Cervantes, Shakespeare
Prisma latinoamericano, lecturas refractadas

Reflexiones desde Montevideo


Adventure and Upward Mobility versus the Struggle for Imperial Control in Early Modern Latin America

Jonathan Hall (Univ. Sheffield, R. Unido)

In his Ideology of Adventure: studies in modern consciousness, Michael Nerlich identifies adventuring as a compulsion arising at first from a social necessity faced by the warrior class of Knights in the late medieval period. But its emergent “modernity” consisted in the way that adventuring became for the first time the goal of an active desire, the so-called “quête de l’aventure”. This positive quest for adventure was quite distinct from the series of misfortunes endured by the heroes of the narratives of the ancient world. Nerlich acknowledges Mikhaïl Bakhtin’s brilliant analysis of the variant forms of those earlier narratives, but he observes that Bakhtin omitted its most modern form, in which adventure itself is the goal. This positivity attached to adventuring was in effect an ideological construction of desire which was later appropriated by the despised mercantile “borjois” class in pursuit of its own quite different goals in the age of the “monetarisation of society” (Norbert Elias). However, during this later phase the older Knightly “quest for adventure” found its idealised expression in a new literary form for the new mass market created by “print capitalism” (Benedict Anderson) and its mechanical reproduction of chivalric heroes in almost endless novels and sequels. The powerful effects of this new form of market consumption are attested throughout Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha, whose hero starts his career in madness as a rather modern consumer of these recycled nostalgic myths. If he is mad, it is a madness shared with his contemporaries which is the object of mockery. But he does not just consume these myths; he acts them out. In their Historia Social de la Literatura Española, Aguinaga, Puértola and Zavala make a striking point about this recycling of myths for a new “plebeian” readership, although they do not pursue the matter:

“Fue tal vez la conquista de América lo que hizo possible el curioso fenómeno de la revitalización de unos ideales periclitados, pues aquella fue la época de la caballería adante de la plebe.” (op. cit. vol.1, Castalia, Madrid 1981, p. 259)

The return of the ideology of adventuring as praxis in the New World, i.e. not just imagined in a magical landscape but put into prosaic [and brutal] effect by the Conquistadores, is not as far as it may seem from the upward mobility sought by the lower class citified heroes in the Peninsular literature (formerly the despised peasant “vilains”) who apparently speak for themselves in the “realist” picaresque novels from Lazarillo de Tormes onwards. The literary forms are distinct, of course, but in both cases the upward social mobility was a threat to the established order, or more precisely, the order which sought to affirm itself as transcendentally established for ever. In Spain itself, after the simple repression of Lazarillo de Tormes and the silence of the following decades, the potentially rebellious voices from below were strategically appropriated, by writers like Alemán or Quevedo, in the service of the ideology of the Counter-Reformation combined, paradoxically, with the racist ideology of the limpieza de sangre.*  But it was in the new not-quite-established colonial domains of Latin America that the internal tensions between the adventuring expansion of the Imperial state, fomented by the “monetarisation of society”, and the social conservatism based on “blood” and status were played out far more overtly and actively than in the inwardly contradictory “Culture of the Baroque” analysed by Braudel and Maravall. In Latin America, the attempted repression of all novels, whether chivalric or picaresque, was the practical expression of this imperial anxiety over the threats from its margins, and this anxious repression was entrusted to the legal and inquisitorial bureaucracy through which the theocratic empire exercised its power. (In Spain itself, by contrast, the novels were subject to licensing). What matters here is the attempt by the centre to prevent things from falling apart, not its degree of success. Luís González Echevarría opens his Myth and Archive: a theory of Latin American narrative with a magisterial analysis of the first person narrative form of the picaresque novel which “mimics” the epistolary legal appeals, or cartas de relación from the colonies. These were addressed to Charles V and then to the “King bureaucrat Philip II” via their extensive bureaucracy manned by letrados and lawyers. I will briefly reconsider this address to the absent monarch through the perspectives of Bakhtin and Voloshinov, rather than through Echevarría’s preference for Foucault’s theory of power arising from the written “archaic” repository of the Law that is the Archive. For Bakhtin, every “utterance” (vyskazyvanie), whether written or not, is a mode of address which anticipates a response and is inwardly (dialogically) shaped by that anticipation. Moreover I would add that whether the anticipated response is actually received or not, the writing subject is already captured by an anxious desire for its verdict. This is an early example of how the ideology of the modern centralising state sought to exercise a quasi-divine function, with the distant ruler positioned as its absent God. Its quasi-religious success in dominating the consciousness of its potentially rebellious subjects still persists, but it has always been precarious.

* “Paradoxically” because the prized “blood purity” corresponded to the ineradicable “impurity” of the conquered others after 1492, and hence to the implied impossibility of conversion demanded by the universalism of both the Church and the Imperial State. In America this absolute otherness justified their virtual slavery.

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