preference for the Indians’ conception of heaven over that preached about in the settlements are his sources of anxiety, which gets voiced in the punning statement that he is “a man without a cross.” Meanwhile, Núñez bears witness to and serves the Indians as a model of Christian charity, only to run afoul of his own countrymen who also claim to be Christians even as they enslave the Indians and pillage their villages. It’s due to this enormous contradiction that Núñez cannot persuade the Indians that he is one of these other men; nor can he persuade the “Christians” to cease their predations on the Indians–in fact, he will be imprisoned because of his perceived disloyalty to their authority. Each man becomes, or fears he is, culturally bifurcated: what I want to call New World men. More about what I mean by that in my next post.


“In the direction of system”: Two passages from The Grandissimes

Auroraaurora-and-clotilde-nancanou-receive-joseph-frowenfeldand Clotilde Nancanou receive Joseph Frowenfeld. Illustration by Albert Herter from an 1899 edition of The Grandissimes. Image found here.

George Washington Cable’s most famous novel (1880) is sneaky with regard to its examination of Creole New Orleans in those years just prior to and just after the Louisiana Purchase: strident when the reader expects (but does not necessarily want) it to be; wry, even sly, when the reader does not expect it. Consider these two brief examples involving Aurora and Clotilde Nancanou, the mother and daughter whose genteel destitution figures prominently in this novel.

The first passage provide a glimpse of the domestic dynamics of the Nancanou household:

[Aurora and Clotilde] sat down opposite each other at their little dinner table. They had a fixed hour for dinner. It is well to have a fixed hour; it is in the direction of system. Even if you have not the dinner, there is the hour. Alphonsina [their black cook] was not in perfect harmony with this fixed-hour idea. It was Aurora’s belief, often expressed in hungry moments with the laugh of a vexed Creole lady (a laugh worthy of study), that on the day when diner should really be served at the appointed hour, the cook would drop dead of apoplexy and she of fright[. . . .] Not that she felt particularly hungry, but there is a certain desultoriness allowable at table more than elsewhere[.] (216-217)

“In the direction of system” strikes me as both a marvelously evocative turn of phrase on its own terms and one that also speaks to the strange combination of surface rigidity and domestic compromise–perhaps even an unspoken resignation–at work in a world that we today rightly characterize as brutalizing and dehumanizing toward people of color, whether freedmen or not. System–structure, rules, codes–must be in place, even if those whose actions are ostensibly most governed by that system are “not in perfect harmony with” it. Moreover, as the concluding sentence makes clear, the system referred to is intended for public visual consumption; the novel’s later brief public scandal of Joseph Frowenfeld (the American who serves simultaneously as the author’s mouthpiece, the novel’s moral center, and Clotilde’s romantic interest) being seen leaving a mulatto woman’s house with a head wound is a scandal precisely because it is public.

[The dynamic at work here, by the way is strikingly similar to that regarding the establishing and (lack of) policing of the dress codes (and the reasoning behind them) depicted in Mexican casta paintings from the colonial era. The intent behind the dress codes was to make one’s class–and, indirectly, one’s caste–more publicly certain. Implicit in the code was the assumption that lower-caste members, no matter their skin color, tended not to be financially successful. But some lighter-skinned members of those lower castes inevitably did make money, as artisans, as merchants, etc., and it is all but certain that some of those with the means tried and succeeded in passing as higher-caste members. The dress code therefore provided them with a legally-sanctioned disguise.]

These public displays in the direction of system, in combination with domestic desultorinesses, can lead to some rather odd musings in the face of the more awkward consequences of the Peculiar Institution, as is the case with this second passage:

That same morning Clotilde had given a music-scholar her appointed lesson, and at its conclusion had borrowed of her patroness (how pleasant it must have been to have such things to lend!) a little yellow maid, in order that, with more propriety, she might make a business call. (205)

While Clotilde is a very young woman whose mother seems to have protected her from situations in which she would have come to understand that the mulatto girl’s existence might not have been a source of much pleasantness at her student’s house, it’s still hard not to recall this famous passage from Mary Boykin Chesnut’s Civil War diary: “[L]ike the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children-& every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think-” (source).

Such a world is one of tacitly-sanctioned virtual disguises even more impenetrable than the clothes one wears, a world of very odd public dances on whose strangeness no one comments. Thus, it is no accident, given Cable’s characters’ preoccupation with appearance (in all its senses) and underlying identities and entangled family roots of plantation families (just as one example, two men in the novel are named Honoré Grandissime, one a Creole, the other his mulatto half-brother), that his novel’s opening scene is a masked ball.


The Book of the New World–some preliminary comments

To begin with, this passage from George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880):

Resolved, in other words, without being [Joseph] Frowenfeld the studious, to begin at once the perusal of this newly found book, the Community of New Orleans. True, he knew he should find it a difficult task–not only that much of it was in a strange tongue, but that it was a volume whose displaced leaves would have to be lifted tenderly, blown free of much dust, re-arranged, some torn fragments laid together again with much painstaking, and even the purport of some pages guessed out. (103)

Passages such as this occur with some frequency in miscegenation narratives: references to literal or, in this case, figurative books the understanding of whose contents demand patience and care on the part of the reader. In Go Down, Moses, there are the McCaslin plantation ledgers that Ike must come to terms with; in Jorge Amado’s Tent of Miracles, a main character writes a genealogy of Bahian families in part to demonstrate just how miscegenated ostensibly “white” Brazilian families in fact are; etc., etc. At one level, there’s no need to push this too hard. Such scenes occur in novels from throughout the Americas that have little or nothing to do with the theme of interracial relationships; I have mentioned here before that Roberto González Echevarría’s Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Literature could, with a bit of tinkering, serve as a useful way of thinking about the origins of the literature of the United States as well. But at another level, there’s a difference to be gotten at. Whereas González Echevarría’s book argues that the literature of the Americas has its origins in the imaginative rewriting of colonial-era records and histories of the region and therefore is an early version of (to appropriate a title) the empire writing back, in the case of narratives of miscegenation these Books either contain or cause a resistance to comprehending them even as they seek to serve as recordings, however oblique, of the facts of miscegenation.

Sorry for quoting myself, but: I tried to say something like this within the context of a post on casta paintings:

Given that these series of paintings are intended to be part dictionary of racial types, part social code, and part visual cabinet of curiosities, I tend to think that their audiences, if they thought about the correspondences between the paintings and the realities of New Spain, could not escape the uneasy feeling that a social order founded on racial difference would eventually become untenable–especially given that part of these paintings’ very point (and whether this point was intended or not is difficult to determine) is that those differences were becoming ever harder to discern in real life. These paintings end up implicitly depicting their own inadequacy to depict the very thing they’re intended to depict–another version of something I was trying to get at in this post with regard to American literature.

It can be discomfiting to talk about the emergence of a new people, especially when they are the by-product of an institution about which there was already considerable discomfort and when they serve, in the eyes of many, as an implicit condemnation of that same institution. Yet, those new people are the the subject of this particular Book of the New World.

More on this, sooner rather than later (I hope).


The Virgin of Guadalupe, and “the New World” as oxymoron

Left: Anonymous, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de México, Patrona de la Nueva España. 18th Century. Museo de la Basílica de Guadalupe, Mexico City (Image found here); right: Josefus de Rivera y Argomanis, Verdadero Retrato de Santa Maria Virgen de Guadalupe, Patrona Principal de la Nueva España Jurada en Mexico. 1778. Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City (Image found here).

The Virgin of Guadalupe is not an overt subject of my project, but she could easily serve as the supreme exemplum of what I argue in that project is the essential state of being of the New World: a fusion of cultures and customs so complete that it is no longer possible to separate them one from the other(s)–and, moreover, that the recognition of that fact often comes as something of a shock to those who complacently assume otherwise.

I have written elsewhere of my profoundly-moving experience one December 12th (the Virgin’s feast day) when I visited the Basilica in Mexico City. My purpose in this post, though, you may be pleased to learn, is not to proselytize (full disclosure: I’m neither Catholic nor Hispanic, but I am a Christian and, speaking for myself out of that context as well as someone who finds much to wonder over in Mexican culture and history, I find it difficult to remain completely objective when discussing this subject). Rather, it’s to give the reader a quick sense, via some context and a discussion of some images of the Virgin, of what I mean when here and in my project I will make what I think is an important distinction between the terms “the Americas” and “the New World.”

No matter one’s opinion on the role of the Church during the conquest and colonization of Mexico and points south, it is inarguable that the syncretizing of Catholic and indigenous symbology and ritual was a practice engaged in so as to make the Christian faith more palatable to the Indians. This occurred at more than the level of the abstract. As my wife pointed out to me one day during our trip–something I’m a bit embarrassed to mention that, as many times as I’d visited these places before, I’d never really noted before–the older churches we saw very often appropriated the exact same pebbles-in-mortar construction methods in the building of their walls that we had seen at the pyramids at both Teotihuacan and Tlatelolco. This picture, courtesy of the Mrs., was taken at Teotihuacan and shows that method quite clearly. Both literally and figuratively, then, the outward form the Church took in Mexico during the colonial era was recognizably Christian; look more closely, though, and more than a few traces–and perhaps more than traces–of indigenous practices remained that played a significant role in the shaping and sustaining and perpetuating of that outward form. The Virgin of Guadalupe, and the cult that has emerged surrounding her veneration, is only the most prominent example of this phenomenon. For further reading on the fascinating and complicated topic of syncretism, I urge anyone interested to have a look at Serge Gruzinski’s book The Mestizo Mind: The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization.

For obvious reasons, syncretic practices, by the way, were controversial among Church hierarchy during this time, and the cult surrounding the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe was not immune to critique. The Wikipedia entry on the Virgin makes clear that from the very beginning there were questions even as to whether Juan Diego was a real person, never mind the genuineness of the apparitions. But apart from those fundamental questions, there were other concerns just as fundamental in their own ways, chiefly involving the particulars of the early pilgrims’ veneration of her: for example, Indians were allowed to perform in her honor the same dances that, before the Conquest, they had performed in honor of the indigenous goddess Tonantzin, closely associated with the hill named Tepeyac where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego.

I think it is difficult for non-Hispanics to appreciate fully the Virgin’s significance for–indeed, her centrality to–Mexican and, by extension, Latin American culture. (Never mind, by the way, the difficulties she and her cult pose to non-Hispanic Catholics, Protestants, and non-believers of whatever sort) Though, as with any manifestation of the Holy Mother, she is ostensibly a symbol of Christian faith, she also has significances that only tangentially touch on religion but which resonate profoundly throughout the Hispanic-American world. For Mexicans, she also signifies as a symbol of revolution, an assertion of Mexican nationalism: it was under a banner of her image that marched the army Miguel Hidalgo led in revolt against Spain on the night of September 16, 1810, the day which Mexico celebrates as its independence day. That power as revolutionary symbol, I would argue, still resides in her, dormant but present; the priest whose homily I heard that long-ago December 12th made the case that the Virgin was more powerful than any earthly force, that people had only to acknowledge that. One could understand those words in their spiritual sense, of course. But this was Mexico City, the capital of a now officially-atheist nation which, Mexicans in attendance there could not help but recall, had been inspired to revolt against Spain under this very image. Moreover, back in the mid-’80s the influence of liberation theology had spread from Central America into the southern Mexican state of Chiapas; if ever there were a region of Mexico ripe for rebellion, it was (and remains–see Comandante Marcos) Chiapas. The greater, deeper resonance that the Virgin has throughout Latin America, though, is her very appearance: not only that she appeared to a recently-convertered Indian, Juan Diego, in mid-December of 1531 (ten years after Cortés’ conquering of Tenochtitlan), but also the fact that she appeared to him–and us–via the image she left on Juan Diego’s ayate (something like a man’s rebozo) as proof for the bishop in Mexico City that he had seen her, as a mestiza. If La Malinche is, for Mexicans, the embodiment of Woman-as-Whore, surely the Virgin of Guadalupe is, quite literally, Woman-as-Madonna. But each of these women signifies something much more complicated than the stereotypical roles that women have historically been cast since, it seems, time immemorial. For Mexicans and, by extension, Hispanics, these women are also cultural, racial, religious, political–that is, literal as well as symbolic–Mothers of La Raza.

In the cultural history of the United States, it considerably understates things to say that we have no equivalent figures.

It’s difficult to find a place in Mexico where an image of the Virgin is not close by. Most of those images, though, seek to be more or less faithful to the original on Juan Diego’s ayate, on public display at the basilica dedicated to her in Mexico City. Aside from her mestizo features, that image tells us little about the geographical or cultural space within which she appeared. Given that the Virgin is eternal, transcending time and space, the image’s lack of such references isn’t unusual. What’s striking about the two paintings at the top of this post, which my wife and I saw at the Museo de la Basílica de Guadalupe on our trip to Mexico City last week, as well as one below the fold, is that they supply that spatial and cultural geography. They explicitly place the Virgin within a New World context–not, I’d argue, an American one–as if to insist that the Virgin’s meaning is fully comprehensible only within that context. It is not enough to know that the Virgin is the Mother of God. One must also know where, how, and to whom she chose to appear.

[A quick aside: I don’t know whether this matters, but in the interests of accuracy I think it better to err on the side of caution. I can’t be entirely certain that the Ribera i Argomanis painting on the right is in fact the one we saw at the Museum of the Guadalupe Basilica. We did see a painting attributed to Ribera that bore a very close resemblance to the one you see here. We weren’t allowed to take any sort of pictures in the Museum, so I have no independent means of confirmation. In any event, the listing of this particular image’s home as the National History Museum, in combination with the existence of a very similar painting by an unknown hand, raises the possibility that Ribera i Argomais may have painted at least one other painting in addition to the one you see here. Also, the attentive among you will notice the inconsistent spelling of Ribera i Argomais’ name. In the case of the painting, the spelling is that of my source for it; here, the spelling is that of the Museum’s brief overview of its collection and history that I purchased on my visit.]

Apologies for the less-than-clear images and, thus, the descriptions that follow. In the first two paintings, as noted above, the Virgin, the rays emanating from her, and the angel below her whose upraised arms appear to be holding her aloft are what visitors to the Basilica will see in the original image. All that surrounds that image are the additions of the two painters. In the upper corners of the painting and immediately below the angel are cameo-shaped renderings of the three separate times the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego prior to leaving her image on his ayate as proof to show the bishop in Mexico City that he had seen her (the showing of that proof being the subject of the scene in the lower-right cameo. Though not part of the original image, such renderings are not uncommon inclusions in paintings of the Virgin.

The more intriguing additions, though, are the large allegorical figures on either side of the paintings and the image that seems to sustain the angel and the two cameo scenes underneath the Virgin. Those figures represent Europe (on the left) and America (on the right), each standing on a small rock surrounded by the same body of water. “America” is posed very similarly in each painting (each looks in the direction of, and gestures toward, the cameo depicting Juan Diego’s showing the image on his ayate), but note “Europe”‘s positioning: each offers up a red crown to the Virgin, but in the anonymous painting she looks away from the Virgin and downward toward something in the lower-center of the painting (more about that later); in the Ribera i Argomais painting she appears to be looking directly at the Virgin. As I hope is obvious to the reader, it’s difficult to speculate as to the meaning of either of these choices for Europe’s gaze; moreover, while at some level these paintings had some Church sanction due to their content, their contents almost certainly weren’t as tightly codified as were, to give the most obvious example, the exact copies of the image itself produced at the Basilica for distribution to parishes throughout New Spain and beyond. Still, given the fact that one of these paintings almost certainly inspired the other (or, alternately, there exists an ur-painting common to both either unknown to me at present or now lost), the ambiguity raised in these two figures’ differing gazes is certainly curious.

What drew our attention to these paintings in the first place, though, is the image in the bottom-center of each: An eagle, its wings outstretched and holding a snake in its beak, perched on a nopal (prickly-pear) cactus growing out of a body of water. This is, as most people know, the image now found in the center of Mexico’s flag, and is a depiction of the sign the Aztecs were to look for to indicate where they were to build their city. The positioning of the image of the Virgin as being cradled or held aloft by the eagle’s wings is especially striking. Is there some sort of equivalencing of these two images, in that both are signs from a divinity specifically commanding its witnesses to build (the Virgin commanded Juan Diego to tell the bishop to build a sanctuary in her honor at Tepeyac)? Or, given the age of these paintings (both were painted at a 200-year remove from the Conquest), had the image of the eagle by this time lost its associations with the old ways and now stood as a desacralized symbol of Mexico? And even if the latter, is there not a suggestion here (via a visual resonance between this painting and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus) that the Virgin’s origins are neither “European” nor “American” but in some space shared by and common to yet, ultimately, distinct from both “Europe” and “America”? That space, I will claim more fully in a later post and in my book, is most properly designated as the New World. (And yes, I know how clunky this sounds. More to come in a later post, as I said.)

To my mind, these paintings pose two interesting questions: 1) Which came first?; 2) Could the unknown painter have been an Indian or mestizo? Both Gruzinski in his book and Ilona Katzew in her book Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico provide considerable background in the training and mentoring of Indian and mestizo artisans in colonial Mexico. Katzew notes that, while the painting of religious and state paintings were the provenance of Academy-trained painters, secular subjects could be painted by anyone. I find myself wondering how exactly these paintings and the one below would have been categorized; it seems to me, as I sit here, that one could make plausible arguments for either a secular or a sacred reading of them.

In this last, early painting, different in orientation but bearing some similarities to the ones above, Juan Diego displays the image of the Virgin on his ayate (Image found here; as of this writing, I know nothing more about this painting but will amend this as I learn more). In this instance, the viewer occupies the space that bishop of Mexico City would have occupied on that day Juan Diego brought him the miraculously-blooming roses that he thought was the proof the Virgin had provided him. As angels look on from the painting’s upper corners, we also find the faces of Europe and America, reduced in size to cameo-shaped portraits on the right and left sides, respectively, of Juan Diego. Below Europe’s face, at the lower-right corner of the ayate, appears the lion of Spain that appeared on its flags of the time; on the opposite corner appears the eagle with a snake in its beak and perched on a nopal. To me, there is something in the prominent positioning of Juan Diego’s head, directly over the Virgin’s (most paintings showing him holding the ayate place him to the side, often in a relative penumbra, almost disappearing relative to the displayed glory of the Virgin’s image) and, indeed, on almost exactly the same plane as those of the angels, that suggests something of his importance to this moment: we would not be seeing the Virgin if it were not for him. Compare as well the darkness of Juan Diego’s face to that of America on the left side of the painting. Perhaps this is an overreading, but it is as though his face is aggressively, insistently darker, that darkness enhanced by its contrast with the muted gold backdrop behind his head. That enhancing is by no means intended to be menacing, of course; on the contrary, it would be absurd to read it as anything other than an affirmation of Juan Diego’s Indianness via the Virgin’s having chosen to appear to him. In other words: whereas most renderings of the Virgin are about the Virgin, this painting is at least as much about Juan Diego and, by extension, the people he represents.

I say this out of a fair amount of ignorance: When I look at a painting of the Madonna by, say, Raphael, the last thing I think about is what the powers that be in Renaissance-era Italy were thinking as they looked at it. Why would they not have approved? I don’t sense in them a tension between approved-of renderings of the Virgin and Raphael’s paintings. Of course, a painting like Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto is another story: there, one can indeed sense a tension between messages. But I suspect that that tension was mostly class-driven (well, and Caravaggio-driven, too). The Madonna in that painting is still in some sense European: she is still, at base, an imagined cultural production of that people. The Virgin of Guadalupe–or, more precisely, her full meaning–did not exist and could not have existed prior to the Encounter. And further: Whatever happened in December of 1531 and the weeks and months following–whether miracle or fraud or some now-irrecoverable combination of the two–the Church lost control over the meaning of the Virgin and the resulting manner of her veneration in the instant that she appeared to an Indian as a mestiza. Which, of course, is tantamount to saying that it thus never had control over her. Such is her power in Mexico and throughout Hispanic America: that everyone knows this; all the Church can do is acknowledge it and appear to grant it official sanction as it is able via such means as papal visits and the move to canonize Juan Diego. These paintings seem to me implicit assertions that the Virgin is most definitively a New World thing–not an American thing, and certainly not a European one.


The “ideology of form” and Go Down, Moses

The Vintage edition ofGo Down, Moses. Image found found here.

Hosam Aboul-Ela’s book, Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition, begins at the same place Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi does: that it might be useful to read Faulkner not as a Modernist or American writer, but as one whose region has much in common with those of other colonized places of the world, what Aboul-Ela calls the Other South. But whereas Glissant limits his discussion to Faulkner as a Caribbean (or Plantation) writer, Aboul-Ela’s range is more global and more overtly materialist in orientation. He uses the work of Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930), a progenitor of (economic) dependency theory as a starting point for articulating a theory of postcolonial experience that originates in those regions rather than in Europe or the United States. He devotes a little over half his book to laying out the resulting “Mariátegui Tradition” before moving on to reading Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion) and Absalom, Absalom! through this critical lens.

Given the orientation of the intellectual tradition of the Other South that Aboul-Ela outlines, it’s understandable why he chooses these works to discuss at length: they are the Faulkner novels that lend themselves most readily to such readings, driven as the plots of each are by the arrival in Mississippi of outsiders and their getting and controlling of property and wealth and the attendant power to the benefit of the Few As Possible and the detriment of local folks. But a chapter section entitled “The Ideology of Faulkner’s Form,” his lead-in to his reading of Absalom, Absalom!, made me curious, in connection with some comments I made here, what Aboul-Ela might have to say about the ideology inherent in Go Down, Moses‘ form. So, below the fold I once again mount my GDM hobby-horse.

First, some passages from Other South that give a sense of Aboul-Ela’s orientation re the idea of the ideology of form and how, when discussing similarities between Faulkner and writers from the postcolonial world, he means something other than “influence.”

A reconsideration of the literature treating Faulkner’s relationship with Latin American novelists confirms the importance of the ideology of form. For example, Gabriel García Márquez states: “I think it is the method. The Faulknerian method is very effective for telling about the Latin American reality. Unconsciously, this is what we discovered in Faulkner. That is to say, we were living this reality and we wanted to tell about it and we knew that the European method wouldn’t work and neither would the traditional Spanish one and all of a sudden we found that the Faulknerian method is extremely well suited for telling this reality.” [. . . ] Method, I believe, here relates to narrative structure. [. . .] While this often cited statement by García Márquez has sometimes been interpreted to refer to Faulkner’s “modernist” style, the Colombian actually states that he is talking about a relationship between “method” and “this reality” that “we were living.” In other words, he connects literary form and material conditions, arguing for a kind of experimental neorealism, for a literary phenomenon invested in verisimilitude, more than for a borrowing of modernism’s fascination with the aesthetic realm. Borrowing this structure from Faulkner proves valuable for certain writers from the Global South because of parallels in their mutual experiences with colonial economies and unequal economic development, as these phenomena affect daily life, social conditions, political institutions, and personal relationships. (134)

Notice that this is a sort of materialist rewriting of the theory of archetypes, which I find intriguing.

Anyway.

For Aboul-Ela the form Absalom, Absalom! takes is shaped by Faulkner’s understanding of his region’s sense of the nature of History:

Joeé Carlos Mariátegui’s description of the structure of history as encompassing “stages that are not entirely linear in their development” not only exemplifies the long trajectory of thinking in the Global South that challenges the Hegelian–and Eurocentric–associations of history with linear, causal progress but might also be productively compared to William Faulkner’s novelistic attacks on linearity. I noted in chapter 3 that thinkers like Mariágui necessarily view the sweep of history with less optimism than Hegel (or, for that matter, Marx), optimism that resulted in the hyperemphasis on teleology present in Hegelian historiography. A Peruvian in the 1920s, rather, surveyed history from the subject position of an individual in a geohistorical context that had been branded by the era of Spanish colonization; by the undercutting of independence and nationalism by British and American commercial interests in the nineteenth century; and by the continuing struggle with economic, political, and social unequal development in the early twentieth century. I have distinguished between the Eurocentric historian–who might think of history as a linear series of stages, causally linked with one another, evolving gradually toward an apotheosis, with Europe’s material preeminence serving as a sort of culmination–and an oppositional historian–who might start from a critical view of this European preeminence. History, in other words, might not be a straight line. Euro-American colonialism does not result from natural and organic laws of cause and effect or from the grand design of a powerful and knowing prime mover. Rather, historical trajectories are multiple and must be seen from multiple points of view. (135, emphasis added)

These two passages, as I said earlier, set up his reading of Absalom, Absalom!, and those familiar with that novel’s structure would probably agree with Hosam Aboul-Ela’s argument that such a claim about history is compatible with it. But whereas in that novel the multiple narrators are ostensibly trying to understand the mystery of Thomas Sutpen–that is, their overt subject is the collective retelling of the single story of this man–what of Go Down, Moses, with what I take to be its parallel historical narratives? What might its form tell us about its ideology?

What follows is just a sketching out, without specific quotes from the novel. Apologies in advance.

In the Glissant post I linked to earlier, I had this to say about Go Down, Moses‘ form, with an assist from James A. Snead:

That design, James A. Snead argues in his reading of the novel in his book Figures of Division, is a miscegenated design: it has attributes of, and confuses the traditional distinctions between, both novels and short story collections. Thus, Snead writes, because narrative is traditionally a site of authority and rule, a structure which disrupts conventional notions of narrative implicitly calls into question other such rules of ordering. Therefore, “[t]he prose of Go Down, Moses is in the truest sense a ‘dialogue,’ not an authoritative ‘telling’” (206).

The novel is dialogic in another sense as well, that of its parallel narratives. There is that narrative that flows through the personage of Ike McCaslin, who seeks to figuratively as well as literally close the ledgers/legacy of his grandfather via his relinquishing of the family plantation and his efforts to ensure that his grandfather’s bequests of money to his (the grandfather’s) black descendants are distributed. Let’s call this the “white McCaslin narrative.” It would be a mistake to call it simply “the McCaslin narrative” because, even as Ike seeks to bring to a close (and believes he has done so) the McCaslin family narrative, another one has continued on its course unbeknownst to Ike until he is made aware of it in the person of Roth’s lover in “Delta Autumn.” As she recites her ancestry (she is the granddaughter of Tennie’s Jim, himself the son of Tomey’s Turl, who is the son of Ike’s grandfather by a slave, herself also offspring of the grandfather by another slave woman), she becomes the embodiment of the very ledgers that Ike had thought, for all these years, that he would never have to open again. Tennie’s Jim, by the way, ran away from Mississippi on the night before his 21st birthday, refusing to accept his share of the legacy from Ike’s grandfather (just as Ike does, in his own way, via relinquishing the inheritance of the land). Let’s call the narrative she symbolizes the “black McCaslin narrative.”

So, whereas in Aboul-Ela’s reading of Absalom, Absalom! we have multiple threads of history required to weave together the story of Thomas Sutpen–the construction of history–Go Down, Moses‘ form suggests a deconstruction of a historical narrative via the irruption of a black narrative into a white-constructed one. Strangely, then, Ike shares one crucial similarity with Thomas Sutpen, in that both presume to have full control over their respective narratives via closures they attempt to effect. In terms of its form, then, Go Down, Moses is perhaps something like what Thomas Sutpen’s own version of his life might look like.

But regarding that irruption of the one narrative into the other: what sort of ideology might be implied by that? Is it Faulkner’s implicit argument that blacks and whites, given their tragic history, are better off in their separate spheres, at least for now? Or is Faulkner implicitly arguing that that separateness has made and will make nothing better, and so, sooner or later, brave, generous souls should–must–risk love for each other? Or perhaps both are true? It’s hard to reconcile these two narratives in Go Down, Moses, to find any sort of correspondence, much less a happy one, between them–they are parallel in more ways than one, and that, on the whole seems to be okay by the respective keepers of these narratives, with the brief exception of Roth and her lover.

As for me, I find enormous ambiguity in Go Down, Moses that leads me to wonder, as I did in the Glissant post, just how much control Faulkner is exercising over his material here, whether (in my reading) he is fully aware of the extent to which he is undercutting the very authority he spends so much time on as he establishes Ike as Southern White Historian. I hasten to add that I don’t see that as a weakness; indeed, I see it as an implicit affirmation of my dissertation’s–and my book-project’s–central argument: that the effects of miscegenation’s unanticipated irruption into dominant culture’s narratives are analogous to those effects that the Encounter between Europeans and indigenous peoples in the Americas had for both groups of people.

I could let both Faulkner and myself off the hook and say that intentionality doesn’t matter, as far as my thesis is concerned: If there’s a primal scene/archetypal moment (you may choose your preferred term; I personally have no dog in the psychoanalytic-theory fight) for American culture, broadly defined, it is the Encounter. But having said that, I’m also curious about the extent to which Faulkner is weighing all this as he makes his choices as a writer. He very rarely was what one would call forthcoming as to his ends, and not terribly helpful as to his means–especially on matters that, as I suspect is true of this book–go deep, deep into him.



“They endured”: Further comments on Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi

Caroline Barr (1840-1940), the Faulkner family maid, to whom Go Down, Moses is dedicated. Image found here.

“They endured,” as readers of “Appendix: Compson” know, is the sum total of how Faulkner describes Dilsey, the Compson’s black maid in The Sound and the Fury. Glissant finds that a crucial textual touchstone in his effort to determine how Faulkner locates African-Amercans in his (Faulkner’s) vision of the South. If you read closely the excerpts from Glissant’s Faulkner book that I included in my previous post, two arguments emerge.

The first is that Faulkner confers not merely a sort of nobility upon black people relative to whites, he even holds them aloft–or prefers to hold them aloft–from History. They, unlike Faulkner’s whites, have no fate, no destiny to work out:

[Zack Edmonds] thought [as he looks at Lucas Beauchamp], and not for the first time: I am not only looking at a face older than mine and which has seen and winnowed more, but at a man most of whose blood was pure ten thousand years when my own anonymous beginnings became mixed enough to produce me. (Go Down, Moses 69, italics in the original).

Though Glissant does not say so explicitly, his early statement that Faulkner’s vision is that of epic invites the analogy: In that epic vision of the South, blacks are to the gods as whites are to mortals . . . except, of course, blacks are by and large unable to shape circumstances to their own advantage. Marginalized deities? The second is that, while Faulkner clearly sees such a positioning as honorific and ennobling of black people, Glissant and, by extension, African-Americans, see this (or should see this) as patronizing at best and, at worst, a denial of the same human agency that Faulkner’s whites have been cursed with.

All the above is why, as I’ve thought about all this, Go Down, Moses seems such a central text in the Faulkner canon–perhaps even the central text–and I’m not just saying that because if it weren’t for this novel I might very well not have written the dissertation (such as it is) that I did, much less be revisiting it now. In GDM, it seems clear, we find not only, through Ike McCaslin in particular, Faulkner’s clearest iteration of his conception of black people, we also find its most forceful rebuttal–as forceful as any that Glissant or any other critic could offer. The question that arises in my mind is, just how aware was Faulkner that his novel does that.

Those familiar with the history (publishing and critical) of Go Down, Moses know that its structure began posing problems from the very beginning: The initial dust jackets sent to Faulkner for his approval had the book’s title as “Go Down, Moses and Other Stories,” which angered the author. Even though much of the book consists of previously-published short stories, Faulkner added (most crucially, section 4 of “The Bear”) and reworked material in those stories so as to make them cohere into something he insisted was a novel.

The critical given is that Go Down, Moses is a novel, albeit a rather oddly-constructed one. Its chapters–if that’s the right word–have discrete titles which are not arranged in chronological order and whose characters do not often appear from one story to the next. The first-time reader would be forgiven if s/he thought this book were a short-story collection. Yet when one tries to write about one of the chapters in isolation, one realizes one more often than not has to take up material in one of those other chapters–sometimes several others. All that is Faulkner’s design.

That design, James A. Snead argues in his reading of the novel in his book Figures of Division, is a miscegenated design: it has attributes of, and confuses the traditional distinctions between, both novels and short story collections. Thus, Snead writes, because narrative is traditionally a site of authority and rule, a structure which disrupts conventional notions of narrative implicitly calls into question other such rules of ordering. Therefore, “[t]he prose of Go Down, Moses is in the truest sense a ‘dialogue,’ not an authoritative ‘telling’” (206).

That all makes sense, except that miscegenation is surely a central theme of this novel: it is Ike McCaslin, having learned that his grandfather had fathered a daughter by one of his slaves and then a son by that same daughter, who relinquishes his inheritance of his grandfather’s land and distributes the legacies set aside in that inheritance for his grandfather’s black descendants, so as to begin to do his part to atone for those sins. In more ways than one, Ike seeks to close the book on the past (here symbolized by the plantation ledgers where Ike learned of his grandfather’s outrages) so as to never have to re-open them and begin afresh. One cannot get more “authoritarian” in intention than that.

Yet, in “The Bear” with his cousin Cass and, even more important, in “Delta Autumn” with his kinsman Roth’s lover, Ike has conversations with people who call into serious question the wisdom of his actions–actions which, if Glissant’s reading of Faulkner generally is correct, Faulkner himself would approve of but which, when critiqued, seem allowed to stand (at least, as I read these moments): just because Ike feels despair does not mean that we have to, no matter how much we may find him a sympathetic figure. Consider, for example, this scene from “Delta Autumn,” what Eric Sundquist calls the grandest moment in all of Faulkner:

“That’s right. Go back North. Marry: a man in your own race. That’s the only salvation for you–for a while yet, maybe a long while yet. We will have to wait. Marry a black man. You are young, handsome, almost white; you could find a black man who would see in you what it was you saw in him, who would ask nothing of you and expect less and get even still less than that, if it’s revenge you want. The you will forget all this, forget it ever happened, that he ever existed–” until he could stop [talking] at last and did, sitting there in his huddle of blankets during the instant when, without moving at all, she blazed down silently at him. Then that was gone too. She stood in the gleaming and still dripping slicker, looking quietly down at him from under the sodden hat.

“Old man,” she said, “have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you dont remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?” (346)

You can’t get more dialogic than that. More crucially, though, it is an answer for which Ike literally has no reply.

But Roth’s lover–not just a mulatto (what Glissant, characterizing what he takes to be Faulkner’s opinion of them, calls a “genetic and cultural Snopes”) but also, as she reveals, the granddaughter of the son that Ike’s grandfather had fathered by his own daughter–got all that?–clearly is more admirable than the parasitic Snopes. Yet neither is she a stoic like Lucas Beauchamp or Sam Fathers, content to sit in silent judgment on the doings of white folks. She wants, as she says, only “Yes” from Roth–only affirmation of the love she feels for him–gets only money and a “No” from him. She leaves, her dignity intact, for somewhere–one gets the feeling that it is some place, even if she only returns to Vicksburg, that Ike (and perhaps even Faulkner, if Glissant is right) cannot even conceive of.

All this is a long way of saying that, at least as far as this woman is concerned, I would argue that Glissant is mistaken about the role of mulattoes in Faulkner–and, frankly, it’s a puzzle to me as to why that is, given how intelligently he reads Faulkner otherwise. Joe Christmas, this woman, and her grandfather James Beauchamp (known by the white McCaslins as Tennie’s Jim), Faulkner’s most prominent mulattoes, certainly destabilize the order of things in Yoknapatawpha County, but not in the ways the Snopes clan does. Indeed, James had deliberately chosen to leave the county on the eve of his 21st birthday, when he would be able to receive his inheritance from the McCaslin estate, so Ike could not find him to give that inheritance to him; and though it appears that Roth’s lover has returned to Mississippi to stay, she works as a schoolteacher: not the sort of job that either removes one from History or, one could hope, causes one to be a blight on the community. (Joe Christmas, by the way, is harder to characterize in these terms because it is only assumed but never definitively determined that he is of mixed race.) Indeed, Walter Taylor and others have argued that, in an alternate chronology of events, Roth’s lover would actually have made an ideal wife for Ike, that together they could have expiated Old McCaslin’s sins and, symbolically for Faulkner, the South’s as well.

Even so, Glissant argues that Faulkner isn’t interested in depicting alternate universes, or even alternate Souths: only his own, as he sees and comprehends it. However, the fact that we can see those alternate Souths in Faulkner’s work raises some tantalizing questions about reading and authorial intent. To fully work out what I’m mulling over just now would require another substantive post. For now, though, I’ll just say that there is such a thing as an author not fully comprehending the scope of his work and that, as embodied in Roth’s lover, “Delta Autumn”‘s–and Go Down, Moses‘–power (for this reader, at least) derives in large measure from precisely Faulkner’s not being entirely in control of all that material’s plausible meanings.


Black people in Faulkner’s world: Some passages from Faulkner, Mississippi

William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, his home outside Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. Photograph by Martin C. Dain. Image found here.

I’ve just finished having a look at Edouard Glissant’s book, Faulkner, Mississippi (you can find some preliminary comments over at my other blog). Short review: I don’t know if he’s right (see below), but he’s a thoughtful and provocative reader of Faulkner.

Back in a 1992 summer institute at LSU, I had the privilege of hearing Glissant, so his notion of Faulkner as a Caribbean writer–within the context of Glissant’s trope of the Plantation–which he explores in Faulkner, Mississippi, was not entirely new to me. But what I didn’t remember him discussing at LSU is his take on the place of black people in Faulkner’s vision of the South. What follows, then, are some passages that I hope will serve as a fair summation of that view.

For what it’s worth: Glissant genuinely admires Faulkner’s refusal to look away from his central theme of “the human heart in conflict with itself” as that theme applies to the South’s tragedy; even so, I think he also makes clear why many African-American readers have real troubles with Faulkner’s depictions of black people–though not, perhaps, for the reason(s) they or Faulkner’s white readers would offer by way of explanation for their ambivalence toward him.

In this hidden inquiry into origins (of the county and its maledictions), to which his works always give (or rather propose) answers that are postponed (into the infinity of Time and Death), Blacks are and represent the unsurpassable point of reference, those who remain and who assume.

Here, we find that the extended African family has no claim to constitute a family lineage. So it never meets with failure [. . . .] On Faulkner’s agenda, the only means of change for Blacks would be miscegenation: the advent of hte mulatto, some sort of genetic and cultural Snopes. That, at least, is what we read between the lines. (59-60)

More below the fold.

Among the historians of the South, especially the antebellum period, there are still those who attest to a real and indisputable cultural interaction, an “interchange,” between Whites and Blacks, in social mores, art, music, religion, crafts, work, and leisure. There are others who add nuance to this observation. The question is this: Is the South a society with two intertwined cultures, one dominant and the other dominated, or a society that combines two separate and distinct cultures? But “interchange” can exist without cooperation. So the question that remains unanswered is essentially this: is cultural interaction or “interchange” a harbinger of intermingling, miscegenation, and finally Creolization? (69)

[I]n the view of his biographer Frederick R. Karl, [Faulkner] pretends that what should have been realized there was a unique, Black-and-White race. It is clear that he did not use the term “miscegenated.”

The Black-and-White race resolves unbearable hates and absolves injustice, but preserves all absolutes. Black and White are absolutes; the half-breed is anathema. Still, Sam Fathers [in “The Bear”] was not a half-breed, but Black and Indian. (85)

(Sam’s Indian name, Sam Had-Two-Fathers, emphasizes this point.)

The only way to live the inextricable while escaping damnation is to extract oneself from “History,” to remain self-sufficient and petrify oneself, without hope and without illusion. That is what Faulknerian Negroes do. (92)

This négresse [Nancy Mannigoe of Requiem for a Nun], this absolute person, is a good example of what Faulkner would offer as a contrast to Blacks generally, in the name he has of his conception of them–seeing them in his works as keepers of the suffering, guardians of the temple of the unspeakable, but not as an oppressed population that has the simple right to rise up against oppression. (94)

One quick comment in response, mostly, to this last excerpt’s final words, but also with regard to Glissant’s comments on mulattoes in Faulkner: If all this is right, then it becomes very tempting to read Ike McCaslin of Go Down, Moses as a solid candidate for a Faulkner character who most closely speaks for the author himself. And if that is true, then the scene in “Delta Autumn” between Ike and Roth’s lover–her clear refusal to extract herself from History (which is, ironically, the very course of action Ike has chosen through his relinquishment of his claim to his grandfather’s land)–acquires even more poignancy. She refuses to be a “keeper of the suffering.” No wonder Ike (and many critics out there who think they’re reading her but are, in fact, reading her through Ike’s eyes) can’t make heads or tails of her.

But whereas Glissant argues that Faulkner cannot (or does not want to) conceive of African-Americans as “an oppressed population that has the simple right to rise up against oppression,” I don’t think the woman in “Delta Autumn” thinks of herself as a member of such a population, either. I keep deferring my working all this out on the “pages” of this site and will have to yet again, but for now I’ll just say that she wants no part of either role. I do hope, though, that whoever might stumble across this might chime in via comments on Glissant’s claims.


The thing about manifestos . . . (summing up/responding to Mignolo)

Anon., El hallazgo de la Virgen de los Remedios. 18th century. Pinacoteca de la Profesa, Mexico City. Image found here

The thing about manifestos is their tendency toward the use of the broad rhetorical brush. Consider:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Well, sure, you say. But.

Mignolo’s book, The Idea of Latin America (see this post and this post for some earlier comments), is part of Blackwell’s Manifestos series of books, and so it is likewise filled with similar language:

My point here is . . . that the “idea of Latin” America twisted the past, on the one hand, and made it possible to frame the imperial/colonial period as proto-national histories, and, on the other, made it possible to “make” into “Latin America” historical events that occurred after the idea was invented and adapted. . . . The “idea of Latin” America allowed the Creole elites to detach themselves from their Spanish and Portuguese pasts, embrace the ideology of France, and forget the legacies of their own critical consciousness. As a consequence, “Latin” American Creoles turned their backs on Indians and Blacks and their faces to France and England. (67)

Well, sure–and a little later I’ll be quoting from someone Mignolo surely has in mind here, José Vasconcelos. But as we’ll see, as Vasconcelos strains to see a vision of an essentially Europeanized Mexico, the fact that he has to strain is not inconsequential. Yet throughout his book, Mignolo argues that in the long view of the history of the Americas from the Encounter on, it is only “now”–the past 20 years or so–that what he calls the decolonizing of the Americas has begun to occur at the level worth considering [read: politics and trade].

It’s not that Mignolo isn’t capable of nuance as he surveys Latin America. Indeed, as I noted in my first post on his book, I was very pleased to see him mention Edmundo O’Gorman’s central book (to my mind–it’s amazing to me that this book is not still in print) in thinking about this hemisphere, The Invention of America; and what he says about the idea of America as invention is promising:

O’Gorman’s “invention of America” theory was a turning point that put on the table a perspective that was absent and not recognized from the existing European and imperial narratives. Let’s agree that O’Gorman made visible a dimension of history that was occluded by the partial “discovery” narratives, and let’s also agree that it was an example of how things may look from the varied experiences of coloniality. (5)

Okay, let’s. I’m game–indeed, this is the very use to which I put O’Gorman in my dissertation and will be again in this project. But before letting O’Gorman drop completely a few pages later, Mignolo feels the need to tell and then remind the reader that O’Gorman is a member of the Mexican cultural elite and that the notion of America as invented is a Creole notion–and since Creoles, in Mignolo’s thinking, are allied intellectually and culturally to Europe, their ideas are to be regarded with suspicion. The strong tendency in Western thought, Mignolo argues throughout his book, is that those in obeisance to it at best condescendingly tolerate competing worldviews but ultimately argue for its supremacy over those other worldviews. To which the response would be, I’d say, that no given culture would be worthy of the name if it didn’t insist on its values over and against those of other cultures–but that’s an argument for another day. What’s of more significance to me for this post is that, as Mignolo talks about “invention” as opposed to “discovery,” the dynamic of the former, with its implication of intercultural resistance and, more positively, dialogue, is an idea that Mignolo clearly favors, as he shows in his book’s later discussions of political, trade, and education movements in Mexico and South America that engage in, as he puts it, “an-other logic, an-other language, an-other thinking” (xx). Yet even when discussing them, he doesn’t mention O’Gorman, much less the notion of “invention,” again. It’s curious as to why this is, especially given Mignolo’s discussion of the Christian worldview which, he argues, struggled initially in its attempts to account for the landmasses that Columbus had encountered.

It’s O’Gorman’s argument that that worldview was predicated upon there being three continents with three corresponding races of people (Mignolo is very good at laying out this in his book’s first chapter). If the landmasses of the Western Hemisphere fit comfortably into that schema. then “discovery,” with its dynamic of the active (read: masculine) European and the passive, virginal (read: feminine) new land (and its previously-unknown inhabitants) ripe for the claiming, would be a most appropriate term. But they, and their inhabitants, didn’t. Instead, it would not be long after Columbus’ return to Spain that many people expressed their doubts that he had landed in Asia. Columbus’ subsequent voyages, as well as those of others–in particular, Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage–would, indeed, lead to the coinage of the term “new world” as a way even to begin talking about these new landmasses and their peoples, those old ways not being able to make sense of all this. All this was not an easy thing for Europeans to deal with at the most fundamental of levels, as I note here as part of my discussion of Margarita Zamora’s excellent book, Reading Columbus, where she takes up the question of whether Columbus knew beforehand that he was not sailing off the coast of Asia (for what it’s worth, she doesn’t think he did, and neither do I):

What matters is that no one else in Europe knew (aside from the Vikings, and who wanted to talk to a bunch of half-barbaric Norwegians and Swedes?): the real significance of his voyages is the absolute, utter reorientation of European (and, later, African and–even more dramatically–Amerindian) thinking–political, religious, scientific, cultural, economic–that his return and the news he brought back with him in 1493 caused. “Everything you know is wrong” comes pretty close to describing things for the peoples of four continents for the following century or so. Few events, before or since, have so profoundly altered so many people’s conceptions of themselves or of human institutions. The world became round in lived experience, no longer remaining an assumed but untested truth.

Mignolo would appear to argue against this: he would say that these effects were all one way, that Euro-Christian literal and figurative rapaciousness was no match for the resistances that the cultures encountered here could mount. Coloniality/Modernity (Mignolo argues that neither is imaginable without the other) subsumed everything and everyone in its path and that it is only now, in the past two decades, that indigenous and other previously-marginalized peoples are able to be heard in any meaningful sense of that term.

A quick summary history of the Americas would indeed read more or less like that, and I would be the last person to claim that unspeakable things were not done to indigenous peoples and people of African descent in the name of God and King. But to say that only now are people in this hemisphere beginning to decolonize themselves, to think in an-other way (to borrow Mignolo’s language for a bit), is the result of either just not looking around the Americas (only one case in point being the image at the top of this post) or, while in service to one’s manifesto, missing some fascinating trees that together comprise a rather different forest. It’s to presume that these cultures were only adversaries relative to each other, that they otherwise had nothing to say to each other.

If there is a whiter Mexican than José Vasconcelos, I’d sure like to know about him or her. Vasconcelos is a central figure in Mexican intellectual and cultural life in the decades immediately following the Revolution of 1910. He is perhaps best known in this country for his book La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race, 1925), in which he envisions a utopian fifth race–the cosmic race–emerging as a fusion of European, Asian, African and Amerindian peoples in the Amazon jungles. The goal is to distill the very best qualities of each race (and purify the very worst of them). This, Vasconcelos argues, is humankind’s destiny. You would be correct if you guessed that Mignolo finds such talk less than utopian. This smoothing out of racial and cultural difference smacks of nothing so much as a sort of happy-talk eugenics, and even someone more favorably predisposed toward Vasconcelos’ vision would find certain passages in it to be racist, especially as regards people of African descent. It is books like La raza cósmica that for some have rendered potentially suspect terms like mestizaje and hybridity (Joshua Lund’s book The Impure Imagination is a rigorous discussion of that particular topic).

Yet in a series of lectures he and Manuel Gamio delivered at the University of Chicago in 1926, Aspects of Mexican Civilization, Vasconcelos’ description of Mexican civilization is considerably less monolithic in its (European) character than Mignolo describes it, for reasons of Mexico’s pre-Columbian past. Here, for example, Vasconcelos rationalizes the chief reason why Mexico has not yet achieved that which Mignolo argues in his book it already had achieved:

Instead of an evolutionary series of events, as you may find for instance in the history of Europe, the history of Mexico will show you a number of glorious but lonely, disconnected efforts like sparks in the darkness, and in the background a constantly recurring tragedy and anarchy. In this manner even the wise of every period find themselves unable to take advantage of the cultural conquests of the preceding epoch; and each new period through the destruction of the past finds itself in the need of building anew the whole fabric of social life. Such an overwhelming undertaking consumes, of course, the national energy and postpones the realization of truly transcendent plans. (“The Latin-American Basis of Mexican Civilization,” 5)

Or, a bit more lyrically:

. . . . Mexico and the rest of the highland country [of Latin America–specifically, the Andes] is not a virgin territory, not a barren, empty zone, but a land more complicated precisely because it is filled with residues of past civilizations, haunted with phantasms of noble failures that call to our will for a new opportunity of development. (18)

As I read this, I couldn’t help but wonder if those residues and phantasms Vasconcelos refers to are not traces of past civilizations but, rather, the vital and vibrant mestizo culture of his own nation–a culture that, in the words of Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, is the product of

the struggle between colonial European culture and indigenous culture. . . . Opposing elements of the cultures in contact tend to be mutually exclusive, confronting and opposing each other; but at the same time they tend to interpenetrate, combining and identifying with each other” [. . . . Mexican culture] developed through countless vicissitudes that led to its definitive consolidation with the triumph of the revolution of 1910. (in Serge Gruzinski, The Mestizo Mind, 21)

Given all this context, look again at the painting that appears at the beginning of this post. How would Mignolo talk about it? Would he see only its overt Catholicism and the hints of El Greco in the rendering of the kneeling figure? What would he make of the maguey plant the Virgin emerges from clearly locating this painting’s physical setting in the valley of Mexico? Would he agree with me that this painting, though from the 18th century, feels as though it could be much more contemporary, like the work of one of the great 20th-century Mexican muralists, like Siquieros or Orozco? And–given that the shrine to the Virgin is built on top of a pyramid, might there be some implicit message in this painting’s depiction of the Virgin emerging from the maguey, a plant with multiple uses for the Indians of the area?

Speaking as someone who is no expert but who has seen his share of religious paintings from the Mexican colonial era, I can tell you that this painting is not your standard fare. But, as I’m learning from The Mestizo Mind, this is only a more extreme example of what reveals itself upon closer inspection of many colonial-era paintings: some traces of the vision of the indigenous painters who produced these works. To my mind, at least, they serve as a reminder that sweeping generalizations sometimes obscure more than they clarify and, more to the point that “invention” has been part of the experience of living in the New World from the earliest days of the Encounter.

More on Gruzinski’s book in a future post. So far though, it’s an excellent discussion of the dynamics of (cultural) mestizaje.


A reading of a casta painting

(Note: This post, crossposted here, is part of a larger interest of mine in identifying the characteristics of visual and textual rhetorics of interracial mixing and seeing what larger conclusions we can draw from those characteristics.)

Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (Yale, 2004). Amazon link here. Image found here.

Posts both at my other blog and at this one on the genre of casta painting continue to draw a fair amount of traffic, so as a follow-up to those posts I thought I would post some brief comments on Katzew’s book and offer up not so much a reading of a painting as a kind of wading-into of the various social codes casta paintings participated in.

Here are some things I hadn’t know before reading this book that seem to me of significance: First of all, casta paintings are apparently exclusively a Spanish colonial–more precisely Mexican–genre (though Katzew notes the existence of one known casta painting set from Peru). This was surprising to me because the French Caribbean colonies likewise had worked out elaborate nomenclatures for various racial combinations–though theirs involved black-white combinations, and the New Spain system carried within it an implicit didactic element for its audience, about which more later. The other thing I didn’t know was the extent of these paintings’ popularity: Katzew notes that there are 100 known complete sets of these paintings (a set usually consists of 16 paintings; some depict up to 19 racial combinations) and any number of paintings belonging to now-incomplete sets. The other sign of their popularity is that, similar to but stricter than the guild system for painters in Dutch and Flemish culture, the Spanish crown regulated the licensing of artist workshops and who could paint what subjects in the colonies. Specifically, the Crown determined through examination who could paint religious and royal subjects and how to paint them, but no such regulations governed casta paintings; Katzew politely suggests that this lack of regulation accounts for these paintings’ “wide range of quality” (9).

If you have more than passing (no pun, about which more later) interest in this subject, look for this book. Katzew’s book is exemplary art history, with the emphasis here on the “history” part. But though there is lots of history, it serves to provide much-needed context for what would otherwise be rather enigmatic paintings. But neither does it skimp on images: there are 265 of them, most of them in color, not counting large closeups of some of the paintings. Moreover, many of the paintings included here are held privately and published here for the first time, thus adding to the book’s value.

Reading Katzew’s book reassured me that for the most part I hadn’t just been talking through my hat in those earlier posts regarding these paintings’ ambiguities for their audiences. Because her book is a work of art history, as opposed to criticism, she does not in the end argue for a definitive way to think about them. Rather, by so firmly establishing their cultural and social and legal contexts, Katzew makes clear that a far safer way for us to think about these paintings is that how they were understood in the 18th century depended on a whole complex of issues. They are part American exotica for primarily Spanish consumption, part visual codification of class and racial codes (and, thus, reassurance for Spaniards that everything is under control) . . . and yet, something about the very necessity to create a casta system in the first place would lead to its eventual (partial) deconstruction in the form of the wars for independence in the first quarter of the 19th century. The title of Katzew’s conclusion pretty much sums it up: “A genre with many meanings.” It’s outside the scope of her book to do so, but I would push that conclusion harder: Given that these series of paintings are intended to be part dictionary of racial types, part social code, and part visual cabinet of curiosities, I tend to think that their audiences, if they thought about the correspondences between the paintings and the realities of New Spain, could not escape the uneasy feeling that a social order founded on racial difference would eventually become untenable–especially given that part of these paintings’ very point (and whether this point was intended or not is difficult to determine) is that those differences were becoming ever harder to discern in real life. These paintings end up implicitly depicting their own inadequacy to depict the very thing they’re intended to depict–another version of something I was trying to get at in this post with regard to American literature.

Imagine if the King of Ambiguity in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne, had instead been a painter in 18th-century colonial Mexico. I think you’d have a pretty good sense of the complexities casta paintings presented for their immediate audiences–and, for that matter, for us.

An example of what I mean is below the fold.

Attributed to Juan Rodríguez Juárez. “De mulatto y mestiza, produce mulatto es torna atrás” (Mulatto and Mestiza Produce a Mulatto Return-Backwards), c. 1715 (image found here).

This is a very typical casta painting: the parents and child shown in a relaxed setting and enjoying each other’s company. Based on their dress, they appear to be well off. One thing the viewer cannot see, though, is that this painting is not meant to stand alone. It is one of a series of 16 paintings, each of which depicts a father and mother of different racial designations and their resulting offspring. Earlier paintings in the series would show the racial combinations that would produce a mulatto/a and a mestizo/a (Spaniard-Negro and Spaniard-Indian, respectively); knowing this means we can place this painting approximately in the middle of the series–which also serves as an implicit social ranking for this couple as well.

The didactic portion of this painting, as with all casta paintings, is in the child’s racial designation. Katzew notes that while “pure” Spaniards occupied the undisputed pinnacle of the colonies’ social hierarchies, Spanish-Indian intermarriage was tolerated because indigenous peoples were likewise regarded as a “pure” race. Moreover, mestizos/as who themselves “married up,” ethnically speaking, would in three generations produce offspring regarded as “Spanish.” The offspring of Spanish-African intermarriage, however, had no such corresponding promises if they also married up: People of African descent were regarded as a degenerate people for biblical reasons; thus, no one with African blood in his/her family’s past, no matter how remote, could be regarded as white. The mestiza mother, had she married a Spaniard, would have produced a castizo/a, who then, had s/he married a Spaniard, would produce offspring considered by law to be Spaniards. Those combinations, by the way, would have been depicted in preceding paintings in the series. Instead, this mother has married a mulatto; their son’s designation as a “Return-Backwards” refers to the fact that for his offspring there is no hope of their whitening, whether or not they marry up in the hierarchy. The official message of this painting, then, could not be clearer–if, that is, one is interested in achieving the eventual racial redemption of one’s progeny. I should quickly add here that miscegenation in the abstract was officially regarded by Spaniards as a sign of moral degeneracy; casta paintings from the second half of the 18th century would seek to combat this attitude by depicting such things as lighter-skinned mothers breast-feeding their children (it was thought at the time that having infants nourished by wet-nurses (who tended to be Indians or blacks) contributed to that moral degeneracy) and depicting all but the very lowest of the racial castes as prosperous or engaged in honest labor. At this point in the history of the genre, I think one could make a case for an implicit politics present in these paintings: By the latter half of the 18th century, New Spain was demographically a criollo (Creole) society, and many of these paintings make an implicit case that the most prosperous of the Spanish colonies was not suffering as a result. On the contrary: almost all its subjects, no matter their caste, were contributing to that prosperity.

But even as this painting implicitly dramatizes what is officially seen to be (in this case) a mother’s unfortunate choice in a husband, Katzew’s book also is at pains to discuss markers of social class other than race in New Spain, one of which is on display in this painting: clothes. One’s ethnicity consigned one to a certain status in the colony, and certain jobs, especially those having to do with the administering of the colony’s affairs, were reserved for Spaniards. However, there were apparently no restrictions on business ownership; thus, some mulattoes and others of lower racial castes became quite wealthy and dressed the part. You can see where this is headed: At least some lighter-skinned members of lower castes who had the means would pass as wealthy castizos so as to secure status and plum positions either for themselves or for their children. Katzew makes note of the fact that the viceroys passed laws forbidding the ostentatious display of wealth via the wearing of expensive fabrics and placing limits on the number of pieces of jewelry one could wear in public. The official reason given had to do with the fact that such displays ran contrary to the more preferred public image of humility; surely, though, the codified rigidity of the casta system could not change the obvious fact that, as intermarriage over time blurred and further blurred obvious physical distinctions among whites, blacks and Indians, one could no longer be certain of others’ castes just by looking at them. The regulations placed on clothes, then, were intended to create more surety along these lines. This painting, though, and many other casta paintings’ subjects, make pretty clear what Katzew’s text confirms: that people ignored the regulations, which weren’t stringently enforced anyway.

A fair question arises: Did Rodríguez Juárez intend for his casta paintings to raise all this? The short answer is, Who knows? And it’s that response, which I’m not at all dismissive of, that Katzew is at pains to make clear in her book by staying away from definitive readings of these paintings’ ultimate intentions. Though casta paintings were a popular genre, they weren’t the sort of things that were painted “just because.” Often, they were commissioned by a patron as souvenirs of his time in New Spain or to be given as gifts to friends or associates. Moreover, over time a certain standardization arose within this genre: within these series certain scenes became associated with certain caste groupings as painters took their cues from their peers. So, all those factors–the market-driven nature of the genre; the patron’s purpose(s) in commissioning a set; the beginnings of standardization–also make it harder to know what, if anything, the artist might have wanted to say about his subject via his work. It’s nevertheless true, though, that these paintings participate in Spanish and colonial debates on race and class and serve to reveal the complexities and subtleties of that debate.


Three casta paintings

mulato2.gif Attrib. José de Alcíbar, 6. De Español y Negra, Mulato, ca. 1760-1770. Denver Art Museum. Image found here; specifics for this painting from Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico.

Two worlds God has placed in the hands of our Catholic Monarch, and the New does not resemble the Old, not in its climate, its customs, nor its inhabitants; it has another legislative body, another council for governing, yet always with the end of making them alike: In the Old Spain only a single caste of men is recognized, in the New many and different.
–Francisco Antonio Lorenzana, Spanish prelate and archbishop of Mexico from 1766 to 17721

In Antonio Lorenzana’s statement we find a basic stating of something that the Spanish crown was simply blind to, at least on an official level: that its colonies were not merely just really far away from Madrid but could not have been more different from Spain. Certainly by Antonio Lorenzana’s time those differences were inescapable; Mexico’s revolt from Spain would begin only 40 years later.

All art is the human imagination’s attempt to make sense of the world and the things and people in it, and casta paintings are a distinctly New World genre that attempts to depict and codify the bewildering variety of racial combinations arising from the commingling of indigenous, African and European populations in this hemisphere.

At times these paintings, reflecting the Enlightenment era’s fascination with describing racial and ethnic distinctions and, for that matter, taxonomies more generally, produced chart-like paintings such as this one (click on the image to enlarge it), as well as larger portraits like those I’ve posted here. Closely related to this fascination (even mania?) for categorizing is the Old World’s fascination with New World exotica of all kinds–and not just the indigenous flora and fauna, either. These depictions of various mixed-blood couples and their offspring would have counted as exotica as well. Surely, one subconscious message of these paintings, given their subject matter of father, mother and child, is, well, sex with people who clearly were not Spaniards: a still-touchy subject in race-conscious Spain.

Alternately, one could be rather Freudian about all this and say that casta paintings are a manifestation of the uncanny: Spaniards, themselves more than a little preoccupied with racial purity yet confronted with the undeniable fact of 700 years of mixing of Moorish and Jewish and Spanish populations, perhaps saw in these depictions of commingling populations in New Spain an outlet for their own anxieties and yet, at the same time, an opportunity to assert the superiority (whether racial or socioeconomic) of the “Spanish race.” mulatobig.jpg That seems to be an implicit message in the both the painting at the beginning of this post and this one (image found here).

Their obvious compositional similarities surely serve to make that argument: in each, set in a kitchen, the Spaniard is dressed to go out to conduct business; the woman is dressed in housework garb and stands in the background–in the shadows, in more ways than one. The son, meanwhile, though dressed differently in each, nevertheless is in a position of servitude relative to the father–head respectfully bowed, offering up a dish to the father–but both males are interposed between the viewer and the mother. There is also present in the staging of the mother in this scene what Joshua Lund, in the midst of discussing a Brazilian text describing “the symbolic colonized woman,” would describe as a visual depiction of a woman as “a subject within narratives of hybridity. She is a ‘subject’ in both senses: insofar as she is subjectified as an agent, and insofar as she is subjugated by a system of patriarchy” (The Impure Imagination: Toward a Critical Hybridity in Latin American Writing, 137, his italics).

mestizo-lobo-sm.jpg The complicated relationship between miscegenation and class, some speculate, is also something to be considered when looking at casta paintings. That message could not be more explicit than it is in these little paintings by Pedro Alonso O’Crouley from 1774 (originally found here). The caption for the top painting reads, in English, “Spaniard and Indian, Mestizo”; that for the bottom reads, “Indian and Mulatto, ‘Lobo.’” But what is more important to be read in the text that is this painting: In the top panel, the Spaniard is well-dressed, and the Indian woman, though plainly dressed, seems to be well-cared for–and perhaps, judging from the image, may be pregnant again. As she holds the baby toward the Spaniard, he points toward the baby, a calm, self-assured look on his face. The same can’t be said for the couple in the lower panel: both are clearly impoverished; the man, his hands full, cannot gesture toward his child, who in any case is bundled, papoose-like, on his mother’s back–a culturally-accurate depiction, but perhaps also suggestive of the figurative burden this child will be to her.

The homepage for the website Casta Paintings: The Construction and Depiction of Race in Colonial Mexico offers up a survey of prevailing opinions regarding the cultural/social forces that led to their making, some of which I’ve touched on above. If you’re at all curious about this subject, the whole page is worth your time; here, though, is the summation:

[Casta painting] cannot be understood without recognizing its position in contemporary philosophical, scientific, and artistic traditions. Nor can it be separated from the interwoven history of Spain and New Spain during the colonial period. It reveals the fascinations and preoccupations of the era and offers insight into the construction of ethnorace in colonial times.

I’d just say that that last sentence, though accurate, is awfully polite. Though miscegenation was not policed in Latin America nearly to the extent that it was in the United States, during the colonial era it clearly caused more than a little anxiety on the part of the ruling class (European-born Spaniards–even people born in the New World of Spanish-born parents were seen as lower in rank by virtue of their having been born in this hemisphere). The Spaniard men in each of these paintings are well-dressed, serene, being served by their offspring: all visual messages meant to signify their control of their world, never mind the ethnic, cultural and political gumbo simmering all about them, all but unacknowledged.

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  1. Pingback: La Conquistadora–Some Concluding Thoughts | Domestic Issue

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