Monday, November 24, 2008

reflections at the end of the day

Having read a couple of passages from these authors before taking this course, it was satisfying to re-encounter them and read them fully within their literary context, along a continuum of evolving philosophical, political, and moral positions about the Americas. It was interesting how the Spaniards attempted to reconcile their identity with that of their newfound "other" and how no matter how much benevolence was shown towards the indigenous people, it always came with notions of superiority and thoughts on how to make them useful to the Spanish Crown. Cabeza de Vaca and Las Casas were deeply faithful to the king, no matter how much havoc was wreaked by his forces in the Americas. We discussed the hegemonic power that the Spaniards sought to exert over the indigenous people, by preaching God to them and teaching them European practices and habits, but what of the Spanish government over its own people, as to convince them of the legitimacy of a nation-building project that enslaves a continent of fellow human beings. Ideology proves to be a more powerful force in certain circumstances than compassion for others or repulsion to extreme violence.

We also saw a new national consciousness arising in colonial Mexico through the texts. It is interesting that the idea of performance and the manipulation of words are prominent here. Both Sor Juana and Lizardi had some scathing criticisms of their contemporary society, but it could only be said through a veil of carefully constructed language. Both of them described utopic alternatives to their current realities; Sor Juana dreamed of a society governed by reason rather than prejudice and trivialities, where mental quality not gender determined the opportunities open to one in life, and Lizardi hoped that Mexico would be ruled by responsible people who were from that land and personally invested in its healthy development, rather than an imposed and inadequate Spanish government. I liked how none of our readings were exactly representative of their genre, but they reveal a great deal about the times in which they were written, through how they decry injustice and stupidity, call for reason and morality, omit certain subjects and favor others.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

audaces fortuna juvat

What interests me most about this text is that el Periquillo Sarniento is not portrayed as an inherently flawed individual (prone to listlessness, irresponsibility, arrogance and deceitfulness) but instead as a mirror that reflects the hollow morality and lack of reason in colonial society. The protagonist reminds me of a kid who has just seen an authority figure doing something they shouldn't, and while this moment causes disillusionment it is also an invitation to anarchy, because the kid can say "If you do it then so can I."

El Periquillo Sarniento has seen that governors have merely an economic rather than personal connection to the land they govern and that doctors and lawyers don't even use or understand the books that line their library shelves - if they can pass off as respectable members of society then why can't he? The second half introduces us to the hypocritical professional class and the useless nobles who can't stand to work. The doctor for example is, ironically, an unhealthy fellow with a bulky stomach and no teeth, and he is also something of a thief. In reference to the doctor, the protagonist invokes the adage "quien roba al ladron..." which indicates that people must resort to their own morality, perhaps even a "natural" or divine morality, when the official one fails.

In the final part, when El Periquillo finds himself shipwrecked and has an interesting exchange with a Chinese man, there are various echoes from the first part, when he is relating his flawed upbringing. The other man says that citizens are poorly defended by hired soldiers (using the term "brazos alquilados" just like el Periquillo's childhood nurses) and that in his country every citizen is a soldier. This is one of the ways that Lizardi rejects the Spanish colonial government, by asking how Mexico can prosper if governed by those whose heart resides in another country and interests lie only in the accumulation of money and power. In the end it is not el Periquillo's fault that he is without knowledge or purpose, but that of society for allowing this to be so.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

El Periquillo Sarniento

The first half of El Periquillo Sarniento was an amusing read as its hapless and irreverent protagonist gets into one calamity after another. The stories reminded me somewhat of Don Quixote in that they were short and more-or-less unrelated episodes in which the hero, or anti-hero, bumbles confidently into a situation he is not prepared for, risks his hide, then beats a hasty retreat on to the next misadventure. The difference is that one is a work of great literature about an ageing knight and the other is a novel about a young rouge that weaves moral preaching into bawdy and outrageous behavior. I wonder what audience this novel was intended for; it’s not aimed at highbrow readers but I don’t know who would have wanted to read a novel in which, as the editor says, “for every two or three pages of action there are twenty or thirty of moral digression.”

However, El Periquillo Sarniento serves us well as a historical text, for it tells us a great deal about Mexican society as it split off from Spain and grew into its own cultural entity. As we’ve been discussing in class, it was at this time that new social roles and racial identities were being negotiated, so it’s ideal that we read a novel in which the main character hops on and off a carousel of different trades and social positions. We also get a glimpse in what could have been common attitudes or popular knowledge of the day, like in the protagonist’s self-righteous account of his wayward upbringing. Here the protagonist links a person’s physical condition to his or her moral condition, which gives rise to all types of unfounded prejudices, and is deterministic in charting the progression from having sickly and vice-ridden nurses and being coddled as a child to turning out as an arrogant and lawless adult. Racial inequalities come through in this text as well, and it is clear by the authour’s language and the scenarios he creates that society was intensely stratified and marked by bigotry. For example, the protagonist boasts of his “limpia sangre” in the beginning of the novel and later describes making a brutal mess as a barber on “un pobre indio” as his second trial run after his first unsuccessful one on a dog.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Room of One's Own

When I read Respuesta a la muy ilustre sor Filotea de la Cruz I was trying to get an idea of how Sor Juana perceived the world and see where her concerns fit into a long lineage of feminist thought. Then when I was reading her poems a comparison between Sor Juana and Virginia Woolf struck me, and I finished the reading with Woolf's famous essay "A Room of One's Own" in mind. Though this essay covers many topics, one of Woolf's main points is that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," in other words a woman must have financial autonomy and a personal space for creative self-realization.

For Sor Juana, the only avenue that led her to "A Room of One's Own" was in a convent, and she renounced the pleasures of society and the security of marriage in order to have this private space to do what she wished, which was to amass a library of books, conduct scientific experiments, challenge social boundaries through her writing, and essentially exercise her great mind. Woolf was very aware of the double standards that determined the lives of women and men by restricting the opportunities open to the former, and that as a result of this inequality many extremely intelligent women who could have contributed to the scientific and cultural world were left to languish in the long shadows cast by men. Woolf illustrates this fact with the Judith, Shakespeare's fictional sister, whose talents matched those of her brother but no doors were open to her by virtue of being a woman. This would have happened to Sor Juana had she not received money from benefactors she met at Court and been able to enter a convent that was liberal enough to permit her studies.

Interestingly, Woolf shares a number of rhetorical quirks with Sor Juana, such as their interest in exposing the prejudices of the reader and testing the capacity of language to convey the truth or form a web of lies. Like Woolf, Sor Juana presents a number of critiques on society, such as how sexual politics maneuver women into impossible situations in "Hombres necios que acusais" and how society puts too much emphasis on fleeting beauty over eternal wisdom in "En perseguirme, mundo ¿que interesas?" Sor Juana also expresses herself through parodies and half-truths, playing along with the invented "Sor Filotea" and pondering the relationship between language and truth. As Woolf says in her own piece "Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them" and goes on to critically discuss the fictional university Oxbridge, a satirical hybrid of Oxford and Cambridge. If I knew both writers better I could probably draw more comparisons, but even so it fascinates that women from such diverse social contexts would have the same concerns with space and language.

Monday, October 27, 2008

La Respuesta de Sor Juana

I found Sor Juana to be one of our more challenging readings, but also one of the most enjoyable. The fact that the entire letter is a charade and her many tongue-in-cheek phrases made me smile. As I read I was comparing her rhetorical style with the other authors that we’ve read. The tendency to exaggerate reminded me of De las Casas, but whereas his hyperbolic language was used to emphasize the gravity of his subject, Sor Juana uses it to emphasize the absurdity of this exchange between herself and the bishop, such as when she refers to his “doctisima, discretisima, santisima y amorosisima carta.” There is so much irony in the letter, such as when her references to herself as lowly and simple contrast with the rhetorical sophistication and learned references she uses to write it. Cabeza de Vaca and De las Casas were only concerned with language insofar as Spanish ignorance of indigenous languages meant less successful survival in and governance of the Americas. Garcilaso de la Vega was more concerned with language itself, with the importance of the written word to the history of a people, and the importance of good translation between the indigenous languages and Spanish. Sor Juana, however, is the first author to really play with language, to explore its possibilities of saying one thing and meaning something entirely different.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


The texts that we have read so far show an interesting progression of literature on Latin America; who its authors are, who they write for, what their narrative tactics are, how they conceptualize Latin America, and what the goals of their writing are. Both Cabeza de Vaca and de las Casas addressed their work to the Spanish King. Cabeza de Vaca arguably wrote for the selfish reason of proving his worth to the King by showing his successful evangelization of indigenous people and acquisition of knowledge about the Americas, and his text was successful in that he was commissioned by the King to go on further voyages. De las Casas was deeply disturbed by the treatment of indigenous people by the Spaniards and, risking being considered a traitor to his country, publicly exposed these abuses and appealed to the King to intervene. I am not sure to what extent Spanish colonial policy may have changed as a result of his works. Garcilaso de la Vega wrote to preserve the history of his people, being half indigenous, as well as to provide an account of Spanish corruption in Peru. Only is the latter author conscious of what others have said before him, citing them and praising their work, he is not a groundbreaker but a contributor to a growing body of knowledge on Latin America that was open to all learned people.

I think the most interesting way to compare these authors is through their relationship with imperialism; none of them are military men, government officials, or businessmen looking how to strategically oppress, govern, and extract wealth from the Americas, nor are they detached anthropologists with no political agenda. This is where the concept of hegemony comes in that we talked about in class. These men all sought to govern Latin America through words not arms. Cabeza de Vaca and de Las Casas were proponents of evangelization and that the indigenous people submit themselves willingly to Spanish rule, they wanted to learn the indigenous languages and build churches, and Garcilaso de la Vega praises the Inca government as the model of a civilizing empire, all while attempting to replace the Inca oral tradition with the European written one.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Writing Comentarios Reales

Something that has interested me throughout reading Comentarios Reales is the way it written and how Garcilaso de la Vega understands his role as an author. Despite constantly drawing from the oral histories that he heard in his childhood and the Inca communities he spoke with to write the first half of the book, he has nothing but disdain for this manner of preserving history. According to Garcilaso de la Vega, it was “la desdicha de nuestra patria” that despite their complex and important history and their great cultural and scientific achievements, “porque no tuvieron letras, no dejaron memoria de sus grandres hazanas.” Instead, their history was entrusted to the “flaca y miserable ensenanza de palabra de padres a hijos,” and thereby disappeared.

The goal of Garcilaso de la Vega is to preserve that history, by employing the European practice and style of book writing. As we have noted in class, he calls upon the works of other European authors and cites them very specifically. He is very methodical in his writing, such as in the passage where he describes the racial categories of the “hombre americano.” In the second half of the book, Garcilaso de la Vega moves away from a more distanced anthropological examination of the Inca Empire, ranging from foodstuffs to architecture, to a more involved and story-like account of the Spaniards in Peru. The detail with which Garcilaso de la Vega records the names and ranks of the people involved, the exact sequence of events and direct quotations, proves the point he is making, which is without written language, great quantities of detail become lost over time and only the most salient features of history remain.

In one interesting passage, Garcilaso de la Vega muses about those who commit historic acts and those who record those acts, saying “no se cuales dellos hicieron mas, si los de las armas o los de las plumas.” For him, his role is just as important as those people whose concerted efforts produce great empires, for without authors the achievements of these empires turn to dust.