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The Conquest of Americaby Tzvetan Todorov
Synopses & Reviews
The Discovery of America My subject - the discovery self makes of the other- is so enormous that any general formulation soon ramifies into countless categories and directions. We can discover the other in ourselves, realize we are not a homogeneous substance, radically alien to whatever is not us: as Rimbaud said, le est un autre. But others are also "I"s: subjects just as I am, whom only my point of view-according to which all of them are out there and I alone am in here-separates and authentically distinguishes from myself. I can conceive of these others 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? In the age of the book, this decision cannot be leftto the audience: the choice must be made in order for the book to exist, and one merely imagines (or hopes for) an audience that will have given one answer rather than the other; one also tries to listen to the answer suggested or imposed by the subject itself. I have chosen 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 mai in interest is less a historian's than a moralist's; the present is more important to me than the past. The only way I can answer the question, How to deal with the other? is by telling an exemplary story (this will be the genre chosen), i.e., a story that 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. And in this book, rather as in a novel, summaries or generalized perspectives will alternate with scenes or analyses of detail filled with quotations, and with pauses in which the author comments on what has just occurred, and of course with frequent ellipses or omissions. But is this not the point of departure of all history?
Of the many narratives available to us, I have chosen one: that of the discovery and conquest of America. For decorum's sake I have observed the unities: of time, taking the hundred years after Columbus' first voyage (i.e., the sixteenth century by and large); of place, taking the region of the Caribbean and Mexico (what is sometimes called Mesoamerica); and of action: the Spaniards' perception of the Indians will be my sole subject, with one exception — concerningMontezuma and those close to him.
There are two justifications-which I discerned after the fact-for choosing this theme as a first step into the world of the discovery of the other. First of all, the discovery of America, or of the Americans, is certainly the most astonishing encounter of our history. We do not have the same sense of radical difference in the "discovery" of other continents and of other peoples: Europeans have never been altogether ignorant of the existence of Africa, India, or China; some memory of these places was always there already-from the beginning. The moon is farther away than America from Europe, true enough, but today we know that our encounter with it is no encounter at all, and that this discovery does not occasion surprises of the same kind: for a living being to be photographed on the moon, an astronaut must stand in front of the camera, and in his helmet we see only one reflection, that of another earthling, At the beginning of the sixteenth century, 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 (see fig. 1). The encounter will never again achieve such an intensity, if indeed that is the word to use: the sixteenth century perpetrated the greatest genocide in human history.
But the discovery of America is essential for us today not only because it is an extreme, and exemplary, encounter. Alongside this paradigmatic value, it has another as well — the value of direct causality. The history of the globe is of course made up of conquests and defeats, of colonizations anddiscoveries of others; but, as I shall try to show, it 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 bas a meaning. Since 1492 we are, as Las Casas has said, "in that time so new and like to no other" (Historia de las Indias, 1, 88*). Since that date, the world has shrunk (even if the universe has become infinite), "the world is small," as Columbus. himself will peremptorily declare ("Lettera Rarissima," 7/7/1503; fox an image of Columbus that communicates something of this spirit, see fig. 2); men 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 Sabagun, in the dialogue with their Indian interlocutors.
A fascinating study of cultural confrontation in the New World, with implications far beyond sixteenth-century America, The Conquest of America has become a classic in its field. It offers an original interpretation of the discovery of America by Columbus and of the subsequent conquest, colonization, and destruction of Mexico and the Caribbean by the Spaniards at the beginning of the modern era.
Using sixteenth-century sources, the distinguished French writer and critic Tzvetan Todorov examines the beliefs and behavior of both the Spanish conquistadors and the Aztecs, adversaries in a clash of cultures that resulted in the neat extermination of Mesoamerica's Indian population.
Absorbing, intelligent, and responsible in its call for a much-needed dialogue between different cultures, The Conquest of America> evokes a drama that set the pattern for much of the history of Western colonialism.
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