Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources

Tzvetan Todorov

The Conquest of America:
The Question of the Other

Todorov, Tzvetan.  The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other.  Translated from the French by Richard Howard.  NY: Harper & Row, 1984. (Editions du Seuil, 1982). 

I.  Discovery

The Discovery of America

3.  subject--the discovery self makes of the other

I can conceive of these others [also I's] as an abstraction, as an instance of any individual's psychic configuration, as the Other--other in relation to myself, to me; or else as a specific social group to which we do not belong.  This group in turn can be interior to society: women for men, the rich for the poor, the mad for the "normal"; or it can be exterior to society, i.e., another society which will be near or far away, depending on the case: beings whom everything links to me on the cultural, moral, historical plane; or else unknown quantities, outsiders whose language and customs I do not understand, so foreign that in extreme instances I am reluctant to admit they belong to the same species as my own.  It is this problematics of the exterior and remote other that I have chosen--somewhat arbitrarily and because one cannot speak of everything all at once--in order to open an investigation that can never be closed.

          But how to speak of such things?  In Socrates' time, an orator was accustomed to ask his audience which genre or mode of expression was preferred: myth--i.e., narrative--or logical argumentation?


4  I have chose to narrate a history.  Closer to myth than to argument, it is nonetheless to be distinguished from myth on two levels: first because it is a true story (which myth could, but need not, be), and second because my main interest is less a historian's than a moralist's; the present is more important to me than the past.... a story which will be as true as possible but in telling which I shall try never to lose sight of what biblical exegesis used to call its tropological or ethical meaning.




unities: time: 100 years after Columbus' first voyage (i.e., 16th c by and large; place, region of Caribbean and Mexico (Mesoamerica); action Spaniards' perception of the Indians


4-5 At the beginning of the 16c, the Indians of America are certainly present, but nothing is known about them, even if, as we might expect, certain images and ideas concerning other remote populations were projected upon these newly discovered beings.  The encounter will never again achieve such an intensity, if indeed that is the word to use: the 16c perpetrated the greatest genocide in human history.


5 is in fact the conquest of America that heralds and establishes our present identity; even if every date that permits us to separate any two periods is arbitrary, none is more suitable, in order to mark the beginning of the modern era, than the year 1492, the year Columbus crosses the Atlantic Ocean.  We are all the direct descendants of Columbus, it is with him that our genealogy begins, insofar as the word beginning has a meaning.


Since that have discovered the totality of which they are a part, whereas hitherto they formed a part without a whole.  This book will be an attempt to understand what happened in that year, and during the century that followed, through the reading of several texts, whose authors will be my characters.  These will engage in monologues, like Columbus; in the dialogue of actions, like Cortes and Montezuma, or in that of learned discourse, like Las Casas and Sepulveda; or less obviously, like Duran and Sahagun, in the dialogue with their Indian interlocutors.


8  Gold--or rather the search for it, for not much is found at the start--is omnipresent in the course of Columbus's first voyage....  Is it, then, no more than greed that sent Columbus on his journey?  It suffices to read his writings through to be convinced that this is anything but the case.  Quite simply, Columbus knows the lure value of wealth, and of gold in particular.  By the promise of gold he reassures others in difficult moments.


10  Infinitely more than gold, the spread of Christianity is Columbus's heart's desire, and he has set forth his feelings in the case very explicitly, notably in a letter to the pope.


Furthermore, the need for money and the desire to impose the true God are not mutually exclusive.  There is even a relation of subordination between the two: one is a means, the other an end.  In reality, Columbus has a more specific project than the exaltation of the Gospel in the universe, and the existence as well as the permanence of this

11 project is indicative of his mentality: a kind of Quixote a few centuries behind his times, Columbus aspires to set off on a crusade to liberate Jerusalem!


12  However, we may also discern in Columbus some features of a mentality closer to us.  On one hand, then, he submits everything to an exterior and absolute ideal (the Christian religion), and every terres-/13 trial event is merely a means toward the realization of that ideal.  On the other, however, he seems to find in the activity in which he is most successful, the discovery of nature [,] a pleasure that makes this activity self-sufficient; it ceases to have the slightest utility, and instead of a means becomes an end.  Just as for modern man a thing, an action, or a being is beautiful only if it finds its justification, for Columbus "to discover" is an intransitive action.


The profits which "should be" found there interest Columbus only secondarily: what counts are the "lands" and their discovery. This discovery seems in truth subject to a goal, which is the narrative of the voyage: one might say that Columbus has undertaken it all in order to be able to tell unheard-of stories, like Ulysses; but is not a travel narrative itself the point of departure, and not only the point of arrival, of a new voyage?  Did not Columbus himself set sail because he had read Marco Polo's narrative?


Columbus as Interpreter


14  Columbus cites three reasons in support of his conviction [that the land he sees before him is indeed the continent, and not another island] :  the abundance of fresh water; the authority of the sacred books; the opinion of other men he has met with.  Now it is clear that these three arguments are not to be set on the same level, but reveal the existence of three spheres that articulate Columbus's world: one is natural, one divine, and the third human. Hence it may not be an accident that we can also find three motives for the conquest: the first human (wealth), the second divine, and the third linked to a delight in nature. And in his communication with the world, Columbus behaves differently depending on whether he is addressing (or being addressed by) nature, God, or men.


17  There is nothing of the modern empiricist about Columbus: the decisive argument is an argument of authority, not of experience.  He knows in advance what he will find; the concrete experience is there to illustrate a truth already possessed, not to be interrogated according to preestablished rules in order to seek the truth....  [H]e was always a finalist....


he who identifies himself with the sailor's occupation has dealings with nature rather than with his kind; and in his mind, nature has assuredly more affinities with God than men have:  he writes in a single impulse, in the margin of Ptolemy's Geography: "Admirable are the tumultuous forces of the sea. Admirable is God in the depths."


19  With a solemnity worthy of the adventures in boys' books, he takes advantage of his knowledge of the date of an imminent lunar eclipse.  Stranded on the Jamaican coast for eight months, he can no longer persuade the Indians to bring him provisions without his having to pay for them; he then threatens to steal the moon from them, and on the evening of February 29, 1504, he begins to carry out his threat, before the terrified eyes of the caciques...  His success is instantaneous.

          But two characters exist (for us) in Columbus, and whenever the navigator's profession is no longer at stake, the finalist strategy prevails in his system of interpretation: the latter no longer consists in seeking the truth but in finding confirmations of a truth known in advance (or, as we say, in wishful thinking).


20  In the course of the third voyage, he pursues the same program of thought: he believes these lands are rich, for he greatly desires that they be so; his conviction is always anterior to his experience.


vague analogy


21  Las Casas remarks with some justice apropos of another such example:  "It is a wonder to see how, when a man greatly desires something and strongly attaches himself to it in his imagination, he has the impression at every moment that whatever he hears and sees argues in favor of that thing" (Historia, I, 44).


22 "A fine of ten thousand maravedis [Spanish currency] is imposed on anyone who subsequently says the contrary of what he now said...."


The interpretation of nature's signs as practiced by Columbus is determined by the result that must be arrived at.  His very exploit, the discovery of America, proceeds from the same behavior:  he does not discover it, he finds it where he "knew" it would be (where he thought the eastern coast of Asia was to be found).


23  In this way the finalist interpretation is not necessarily less effective than the empiricist: other navigators dared not undertake Columbus's voyage because they did not possess his certainty.

          This type of interpretation, based on prescience and authority, has nothing "modern" about it.  But, as we have seen, this attitude is balanced by another, much more familiar to us: the intransitive admiration of nature, experience with such intensity that it is freed from any interpretation and from any function.


24  In order to describe his admiration of nature, Columbus cannot leave off the use of the superlative.  The green of the trees is so intense that it is no longer green.


25  The attentive observation of nature leads, then, in three different directions: to the purely pragmatic and effective interpretation concerning matters of navigation; to the finalist interpretation, in which signs confirm the beliefs and hopes entertained in any other regard; and finally, to that rejection of interpretation constituted by intransitive admiration, the absolute submission to beauty, in which one loves a tree because it is lovely, because it is, not because one might make use of it as a mast for one's ship or because its presence promises wealth.  With regard to human signs, Columbus's behavior will be much simpler.

           Between the two, there is a gap.  The signs of nature are indices, stable associations between two entities, and it is enough that one be present for the immediate inference of the other to be possible.  Human signs, i.e., the words of the language , are not simple associations--they do not directly link a sound to a thing, but pass through the intermediary of meaning, which is an intersubjective reality.  Now, and this is the first striking phenomenon, with regard to language Columbus seems to pay attention only to proper names, which in some respects are what is closely related to natural indices.  Let us first observe this attention and, to begin with, the concern with which Columbus surrounds his own name, to such a degree that, as we know, he changes its orthography several times during his life.


26  Columbus (or, in the proper orthography, Colon) and after him Las Casas, like many of their contemporaries, believe then that names, or at least the names of exceptional persons, should be in the image of their being; and Columbus had noted in himself two features worthy to figure in his own name: the evangelizer and the colonizer; he was not mistaken, after all.  The same attention to his name, which borders on fetishism, is manifest in the concern with which he surrounds his signature; for he does not sign documents, like everyone else, with his name, but with a specially elaborated siglum....


Even the commas and periods are determined in advance!  This extreme attention to his own name finds a natural extension in his activity as a name giver in the course of his voyages.  Like Adam in the midst of Eden, Columbus is profoundly concerned with the choice of /27 names for the virgin world before his eyes; and as in his own case, these names must be motivated.  The motivation is established in several ways.  At the beginning, we observe a kind of diagram: the chronological order of the baptisms corresponds to the order of importance of the objects associated with these names.  These will be, successively, God, the Virgin Mary, the King of Spain, the Queen, the Royal Prince.


27 ...Columbus knows perfectly well that these islands already have names, natural ones in a sense (but in another acceptation of the term); others' words interest him very little, however, and he seeks to rename places in terms of the rank they occupy in his discover, to give them the right names; moreover nomination is equivalent to taking possession.  Later on, having more or less used up the religious and royal hierarchies, he resorts to a more traditional motivation--by direct resemblance--for which he immediately gives us a justification.  "I gave this cape the name Formosa because indeed it is fair" (19/10/1492).


28  The first gesture Columbus makes upon contact with the newly discovered lands (hence the first contact between Europe and what will be America) is an act of extended nomination: this is the declaration according to which these lands are henceforth part of the Kingdom of Spain.


Now, as we have said, proper names form a very particular sector of the vocabulary: devoid of meaning, they serve only for denotation, but not directly for human communication; they are addressed to nature (to the referent), not to men; they are, in the fashion of indices, direct associations between aural sequences of sounds and segments of the world.  The share of human communication that occupies Columbus's attention is therefore precisely that sector of language which serves , at least in an initial phase, only to designate nature.


29  The entire vocabulary is, or him, in the image of proper names, and these derive from the properties of the objects they designate: the colonizer must be called Colon.  Words are, and are only, the image of things.

          Hence we shall not be surprised to see how little attention Columbus pays to foreign languages.  His spontaneous reaction, which he does not always make explicit but which underlies his behavior, is that, ultimately, linguistic diversity does not exist, since language is natural.  Which is all the more astounding in that Columbus himself is polyglot, and at the same time deprived of his mother tongue: he speaks equally well (or badly) Genovese, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish.  But ideological certainties can always overcome individual contingencies.  His very conviction of Asia's proximity, which gives him the courage to set out, rests on a specific linguistic misunderstanding.  The common belief of his time holds that the earth is round; but it is supposed, with reason, that the distance between Europe and Asia by the western route is very great, even impassable. [mistakes Arab astronomer Alfraganus's Arab nautical miles (1/3 greater) for Italian nautical miles]


30  Columbus's failure to recognize the diversity of languages permits him, when he confronts a foreign tongue, only two possible, and complementary, forms of behavior: to acknowledge it as a language but to refuse to believe it is different; or to acknowledge its difference but to refuse to admit it is a language....


When Columbus finally acknowledges the foreignness of one language, he insists at least that it be also the foreignness of all the others; on the one side, then, there are the Latin languages, and on the other, all foreign tongues; the resemblances are great within each group....


31  The result of this failure of attention to the other's language is predictable: indeed, throughout the first voyage, before the Indians taken back to Spain have learned "to speak," the situation is one of total incomprehension; or, as Las Casas says in the margin of Columbus's journal: "They were all groping in darkness, because they did not understand what the Indians were saying" (30/10/1490).  This is not shocking, after all, nor even surprising; what is, on the other hand, is that Columbus regularly claims to understand what is said to him, while giving, at the same time, every proof of incomprehension.  For instance, on October 24, 1492, he writes: "From what the Indians told me, [the island of Cuba] is of vast extent, great commerce, richly provided with gold and spices, visited by great ships and merchants."  But two lines farther, on the same day, he adds: "I do not understand their language."  What he "understands," then, is simply a summary of the books of Marco Polo and Pierre d'Ailly.


33 In Columbus's hermeneutics human beings have no particular place.


Columbus and the Indians


34  The first mention of the Indians is significant:  "recently they saw naked people" (11/10/1492).  The event is true enough; it is nonetheless revealing that the first characteristic of these people to strike Columbus is the absence of clothes--which in their turn symbolize culture (whence C's interest in people wearing clothes, who might relate more closely to what is known of the Grand Khan; he is somewhat disappointed to have found nothing but savages).


35  Physically naked, the Indians are also, to C's eyes, deprived of all cultural property: they are characterized, in a sense, by the absence of customs, rites, religion (which has a certain logic, since for a man like Columbus, human beings wear clothes following their expulsion from Paradise, itself at the source of their cultural identity).


36  Given this ignorance of the Indians' culture and their consequent identification with nature, we cannot expect to find in Columbus's writings a detailed portrait of the population.  His initial image of them obeys the same rules as the description of nature: Columbus has decided to admire everything, and therefore first of all their physical beauty.


38  ...Columbus finds, to characterize the Indians, only by adjectives of the good/wicked type, which in reality teach us nothing: not only because these qualities depend on the point of view adopted, but also because they correspond to specific states and not to stable characteristics, because they derive from the pragmatic estimate of a situation and not from the desire to know.


Nor more than in the case of languages does Columbus understand that values are conventional, that gold is not more precious than glass "in itself," but only in the European system of exchange. 


39  On the basis of these observations and these exchanges C will declare the Indians the most generous people in the world, thereby making an important contribution to the myth of the noble savage.


40 Fernando: "the people [Indians], believing that we had the same custom, went at first among the Christians and took whatever they pleased; but they swiftly discovered their mistake" (51).  Columbus thus forgets his own perception, and soon after declares that the Indians, far from being generous, are all thieves (a reversal parallel to the one that transforms them from the best men in the world into violent savages); thereby he imposes cruel punishments upon them, the same then in effect in Spain....


This discourse concerning cowardice follows exactly the same course.  First comes amused condescension....  He then shifts to the other extreme, deducing in a sense their courage from their cowardice.


41  It is possible, as C says, that the Indians wonder if the Spaniards are not beings of divine origin, which would certainly explain their initial fear and its disappearance before the Spaniards' altogether human behavior.


42  We shall return to this belief when we can observe it in greater detail; we may note, nonetheless, that the ocean might well appear to Caribbean Indians quite as abstract as the space separating the sky from the earth.


We can say,...simplifying to the point of caricature, that the Spanish conquistadors belong, historically, to that transitional period between a Middle Ages dominated by religion and a modern  period that places material goods at the top of its scale of values.  In practice, too, the conquest will have these two essential aspects: the Christians are generous with their religion, which they bring to the New World; from it they take, in exchange, gold and wealth.

          Columbus's attitude with regard to the Indians is based on his perception of them.  We can distinguish here two component parts, which we shall find again in the following century and, in practice, down to our own day in every colonist in his relations to the colonized; we have already observed these two attitudes in germ in Columbus's report concerning the other's language.  Either he conceives the Indians (though without using these words) as human beings altogether, having the same rights as himself; but then he sees them not only as equals but also as identical, and this behavior leads to assimilationism, the projection of his own values on the others.  Or else he starts from the difference, but the latter is immediately translated into terms of superiority and inferiority (in his case, obviously, it is the Indians who are inferior).  What is denied is the existence of a human substance truly other, something capable of being not merely an imperfect state of oneself.  These two elementary figures of the experience of alterity are both grounded in egocentrism, in the identification of our own values /43 with values in general, of our I with the universe--in the conviction that the world is one.


43  There is never a justification of this desire to make the Indians adopt the Spanish customs; its rightness is self-evident.


44  Whatever the case, spiritual expansion, as we now know, is indissolubly linked to material conquest (money is necessary to conduct a crusade); and thus a first flaw appears in a program that implied the equality of the partners: material conquest (and all that it implies) will be both the result and the condition of spiritual expansion. 


45  C behaves as if a certain equilibrium were established between the two actions: the Spaniards give religion and take gold.  But, aside from the fact that the exchange is rather asymmetrical and does not necessarily benefit the other party, the implications of these two actions are contrary to each other.  To propagate the faith presupposes that the Indians are considered his equals (before God).  But what if they are unwilling to give their wealth?  Then they must be subdued, in military and political terms, so that it maybe taken from them by force; in other words, they are to be placed, from the human perspective this time, in a position of inequality (inferiority).  Now, it is without the slightest hesitation that C speaks of the necessity of subduing the Indians, not perceiving any contradiction between what each of his actions involves, or at least any discontinuity he thereby established between the divine and the human.


46  Thus, by gradual stages, Columbus will shift from assimilationism, which implied an equality of principle, to an ideology of enslavement, and hence to the assertion of the Indians' inferiority.


Columbus established subtle distinctions between innocent, potentially Christian Indians and idolatrous Indians, practicing  cannibalism; and between pacific Indians (submitting to his power) and bellicose Indians who thereby deserve to be punished; but the important thing is that those who are not already Christians can only be slaves: there is no middle path.


48  Even when there is no question of slavery, Columbus's behavior implies that he does not grant the Indians the right to have their own will, that he judges them, in short, as living objects. It is as such that, in his naturalist's enthusiasm, he always wants to take specimens of all kinds back to Spain: trees, birds, animals, and Indians; the notion of asking their opinion is foreign to him.


49 ...the identification of the Indian woman with a whore: striking, for the woman who violently rejected sexual solicitation finds herself identified with the woman who makes this solicitation her profession.  But is this not the true nature of every woman, which can be revealed by a certain number of lashes?  Refusal can only be hypocritical; scratch resistance and reveal the whore.  Indian women are women, or Indians to the second power; hence, they become the object of a double rape.

          How can C be associated with these two apparently contradictory myths, one whereby the Other is a "noble savage" (when perceived at a distance) and one whereby he is a "dirty dog," a potential slave?  It is because both rest on a common basis, which is the failure to recognize the Indians, and the refusal to admit them as a subject having the same rights as oneself, but different.  Columbus has discovered America but not the Americans.

          The entire history of the discovery of American, the first episode of the conquest, is marked by this ambiguity: human alterity is at once/ 50 revealed and rejected.  The year 1492 already symbolizes, in the history of Spain, this double movement: in this same year the country repudiates its interior Other by triumphing over the Moors in the final battle of Grenada and by forcing the Jews to leave its territory; and it discovers the exterior Other, that whole America which will become Latin.  We know that C himself constantly links the two events.


50 ...we can also see the two actions as directed in opposite, and complementary, directions: one expels heterogeneity from the body of Spain, the other irremediably introduces it there.

           In his way, C himself participates in this double movement.  He does not perceive alterity, as we have seen, and he imposes his own values upon it; yet the term by which he most often refers to himself and which his contemporaries also employ is extranjero, "outsider"; and if so many countries have sought the honor of being his fatherland, it is because he himself had none.






"The Reasons for the Victory"


53  ...the abundant literature to which this phase of the conquest gave rise at the time:  Cortes's own reports; the Spanish chronicles, the most remarkable of which is that of Bernal Diaz del Castillo; lastly, the native accounts, transcribed by the Spanish missionaries or written by the Mexicans themselves.

          Apropos of the use of this literature, one preliminary question arises which did not have to be considered in the case of Columbus.  The latter's writings may have contained technically speaking, false statements; this in no way diminished their value, for I could interrogate them chiefly as actions, not as descriptions.  Here my subject is no longer the experience of one man (who has written) but an event in itself nonverbal, the conquest of Mexico; the documents analyzed are no longer of concern solely (or chiefly) as actions, but as sources of information about a reality of which they do not constitute a part.


54  In a general way, I have an excuse and a justification to formulate here.  The excuse: if we abjure this source of information, we cannot replace it by any other.  Our only recourse is not to read these texts as transparent statements, but to try at the same time to take into account the action and circumstances of their utterance.  As for the justification, it can be expressed in the language of the classical rhetoricians: the questions raised here refer less to a knowledge of the truth than to a knowledge of verisimilitude.  That is, an event may not have occurred, despite the allegations of one of the chroniclers.  But the fact that the latter could have stated such an event, that he could have counted on its acceptance by the contemporary public, is at least as revealing as the simple occurrence of an event which proceeds, after all, from chance.   In a way, the reception of the statements is more revealing for the history of ideologies than their production; and when an author is mistaken, or lying, his text is no less significant than when he is speaking the truth; the important thing is that the text be "receivable" by contemporaries, or that it has been regarded as such by its producer.  From this point of view, the notion of "false" is irrelevant here.


The most difficult battle is waged against the Tlaxcaltecs, who will nevertheless become, subsequently, his best allies.


56  History or legend (though it matters little which), in this case transcribed by the Jesuit Tovar, goes so far as to describe Montezuma, on the eve of his death, as ready to convert to Christianity; but as a final mockery, the Spanish priest, busy amassing gold, does not find the time.


57  The Spanish historians of the period vainly sought the answer to these questions, seeing Montezuma sometimes as a madman, sometimes as a philosopher.


...Montezuma dies in the middle of events, as mysteriously as he had lived (probably stabbed by his Spanish jailers), and his successors at the head of the Aztec state immediately declare a fierce and pitiless war on the Spaniards.  However, during the war's second phase, another factor begins to play a decisive role: this is Cortes's exploitation of the internal dissensions among the various populations occupying Mexican territory.


58 ...for many years the Tlaxcaltecs enjoy numerous privileges granted them by the Spanish crown: exempted from taxes, they very often become administrators of the newly conquered lands.

          We cannot avoid wondering, when we read the history of Mexico:  why did the Indians not offer more resistance?  Didn't they realize Cortes's colonizing ambitions?  The answer displaces the question: the Indians in the regions Cortes first passed through are not more impressed by his imperialist intentions because they have already been conquered and colonized--by the Aztecs.  Mexico at the time is not a homogeneous state, but a conglomerate of populations, defeated by the Aztecs who occupy they top of the pyramid.  So that far from incarnating an absolute evil, Cortes often appears to them as a lesser evil, as a liberator, so to speak, who permits them to throw off the yoke of a tyranny especially detestable because so close at hand.


59  The gold and precious stones that lure the Spaniards were already taken as taxes by Montezuma's functionaries....


60      There are many resemblances between old conquerors and new, as the latter themselves felt, since they described the Aztecs as recent invaders, conquistadors comparable to themselves.  More precisely, and in this too the resemblance persists, the relation to the predecessor is that of an implicit and sometimes unconscious continuity, accompanied by a denial concerning this very relation.  The Spaniards burn the Mexicans' books in order to wipe out their religion; they destroy their monuments in order to abolish any memory of a former greatness.  But a hundred years earlier, during the reign of Itzcoatl, the Aztecs themselves had destroyed all the old books in order to rewrite history in their own fashion.  At the same time the Aztecs, as we have seen, like to depict themselves as heirs to the Toltecs; and the Spaniards often choose a certain fidelity to the past, in religion or in politics; they are assimilated at the same time that they assimilate.  [acculturation]


The same holds true in the realm of faith: religious conquest often consists in removing from a holy place certain images and establishing others there instead, preserving--and this is essential--the cult sites in which the same aromatic herbs are burned.  Cortes tells the story:  "The most important of these idols and the ones in which they have most faith I had taken from their places and thrown down the steps; and I ordered those chapels where they had been to be cleaned, for they were full of the blood of sacrifices; and I had images of Our Lady and of other saints put there."


61  The Christian priests and friars will occupy exactly the places left empty after the repression of those professing the native religious worship, whom the Spaniards, moreover, called by that overdetermined name popes (contamination of the Indian term designating them and the word "pope");


          To Montezuma's hesitations during the first phase of the conquest and the internal divisions among the Mexicans during the second, a third factor is frequently added: the Spanish superiority with regard to weapons.  The Aztecs do not know how to work metal, and their swords, like their armor, are less effective; arrows (nonpoisoned arrows) are not as powerful as harquebuses and cannon; in their movements the Spaniards are much swifter: for land operations they have horses, whereas the Aztecs are always on foot; and on water they know how to built brigantines whose superiority over the Indian canoes plays a decisive role in the final phase of the siege of Mexico.  Finally, the Spaniards also--unwittingly--inaugurate bacteriological warfare, since they bring smallpox, which ravages the opposing army.


          I shall not attempt to deny the importance of these factors, but rather to find a common basis for them which permits us to articulate and understand them, and at the same time to add many others, of which less account appears to have been taken.  In doing so, I tend to take literally one reason for the conquest/defeat that we find in the native chronicles and which has hitherto been neglected in the West, doubtless being regarded as a purely poetic formula.  The testimony of the Indian accounts, which is a description rather than an explanation, asserts that everything happened because the Mayas and the Aztecs lost control of communication.  The language of the gods has become unintelligible, or else these gods fell silent.


62   did the Spaniards defeat the Indians by means of signs?



"Montezuma and Signs"


63    Indians and Spaniards practice communication differently.  But the discourse of difference is a difficult one.  As we have already seen with Columbus, the postulate of difference readily involves the feeling of superiority, the postulate of equality that of indifference, and it is always hard to resist this double movement, especially since the final result of this encounter seems to indicate the victor explicitly enough: are not the Spaniards superior, and not merely different?  But the truth, or what we regard as the truth, is not so simple.

          Let us start with the assumption that on the linguistic or symbolic level there is no "natural" inferiority on the Indians' side: we have seen, for instance, that in Columbus's period it was they who learned the Other's language; and during the first expeditions to Mexico, it is again two Indians, called Melchior and Julian by the Spaniards, who serve as interpreters.

          But there is much more, of course.  We know, thanks to the texts of the period, that the Indians devote a great part of their time and their powers to the interpretation of messages, and that this interpretation takes remarkably elaborate forms,which derive from various kinds of divination.  Chief among these is cyclical divination (of which, among us, astrology is an example).


64      To this preestablished and systematic interpretation, which derives from the fixed character of each calendar day, is added a second, contextual kind of divination, which takes the form of omens.  Every event the least bit out of the ordinary, departing from the established order, will be interpreted as the herald of another event, generally an unlucky one, still to come (which implies that nothing in this world occurs randomly).


In the everyday realm as well as in the exceptional, then, "they believed in a thousand omens and signs" (Motolinia, II, 8): an overdetermined world will necessarily be an overinterpreted world as well.


66  The whole history of the Aztecs, as it is narrated in their own chronicles, consists of realizations of anterior prophecies, as if the event could not occur unless it had been previously announced:  departure from a place of origin, choice of a new settlement, victory or defeat.  Here only what has already been Word can become Act.


67  Duran:  "The number of rites was so great that it was not possible for a single minister to attend to all."

          Hence, it is society as a whole--by the intermediary of the priests, who are merely the repository of social knowledge--that decides the fate of the individual, who is thereby not an individual in the sense we usually give this word.  In Indian society of the period, the individual himself does not represent a social totality but is merely the constitutive element of that other totality, the collectivity.


          Certainly personal opinion and individual initiative are not what the Aztecs most prize.  We have an additional proof of this preeminence of the social over the individual in the role taken by the family: parents are cherished, children adored, and the attention devoted to each absorbs much social energy.  Reciprocally, the father and mother are held responsible for any misdeeds their son might commit; among the Tarascans, solidarity in responsibility extends even to the servants:  "the tutors and nurses who had raised the son are killed, as are his servants, because they had taught him those bad customs."


68      Indeed, death is a catastrophe only in a narrowly individual perspective, whereas, from the social point of view, the benefit derived from submission to group rule counts for more than the loss of an individual.  This is why we see the intended sacrificial victims accepting their lot, if not with joy, in any case without despair; and the same is true of soldiers on the battlefield: their blood will help keep the society alive.  Or more precisely, this is the image the Aztec people wants to have of itself, though it is not certain that all the persons constituting that people accept the arrangement.... (drugs to victims, pep talks to warriors)


69      As a consequence of this powerful integration, no one's life is ever an open and indeterminate field, to be shaped by an individual free will, but rather the realization of an order always preordained (even if the possibility of inflecting one's own fate is not altogether excluded).  The individual's future is ruled by the collective past; the individual does not construct his future, rather the future is revealed; whence the role of the calendar, of omens, of auguries.  The characteristic interrogation of this world is not, as among the Spanish conquistadors (or the Russian revolutionaries) of a praxeological type: "what is to be done?"; but epistemological: "how are we to know?"  And the interpretation of the event occurs less in terms of its concrete, individual, and unique content than of the preestablished order of universal harmony, which is to be reestablished.

          Would it be forcing the meaning of "communication" to say, starting from this point, that there exist two major forms of communication, one between man and man, the other between man and the world, and then to observe that the Indians cultivate chiefly the latter, the Spaniards the former?  We are accustomed to conceiving of communication as only interhuman, for since the "world" is not a subject, our dialogue with it is quite asymmetrical (if there is any such dialogue at all).  But this is perhaps a narrow view of the matter, one responsible moreover for our feeling of superiority in this regard.  The notion would be more productive if it were extended to include, alongside the interaction of individual with individual, the interaction that occurs between the person and his social group, the person and the natural world, the person and the religious universe.  And it is this second type of communication that plays a predominant part in the life of Aztec man, who interprets the divine, the natural, and the social through indices and omens, and with the help of that professional, the prophet-priest.

          We must not suppose that this predominance excludes the knowledge of phenomena, what we might call more narrowly the collecting of information; on the contrary.  It is the action on others by the intermediary of signs which here remains in the embryonic state; in / 70 return, one never fails to be informed as to the state of things, even living things: man is important here as an object of discourse, rather than its recipient.


70  But constant success in collecting information does not proceed in tandem here, as we might have expected, with a mastery of interhuman communication.  There is something emblematic in Montezuma's repeated refusal to communicate with the intruders.


71  Montezuma is not simply alarmed by the content of the messages; he shows himself literally incapable of communicating, and the text establishes a significant parallel between "mute" and "dead."  This paralysis does not merely weaken the gathering of information; it already symbolizes defeat, since the Aztec sovereign is above all a master of speech--the social action par excellence--and since the renunciation of language is the admission of failure.

          Montezuma's fear of information received is associated quite coherently with fear of information sought by the Other, especially when this latter concerns his own person.


72  The king's body remains individual; but the king's function, more completely than any other, is a pure social effect; hence this body must be withdrawn from scrutiny.  By letting himself be seen, Montezuma would contradict his values quite as much as by ceasing to speak: he leaves his sphere of action, which is the social exchange, and becomes a vulnerable individual.


Even when the information reaches Montezuma, his interpretation of it, though necessary, is made in the context of a communication with the world, not of that with men; it is his gods from whom he seeks advice about how to behave in these purely human affairs (indeed, this was how he had always behaved, as we know from the native histories of the Aztec people).


73  Montezuma knew how to inform himself concerning his enemies when these were called Tlaxcaltecs, Tarascans, Huastecs.  But that was an exchange of information already perfectly well established.  The identity of the Spaniards is so different, their behavior to such a degree unforeseeable, that the whole system of communication is upset, and the Aztecs no longer succeed precisely where they had previously excelled: in gathering information.  If the Indians had known, Bernal Diaz writes on many occasions, "how few, weak and exhausted we were at that time..."  All the Spaniards' actions take the Indians by surprise, in fact, as if it were the latter who were waging a regular war and as if the Spaniards were harassing them by guerrilla tactics.

          We find a general confirmation of this attitude of the Indians in the very construction of their own narratives of the conquest....


74  Taken together, these accounts, proceeding from peoples very remote from each other, are striking in their uniformity: the arrival of the Spaniards is always preceded by omens, their victory is always foretold as certain.  Further, these omens are strangely alike, from one end of the American continent to the other.  There is always a comet, a thunderbolt, a fire, two-headed men, persons speaking in a state of trance, etc.


75  This behavior contrasts with that of Cortes but not with that of all the Spaniards; we have already encountered a Spanish example of an astonishingly similar conception of communication: that of Columbus.  Like Montezuma, Columbus carefully gathered information concerning things, but failed in his communication with men.  More remarkable still, upon returning from his exception discovery, Columbus was eager to write his own Chilam Balam: he could not rest until he had produced a Book of Prophecies, a collection of formulas extracted from (or attributed to) the Sacred Books, which were supposed to predict his own expedition, and its consequences.  By his mental structures, which link him to the medieval conception of knowledge, Columbus is closer to those whom he discovered than to some of his own companions: how shocked he would have been to hear it! Yet he is not alone.  Machiavelli, theoretician of a world to come, writes a short time later in his Discorsi: "Both ancient and modern instances prove that no great events ever occur in any city or country which have not been predicted by soothsayers, revelations or by portents and other celestial signs."


          It is in this particular way of practicing communication (neglecting the interhuman dimension, privileging contact with the world) which is responsible for the Indians' distorted image of the Spaniards during the first encounters, and notably for the paralyzing belief that the Spaniards are gods.  This phenomenon seems very rare in the history of conquests and colonizations (we find it again in Melanesia, and it is responsible for the sad fate of Captain Cook); it can be explained only / 76  by an incapacity to perceive the other's human identity--i.e., to recognize him both as equal and as different.

          The first, spontaneous reaction with regard to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us: this is not even a man, or if he is one, an inferior barbarian; if he does not speak our language, it is because he speaks none at all, cannot speak, as Columbus still believed.  it is in this fashion that European Slavs call their German neighbors nemec, "mutes"; the Mayas of Yucatan call the Toltec invaders nunob, "mutes"; and the Cakchiquel Mayas refer to the Mam Mayas as "stammerers" or "mutes." 


77  As the Chilam Balam says...: "Those who die are those who do not understand; those who live will understand it."


          Now let us leave the reception and consider the production of discourses and symbols as practiced in the Indian societies at the period of the conquest.  There is no need to go back as far as the Popol Vuh, the sacred book which makes the word the origin of the world, to realize that verbal practices are highly esteemed....  Like many other peoples, the Aztecs interpret their own name as referring to their linguistic excellence, in opposition to other tribes:  "The Indians of this New Spain derive, according to what is generally reported in their histories, from two diverse peoples: they give to the first the name Nahuatlaca, which means 'people who explain themselves and speak clearly," thereby differentiated from the second people, at the time very wild and barbarous, concerned only with hunting, and to whom they gave the name of Chichimecs, which signifies 'people who go hunting' and who live by that primitive and uncouth occupation" (Tovar, p 9).

          To learn to speak constitutes part of family education; it is the first thing parents think of....


          That such attention be paid to what the Latin rhetorics called actio or pronuntiatio suggest that the Aztecs are not indifferent to other aspects of speech; and we know that this education is not left to parents alone, but is dispensed in special schools.  As a matter of fact, the Aztec / 78  state has two kinds of schools, those in which students are prepared for the life of a warrior, and others that produce priests, judges, and royal dignitaries; it is in the latter schools, called calmecac , that particular attention is paid to language....  The calmecac is in fact a school of interpretation and speech, of rhetoric and hermeneutics.  Thus every precaution is taken for students to become fine speakers and good interpreters.

          Indeed, as another chronicler says (Juan Bautista Pomar, in the Relacion de Texcoco), they learned at the same time "to speak well and to govern well."  In the Aztec civilization--as in many others--the high royal dignitaries are generally selected for their qualities of eloquence.


78  Among the ancient Mayas, the function is even more important: the future leaders are chosen with the help of a procedure resembling a trial by riddles: they must be able to interpret certain figurative expressions, known as the language of Zuyua.


Like the victims of the sphinx, the future chiefs are confronted with this dilemma: to interpret or die (though differing from certain characters of the Arabian Nights whose law is, instead, "Narrate or Die!"  But no doubt there exist narrative civilizations and interpretative civilizations); and it is said that, once chosen, the chief is marked by the tattooing of pictograms on his body: his throat, his foot, his hand.


79  The most striking form of ritual speech is constituted by the huehuetlatolli, discourses learned by heart, of varying length, covering a vast variety of themes and corresponding to a whole series of social circumstances: prayers, court ceremonies, rites / 80 of passage in the individual's life (birth, puberty, marriage, death), departures, encounters, etc.  These are always formulated in carefully selected terms and are supposed to come out of the immemorial past, whence their stylistic archaism.  Their function is that of all ritual speech in a society without writing: they materialize social memory, i.e., the body of laws, norms, and values to be transmitted from one generation to the next in order to assure the very identity of that collectivity; this also explains the exceptional importance given to public education, unlike what occurs in societies of the book, where the wisdom to which one can gain individual access counter-balances the values transmitted by the collective institution.

          The absence of writing is an important element of the situation, perhaps even the most important.  Stylized drawings, the pictograms used among the Aztecs, are not a lesser degree of writing: they note the experience, not the language.  The unfamiliarity to the Indians of European writing creates reactions the literary tradition will exploit: the Indian is often represented bearing a fruit and a written message that mentions the fact; the Indian eats the fruit en route and is astonished to find himself confronted by the letter's recipient.  "Thus the news spread through the island that the leaves speak in response to a sign from the Spaniards; and this obliges the islanders to be very careful of what is confided to them" (Peter Martyr, III, 8).  The codex drawings only preserve the great landmarks of history, which as such remain unintelligible; they will be brought to comprehension by the ritual discourse accompanying them.  We realize this today since certain drawings remain opaque to us, in the absence of any ancient commentary.

          That the absence of writing is revelatory of symbolic behavior in general, and at the same time of the capacity to perceive the other, appears to be illustrated by another fact.  The three great Amerindian civilizations encountered by the Spaniards are not located on precisely the same level of the evolution of writing.  The Incas are the most unfamiliar with writing (they possess a mnemotechnical use of braided cords, moreover one that is highly elaborated); the Aztecs have pictograms; among the Mayas we find certain rudiments of phonetic writing.  Now, we observe a comparable gradation in the intensity of the belief that the Spaniards are gods.  The Incas firmly believe in this divine nature.  The Aztecs do so only during the initial period of exposure.  The Mayas raise the question to answer it in the negative: / 81 rather than "gods," they call the Spaniards "strangers," or even "eaters of anones"--a fruit they themselves scorn to eat--or the "bearded ones," or at best "the powerful ones"; but never "gods." ...but it is not the effective use of writing, writing as a tool, which matters here, but rather writing as an index of the evolution of mental structures.


83  Personal opinion, as we have seen, is worthless in this context, and the Aztecs do not aspire to a knowledge the individual might have achieved by his own investigations.  The Spaniards attempt to rationalize their choice of the Christian religion; it is this effort (or rather its failure) that generates, at this very period, the separation of faith and reason, and the very possibility of sustaining a nonreligious discourse concerning religion.


84  Among the Mayas and Aztecs, on the contrary, the cycle prevails over linearity: there is a succession within the month, the year, or the "cluster" of years; but these latter, rather than being situated in a linear chronology, are repeated exactly from one to the next....  It is no accident that the graphic and mental image of time among the Aztecs and the Mayas is the wheel (whereas ours would probably be the arrow).


85  Not only do the sequences of the past resemble each other, but also those to come.  This is why events are sometimes referred to the past, as in a chronicle, and sometimes to the future, in the form of prophecies: Once again, past and future are the same thing....   Prophecy is memory.


86  Again, we are dealing with a prophecy fabricated a posteriori, a retrospective prospection.  But that there should be a need to forge this history is revealing: no event can be entirely unprecedented; repetition prevails over difference.

          In place of this cyclical, repetitive time frozen in an unalterable sequence, where everything is always predicted in advance, where the / 87 singular event is merely the realization of omens always and already present, in place of this time dominated by the system, appears the one-directional time of apotheosis and fulfillment, as the Christians then experience it.  Further, the ideology and activity inspired by it lend support to this moment:  the Spaniards see the ease of their conquest as a proof of the excellence of the Christian religion (this is the decisive argument employed in the course of the theological debates: the superiority of the Christian god is demonstrated by the Spaniards' victory over the Aztecs), whereas it is in the name of this excellence that they have undertaken the conquest: the quality of the one justifies the other, and reciprocally.  And the conquest also confirms the Christian conception of time, which is not an incessant return but an infinite progression toward the final victory of the Christian spirit (a conception subsequently inherited by communism).

          From this collision between a ritual world and a unique even results Montezuma's incapacity to produce appropriate and effective messages.  Masters in the art of ritual discourse, the Indians are inadequate in a situation requiring improvisation, and this is precisely the situation of the conquest.  Their verbal education favors paradigm over syntagm, code over context, conformity-to-order over efficacity-of-the-moment, the past over the present.  Now, the Spanish invasion creates a radically new, entirely unprecedented situation, in which the art of improvisation matters more than that of ritual.  It is quite remarkable, in this context, to see Cortes not only constantly practicing the art of adaptation and improvisation, but also being aware of it and claiming it as the very principle of his conduct....


89  Everything happens as if, for the Aztecs, signs automatically and necessarily proceed from the world they designate, rather than being / 90  a weapon intended to manipulate the Other.  This characteristic of communication among the Indians gives rise, among authors favoring their cause, to a legend according to which the Indians are a people who know nothing of lying.


90  The facts, of course, belie the enthusiastic descriptions of the Indians' friends: we cannot conceive of a language without the possibility of lying, as there is no speech which does not know metaphor.  But a society may favor or, quite the contrary, strongly discourage any discourse that, rather than faithfully describing things, is chiefly concerned with its effect and therefore neglects the dimension of truth.  According to Alvarado Tezozomoc, "Montezuma promulgated a law whereby anyone caught telling a lie, however trivial, was to be dragged through the streets by the schoolboys of Tepochcalco until he had breathed his last breath" (103). Zorita also locates the origin of this character in the Indians' customs and education: "None dared swear falsely, fearing that the god by whom they swore would punish them with some grave infirmity....  Fathers warned their sons severely against lying, and a father punished a son who committed this offense by pricking his lips with a maguey thorn.  As a result boys grew up accustomed to telling the truth. Aged Indians, asked why their people lie so much nowadays, reply that it is because falsehood goes unpunished....  The Indians say that they learned this trait from the Spaniards" (Zorita, 9).


91   ...the warrior/woman opposition plays a structuring role for the Aztec social image repertoire as a whole....   The soldier is the male par excellence, for he can administer death.  Women, who give birth, cannot aspire to this idea; yet their occupations do not constitute a second valued pole of the Aztec axiology; it is no surprise that they are weak, but such weakness is never praised.


92      Words for women, weapons for men...what the Aztec warriors did not know is that the "women" would win this war, if only figuratively; in the literal sense, women lose every war.  Yet the identification is not entirely accidental, perhaps.  The cultural model in effect since the Renaissance, even if borne and assumed by men, glorifies what we might call the feminine side of culture: improvisation rather than ritual, words rather than weapons.  Not just any words, it is true: neither those that designate the world nor those that transmit the traditions, but those whose raison d'etre is action upon others.


96  The Spaniards' behavior remains incomprehensible to them:  "Why do they want this gold?  These gods must eat it, that could be the only reason they want so much" (Relacion de Michoacan, 1540, Franciscan Martin de Jesus de la Coruna, III, 26; Cortes, apparently, had offered this explanation: the Spaniards need gold as the cure for a sickness.  The Indians, who identify gold with excrement, find this difficult to accept).  Money, as a universal equivalent, does not exist among the Tarascans; the entire Spanish power structure eludes them.


97  The Spaniards win the war.  They are incontestably superior to the Indians in the realm of interhuman communication. But their victory is problematic, for there is not just one form of communication, one dimension of symbolic activity.  Every action has its share of ritual and its share of improvisation; all communication is, necessarily, both paradigm and syntagm, code and context; man has just as much need to communicate with the world as with men.  The encounter of Montezuma with Cortes, of the Indians with the Spaniards, is first of all a human encounter; and we cannot be surprised that the specialists in human communication should triumph in it.  But this victory from which we all derive, Europeans and Americans both, delivers as well a terrible blow to our capacity to feel in harmony with the world, to belong to a preestablished order; its effect is to repress man's communication with the world, to produce the illusion that all communication is interhuman communication; the silence of the gods weighs upon the camp of the Europeans as much as on that of the Indians.  By winning on one side, the Europeans lost on the other; by imposing their superiority upon the entire country, they destroyed their own capacity to integrate themselves into the world.  During the centuries to follow, they would dream of the noble savage; but the savage was dead or assimilated, and this dream was doomed to remain a sterile one.  The victory was already big with its defeat; but this Cortes could not know.




"Cortes and Signs"


98  Communication among the Spaniards is not, of course, precisely the contrary of that practiced by the Indians.  Not being abstract notions, people both resemble and differ from each other.  We have already seen Columbus's likenesses to the Aztecs on the typological level.


98-99  The name of the / province of Yucatan, for us a symbol of Indian exoticism and remote authenticity, is in reality the symbol of the misunderstandings that then prevailed: to the shouts of the first Spaniards landing on the peninsula, the Mayas answer: Ma c'ubah than, "we do not understand your words."  The Spaniards, faithful to the tradition of Columbus, hear "yucatan," and decide that this is the name of the province.


99  As soon as he learns of the existence of Montezuma's kingdom, Cortes decides he will not be content with extorting gold, but must subjugate the kingdom itself.  This strategy often vexes the soldiers of his army, who count on immediate and palpable profits; but Cortes remains intractable.  Hence it is to him that we owe the invention, on the one hand, of conquest tactics, and on the other, of a policy of peacetime colonization.

          What Cortes wants from the first is not to capture but to comprehend; it is signs which chiefly interest him, not their references.  His expedition begins with a search for information, not for gold.  The first important action he initiates--and we cannot overemphasize the significance of this gesture--is to find an interpreter.


100  The second essential figure in this conquest of information is a woman, whom the Indians call Malintzin and the Spaniards Dona Marina, without our knowing which of these two names is a distortion of the other; the form most frequently given is La Malinche.  She is offered as a gift to the Spaniards during one of the first encounters.  Her mother tongue is Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs; but she has been sold as a slave to the Mayas, and speaks their language as well.  Hence there is a rather long chain of interpreters at first: Cortes speaks to Aguilar, who translates what he says to La Malinche, who in her turn speaks to the Aztec interlocutor.  Her gift for languages is obvious, and she soon learns Spanish, which further increases her usefulness.  We can imagine that she retains a certain rancor toward her own people, or toward some of their representatives; in any case she resolutely chooses to side with the conquistadors.  In fact, she is not content merely to translate; it is evident that she also adopts the Spaniards' values and contributes as best she can to the achievement of their goals.  On the one hand, she performs a sort of cultural conversion, interpreting for Cortes not only the Indians' words but also their actions; on the other hand, she can take the initiative when necessary, and addresses appropriate words to Montezuma (notably in the episode of his arrest) without Cortes's having spoken them previously.


101  Revealing, too, is the nickname the Aztecs give to Cortes: they call him Malinche (for once, it is not the woman who takes the man's name).

          The Mexicans, since their independence, have generally despised La Malinche as an incarnation of the betrayal of indigenous values, of servile submission to European culture and power.  It is true that the conquest of Mexico would have been impossible without her (or someone else playing the same role), so that she is responsible for what occurred.  I myself see her in quite a different light--as the first example, and thereby the symbol, of the cross-breeding of cultures; she thereby heralds the modern state of Mexico and beyond that, the present state of us all, since if we are not invariably bilingual, we are inevitably bi- or tri-cultural  La Malinche glorifies mixture to the detriment of purity--Aztec or Spanish--and the role of the intermediary.  She does not simply submit to the other (a case unfortunately much more common: we think of all the young Indian women, "offered" or not, taken by the Spaniards); she adopts the other's ideology and serves it in order to understand her own culture better, as is evidenced by the effectiveness of her conduct (even if "understanding" here means "destroying").


105  Communication among the Aztecs is above all a communication with the world, and here religious representations play an essential role.  Religion is of course not absent from the Spanish side--it was even decisive in Columbus's case.  But two important differences immediately confront us.  The first resides in a specific feature of the Christian religion in relation to the pagan religions of American:  what matters here is that Christianity is, fundamentally, universalist and egalitarian.  "God" is not a proper noun: this word can be translated into any language, for it designates not a god--like Huitzilopochtli or Tezcatlipoca, though these are already abstractions--but the god.  This religion seeks to be universal and is thereby intolerant.


106  This fact contributes not a little to the Spaniards' victory: intransigence has always defeated tolerance.


Col. 3:11; Gal. 3:28

These texts clearly indicate in what sense this egalitarianism of the early Christians is to be understood: Christianity does not combat inequalities (the master will remain a master, the slave a slave, as if this were a difference quite as natural as that between man and woman); but it declares them irrelevant with regard to the unity of all in Christ.  These problems will recur in the moral debates following the conquest.

          The second difference derives from the forms religious sentiment takes among the Spaniards of this period (but this too may be a consequence of Christian doctrine, and we may wonder to what degree an egalitarianizing religion leads, by its rejection of hierarchies, to the transcendence of religion itself): the Spaniards' God is an auxiliary rather than a Lord, a being to be used rather than enjoyed (in the language of theologians).


108  Whereas the Spaniards' arrival is only the fulfillment of a series of evil omens for the Aztecs (which moreover diminishes their combativeness), in comparable circumstances Cortes (unlike certain of his own companions) refuses to see divine intervention--or else it can only be in his favor, even if the signs seem to say the contrary!  It is striking to see that in his declining phase, especially during the Honduras expedition, Cortes in his turn begins to believe in omens; and success no longer accompanies him.

          This subordinate and finally limited role of the exchange with God gives way to a human communication in which the other will be clearly recognized (even if not esteemed).


We may wonder how much the flexibility of mind necessary to achieve the congest, as evidenced by the Europeans of that period, is due to the singular situation that makes them the heirs of two cultures--Greco-Roman on one hand, and Judeo-Christian on the other (though in reality the ;merging of cultures was long since experienced in the assimilation of the Judaic tradition and the Christian, the Old Testament having been absorbed into the New).


109  European civilization of the period is "allocentric" rather than egocentric: for centuries its sacred site, its symbolic center, Jerusalem, has been not only exterior to European territory but subject as well to a rival civilization (the Muslims).   In the Renaissance, this spatial decentering is linked to a temporal version: the ideal age is neither the present nor the future but the past, and a past that is not even Christian:  that of the Greeks and the Romans.  The center is elsewhere, which opens up the possibility for the Other to become, someday, central.


110  The presence of a site reserved for the Other in the Spaniards' mental universe is symbolized by their constantly affirmed desire to communicate, which contrasts strongly with Montezuma's reticence.


We might say that the very fact of thus assuming an active part in the process of interaction assures the Spaniards an incontestable superiority.  They are the only ones to act in this situation; the Aztecs seek only to maintain the status quo, they are content to react....  Significantly, in Mesoamerica it is the Aztecs who do not want to communicate or to change anything in their life (the two things are often identified), an attitude matching their veneration of the past and its traditions; the subject or dependent peoples participate much more actively in the interaction and find their advantage in the conflict: the Tlaxcaltecs, allies of the Spaniards, will be in many respects the real masters of the country in the century following the conquest.


111  The reason for these actions is precisely Cortes's desire to control the information the Indians receive:  "In order to avoid the appearance of avarice on their part, and to dispel the notion that their single motive for coming was to acquire gold, all should pretend ignorance of it" (Gomara, 25)....


At first the Indians are not sure that the Spaniards' horses are mortal beings; in order to sustain this uncertainty, Cortes has the animal corpses buried during the night after the battle.


113  Cortes presents himself simultaneously as an enemy and as an ally, making it impossible, or in any case unjustifiable, for Montezuma to take any action against him; by this device he imposes his power alongside that of Montezuma, since the latter cannot punish him.


114  He is quite as concerned with his army's reputation, and contributes very astutely to its elaboration.  When he and Montezuma climb one of the Aztec temples--114 steps high--the emperor invites him to rest.  "Cortes replied that none of us was ever exhausted by anything" (Bernal Diaz, 92).  Gomara has him reveal the secret of such behavior in a speech Cortes makes to his soldiers:  "The outcome of war depends upon fame" (Gomara, 114).


116   Cortes's behavior irresistibly suggests the almost contemporary teachings of Machiavelli.  No question of a direct influence, of course, but rather of the spirit of a period which is manifest in the latter's writings as in the former's actions; further, the "Catholic" King Ferdinand, whose example Cortes certainly knew, is cited by Machiavelli as a model of the "new prince."  How can we avoid the comparison between Cortes's stratagems and Machiavelli's precepts,which promote reputation and pretense to the forefront of the new values:  "It is not, therefore, necessary for a prince to have all the above-named qualities, but it is very necessary to seem to have them; I would even be so bold as to say that to possess them and always to observe them is dangerous, but to appear to possess them is useful" (Prince, 18).  More generally, in the world of Machiavelli and of Cortes, discourse is not determined by the object it describes, nor by conformity to a tradition, but is constructed solely as a function of the goal it seeks to achieve.

          Our best proof we can have of Cortes's capacity to understand and speak the other's language is his participation in the development of the myth of Quetzalcoatl's return.


118  ...for Cortes, as we have seen, speech is more a means of manipulating the Other than it is a faithful reflection of the world, and in his relations with his sovereign he has so many goals to achieve that objectivity is not the first of his concerns.


In order to characterize his own discourse, Cortes employs, significantly, the basic rhetorical notion of the "suitable," the "fitting": discourse is governed by its goal, not by its object.


119  Comparing narratives of the conquest itself--Indian and Spanish--we further discover the opposition of two types of very different ideology.  Let us take two of the richest examples"  Bernal Diaz's chronicle on the one hand; that of the Florentine Codex, collected by Sahagun, on the other.  They do not differ in their documentary value--both contain truths combined with errors--nor in their aesthetic quality--both are moving, even overwhelming.  But they are not constructed similarly.  The narrative in the Codex is the story of a people told by that people.  Bernal Diaz's chronicle is the story of certain men told by one man.


[Codex]  ...these individuals never become "characters:"  they have no individual psychology inspiring their actions and differentiating them from each other.  Fatality ;rules over the course of events and at no moment do we feel that things might have happened otherwise.  These individuals do not, by addition or fusion, form Aztec society.  That society, on the contrary, is the initial datum and the hero of the account; the individuals are merely its instances.


120 [Diaz]  Each is a complex mixture of virtues and defects whose actions cannot be predicted: from the world of the necessary we have shifted to the world of the arbitrary, since each individual can become the source of an action not to be anticipate by general laws.


And we have seen to what degree his narrative swarms with "useless" (or rather unnecessary) details not imposed by the fatality of events: ;why tell us that Aguilar was wearing one sandal at his belt?  Because this singularity of the event in his eyes constitutes its identity.  Indeed, we find in the Florentine Codex certain details of the same kind: the lovely Indian women who cover their cheeks with mud in order to escape the Spaniards' lustful gaze; the Spaniards who must hold a handkerchief to their noses in order to escape the stench of corpses; Cuauhtemoc's dusty garments when he presents himself to Cortes.  But they all reappear in the last chapters, after the fall of Mexico, as if the empire's collapse were accompanied by the victory of the European narrative mode over the Indian style: the world of the post-conquest is cross-bred, in the fact as in the fashions of reporting it.


121-22  Cortes's semiotic conduct belongs indeed to his time and his place.  In itself, language is not an unequivocal instrument: it serves as well / for integration within the community as for manipulation of the other.  But Montezuma privileges the former function, Cortes the latter.  A last example of this difference is to be found in the role attributed on either side to the national language.  The Aztecs or Mayas, who as we have seen venerated the mastery of a symbolic discourse, do not appear to have understood the political importance of a common language, and linguistic diversity makes their communication with foreigners difficult.  Zorita writes, "Two or three different languages are spoken in many towns, and there is almost no contact or familiarity among the groups speaking these different languages" (9).  Where the language is above all a means of designating the group speaking it and expressing the coherence proper to that group, it is not necessary to impose it on the other.  Language remains situated in the space delimited by man's exchange with the gods and the world, rather than being conceived as a concrete instrument of action upon the Other.

          Hence the Spaniards will establish Nahuatl as the national native language in Mexico, before effecting Hispanization; the Franciscan and Dominican priests will undertake the study of the native languages as they latter assume the teaching of Spanish.  The preparation for this conduct has begun much earlier, and the year 1492, which has already seen the remarkable coincidence of the victory over the Arabs, of the exile imposed on the Jews, and of the discovery of America, this year is also the one that sees the publication of the first grammar of a modern European language--the Spanish grammar of Antonio de Nebrija.  The knowledge, here theoretical,  of language testifies to a new attitude, no longer of veneration but of analysis and of a new consciousness of its practical utility; Nebrija writes in his introduction these decisive words: "Language has always been the companion of empire."



Part 3: LOVE


"Understanding, Taking Possession, and Destroying"


127  Cortes understands relatively well the Aztec world that appears before him--certainly better than Montezuma understands the Spanish realities.  And yet this superior understanding does not keep the conquistadors from destroying Mexican civilization and society; quite the contrary, we suspect that destruction becomes possible precisely because of this understanding.


We might imagine that, having come to know the Aztecs, the Spaniards judged them so contemptible that they declared them and their culture unworthy to exist.  Yet if we read the conquistadors' writings, we find that this is anything but the case, and that on certain levels at least, the Aztecs provoke the Spaniards' admiration.


128-29  Cortes is convinced that the wonders he sees are the greatest in the world.  "It cannot be believed that any of the princes of this world, of whom we know, possess any things of such high quality" (2); "They were such that in all the world there could be none like them, nor any of such varied and natural colors or such workmanship" (2); "They are so well constructed in both their stone and woodwork that there can be none better in any place" (2); "So realistic in gold and silver that no smith in the world could have made better" (2); "Their city was indeed the most beautiful thing in the world" (3).  And the only comparisons Bernal Diaz finds are taken from the romances of chivalry (The conquistadors' favorite reading, it is true): "These great towns and cues (temples) and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis.  Indeed some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream" (87).

          So much enchantment, yet followed by such complete destruction!  Bernal Diaz, evoking his first vision of Mexico, writes with characteristic melancholy:  "I say again that I stood looking at it, and though that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world....But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing" (87).  Far from being dissipated, then, the mystery only grows more intense: not only did the Spaniards understand the Aztecs quite well, they admired them--and yet they annihilated them; why?

          Let us reread Cortes's admiring observations.  One thing is striking about them: with very few exceptions, they all concern objects: the architecture of houses, merchandise, fabrics, jewelry.  Like today's tourist who admires the quality of Asian or African craftsmanship though he is untouched by the notion of sharing the life of the craftsmen who produce such objects, Cortes goes into ecstasies about the Aztec productions but does not acknowledge their makers as human individualities to be set on the same level as himself.


129-30  We know that these jugglers and monsters provoked admiration at the Spanish court as at that of Pope Clement VII, where they were subsequently sent.


130     Things have changed a little since Columbus, who, it will be recalled, also captured the Indians in order to complete a kind of naturalist's collection, in which they took their place alongside plants and animals, but who was interested only in number: six head of women, six of men.  In the latter case, the Other was reduced, we might say, to the status of an object.  Cortes does not have the same point of view, but the Indians have still not become subjects in the full sense of the word, I.e., subjects comparable to the I who contemplates and conceives them.  They occupy rather an intermediate status in his mind: they are subjects, certainly, but subjects reduced to the role of producers of objects, artisans or jugglers whose performances are admired--but such admiration emphasizes rather than erases the distance between them and himself; and the fact that they belong to the series of "natural curiosities" is not altogether forgotten.


132  These exotic objects quickly vanish into dust-covered collections; "Indian art" exerts no influence on sixteenth-century European art (contrary to what will happen in the case of "art negre" in the twentieth).  To formulate matters differently: in the best of cases, the Spanish authors speak well of the Indians, but with very few exceptions they do not speak to the Indians.  Now, it is only by speaking to the other (not giving orders but engaging in a dialogue) that I can acknowledge him as subject, comparable to what I am myself.


Let us examine the destruction of the Indians in the sixteenth century on two levels, quantitative and qualitative.


133     Without going into detail, and merely to give a general idea (even if we do not feel entirely justified in rounding off figures when it is a question of human lives), it will be recalled that in 1500 the world population is approximately 400 million, of whom 80 million inhabit the Americas.  By the middle of the sixteenth century, out of these 80 million, there remain ten. Or limiting ourselves to Mexico: on the eve of the conquest, its population is about 25 million; in 1600, it is one million.


If we examine the forms taken by the diminution of the population, we realize that there are three, and that the Spaniards' responsibility is inversely proportional to the number of victims deriving from each of them:

          1.  By direct murder, during the wars or outside of them: a high number, nonetheless relatively small; direct responsibility.

          2.  By consequence of bad treatment: a higher number; a (barely) less direct responsibility.

          3.  By diseases, by "microbe shock": the majority of the population; an indirect and diffused responsibility.


134     Alongside the increase of the death rate, the new living conditions also provoke a diminution of the birthrate....


137  During the first years after the conquest, the slave traffic flourished, and slaves often changed master.  "They produced so many marks on their faces, in addition to the royal brand, that they had their faces covered with letters, for they bore the marks of all who had bought and sold them" (Juan Bautista Pomar, Relacion de Texcoco, 1582).  Vasco de Quiroga, in a letter to the Council of the Indies, has also left a description of these faces transformed into illegible books, like the victims' bodies in Kafka's Penal Colony:  "They are marked with brands on the face and in their flesh are imprinted the initials of the names of those who are successively their owners; they pass from hand to hand, and some have three or four names, so that the faces of these men who were created in God's image have been, by our sins, transformed into paper."



          What are the immediate motivations that produce such an attitude in the Spaniards?  One is incontestably the desire for instant wealth, which implies the neglect of others' well-being or even life: torture is inflicted in order to discover the hiding places of treasure; human beings are exploited in order to obtain profits.  The authors of the period already gave this reason as the principle explanation of what had happened--for example, Motolinia:  "If anyone should ask what has been the cause of so many evils, I would answer: covetousness, the desire to store in one's chest a few bars of gold for the benefit of I know not whom" (I, 3); and Las Casas:  "I do not say that they want to kill them [the Indians] directly, for the hate they bear them; they kill them because they want to be rich and have much gold, which is their whole aim, through the toil and sweat of the afflicted and unhappy" ("Entre los remedios," 7).

          And why this desire to be rich?  Because money leads to everything, as everyone knows: "With money men acquire all the temporal things that they need and desire, such as honor, nobility, estate, family, luxury, fine clothes, delicate foods, the pleasure of vices, vengeance of their enemies, great esteem for their person" (ibid.).

          Certainly the desire for riches is nothing new, the passion for gold has nothing specifically modern about it.  What is new is the subordination of all other values to this one.  The conquistador has not ceased to aspire to aristocratic values,  to titles of nobility, to honors, and to esteem; but it has become quite clear to him that everything can be obtained by money, that money is not only the universal equivalent of all material values, but also the possibility of acquiring all spiritual values.  It is certainly advantageous, in Montezuma's Mexico as in preconquest Spain, to be rich; but one cannot purchase status, or in any case not directly.  This homogenization of values by money is a new phenomenon and it heralds the modern mentality, egalitarian and economic.

          In any case, the desire for wealth is far from explaining everything; and if it is eternal, the forms taken by the Indians' destruction, as well as its proportions, are entirely unprecedented and sometimes even exceptional; the economic explanation is here proved inadequate....Everything occurs as if the Spaniards were finding an intrinsic pleasure in cruelty, in the fact of exerting their power over others, in the demonstration of their capacity to inflict death.

          Here again we might evoke certain immutable features of "human nature," for which the psychoanalytic vocabulary reserves terms such as "aggression," "death instinct," or even Bemachtigungstrieb, instinct for mastery; or, with regard to cruelty, we might recall various characteristics of other cultures, and even of Aztec society in particular, which has the reputation of being "cruel" and of not making much of the number of victims (or rather of doing just that, but in order to glorify itself thereby!)....


143  Just as it has been necessary to set the society valuing ritual in opposition to the society favoring improvisation, or code to context, here we may speak of sacrifice-societies and massacre-societies, of which the Aztecs and the sixteenth-century Spaniards would be the respective representatives.

144-45          Sacrifice, from this point of view, is a religious murder: it is performed in the mae of the official ideology and will be perpetrated in public places, in sight of all and to everyone's knowledge.  The victim's identity is determined by strict rules.  He must not be too alien, too remote (we have seen that the Aztecs believed that the flesh of distant tribes was not acceptable to their gods), but he must not, on the other hand, belong to the same society: one's fellow citizen is not sacrificed.  The victims come from limitrophic countries, speaking the same language but having an autonomous government; further, once captured, they are kept in prison for some time, thereby partially--but never completely--assimilated.  Neither identical nor totally different, the sacrificial victim also counts by his personal qualities: the sacrifice of brave warriors is more highly appreciated than that of just anyone; as for invalids of all kinds, they are immediately declared unsuitable for sacrifice.  The sacrifice is performed in public and testifies to the power of the social fabric, to its mastery over the individual.

          Massacre, on the other hand, reveals the weakness of this same social fabric, the desuetude of the moral principles that once assured the group's coherence; hence it should be performed in some remote place where the law is only vaguely acknowledged: for the Spaniards, America or even Italy.  Massacre is thus intimately linked to colonial wars waged far from the metropolitan country.  The more remote and alien the victims, the better: they are exterminated without remorse, more or less identified with animals.  The individual identity of the massacre victim is by definition irrelevant (otherwise his death would be a murder): one has neither time nor curiosity to know whom one is killing at that moment.  Unlike sacrifices, massacres are generally not acknowledged or proclaimed, their very existence is kept secret and denied.  This is because their social function is not recognized, and we have the impression that such action finds its justification in itself: one wields the saber for the pleasure of wielding the saber, one cuts off the Indian's nose, tongue, and penis without this having any ritual meaning for the amputator.

          If religious murder is a sacrifice, massacre is an atheistic murder, and the Spaniards appear to have invented (or rediscovered; but not borrowed from their immediate past, for the Inquisition's stakes were more closely related to sacrifice) precisely this type of violence, which we encounter in our own more recent past, whether on the level of individual violence or on that of violence perpetrated by states.  It is as though the conquistadors obeyed the rule of Ivan Karamazov: "everything is permitted."  Far from the central government, far from royal law, all prohibitions give way, the social link, already loosened, snaps, revealing not a primitive nature, the beast sleeping in each of us, but a modern being, one with a great future in fact, restrained by no morality and inflicting death because and when he pleases.  The "barbarity" of the Spaniards has nothing atavistic or bestial about it; it is quite human and heralds the advent of modern times.  In the Middle Ages, we find that a woman's breasts or a man's arms will be cut off as a punishment or a revenge; but such things were done in one's own country, or were just as likely to be done in one's own country as elsewhere.  What the Spaniards discover is the contrast between the metropolitan country and the colony, for radically different moral laws regulate conduct in each: massacre requires an appropriate context.

          But what if we do not want to have to choose between a civilization of sacrifice and a civilization of massacre?


"Equality or Inequality"


146  The desire for wealth and the impulse to master--certainly these two forms of aspiration to power motivate the Spaniards' conduct; but this conduct is also conditioned by their notion of the Indians as inferior beings, halfway between men and beasts.  Without this essential premise, the destruction could not have taken place.

          From its first formulation, this doctrine of inequality will be opposed by another, which affirms the equality of all men; hence we are listening to a debate, and we must pay attention to the two voices in contention.  Now, this debate does not only oppose equality to inequality, but also identity to difference; and this new opposition, whose terms are no more ethically neutral than those of the preceding one, makes it more difficult to bring a judgment to bear on either position.  We have already seen as much with Columbus: difference is corrupted into inequality, equality into identity.  These are the two great figures of the relation to the other that delimit the other's inevitable space.


147  ...Christianity is an egalitarian religion; yet in its name, men are reduced to slavery.


148  We do not know in just which language Valdivia's messengers expressed themselves and how they managed to make the contents of the Requerimiento intelligible to the Indians.  Be we do know how in other cases the Spaniards deliberately neglected resorting to interpreters, since such neglect ultimately simplified their task: the question of the Indians' reaction no longer came up.


149  Francisco de Vitoria, theologian, jurist, and professor at the University of Salamanca, one of the pinnacles of Spanish humanism in the sixteenth century....As for the circulation of ideas, Vitoria thinks only of the Spaniards' freedom to preach the Gospels to the Indians, and never of the Indians' freedom to propagate the Popul Vuh in Spain, since Christian "salvation" is an absolute value for him.


151  The debate between partisans of equality or inequality reaches its apogee, and at the same time finds a concrete incarnation, in the celebrated controversy at Vallodid which, in 1550, sets the scholar and philosopher Gines de Sepulveda against the Dominican bishop of Chiapas, Bartolome de Las Casas.  The very existence of this confrontation has something extraordinary about it.  Usually such dialogues are established from book to book, and the protagonists do not meet face / 152 to face.  But it appears that Sepulveda was denied the right to print his treatise on the just cause of war against the Indians....


152  Sepulveda bases his arguments on an ideological tradition on which other defenders of the inegalitarian thesis also draw to make their points.  We may number among such author s the one from whom this thesis claims --with some justice--to derive: Aristotle.  Sepulveda has translated the Politics into Latin, he is one of the foremost specialists in Aristotelian thought of his time; and is it not Aristotle, precisely in the Politics, who establishes the famous distinction between those who are born masters and those born slaves?  "Those, therefore, who are as much inferior to others as are the body to the soul and beasts to men, are by nature slaves....He is by nature slave who...shares in reason to the extent of apprehending it without possessing it" (Aristotle, 1254b).  Another text to which contemporary reference is made is a treatise De regimine, attributed at the time to Aquinas but actually written by Ptolomeus of Lucca, who adds to the assertion of inequality an already hoary explanation, yet one that is destined to enjoy a great future: the reason for this inequality must be sought in the influence of the climate (and in that of the stars).

          Sepulveda believes that hierarchy, not equality, is the natural state of human society.  But the only hierarchic relation he knows is that of a simple superiority/inferiority; hence there are no differences of nature, but only different degrees in one and the same scale of values, even if the relation can be infinitely repeated.


153  All the oppositions that constitute Sepulveda's mental universe ultimately have the same content; and we might rewrite the above assertions as an endless chain of proportions.


Indians      children (sons)    women (wives)    animals

          =                   =                =         =

Spaniards    adults (fathers)   men (husbands)   humans                                                                             savagery       violence      matter   body    appetite                         =            =         =     =            =          forbearance   moderation     form     soul    reason                                                                                evil                                                                                                                                good                                                              

          Not all the partisans of inequality share so schematic a concept; we see that Sepulveda groups all hierarchy and all difference around the simple opposition of good and bad--i.e., that he finally abides by the principle of identity (rather than that of difference).


154  That such oppositions are made equivalent with the group relating to the body and the soul is also revealing: above all, the other is our body itself; whence, too, the identification of the Indians, as of women, to animals, creatures which, though animate, have no soul.

          All the differences are reduced, for Sepulveda,  to what is not one at all: superiority/inferiority, good and evil.  Now let us see what his arguments for a just war consist of.  Four reasons make a war legitimate (as set forth in his Valladolid speech, but the same arguments are to be found in Democrates Alter):


          1. To subject by force of arms men whose natural condition is such that they should obey others, if they refuse such obedience and no other recourse remains.

          2. To banish the portentous crime of eating human flesh, which is a special offense to nature, and to stop the worship of demons instead of God, which above all else provokes His wrath, together with the monstrous rite of sacrificing men.

          3. To save from grave perils the numerous innocent mortals whom these barbarians immolated every year placating their gods with human hearts.

          4. War on the infidels is justified because it opens the way to propagation of Christian religion and eases the task of the missionaries.


          We can say this line of argument unites four descriptive propositions as to the Indians' nature to a postulate that is also a moral imperative.  These propositions: the indians have a slave's nature; they practice cannibalism; they make human sacrifices; they are ignorant of the Christian religion. The postulate imperative: one has the right or even the duty to impose the good on others.  We should perhaps specify here that one makes one's own decision as to what is good or evil; one has the right to impose on others what once considers as the good, without concern as to whether or not this is also the good from the other's point of view.  This postulate therefore implies a projection of the subject speaking about the universe, an identification of my values with the values.


156     The portrait Sepulveda draws here is of the greatest interest, as much for each feature composing it as for their combination.  Sepulveda is sensitive to differences, he even seeks them out; he therefore collects certain of the most striking characteristics of the Indian societies.  It is curious to observe that in doing so he repeats certain idealizing descriptions of the Indians (absence of writing, of money, of garments), while inverting their signs.  What is it that causes precisely these features to be united?  Sepulveda does not say, but we may suppose that their connection is no accident.  The presence of oral traditions instead of written laws, of images instead of writing, indicates that a different role has devolved, on either side, upon presence and absence in general: writing, in opposition to spoken language, permits the absence of speakers; in opposition to the image, it permits the absence of the object designated, including even its form; the necessary memorization of laws and traditions imposed by the absence of writing determines, as we have seen, the predominance of ritual over improvisation.  The same is more or less true of the absence of money, that universal equivalent which dispenses with the necessity of juxtaposing the actual goods to be exchanged.  The absence of garments, if asserted, would indicate on the one hand that the body always remains present, never being hidden from sight, and on the other that there is no difference between private situation and public, intimate and social--i.e., the nonrecognition of the singular status of the third person.  Finally, the / 157  lack of beasts of burden is to be set on the same level as the absence of tools: it is incumbent on the human body to perform certain tasks instead of attributing this function to an auxiliary, animate or not--to the physical person rather than to an intermediary.


157  Now, the touchstone of alterity is not the present and immediate second person singular but the absent or distant third person singular.  In the features noted by Sepulveda we also find a difference in the place assumed by absence (if absence can assume a place): oral exchange, the lack of money and garments as of beasts of burden all imply a predominance of presence over absence, of the immediate over the mediatized.  It is precisely here that we can see how the theme of the perception of the other and that of symbolic (or semiotic) behavior intersect--themes that simultaneously concern me throughout this investigation: at a certain level of abstraction, the two become identified.  Language exists only by means of the other, not only because one always addresses someone but also insofar as it permits evoking the absent third person; unlike animals, men know citation.  But the very existence of this other is measured by the space the symbolic system reserves for him: such space is not the same, to evoke only one massive and by now familiar example, before and after the advent of writing (in the narrow sense).  So that any investigation of alterity is necessarily semiotic, and reciprocally, semiotics cannot be conceived outside the relation to the other.


158-160  There exists a realm in which development and progress are beyond doubt; this is the realm of technology.  It is incontestable that a bronze or iron ax cuts better than one of wood or stone; that the use of the wheel reduces the physical effort required.  Now these technological inventions themselves are not born of nothing: they are conditioned (without being directly determined) // by the evolution of the symbolic apparatus proper to man, an evolution we can also observe in certain social behavior.  There is a "technology" of symbolism, which is as capable of evolution as the technology of tools, and, in this perspective, the Spaniards are more "advanced" than the Aztecs (or to generalize: societies possessing writing are more advanced than societies without writing), even if we are here concerned only with a difference of degree.

164  It is striking to see how Las Casas is led to describe the Indians in terms which are almost entirely negative or privative: they are without defects, neither thus nor so....

          Further, what is asserted positively is merely a psychological state (once again, as with Columbus): good, calm, patient; never a cultural or social configuration which might permit the understanding of differences.

165  His Apologetica Historia contains, it is true, a mass of information, collected either by himself or by the missionaries and concerning the Indians' material and spiritual life.  But as the very title of the work reveals, history here becomes apologia: for Las Casas, the essential is that none of the Indians' customs or practices prove that they are inferior beings; he approaches each phenomenon with certain evaluative categories, and the result of the confrontation is determined in advance: if Las Casas's book has a value as an ethnographic document today, it is certainly in spite of the author.  We must acknowledge that the portrait of the Indians to be drawn from Las Casas's works is rather poorer than that left us by Sepulveda: as a matter of fact, we learn nothing of the Indians.  If it is incontestable that the prejudice of superiority is an obstacle in the road to knowledge, we must also admit that the prejudice of equality is a still greater one, for it consists in identifying the other purely and simply with one's own "ego ideal" (or with oneself).


166  He will oppose the conquistadors , he says again, "until Satan is expelled from the Indies" ("Letter to Prince Philip," 9, 11, 1545).  This sentence has a familiar ring: it is the racist historian Oviedo who also hoped that "Satan would be expelled from the islands"; we have merely changed Satans--Indian here, Spaniard there--but the conceptualization remains the same.  Thus, at the same time that he misperceives the Indians, Las Casas fails to know the Spaniards.  The latter are not, it is true, Christians like himself (or like his ideal); but one does not apprehend the transformation that has occurred in the Spanish mentality if one merely presents it as a manifestation of the devil--i.e., by retaining the very frame of reference that has been called into question.  The Spaniards, for whom the notion of chance has replaced that of fate, have a new way of living their religion (or of living without religion); this explains to a degree how they build their transatlantic empire so easily, how they contribute to the subjection of a great part of the world to Europe: is this not the source of their capacity of adaptation and improvisation?  But Las Casas chooses to ignore this way of experiencing religion and here behaves as a theologian, not as a historian.


167 Here again there is an incontestable generosity on the part of Las Casas, who refuses to despise others simply because they are different.  But he goes one step further and adds: moreover, they are not (or will not be) different.  The postulate of equality involves the assertion of identity, and the second great figure of alterity, even if it is incontestably more attractive, leads to a knowledge of the other even less valid than the first.



"Enslavement, Colonialism, and Communication"


168  Las Casas loves the Indians.  And is a Christian.  For him, these two traits are linked: he loves the Indians precisely because he is a Christian, and his love illustrates his faith.  Yet such solidarity is not a matter of course.  As we have seen, precisely because he was a Christian, his perception of the Indians was poor.  Can we really love someone if we know little or nothing of his identity; if we see, in place of that identity, a projection of ourselves or of our ideals?  We know that such a thing is quite possible, even frequent, in personal relations; but what happens in cultural confrontations?  Doesn't one culture risk trying to transform the other in its own name, and therefore risk subjugating it as well?  How much is such love worth?


170-71  Las Casas's attitude with regard to black slaves might also be brought up in this context.  His adversaries, who have always been numerous, interpret it as a proof of his partiality toward the Indians, and therefore a means of rejecting his testimony concerning their destruction.  This interpretation is unfair; but it is true that initially Las Casas did not have the same attitude toward Indians and blacks: he consents that the latter, but not the former, be reduced to slavery.  We must remember that enslavement of blacks is an acknowledged phenomenon at the time, whereas that of the Indians is beginning before his eyes.  But at the period when he is writing the History of the Indies, he declares that he no longer makes any distinction between the two groups:  "He always considered the Blacks as  unjustly and tyrannically reduced to slavery, for the same reasons applied to them and to the Indians" (Historia, III, 102).  Yet we know that in 1544 he still possessed a black slave (he had released his Indians in 1514), and we still find expressions of this sort in his History: "Surely the blindness of those people who first came here and treated the natives as if they were Africans was something to marvel at" (Historia, II, 27, p. 132).  Without seeing this as a phenomenon destroying the authenticity of his testimony concerning the Indians, we must remark that his attitude toward blacks is unclear.  Is this not because his generosity is based on a spirit of identification, on the assertion that the other is like oneself, and that he finds such a statement too preposterous in the case of the blacks?

          One thing is sure:  Las Casas does not want to put an end to the annexation of the Indians, he merely wants this to be effected by priests rather than by soldiers.


172  "The Spaniards do not realize," Motolinia writes, "that were it not for the friars, there would be no further servitors, either in their houses or in their fields, for they would have killed them all, as may be observed in Santo Domingo and in other islands where the Indians were exterminated" (III, 1).


172-73  I do not want to suggest, by accumulating such quotations, that Las Casas or the other defenders of the Indians should, or even could, have behaved differently.  In any case, the documents we are reading are generally missives addressed to the king, and it is difficult to see the point of suggesting that the latter renounce his realms.  On the contrary, by asking for a more humane attitude with regard to the Indians, they do the only thing possible and at all useful; if anyone contributed to the improvement of the Indians' lot, it is certainly Las Casas; the inextinguishable hatred which all the Indians' adversaries, all those loyal to the notion of white supremacy, have vented upon him is a sufficient indication of that.  He has achieved this result by using the weapons which best suited him: by writing, with passion.  He has left an ineffaceable picture of the destruction of the Indians, and every line devoted to them since--including this one--owes him something.  No one else, with such abnegation, has dedicated such enormous energy and a half-century of his life to improving the lot of others.  But it takes nothing away from the greatness of the figure, quite the contrary, to acknowledge that the ideology "assumed" by Las Casas and by other defenders of the Indians is certainly a colonialist one.  It is precisely because we cannot help admiring the man that we must judge his policies lucidly.


174  But it is to the (vague) influence of Cortes that we owe the surprising, and assumed, presence of the discourse of seeming.  The text [of the Ordinances of 1573] cannot be more explicit on this point: it is not conquests that are to be banished, but the word conquest; "pacification" is nothing but another word to designate the same thing, but let us not suppose that this linguistic concern is a futile one.  Subsequently, one is to act under cover of commerce, by manifesting love, and without showing greed.  For those who cannot understand such language, it is made even clearer that the presents offered must be of little value: it suffices that they please the Indians....


175  Another lesson from Cores is not forgotten: before dominating, one must be informed.


Las Casas and the other defenders of the Indians are not hostile to the Spanish expansion; but they prefer one of its forms to the other.  Let us call each of them by a familiar name (even if these names are not quite exact historically): they function within the colonialist ideology, against the enslavement ideology.  Enslavement, in this sense of the word, reduces the other to the status of an object, which is especially manifested in conduct that treats the Indians as less than men:  their flesh is used to feed the surviving Indians or even the dogs....Las Casas reports that the price of a female slave rises according to whether or not she is pregnant, exactly as in the case of cattle:  "This godforsaken man...said that he worked as hard as he could to get Indian women with child, for when he sold them as slaves he would be paid more if they were pregnant" (Relacion, Yucatan).

          But this form of human utilization is obviously not the most profitable.  If, instead of regarding the other as an object, he were considered as a subject capable of producing objects which one might then possess, / 176  the chain would be extended by a link--an intermediary subject--and thereby multiply to infinity the number of objects ultimately possessed.


176  We know virtually nothing of the feelings of the Indians of the period toward Las Casas, which, in itself, is already significant.  Cortes, on the other hand, is so popular that he makes those in possession of legal power tremble....


177     We may be surprised to see every form of the Spanish presence in America stigmatized by the name "colonialism" which is nowadays an insult.  Since the period of the conquest, authors of the pro-Spanish party insist on the benefits the Spaniards contributed to the uncivilized countries, as we frequently encounter such enumerations as these: the Spaniards suppressed human sacrifice, cannibalism, polygamy, homosexuality, and brought Christianity, European clothes, domestic animals, tools.  Even if today we do not always see why this or that novelty is superior to this or that ancient practice, and if we judge some of these gifts to have been bought at a very high price, certain indisputably positive points subsist: technological developments, but also, as we have seen, symbolic and cultural advances.  Are these, too, the products of colonialism?  In other words, is any influence, by the very fact of its externality, detrimental?   Raised in this form, the question can receive, it seems to me, only a negative answer.  Hence it appears that if colonialism opposes enslavement, it simultaneously opposes that contact with the other which I shall simply call communication.  To the triad understand/seize/destroy corresponds this other triad in inverted order: enslavement/colonialism/communication.

          Vitoria's principle, according to which free circulation of men, ideas, and goods must be permitted, seems generally accepted today (even if it does not suffice to justify a war)).  In the name of what would we reserve "America for the Americans"--or Russians inside Russia?  Furthermore, did not these Indians themselves come from elsewhere: from the north or even, according to some, from Asia, across the Bering Straits?  Can the history of any country be other than the sum of successive influences it has undergone?  If there really existed a people who rejected all change, would such a will illustrate anything but an impulse of hypertrophied death instinct?  Bobineau believed that the superior races were the purest; do we not believe today that the richest cultures are the most mixed?

          But we also cherish another principle, that of self-determination and noninterference.  How to reconcile them with "cross-pollination"?


179  The Christians are disgusted by cases of cannibalism.  The introduction of Christianity involves their suppression.  But in order to achieve this suppression, men are burned alive!  The whole paradox of the death penalty is here: the penal instance accomplishes the very action it condemns--it kills in order to forbid killing....  Such is the paradox of colonization, even if it is created in the name of values believed to be "higher."


181  The relation of knowledge to power, as we were able to observe on the occasion of the conquest, is not contingent but constitutive.





"Typology of Relations to Others"


185  There is a certain paradox in identifying Las Casas's behavior toward the Indians with that of Cortes, and we have had to surround such an assertion with several restrictions; this is because the relation to the other is not constituted in just one dimension.  To account for the differences that exist in actuality, we must distinguish among at least three axes, on which we can locate the problematics of alterity.  First of all, there is a value judgment (an axiological level): the other is good or bad, I love or do not love him, or, as was more likely to be said at the time, he is my equal or my inferior (for there is usually no question that I am good and that I esteem myself).  Secondly, there is the action of rapprochement or distancing in relation to the other (a praxeological level): I embrace the other's values, I identify myself with him; or else I identify the other with myself, I impose my own image upon him; between submission to the other and the other's submission, there is also a third term, which is neutrality, or indifference.  Thirdly, I know or am ignorant of the other's identity (this would be the epistemic level); of course, there is no absolute here, but an endless gradation between the lower or higher states of knowledge.

          There exist, of course, relations and affinities between these three levels, but no rigorous implication; hence, we cannot reduce them to one another, nor anticipate one starting from the other.  Las Casas knows the Indians less well than Cortes, and he loves them more; but they meet in their common policy of assimilation.  Knowledge does not imply love, nor the converse; and neither of the two implies, nor is implied by, identification with the other.  Conquest, love, and knowl- / 186 edge are autonomous and, in a sense, elementary forms of conduct (discovery, as we have seen, has more to do with lands than with men; with regard to men, Columbus's attitude can be described in altogether negative terms: he does not love, does not know, and does not identify himself.


190  At the heart of the Christian tradition, only the martyrs of the first period, according to Las Casas, could be compared to the Aztec believers.

          Hence, it is by confronting the most troublesome argument that Las Casas is led to modify his position and to illustrate thereby anew variant of the love for one's neighbor, for the Other--a love that is no longer assimilationist but, so to speak, distributive: each has his own values; the comparison can be made only among certain relations--of each human being to his god--and no longer among substances: there are only formal universals.  Even as he asserts the existence of one God, Las Casas does not a priori privilege the Christian path to that God.  Equality is no longer bought at the price of identity; it is not an absolute value that we are concerned with: each man has the right to approach god by the path that suits him.  There is no longer a true God (ours), but a coexistence of possible universes: if someone considers it as true....  Las Casas has surreptitiously abandoned theology and practices here a kind of religious anthropology which,  in his context, is indeed a reversal, for it certainly seems that the man who assumes a discourse on religion takes the first step toward the abandonment of religious discourse itself.

          It will be even easier for him to apply this principle to the general case of alterity, and hence to show the relativity of the notion of "barbarism" (indeed he seems to be the first person to do so in the modern period): each of us is the other's barbarian, to become such a thing, one need only speak a language of what that other is ignorant: it is merely babble to his ears.


191  [St.Paul, Corinthians I, 14:10-11]  Las casas's radicalism denies him any middle way: either he asserts, as in the previous phase, the existence of a single true religion, which ineluctably leads him to assimilate the Indians to a previous (and hence inferior) phase of the Europeans' evolution; or else, as in his old age, he accepts the coexistence of ideas and values, and rejects any nonrelative meaning of the word barbarian, hence all evolution.


192 ...Las Casas discovers that higher form of egalitarianism we are calling perspectivism, in which each man is put in relation to his own values, rather than being faced with a single ideal.

          At the same time, we must not forget the paradoxical character of this union of terms, "an egalitarianizing religion," which explains the complexity of Las Casas's position.  This same paradox is illustrated by another approximately contemporary episode in the history of ideologies and of men: the debate on the finitude or the infinity of the world, and consequently on the existence of a hierarchy internal to the world.  In his treatise in dialogue form, De l'infinito universo e mondi, written in 1584, Giordano Bruno, a dominican like Las Casas, brings two conceptions into confrontation.  One, which asserts the finite character of the world and its necessary hierarchy, is defended by the Aristotelian (whose name is not Sepulveda); the other is Bruno's own.  Just as Las Casas (and Saint Paul before him) had asserted the relativity of the positions from which human affairs are to be judged, Bruno does so for physical space, and rejects the existence of any privileged position.  "Thus the earth no more than any other world is at the centre; and no point constitute definite determined poles of space for our earth, just as she herself is not a definite and determined pole to any other point of the ether or of the world space, and the same is true of all other bodies.  From various points of view these may all be regarded either as centres, or as points on the circumference, as poles, or zeniths, and so forth.  Thus the earth is not the center of the Universe; she is central only in relation to our own surrounding space."  "For all who posit a body of infinite size ascribe to it neither centre nor boundary" (2).

          Not only is the earth not the center of the universe, but no physical point is so; the very notion of center has a meaning only in relation to a particular point of view: center and periphery are notions as relative as those of civilization and barbarism (and even more so).  "There is in the universe neither centre nor circumference, but, if you will, the whole is central, and every point also may be regarded as part of a circumference to some other central point" (5).


193 ...Las Casas's "distributive" and "perspectivist" justice leads him to modify another element of his position: renouncing, in practice, the desire to assimilate the Indians, he chooses the neutral path: the Indians will decide their own future for themselves.


194  In short, Vasco de Quiroga asserts that the Spaniards belong to a decadent phase of history, whereas the Indians resemble the first apostles and the characters of Lucian's poem....


200     Someone like Cabeza de Vaca goes quite far along the path of identification, and he knows his Indians very well.  But as has been said, there is no relation of implication between these two features.  Proof of this would be afforded, if we needed such a thing, by the example of Diego de Landa.  This Franciscan owes his fame to a double gesture, decisive for our knowledge of Mayan history.  He is, on the one hand, the author of  the Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan, the most important document we have concerning the Mayan past; on the other hand, he is the instigator of several public autos-da-fe in which all the Mayan books in existence at the time will be burned, as Landa reports in the course of his own Relacion:  "We found a great number of these books in Indian characters, and because they contained nothing but superstition and the Devil's falsehoods, we burned them all; and this they felt most bitterly and it caused them great grief" (41).


201  We see here the complete separation of the two functions:  the assimilator acts in Yucatan; the scholar writes books in Spain.


"Duran, or the Hybridization of Cultures"


Shortly before his death (in 1588), Duran will write between 1576 and 1581 a Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de la Tierra Firme [not published until 19c]


202 ...Duran links the two following inferences: to impose the Christian religion, all trace of the pagan one must be uprooted, to eliminate paganism successfully, it must first of all be known thoroughly.


204     In for a penny, in for a pound: anyone who allows the slightest trace of paganism to subsist betrays the very spirit of the Christian religion.


205  what angers Duran more than anything else is that the Indians manage to insert segments of their old religion into the very heart of Christian religious practices.  Syncretism is a sacrilege, and it is in this specific battle that Duran's work is to serve....


If religious syncretism is the most scandalous form of the survival of idolatries, other forms are no less reprehensible, and the danger lurks in their very multiplicity.  In a strongly hierarchized, codified,and ritualized society like that of the Aztecs, everything is linked, somehow, to religion: Duran is not mistaken after all.


206  "I would like to see all ancient customs disappear and fall into oblivion" (I, 20): all!

          On this point, Duran is not expressing the opinion of all Spanish priests in Mexico; he takes one side in a conflict which sets two policies in opposition with regard to the Indians, by and large that of the Dominicans against that of the Franciscans.  The Dominicans are rigorists: faith is not to be bargained for, conversion must be total, even if this implies a transformation of every aspect of the converts' lives.  The Franciscans are closer to what we should call realists: either they are actually unaware of the survivals of idolatry among the Indians or they have decided to pay no attention to them; in either case they recoil before the enormity of the task (total conversion), and adapt themselves to the present situation, however imperfect.  This policy, which will be the one to prevail, turns out to be effective; but it is true that Mexican Christianity still bears the traces of syncretism.


207  This is one aspect of Duran: a rigid, intransigent Christian, defender of religious purity.  Hence it is with some surprise that we find him quite willing to indulge in analogy and comparison in order to make the Mexican realities intelligible to his presumably European reader; of course there is nothing reprehensible in this, but for someone who makes a profession of the vigilant maintenance of differences, he certainly sees many resemblances: traitors are punished the same way in both cultures, and the punishments involve the same feeling of shame; the tribe takes the name of its leader, the family that of its head, exactly as among us.  They subdivide the country into regions, as in Spain, and their religious hierarchy resembles our own.  Their priests' vestments resemble our chasubles; their dances, our saraband.  They have the same sayings and the same kind of epic narratives.  When they play games, they speak and blaspheme exactly as Spaniards to, and moreover their game alquerque is astonishingly like chess: in both countries the pieces are black and white....

          Some of these analogies strike us as rather forced; but the reader's surprise turns into stupefaction when he discovers that Duran's comparisons are especially abundant in the religious realm!


208     For so many resemblances, there are only two possible explanations.  According to the first, which Duran prefers, if the Aztec rites so powerfully suggest those of the christians, it is because the Aztecs had already received, in a more remote past, a Christian teaching....


210 "Either (as I have stated) our Holy Christian Religion was known in this land, or the devil our cursed adversary forced the Indians to imitate the ceremonies of the Christian Catholic religion in his own service and cult,being thus adored and served" (I, 3).

          What a dreadful choice!  One is flung from one extreme to the other: either an especially perfidious diabolical ruse, or else an exceptional divine grace....Duran does not withstand the tension of such doubts for long, and at the period when he is writing his history--in 1580-81--he has made his decision: the Aztecs are none other than one of the lost tribes of Israel.  The first chapter of his history opens with this assertion:  "Because of their nature we could almost affirm that they are Jews and Hebrew people...."


          Most likely Duran himself came from a family of converted Jews.  We may see this as the reason for the zeal with which he attaches himself to resemblances while neglecting differences: he must have already, and more or less consciously, performed an activity of this sort in an effort to reconcile the two religions, Jewish and Christian.  Perhaps he was already predisposed toward cultural hybridization; in any case, the confrontation he represents between the Indian civilization and the European makes him the most accomplished cultural hybrid of the sixteenth century.


211  Duran tells how he had discovered an Indian persisting in his pagan practices:  "I reprehended him for the foolish thing he had done, and he answered, 'Father, do not be astonished; we are still nepantla.'  Although I understood what that metaphorical word means, that is to say 'in the middle,' I insisted that he tell which 'in the middle' he referred to.  The native told me that since the people were not yet well rooted in the Faith, I should not marvel at the fact that they were neither fish nor fowl; they were governed by neither one religion nor the other.  Or, better said, they believed in God and also followed their ancient heathen rites and customs" (III, 3).  But the Spaniards, too, cannot escape this confrontation unscathed, and Duran unwittingly draws what is also his own portrait, or rather, writes the allegory of his destiny.


212  ...Duran is one of the rare individuals who really understand both cultures--or, if you will,  who is capable of translating the signs of the one into the signs of the other; thereby his work is the summit of sixteenth-century Spanish scholarship with regard to the Indians.  He himself has left testimony as to the difficulties encountered by the practice of translation.  "All the native lays are interwoven with such obscure metaphors that there is hardly a man who can understand them unless they are studied in a very special way and explained so as to penetrate their meaning.  For this reason I have intentionally set myself to listen with much attention to what is sung; and while the words and terms of the metaphors seem nonsense to me, afterward, having discussed and conferred [with the natives, I can see that] they seem to be admirable sentences, both in the divine things composed today and in the worldly songs" (I, 21).  Here we see how knowledge involves a value judgment: having understood, Duran cannot help admiring the Aztec texts, although they concern divine--i.e., idolatrous--matters.

          The result of this understanding is the inestimable Duran's text on the Aztec religion--inestimable because it is virtually the only one which is not content to describe from outside, even with good will and attention, but which at least attempts to understand the motive of the actions described.


213     Another fascinating manifestation of cultural hybridization can be perceived in the development of the point of view from which Duran's work is written.  In his book on religion, as we have seen, the two points of view, Aztec and Spanish, are distinguished, even if corruptions occur from one to the other; Duran's ultimate syncretism nonetheless jeopardized any distinct attributions.  The historical work, posterior to the religious one, is even more complex in this regard.  At first glance though, Duran's intention is simple enough: that of a translator, in the most limited sense of the word. He has before his eyes, he tells us, a manuscript written in Nahuatl which he is turning into Spanish, sporadically comparing it with other sources or illuminating certain obscure passages for the Spanish reader; this is the famous and enigmatic "Cronica X" (so-called by today's specialists), a splendid epic fresco of Aztec history whose original is unknown to us but which has also served as the point of departure for the books of Tezozomoc and Tovar.


His goal is not truth, for which he himself would be responsible, but fidelity to a different voice; the text he provides is not only a translation but also a citation:  Duran is not the author of the sentences we read.


214  Neither Spaniard nor Aztec, Duran is, like La Malinche, one of the first Mexicans.  The author of the original historical narrative ("Cronica X") must have been an Aztec; Duran's reader, necessarily, a Spaniard; Duran himself is that being who permits the transition from one to the other, and is himself the most remarkable of his own works.


217 ...Duran's point of view remains both Indian and Christian.  And in this, Duran is not at all like any of the groups in which he participates: neither Spaniards nor Aztecs of the conquest period could think as he does.  Having acceded to the status of cultural hybrid, Duran, without realizing it, has had to abandon the status of mediator and interpreter, which he had chosen for himself.  Asserting his own hybrid identity in confronting the beings he is trying to describe, he no longer succeeds in his project of comprehension, since he attributes to his characters thoughts and intentions which belong only to himself and to the other cultural hybrids of his time.  The master of knowledge leads to a rapprochement with the object observed; but this very rapprochement serves as an obstacle to the process of knowledge.



"Sahagun and His Work"

219  Bernardino de Sahagun b. Spain 1499

Sahagun's activity, rather like a modern intellectual's, follows two main directions: teaching and writing.  Sahagun is, originally, a grammarian or "linguist"; once he arrives in Mexico he learns Nahuatl, in this following the example of priests who had preceded him, such as Olmos and Motolinia.  This fact is in itself already significant: usually it is the conquered who learns the conqueror's language.  It is no accident that the first interpreters are Indians: those whom Columbus has taken back to Spain, those who come from islands already occupied by the Spaniards ("julian" and "Melchior"), or La Malinche, given to the Spaniards as a slave.  On the Spanish side, too, one learns the language when one is in a position of inferiority: thus Agular or Guerrero, forced to live among the Mayas, or later Cabeza de Vaca.  We cannot imagine Columbus or Cortes learning the language of those they subjugate, and even Las Casas never masters a native language.  The Franciscans and other priests from Spain are the first to learn the / 220 of the conquered, and though this gesture is based on evident interests (to serve the propagation of the Christian religion), it is no less pregnant with meaning: even if it is only to identify the other with oneself, one begins by identifying oneself, at least in part, with the other.

220  Sahagun, then, learns Nahuatl thoroughly and becomes a professor of (Latin) grammar in the Franciscan seminary of Tlateloco at its founding in 1536.  This seminary is meant for the Mexican elite, it recruits its students among the sons of the former nobility; the level of studies rapidly becomes a superior one.  Sahagun himself reports later on:  "The Spaniards and the monks of other orders who learned of this laughed heartily and mocked us, considering it as beyond doubt that no one would be able to teach grammar to people who possessed so few aptitudes.  But after we had worked with them for two or three years, they were able to penetrate into every subject which concerns grammar, and speaking, understanding, and writing in Latin, even to the point of composing heroic verses" (X, 27).

...What is also remarkable is that the instruction is reciprocal: at the same time that he introduces the young Mexicans into the subtleties of Latin grammar, Sahagun himself takes advantage of this contact to perfect his knowledge of Nahuatl language and culture....

221  Language has always been the companion of empire; the Spaniards fear that in losing supremacy over the former realm, they may lose it over the latter as well.

          The second direction in which Sahagun's efforts are oriented is writing, and here he obviously draws on the knowledge acquired during his teaching.  He is the author of numerous works, some of which are lost, but all of which partake of an intermediary role between the two cultures, a role he had chosen for himself: either they present the Christian culture to the Indians, or else they record and describe Nahuatl culture for the Spaniards' benefit.

222     Sahagun's most important work is the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana.  The project derives, as in Duran's case, from religious and proselytizing considerations:  to facilitate the expansion of Christianity, Sahagun proposes to describe in detail the ancient religion of the Mexicans.

The Indians are this soil, and these passive bodies, which must receive the virile and civilized insemination of the Christian religion.

223  But alongside this declared motive there exists another, and the copresence of the two goals will be responsible for the complexity of Sahagun's work: this is the desire to know and to preserve Nahuatl culture.

Indeed, the dominant concern that presides over the work's construction will be less the search for the best means of converting the Indians that fidelity to the object described; knowledge will prevail over pragmatic interests even more powerfully than in Duran.  This is what leads Sahagun to his most important decisions: this text will be composed from information gathered from the witnesses most worthy of belief; and in order to guarantee their truthfulness this information will remain cited in the language of the informants: the History will be written in Nahuatl.  In a second phase, Sahagun decides to add a free translation, and to have the whole thing illustrated.  The result is a work of great structural complexity, in which three mediums continually interweave--Nahuatl, Spanish, and drawings.

          Hence he must first choose his informants and make certain, by frequent verifications, of the accuracy of their accounts.  Sahagun, who is one of the first in Western history to resort to this practice... [Thucydides?]

224-5  To appreciate the originality of Sahagun's work, let us compare it with that of his contemporaries, equally interested in Mexican history and having the same recourse (for they could not proceed otherwise) to informants and codices (hence setting aside such compilations as Las Casas's Apologetica Historia and Joes de Acosta's Historia natura y moral de las Indias).  A Motolinia has of course heard speeches; but his History is written from his own point of view, and the language of the other /  intervenes only in the form of brief citations, invariably accompanied by a remark like "This is the Indian manner of speaking, as are other expressions used in this book which do not agree with the Spanish usage" (III, 14).  The rest of the time, then, we have a "free indirect style," a mixture of discourse whose ingredients are impossible to isolate with any precision: the content comes from informants, the point of view from Motolinia; but how are we to know where one stops and the other begins?

226  Sahagun, for his part, chooses the path of total fidelity, since he reproduces the very speeches that are made to him, and to them adds his translation, rather than replacing them by it (Olmos is one of the rare figures in Mexico to have preceded him on this path).  This translation, moreover, no longer needs to be literal (but were those of the others literal?  We can never know), its function, is different from that of the Nahuatl text; it therefore omits certain developments and adds others.  The dialogue of voices here becomes all the subtler.  This total fidelity, let us note right away, does not signify total authenticity; but total authenticity is by definition impossible, not for metaphysical reasons but because it is the Spaniards who have brought writing.  Even when we have the Nahuatl text, we can no longer separate what is an expression of the Mexican point of view from what is said to please, or on the contrary to displease, the Spaniards: the latter are the recipients of all these texts, yet the recipient is almost as responsible for the content of a discourse as its author.

          Finally the manuscript will be illustrated; those who produce the drawings are Mexicans, but they have already undergone the powerful influence of European art, so that the drawing itself is a site of confrontation between two systems of representation, a dialogue superimposed upon that of languages and viewpoints constituting the text.   In all, the creation...of this exceptional work, the Historia general de Nueva Espana, occupies Sahagun for nearly forty years.

227  We might see Duran and Sahagun as two opposing forms of a relation, somewhat as one used to describe the opposition of our classic and romantic: interpenetration of contraries in the former, separation in the latter; and it is certain that if Sahagun is more faithful to the Indians' discourse, Duran is closer to the Indians themselves and understands them better.

229  "Cruel," "evil," "unhappy wretches,", "suffering frightfully": it is obvious that Motolinia, who posses a native account but does not quote it, introduces his own point of view into the text, sprinkling it with terms that express the position shared by Motolinia and his eventual reader; Motolinia anticipates and in a sense makes explicit the latter's reaction.  The two voices are never on an equal footing, each expressing itself in its turn: one of the two (Motolinia's) includes and integrates the other, which no longer addresses the reader directly, but only through Motolinia, who remains the sole subject, in the full sense of the word.

229-30 [Duran]  No more "cruel," no more "evil," no more "miserable wretches":  Duran transcribes this account in a detached tone, avoiding any value / judgment (which he will not fail to produce on other occasions).  But instead, a new vocabulary, absent from Motolinia's account, has appeared: that of interpretation.  The slave represents the sun, the center of the stone is here to indicate noon, the falling body represents the setting sun....Duran, as we have seen, understands the rites of which he speaks, or more exactly knows the associations that habitually accompany them; and he lets his reader share what he knows.

230 [Sahagun]  It is as if we were suddenly reading a page from some nouveau roman: this description is the contrary of those by Duran or Motolinia: no value judgment, but no interpretation either; we are reading pure description.   Sahagun seems to be practicing the literary technique of estrangements: he describes everything from outside, accumulating technical details, whence the abundance of measurements:  "three hands in height, or a little more," etc.

231-2  When it comes to describing a sacrifice, Sahagun does not add, / in the translation, any term implying a moral judgment.  But in speaking of the Aztec pantheon, he ;finds himself facing a difficult choice: whatever the term used, a value judgment is inevitable: he compromises himself as much by translating "god" as "devil," or "priest" as "necromancer": the first term already legitimates, the second condemns; neither is neutral.  How to avoid this situation?   Sahagun's solution consists in not opting for one of the two terms, but in alternating them; in short, erecting absence of system into a system, thereby neutralizing the two terms--in principle bearers of opposing moral judgments--which now become synonyms.

233  Not only do the questionnaires impose a european organization on American knowledge, and sometimes keep the relevant information from passing through, they also determine the themes to be treated, by excluding certain others.  To take one massive example (though there are many others to choose from), we learn very little concerning the Aztecs' sexual life from Sahagun's book.  Perhaps this information was dismissed by the informants themselves; perhaps, unconsciously, by Sahagun; we cannot know, but we have the impression that the acts of cruelty already present in Christian mythology do not excessively shock the Spanish investigator,and that he transcribes them quite faithfully, whereas sexuality finds no place at all.

238  Sahagun thus sees clearly that social values from an interpenetrating whole: idols cannot be toppled without thereby toppling the society itself; and even from the Christian point of view, what has been constructed in its place is inferior to what was originally there.

239  But we can see to what point his work is the product of the interaction of two voices, two cultures, two points of view,even if this interaction is less evident than in Duran.  This is why we can only reject the views of certain contemporary specialists who dismiss this exceptional work and, neglecting all interaction, declare that the informants alone are responsible for the Nahuatl text of the book, and Sahagun alone for the Spanish text; who make, in other words, two books out of a work which derives  its major interest from the very fact that it is one!  A dialogue is not the addition of two monologues, whatever else it may be.

239  But this position of principle [of equality] does not lead him to an assertion of identity, nor to an idealization of the Indians, in the fashion of Las Casas; the Indians have virtues and defects, just like the Spaniards, but in a different distribution.  he complains on occasion of various features of their character which seem to him regrettable; he accounts for these, however, not by a natural inferiority (as Sepulveda would have done) but by the different  conditions in which they live, notably climatic conditions; the change is considerable.  After describing their idleness and hypocrisy, he notes: "I am not too surprised by the defects and foolishness which we find among the natives of this country, for the Spaniards who live there and still more those born there also acquire such wicked inclinations....I believe that this is due to the climate / 240 or to the constellations of this country" (X, 27).

240  On the level of behavior, Sahagun also occupies a specific position: he does not to any degree renounce his way of life or his identity (there is nothing of a Guerrero about him); yet he learns the other's language and culture in depth, devotes his life to this task, and ends, as we have seen, by sharing certain values of those who at the start were the object of his studies.

          But it is obviously on the epistemic level, the level of knowledge, that Sahagun's example is most interesting.  It is initially the quantitative aspect that strikes him: the amount of what he knows is enormous and exceeds all others (Duran comes closest to him).   More difficult to formulate is the qualitative nature of this knowledge.  Sahagun contributes an impressive mass of materials, but does not interpret them--i.e., does not translate them into the categories of another culture (his own), thereby revealing the latter's relativity.  This is the task to which today's ethnologists will apply themselves--starting from his own investigations.   Insofar, we might even say, as his work or that of other learned monks who were his contemporaries contained germs of the ethnological attitude, he was unacceptable to his period: indeed it is striking that books by Motolinia, Olmos, Las Casas (Apologetica Historia), Sahagun, Duran, Tovar, and Mendieta were not published before the nineteenth century, or are even lost.  Sahagun himself takes only one timid step in this ethnological direction, as we have seen: his comparisons between the Aztec and Roman pantheons.  Las Casas will go much further down the comparatist path in his Apologetica Historia, and others will follow him.  But the comparatist attitude is not actually the ethnologist's.  The comparatist puts certain objects, all of which are external to him, on the same level, and he himself remains the sole subject.  The comparison, in Sahagun as in Las Casas, affects the gods of others: of the Aztecs, of the Romans, of the Greeks; it does not put the Other on the same level as oneself, and does not call into question one's own categories.  The ethnologist, on the other hand, contributes to the reciprocal illumination of one culture by another, to "making us look into the other's face," according to the splendid phrase already / 241 devised in the sixteenth century by Urbain Chauveton: we know the other by the self, but also the self by the other.

          Sahagun is not an ethnologist, whatever his modern admirers may say.  And unlike Las Casas, he is not fundamentally a comparatist; his work rather relates to ethnography, to the collecting of documents, that indispensable premise of ethnological work.  The dialogue of culture is, in him, fortuitous and unconscious, it is an uncontrolled slippage, it is not (and cannot be) erected into a method.  He is even a declared enemy of the hybridization of cultures....  His intention is to juxtapose voices rather than to make them interpenetrate: either it is the natives who tell their "idolatries" or it is Holy Writ copied out into his own book--one of these voices tells the truth, the other lies.  And yet we see here the first sketches of a future dialogue, the unformed embryos that herald our present.



"Las Casas's Prophecy"

247  I am writing this book to prevent this story and a thousand others like it from being forgotten.  I believe in the necessity of "seeking the truth" and in the obligation of making it known; I know that the function of information exists, and that the effect of information can be powerful.  My hope is not that Mayan women will now have European men thrown to the dogs (an absurd supposition, obviously), but that we remember what can happen if we do not succeed in discovering the other.

          For the other remains to be discovered.  The fact is worthy of astonishment, for man is never alone, and would not be what he is without his social dimension.  And yet this is the call: for the newborn child, his world is the world, and growth is an apprenticeship in exteriority and sociality; we might say, somewhat cavalierly, that human life is confined between these two extremes, one where the I invades the world,, and one where the world ultimately absorbs the I in the form of a corpse or ashes.  And just as the discovery of the other knows several degrees, from the other-as-object, identified with the surrounding world, to the other-as-subject, equal to the I but different from it, with an infinity of intermediary nuances, we can indeed live our lives without ever achieving a full discovery of the other (supposing that such a discovery can be made).  Each of us must begin it over again in turn; the previous experiments do not relieve us of our responsibility, but they can teach us the effects of misreading the facts.

          Yet even if the discovery of the other must be assumed by each individual and eternally recommenced, it also has a history, forms that are socially and culturally determined.  The history of the conquest of America makes me believe that a great change occurred--or, rather, was revealed--at the dawn of the sixteenth century, say between Columbus and Cortes; a similar difference (not similar in details, of course) can be observed between Montezuma and Cortes; this difference functions, then, in time as in space, and if I have lingered over the spatial contrast more than the temporal one, it is because the latter is blurred by countless transitions whereas the former, with the help of an ocean, has all the necessary distinctness.  Since the period of the conquest, for almost three hundred and fifty years, Western Europe has tried to assimilate the other, to do away with an exterior alterity, and has in great part succeeded.  Its way of life and its values have spread / 248 around the world; as Columbus wished, the colonized peoples have adopted our customs and have put on clothes.

          This extraordinary success is chiefly due to one specific feature of Western civilization which for a long time was regarded as a feature of man himself, its development and prosperity among Europeans thereby becoming proof of their natural superiority: it is, paradoxically, Europeans' capacity to understand the other....Schematically this behavior is organized into two phases.  The first is that of  interest in the other, at the cost of a certain empathy or temporary identification....Then comes the second phase, during which he [Cortes] is not content to reassert his own identity (which he has never really abandoned), but proceeds to assimilate the Indians to his own world.  In the same way, it will be recalled, the Franciscan monks adopted the Indians' ways (clothes, food), to convert them more effectively to the Christian religion.

248-9  At the same time that it was tending to obliterate the strangeness of the external other, Western civilization found an interior other...."that mysterious thing in the soul, which seems to acknowledge no human jurisdiction but in spite of the individual's own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts" (Melville, Pierre, IV, 2).  The instauration of the unconscious can be considered as the culminating point of this discovery of the other in oneself.

          I believe that this period of European history is, in its turn, coming to an end today.  The representatives of Western civilization no longer believe so naively in its superiority,and the movement of assimilation is running down in that quarter, even if the recent or ancient nations of the Third World still want to live like the Europeans. On the ideological level, at least, we are trying to combine what we regard as the better parts of both terms of the alternative; we want equality without its compelling us to accept identity; but also difference without its degenerating into superiority/inferiority.  We aspire to reap the benefits of the egalitarian model and of the hierarchic model; we aspire to rediscover the meaning of the social without losing the quality of the individual.  The Russian socialist Alexander Herzen wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century:  "To understand the extent, reality, and sacred nature of the rights of the person without destroying society, without fracturing it into atoms: such is the most difficult social goal."

250  "The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect" (I myself, a Bulgarian living in France, borrow this quotation from Edward Said, a Palestinian living in the United States, who himself found it in Erich Auerbach, a German exiled in Turkey).

          Finally, on the level of knowledge, a Duran and a Sahagun heralded, without fully achieving, the dialogue of cultures that characterizes our age and which is incarnated by ethnology, at once the child of colonialism and the proof of its death throes: a dialogue in which no one has the last word, in which neither voice is reduced to the status of a simple object, and in which we gain advantage from our externality to the other.

251  "Neutral" love, Las Casas's "distributive" justice, are parodied and drained of meaning in a generalized relativism where anything goes, so long as one chooses the right point of view; perspectivism leads to indifference and to the renunciation of all values....Exile is fruitful if one belongs to both cultures at once, without identifying oneself with either; but if a whole society consists of exiles, the dialogue of cultures ceases: it is replaced by eclecticism and comparatism, by the capacity to love everything a little, of flacidly sympathizing with each option without ever embracing any.  Heterology, which makes the difference of voices heard, is necessary; polylogy is insipid.

          The exemplary history of the conquest of America teaches us that Western civilization has conquered, among other reasons, because of its superiority in human communication; but also that this superiority has been asserted at the cost of communication with the world.  Having emerged from the colonialist period, we vaguely experience the need to evaluate such communication with the world; here again, the parody seems to precede the serious version.  The American hippies of the sixties, in their refusal to adopt the ideal of their country, which was bombing Vietnam, tried to rediscover the life of the noble savage.  A little like the Indians of Sepulveda's description, they tried to do without money, to forget books and writing, to show indifference to clothes and renounce the use of machines--to do their own thing.  But such communities were obviously doomed to failure, since they pasted these "primitive" features on an altogether modern individualist mentality.  Any "Club Med" allows us to experience this plunge into the primitive (absence of money, of books, and ultimately of clothes) without calling / 252 into question the continuity of our "civilized" existence; we know the formula's commercial success.  Returns to various ancient or new religions are countless; they testify to the power of the impulse but cannot, I believe, incarnate it: the return to the past is impossible.

252 In reporting and analyzing the history of the conquest of America, I have been led to two apparently contradictory conclusions.  In order to speak of forms and kinds of communication, I have first of all adopted a typological perspective: the Indians favor exchanges with the world, the Europeans exchanges between men.  Neither is intrinsically superior to the other, and we always need both at once; if we win on only one level, we necessarily lose on the other.   But at the same time I have been led to observe an evolution in the "technology" of symbolism; this evolution can be reduced, for simplicity's sake, to the advent of writing.  Now, the presence of writing favors improvisation over ritual, just as it makes for a linear conception of time or, further, the perception of the other.  Is there also an evolution from communication with the world to communication between men?  More generally, if there is such an evolution, does not the notion of barbarism recover a nonrelative meaning?

253  The form of disclosure I have resolved upon for this book, that of the exemplary history, also results from the desire to transcend the limits of systematic writing, yet without "returning" to pure myth.  By comparing Columbus and Cortes, Cortes and Montezuma, I have become aware that the forms of communication--production as well as reception--even if they are universal and eternal, are not accessible to the writer's free choice, but are correlated to the ideologies in force and can thereby become their sign.  But what is the discourse appropriate to our heterological mentality?  In European civilization, logos has conquered mythos; or rather, instead of polymorphous discourse, two homogeneous genres have prevailed: science and everything related to it derive from systematic discourse, while literature and its avatars practice narrative discourse.  But this second terrain is shrinking day by day: even myths are reduced to double-entry ledgers, history itself is replaced by systematic analysis, and novels vie with each other against temporal development and toward spatial form, tending to the ideal of the motionless matrix.  I could not separate myself from the vision of the "conquerors" without at the same time renouncing the discursive form they had appropriated as their own.  I feel the need (and in this I see nothing individual, it is why I write it) to adhere to that narrative which proposes rather than imposes; to rediscover, within a single text, the complementarity of narrative discourse and systematic discourse; so that my "history" perhaps bears more of a generic resemblance to Herodotus's (all questions of genre and value aside) than to the ideal of many contemporary historians.

254 ...a narrative is not reducible to a maxim...

If we are ignorant of history, says another adage, we risk repeating it; but it is not because we know history that we know what we do.  We are like the conquistadors and we differ from them; their example is instructive but we shall never be sure that by not behaving like them we are not in fact on the way to imitating them, as we adapt ourselves to new circumstances.  But their history can be exemplary for us because it permits us to reflect upon ourselves, to discover resemblances as well as differences: once again self-knowledge develops through knowledge of the Other....


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