The Book of the New World–some preliminary comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief adventure in New World iconography

(Cross-posted at Blog Meridian)

Frieze depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance to Juan Diego, on the east side of the old basilica dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico City. 1531-1709. Image taken by the Mrs. Click to enlarge.

As regulars here know, I recently posted a discussion of a couple of paintings depicting the Virgin that I saw on my recent trip to Mexico City. I’ll have more to say later regarding this façade within that context, but what I wanted to post on here is the depiction of Juan Diego. On the day we took the picture, I was more interested in the European-style hat on the ground directly below his kneeling figure and the maguey plant in the lower-right corner. (Pulque, a fermented drink made from the juice of the maguey, was drunk by the Indians on her feast day, December 12.) But as the Mrs. and I played around with cropping the image she had taken and we enlarged it, I really noticed for the first time the small animal to the left of the maguey plant.

We thought (at first) that it was a squirrel. However, in the course of Googling about for associations (if any) among squirrels and Christian and Aztec iconography and what any of that might possibly have to do with Juan Diego and/or the Virgin, I happened to run across this passage, from the Aberdeen Bestiary:

Of the beaver There is an animal called the beaver, which is extremely gentle; its testicles are are highly suitable for medicine. Physiologus says of it that, when it knows that a hunter is pursuing it, it bites off its testicles and throws them in the hunter’s face and, taking flight, escapes. But if, once again, another hunter is in pursuit, the beaver rears up and displays its sexual organs. When the hunter sees that it lacks testicles, he leaves it alone. Thus every man who heeds God’s commandment and wishes to live chastely should cut off all his vices and shameless acts, and cast them from him into the face of the devil. Then the devil, seeing that the man has nothing belonging to him, retires in disorder. That man, however, lives in God and is not taken by the devil, who says: ‘I will pursue, I will overtake them…'(Exodus, 15:9) The name castor comes from castrando, ‘castrate’. (Emphasis added; image found here)

The clear association here between beavers and living a chaste life reminded me that it is said of Juan Diego that he and his wife–both early converts to Christianity–after hearing a sermon on chastity, dedicated themselves to live chaste lives. Some say that this is the reason the Virgin chose to appear to him. At any rate, I went back to the image of the frieze and enlarged it some more; sure enough, the animal has a flat tail, rather than a bushy one. And now, I would love to know what that plant is that it is eating.

The beaver’s appearance here in a depiction of a scene that it ostensibly has nothing to do with is at one level, that of iconography, perfectly understandable. Most of us are familiar with Renaissance-era depictions of animals or objects along with saints (think of Peter often shown with a set of keys, in reference to Matthew 16:19). What’s intriguing here is the application of this principle to a depiction of Juan Diego. It speaks to the apparent need to assert or remind the visitor of his virtue and, thus, of his worthiness to receive a visitation from the Virgin. It causes me to wonder if certain visitors were considered to need this reminder more than others did (even in the decades immediately following the apparitions, elements within the Church questioned the veracity of the story). And as for what indigenous people made of the beaver . . . As of this writing, I have not been able to find what if any significance beavers held for the Aztecs, but somehow I doubt that chastity figures into their thinking.

In short, in this frieze is a not-yet-seamless fusing of iconic languages, as embodied by the beaver and the maguey plant, from two different religious traditions. In the associating of European images–the hat and the beaver–with the Indian Juan Diego, we see hesitancy in depicting some more overt sign of his Indianness to the viewer due to those signs’ inevitable associations with the very religions that the Church sought to supplant. Besides, in the Church’s eye, the fact of Juan Diego’s Christianity would trump all other identities he might claim. Meanwhile, the maguey, a plant firmly linked to life before the arrival of the Spaniards, is a sturdy, literally rooted presence here. It’s a strange visual space, this frieze. But then again, the New World is a strange place.