Native America

Seek the Thought of Native America: An Interview with Gordon Brotherston.



By Fernando Gómez Herrero (




FGH: In relation to native American literature, I would think that the reading business is a rather difficult business and there several reasons for that difficulty. I would very much like you described the contemporary situation which I see as a post-textual, and even a post-literacy moment. So I am just wondering how your emphasis on communicability finds an outlet for native American literature. I feel my students do not go that easily into the interrogation of all those notions, like text, literacy, textual coherence, etc.

GB: Indeed, I’d agree. Though we shouldn’t forget Harry Potter: my grandchildren tell me there is stuff in the books you will not get in the first reading, in fact, the film is all right and they play the computer games very expertly, yet the book, you see, has things going on in many more directions. So I do not think the book adventure is over by any means.

A specific example. Just last week we were looking at the Popol Vuh and the question of its structure, the way it fits itself together and demands that the reader thinks about how it does if he or she wants to understand what is going on, you know. Therefore in the process the reader rehearses what the writers have been through in writing the story of creation, so there is a kind of analogy really between the process of construction of the text and construction of the world, word making and world making, an argument which is demonstrable as it were within the text. Now, in this particular case, how should I put it?, it is not just a technical matter, although of course it is that as well, but is mostly a question of the relationships among the suns of creation or multiple ages of the world. One thing that is clear is that it is not 1,2,3,4… a serial thing.  It is much more complicated than that and has to do with levels and modes of time coexisting as in music for example. I mean, precisely that is what you are asked to think about. You are asked to think about by the actual focus of the narrative in the respective ways the various world ages are narrated. So that you will notice that you do not have particular characters or personages at levels 1 and 2, but you do at levels 3 and 4. These are formal distinctions that anyone who’s used to reading at all will very quickly pick up.

A key bit of this argument concerns the episode of the bird reptiles at level 3, Seven Parrot or Seven Macaw (according to translator), and his wife who have these reptilian sons and who all engage with the hero twins when the twins are still boys. Now we are discreetly told or may deduce two things about this episode, which enable us to fit it into the world-age scheme of creation. One is that it took place  during the time of the doll people, stiff giants who exploited everything, had feelings for other creatures or other species in their world. They meet with a horrible end, in a narrative of wholesale domestic rebellion and cosmic revolution already told at level 2. The time-space here is comparable to that ascribed to that of the Biblical Genesis in Mimesis, and this is still truer of the time-space at level 1, the great cosmic forces of hurricane (a Maya word) and electrical storm impinge on proto-vertebrate life forms, the shining feather-snake of the ocean. So we know Seven Parrot existed in some sense “during” the age of the doll people, but now, at level 3, the focus is on individual named actors, like Seven Parrot and the boy twins, who as it were emerge from the undifferentiated mass of the doll people. Furthermore, and here’s the other clue, the twins who are involved as boys with Seven Parrot go on to appear at level 4, in what is a yet more “realist” narrative in Auerbach’s sense, the epic journey to the underworld they undertake as young men and which leads into the beginnings of political history in Guatemala.

In order to fit all this together, you have to bear in mind the narrative modes respective to each level of time, the world-making in the way of telling, the specificity of focus, use of proper names, verb-channels of exposition, etc. You also become aware of how time is being perceived in the first place, because if it is true that these twins are interacting with these monsters when they are small, they are interacting as a child of our species if you like, and they are looking at monsters which are physically bigger because they themselves are very young, and their notion of time will be conditioned by the fact they themselves have not been alive long therefore every single year will be a significant addition to what they already have lived. In this way, the outer and inner time-spaces of the world ages are actually embodied, incorporated into the text itself. Nothing has to be made up or surmised, it’s all there in the text awaiting the eyes and mind of the careful reader the same text explicitly appeals to in these terms. All this is set out at length in Book of the Fourth World but does it make sense here? Ninety or so students I tried it out on just now in a lecture seemed to like it.

FGH: It does make sense. What do you think they liked about it?

GB: They said it had to do with the fact that it was a text, a text that rather than preach told stories, enabling you to see how it constructed itself as it went along. All the things you’d most like to hear, really. That it was a readable analogy for the idea of genesis itself that did not necessarily owe anything to western creation myth.

FGH: This may be a nasty word, but in hearing your language, you talk about structure, the [singularity of the] text, how it fits itself together, how some proto-human epic is incorporated in the text itself, and I don’t know if “incorporated” is actually the right word, and you try to put it together, side by side with the big monster of the West. How would you respond if I said that what you sound to me like you are doing  formalist reading? Is this a fair call?

GB: I once met Julia Kristeva at Essex, when David Musselwhite  had her over to the Sociology and Literature program. We had lunch together and I don’t know I must have been talking this sort of stuff and she turned to me, rather on me, and said, “Mais Monsieur, vous êtes formaliste?” [But Sir, are you a formalist?].

FGH: And what did you say to her? (laughter)

GB: I said, well if you think so (laughter), you know, how could one disagree with such authority on the matter. Yet clearly there’s formalism and formalism.


FGH: Let us go to the section called the aboriginal or the native dimension of the Americas in the Americas. You are teaching with Lúcia de Sá a course entitled “American Genesis: Indigenous Texts and Their Resonance.” What arguments could you put forth to your students, and perhaps you already did, as to why they should bother with this indigenous dimension”?

GB: Well, let me start with things they have said, and I have this in writing, which is exactly what we had initially hoped. As you know, all first-year students at Stanford must take one course in the “Introduction to the Humanities” sequence, and we’re told ours is the only one which, at least in the students’ perception, does not start off from or build on the usual Western premise. That,  in their view, is very good and it encourages us to keep doing the course.  In planning the course, in thinking about it, in one of the first discussions about it with the people who run the program, this question came up: here you are with your American Genesis, but can you be sure that US students know what the Biblical Genesis is in the first place? You know, obviously a few will, but many might not, so what are you going to do about this, in order to make your implicit comparisons meaningful?  So we began to think maybe we should after all start off with the Biblical  Genesis and the Book of Daniel, Hesiod’s account of his world ages, and perhaps a bit of Ovid and Virgil.  But then, surprise. They very ones who were asking the question suddenly supplied the answer: no, you mustn’t do that, you must hold on to your premise. Otherwise, we realized, we would be walking into the territory of the Other and alterity and all that. So we held our ground, resolving to say at the start: “ You know, you may or not like what we have to say, you may think it’s all untrue, a myth, or alternatively that it was all made up ultimately by western intelligence; we’ll handle these feelings and questions as they come up. But there’s more to it, stated in texts that are undeniably native, saliently our logo, the Aztec Sunstone, which everyone agreed dates from before the European invasion, and which records the paradigm of the world ages. If you want to make comparisons, then why not let us help you start from the other side, start with what we are learning here and making it the norm against which then to measure Old World belief: this looks like a bit the Biblical Genesis but this has a different feel, etc.”  This was a  simple enough maneuver but it cost us a bit of effort because this Western thing is so powerful, obviously it is, it’s so deeply ingrained in western logic and everyday language. So, it’s been an interesting exercise, anticipated a bit in the Book of the Fourth World, in the sense that the only authorities I would use were native American, certainly preferring them to those consecrated European chronicles and treatises at every stage. It is of course just this intellectual fact of America that one might wish were at least noticed by those philosopher- theorists who claim to expose the “exhaustion of Latin American difference” (Moreiras’s terms): who is it who differs from whom and in truth which is the imaginatively exhausted party, one might irreverently wonder.

FGH: The student keeps asking, so Prof. Brotherston,  is this about the comparative game, or maybe not, between the aboriginal and native dimension in the Americas side by side with the West? If so, what is the point?

GB: I suppose implicitly it will always be. In the first quarter, not really. If comparisons are made, it is first of all within the Americas, in an effort to resist centuries of suppression that at first was pretty deliberate, the burning of “libraries” – as they Christians themselves called them – of codices and Inca quipus, in the great metropolitan centers of Mexico and Peru. We operate as bona fide Amerikanisten here, striving to uncover those paradigms of creation, and once undertaken, the task proved not impossibly hard, with adequate chosen texts to hand, the Sunstone of course, the Popol vuh, the Legend of the Suns, Watunna, the Huarochiri manuscript, Guaman Poma, the Emergence dry-painting of the Navajo, and so on. Some are even available in paperback. One of the joys of the course is having native Americans in it who enjoy the comparisons made on the continental scale while holding firmly on to what they learned at home – and clearly knowing a lot more about this last.

And this leads me to another simple point. If you listen to experts in say architecture, agriculture, and to a lesser degree, mathematics, or philology, especially in the heyday of nineteenth century diffusionism, those who make comparisons between the Old World and the New do so to the disadvantage of the latter. They take isolated examples from different parts and times of the New World in order to compare them with what is considered to be central, essential or sound in the Old – you must be familiar with this [way of operating] – and of course it generates a necessarily balkanized America. Needless to say, when some phenomenon or other of significance to these academic disciplines is discovered to have occurred earlier in America than in the Old World, as in fact happens increasingly, then diffusion is promptly forgotten. It’s clearly an ideological matter, with psychic roots so deep that they have been rarely examined. During the McCarthy era, Sauer, then Professor of Geography at Berkeley, suffered directly from this; he was ostracized for arguing against the then orthodox (and diffusionist view) that maize was an Asian import, saying it was rather the triumph of aboriginal American plant science, which of course Radio Carbon 14 soon conclusively proved it was. In the 1980s I spent some time working on calendrics, the articulation of time, not least in the calendar instituted in revolutionary France and why socially it was doomed to fail; but most of all of course my focus was America. For me, the most urgent thing was to compare like with like, so you compare Aztec and Maya, systems different in some respects yet also with a lot in common, and then both with Inca, or Sioux. The number of people  who have done just this is rather small. Most will have something to say about the Maya or something to say about the Aztec, or other cultures, but consistently trying to work through to ground common to all is rare. Even the Mesoamerican system common to Aztec to Maya is ignored more often than not and in this respect the brilliant mathematical restitution offered in Munro Edmonson’s Book of the year (1988) is completely welcome, as for that matter is his learned translation of the Popol vuh, that bible of Mesoamerica (and America) which he was the first to translate into English directly form the Maya-Quiché. The northern extension of this Mesoamerican system has scarcely ever been examined as such, although the arithmetical and even textual norms are readily comparable: the nine-night cycle, the seventy-year cycles of human and star life, shifts through dimensions of time (days, years etc) by means of chosen ciphers, history that emerges from the epic and the world-ages, and so on. Indeed, only when we respect the continental frame of things do we begin to see not just the shared paradigms but the categorical differences. Perhaps the most striking of these is the pastoral economy of the Andes – nowhere else did appropriate animals flourish as the llama did there – and the pastoral ideology that grew from it. This particular regional difference not just throws light on why Inca theology differed from, say, Aztec; it puts into broader perspective root choices made in old world belief, between pastoralist Abel and agriculturalist Cain and so on, that profoundly affect philosophy up to and even after Rousseau.

All this to indicate the context and purposes of our efforts at intra-American comparison.

FGH: It must be tricky business because we happen to be inside balkanized America and also inside the U.S., which could be hastily defined as also a rather fragmented [society] with a hegemonic Anglo-centric European heritage. It seems to be that you try to build a togetherness, let us call it American togetherness, “America” in the continental sense, by keeping or pushing away some notion of “Europe” inside an Eurocentric country such as the U.S. So this must surely be a complicated operation. In relation to the frame that you talked about before, you keep talking about American texts, with all those internal complexities…

GB: Could I just catch something? The way you are using frame is not the way I was using it. Frame is the formal kind of definition, going back to the formalism of before, simply the edge of the paper. I don’t mean it in any other way whatsoever. I mean it in a technical sense. Must a text have a frame? That kind of question. So, this is a different matter indeed. Of course and absolutely [in relation to this latter point]. But it is a bit like advice one gives to doctoral students: just get on with it! Just do it, rather than standing back, ghastly and complicated as the whole operation is going to be! Just try it! It is only by trying, and in collaboration with people who come from the inside, like the native Americans doing our course, that you can begin to see how all this may be possible.

At the beginning of the course we set up the Aztec Sunstone (Piedra de los soles) as a yardstick, a basic textual reference. We know that this is a pre-Columbian, pre-Cortesian text, and that it tells the story of creation and we have the names of those creations, all translated in Nahuatl narratives. So we said: “Whatever else we are going to be doing, don’t forget this image. Remember that this image was carved, it is there, you can go and see it, and we know where it comes from and we know what it says. So wherever else might happen, if it gets too complicated or fragmented, etc. remember this : whatever else you want to see in the continent, you know one way or another maybe you can make those connections!” And that helped anchor things.

image  I Am Crow © by Kirby Sattler;

FGH: Nativism, aboriginality or the indigenous dimension, how far do  you think you can go with these labels within the matrix of a latecapitalist, post-literacy image-dominated mobile and migratory increasingly Anglophone global society? What kind of foreign eloquence could you use in the official neighborhood, or corral, of Uncle Sam, self-styled as the one society for the rest of the world?

GB: There you go! Quite a few epithets in there. I don’t know if I can remember them all at once. The business of the English language – I don’t think it makes much difference because if it weren’t English it could be Spanish. Meanwhile, there is just as much interest in the Quechua language outside Peru as inside. The post-literacy image-dominated aspect interestingly enough might almost work on one’s favor. Take the case of the Sun Stone, it is indeed literary but it is also, should we say, an instance of visual language. It’s not just the printed alphabetic page of Doctor Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. It actually expands the notion of literacy maybe to allow for people already with that kind of heritage today more readily into what you are doing. As for the notion of [late-]capitalist, are we post-socialist? How late is it? Indeed one of the most interesting engagements is with how main line socialist thinking relates to bodies and traditions of native knowledge that are still very much alive. Ward Churchill and Vine Deloria’s, Marx and Native Americans would be an obvious reference here, along with Rigoberta of course, and Silko. There are numerous other critics in this line of thinking in Brazil, certainly in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala… where you find people, should we say, from the left engaging with this other knowledge trying to see how it may or may not teach them. And all this is being brought to some fruition now with the planning and founding of indigenous universities again in America, 500 years on. Well, after all, in China we saw a profound rethinking of Marxism, also in Vietnam, thanks to the astounding Giap, and in Che’s idea of Cuba (El hombre y el socialismo en Cuba, a work I translated in the 1960s). But what I am trying to get at is those areas where mainline socialism is having to rethink itself. Feminism is an obvious one.

Why should any student be interested in this now? Well, one of the answers is that we can learn from native cosmogony, its long-range evolutionary perspective and the healthier location of humans with regard to other species and their environment. Having had little to say on such issues, Capitalism unsurprisingly enough, is now battling discursively with itself. In its day, Soviet Communism hardly had a better record. It seems to me that this tradition of knowledge helps us, if I can be inclusive about it, to conceptualize not just our gender, race, etc., but our species in a way which mainline Western thinking has not really helped much. For example, it may help us explore the pastoral ideology at the heart of the Semitic religions – Islam Judaism and Christianity – yet confined to the Andes in America, and help us see how it redefines human kinship with other animals, in ways that may lead to psychic and cultural disruption of Nietzschean proportiones.  Does that answer your question?

FGH: In the course description you use the language of “genesis” and “cosmogony” and “dispossession,” are you fated to seek cosmologies? Does Gordon Brotherston sin the original sin, the sin of origins? Do you feel you always have to go that way in relation to your work?

GB: Let me turn that around a little, Fernando. Do you mean that I am condemned, compelled to wanting to go back to first sources?


FGH: Not just in relation to sources, but in relation to your work. You look at the notion of “indigenous,” the “native,” the “aboriginal,” etc. There is the push, the attempt, the tendency that “forces” you trying to generate non-Western narratives of genesis. You go for cosmological arrangements. Is this a sin, a virtue, the only way of getting this done? Let me make clear that “a situation of force” could be good and desirable, or bad and undesirable, or perhaps neither in the sense of perhaps being the only way to do these things, something inevitable. I would like your thoughts on this.

GB: These “non-Western narratives of genesis” you ask about have existed and resonated for a very long time in America, they could hardly be “generated” by me. I think the problem may in part have to do with what you touched on before, that is, “science”. Keeping up with what that is pronounced to be and casting back to what it has been has always informed my sense of literature, and to hear most often a delightful, beautiful kind of curiosity, that has enthused astronomers, mathematicians, geologists, and even old Darwin in his way, brought down as he was by (capitalism’s) awful survival of the fittest. That I enjoy, I mean I enjoy musing on why the caracol turns this way or that – as in the double-helix of Augusto de Campos’s concrete poem – , prompted by what kind of forces, the whole numeracy prefigured in our bodies as limbs, digits, orifices, teeth, and the rhythms of the sky that humankind spent so long observing and theorizing minutely already it would seem in the paleolithic, and the sad decline of scientific interest in the sheer experience and  phenomenology of such things. Try for example looking up something as rudimentary as the synodic period of Mercury, and you’ll sooner be told all about that planet’s surface temperature, its density and so on. Again, you would have to have been privy to Freud and Einstein’s possibly apocryphal conversation about time to recover the perception of inner and outer articulated in the Popol vuh. In this sense, the modern Western notion of science excludes so much, has left so much behind, of what have been the sustaining roots of human culture and intelligence. And there it is, articulated in American accounts of genesis, which have been successively updated in response to the dramatic changes the continent itself has undergone.

So, let us say that that could be part of it and go on to your cosmological point. Genesis is more than origin in the sense that, when you were talking just now, it occurred to me it is not because the first people in the continent were the ones who thought so cogently, that may well be true, but the reason is not just “because they were the first.” It’s rather because from my experience from talking, listening and being with Indians today, my experience in Latin America and in this country, and certainly in reading quite a few texts over many years, I suppose I just believe, as simple as that, that there is such a thing as an American tradition of knowledge, which I do find very interesting. Why do I find it interesting? You are right, it is partly political. It is because these peoples have been dispossessed, the word you quite rightly used, not just territorially but also intellectually, and this for me is a recurrent argument as you can see, and one really don’t want to let go of. You remember when you kindly asked me to collaborate with you in your colonial course, we looked at evidence in the Aubin Codex and elsewhere that shows how in 1559 the Aztecs contrived to hold the New Fire ceremony due in that year (2 Reed in their calendar), staging it under the very noses of the Spaniards, who by then would not have tolerated it, within what was officially the nocturnal ceremony organized to commemorate the death of Charles V. There are of course many other such clues to intellectual survival of this kind: one I’m sure I’ve mentioned to you is how the unearthing of the Sunstone in 1790 was interpreted as a cracking up and eclipse of the Spanish colony, by locals who were still in the habit of consulting codices. Another example: there is a direct formal and textual link between the Mexicanus Codex of 1583, which offers a wholly expert critique of Gregorian attempts at calendar reform, and native-paper screenfold texts produced today, in much the same contestatory spirit.

An immediate target is of course the kind of triumphalism which has afflicted the Western powers one after the other, and which is most certainly afflicting the US empire now. That conviction, which [the Stanford President] Hennessy lamented, “we are so right that we really know it.” And which could also be seen to afflict “science,” – let’s keep the term in quotation marks -, as someone remarked the other day in the New Left Review, or maybe the rather racier Private Eye, identifying it as a species of religious fundamentalism. No doubt that science is congenetically incapable, certainly institutionally reluctant, to remember what it said yesterday, this synchronic science that is true only because it is synchronic. You can’t after all admit “well, actually I was saying something different yesterday, and maybe that was wrong, how was it that we thought it was right when, etc.” , exception being made of course for such admirable bodies as the Union of Concerned Scientists. On the planetary stage the West and Europeans particularly enjoy projecting this sort of synchronicity into the past, a paradox no doubt but a familiar mental operation, as if they had always somehow known everything,  when they absolutely did not, most often they were the ignorant and  destructive pillagers they behaved as in America.

FGH: I would like to kind of repeat, a bit differently, a question I already asked you. So, Prof. Brotherston, what are you up to in this American Genesis and why should we bother with this? Is this about a non-West continental American awareness that should do something to the way we live in this society today? Because they may be a few international students but you are talking for the most part to the descendants of European migrants who also carry that European culture in fragments, for whom Europe may perhaps be some distant, if prestigious location they may be willing to visit for a honeymoon, a semester or spring break. US American culture is something else that is also not that close to Latin America. One subquestion may be about how happy you are about the visibility of Latin American inside the US? If you use the foreign affairs model of engagement with the world, then there is no engagement with the Third World intellectually.

GB: Your question includes two parts which could have a common answer. Actually, as others have remarked,  the students  who have chosen our course, out of the six or seven on offer in the Winter and Spring Quarters, are mostly a solid concentration of non-Europeans, with a few exceptions of course… (laughter). One could ask, looking at them, where were these students before and wonder about all the places they have effectively come from and in that sense represent.  It’s a great group and they have given us great feedback. They requested that we should have question time at the end of the lecture –  ninety people, not easy to do! – and so we said, o.k. as long as you ask the questions. And they did, revealing a keen interest in the very epistemological questions we’ve been asking ourselves.

FGH: Is the point to highlight the riches of magnificent worlds of invention inside the subaltern bodies or what?

GB: Subaltern bodies being the students in this case? (laughter)

FGH: No, not the students (laughter), let us say the indigenous bodies, the Indian bodies, the bodies of those who come from dominated worlds of human experience, if you want to put it that way.

GB: It is not the way I’d have chosen to put it and “subaltern” is not really one of my terms, but all right, I’ve no real objections here. The way of answering that would be that it is amazing the difference that recognizing someone can actually think can make to human relationships, the revelation that someone actually had a mind all the time. Films have been made and short stories have been told about it, it’s a favorite punchline, the twist in the tale. There are plenty of examples that involve Native Americans, about how writers and artists have actually been converted almost in a religious sense as a result of getting to know something about the tradition of knowledge we have been talking about, even if it is in a very local way. A really significant case is Miguel Angel Asturias, who as a writer started off diagnosing his Maya compatriots in Sociología guatemalteca: el problema social del Indio [Guatemalan sociology: the social problem of the Indian] (1923). And what is the problem? Well, according to him at this stage it was that the Indians are all degenerate, they all get drunk, just can’t help themselves. They are just useless and Guatemala will never advance or progress as long as there are all these Indians in it. So what are we going to do about that? A lot of immigration, etc. you know the usual Sarmiento kind of stuff.  And then he read and translated the Popol Vuh and as a result he completely changed. The very same behavior patterns which before seemed to him disgusting  or evidence of irremediable backwardness then came to seem proof of something quite different. So it is the eyes of perception really, isn’t it? It is not the whole story but I am trying to answer your question. I do believe it can happen.


FGH: The Course syllabus of American Genesis, but also the anthology of translated poetry entitled The Sun Unwound: Original Texts from Occupied America (1999), wishes to cover mostly pre-1500 and then “jumps” to the 20th century. In “American Genesis,” you  include Guaman Poma de Ayala, an exception to the norm,  but I think it is fair to say that there is no one single Spanish (or peninsular if you will) source in your course that deals directly with the colonization of the Americas. Which is like dealing with India for example and not including any English source. But you do not forget to include Early Modern and Enlightenment authors (Montaigne, Voltaire, etc.). What was the rationale? Do you still think this is a good choice? I must say this silence puzzles me a bit.

GB: O.k. Now, let us be clear about one thing from the start. It is only in the first four weeks of the Spring Quarter where this question will be raised because otherwise all the texts in this course are Native American,  Guaman Poma de Ayala being therefore not an exception at all, it is part of this same thing. Then clearly in the second quarter we will be going on to look at modern writers in languages that certainly include Spanish and Portuguese and all of that. Now, what you put your finger on is that particular early colonial bit, which is the result of our wish to try and demonstrate the intellectual impact of Native America on Europe. In fact, that’s not so easy, it goes against the grain, it goes against all the usual ways of thinking, which cannot admit the idea that America had an intellectual impact, an actual input at that level. If we accept the idea then we have to be extremely careful about what we offer as evidence, about which authors we choose, they all have to be solid in this sense. Maybe it’s my ignorance but remember, Fernando, that my first job at King’s College London obliged me to teach a whole year of  Spanish Eighteenth Century (laughter). Maybe I should go back and revisit José Cadalso, Feijoo, Jovellanos and the others, and of course the Golden Age that preceded them. I just did not see it then, maybe I’d see it now, I don’t know. Throughout, the intellectual framework seemed so inimical. Now, where you can find some sort of evidence is in those authors you just mentioned. Montaigne is our prime exhibit, he is amazing, there’s nobody better, an individual contemporary with the sixteenth-century invasions, and seminal for the Enlightenment. He invokes America most on two main issues, one is the creation of the world, the other, cannibalism, both highly sensitive topics for the Christian thought of the day. They are literary disquisitions that as everyone knows deal with Christian dogma, imperial grandeur, social justice, European self-contradiction and intellectual limitation, all with full reference to American discourse, the Sunstone account of the world-ages, Tupi poetry, and so on. The connection is so direct and we want to make a lot of it; and without Montaigne, Rousseau would have had decidedly less to ponder. For his part, Montaigne’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe openly preferred native American to European estimates of how long ago the world had begun and relished the anthropophagic roots of the Eucharist: both were charged with heresy. Elsewhere, like Italy, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire in general, such dialogue is hard to find, as it is after the shutters came down again and everywhere Europe preferred to talk to itself. One Spanish-language text from the Enlightenment we have thought about is Lorenzo Boturini’s Idea de una nueva historia general de la America Septentrional [Idea of the new general history of North America] of 1746. An Italian, Boturini was a disciple of Vico, the “founder of history”, but he was more far intrigued than his master by America: his history transcribes the codices he had collected in Mexico and had struggled to read, and for that reason, revolutionary as it is in Europe, it’s an ungainly work for pedagogical purposes; and there’s no translation of it.

When you have asked me this question before I said, all right, you name me, you know, a text, or two, that is coming from the Spanish-speaking world that we can use for our pedagogical purpose and we will go for it.

FGH: I do have a response to that question but let me go on with the questions as planned. Your scholarship does not do political, legal, institutional, economic history at least not at the official level in relation to Native American literature.Is the focus on the indigenous dimension incompatible, or does your focus preclude the simultaneity of an engagement with institutionality? I do not see, for example, going into greater detail to explore Spanish or Portuguese colonization of the Americas. You do not wish to enter the colonial territory forcefully. And thus this is why you recreate “indigenous” cosmogonies persisting, resisting “Spanish invasion,” and I am using your language. Is this fair? Am I wrong?

GB: No, it’s a fair call. I think the answer to that has to do with the length of human life,  how much we can read in a lifetime. I remember a thought from long ago published as “The Comparatist in Babel,” [Arion (University of Texas), viii (1969): 110-21]which suggests how the Cartesian model, the probes that extend indefinitely from the severed head, just does not work in the global field of “comparative literature”, a hot topic at the time. As we stagger along past shelf after shelf like the librarians of Borges or Eco, our retinas can ever know only the tiniest chapter. People have quite reasonably made careers just studying, say, colonization in Brazil over half a century, and that is more than enough. Such thoughts were very much in mind when in 1990 when I retired from Essex in order to finish Book of the Fourth World, you know: how strong or not you feel, how good or not your eyes are, the amount of work you can hope to put together, memory that starts to fail after 45, and what there is left to know. It is a condition that justifies the methodology or (to be theological for a moment) a methodology which justifies the condition, but that’s why I’m sticking principally to indigenous texts, and aware as I am of the limitations here, I do not think that doing what I am doing precludes other answers to the problem. It’s rather a matter of who is going to do what they can? We will have to do it all together. It has to be group work.

FGH: I see a double tendency at work. One is to keep the “indigenous” dimension separate and distinct from, for example, Spanish and Portuguese, the “colonial” dimension, the “native” separate from the European powers. And two, to build an indigenous continuity maintaining also a continuity of these separations from pre-fifteenth century until today. Is this double tendency fair? Are these continuities even possible?

GB: I’m sure you’re right in wanting to ask this kind of question. In any case it has a lot to do with how you define “indigenous” in the first place. I must say, on this I have shifted ground steadily over the years. At first I’d hold verbal language to be indispensable: if people were not writing in an indigenous language, or speaking it, then what they had to say was already of a different order. I also put less emphasis – and I am talking twenty-five years ago – on social groupings and behavior than I would now. I think in that sense my ears have become more intellectualized, as it were. It is not that old “history of ideas” I have in mind, it’s much more to do with histories of knowledge, accepting the difference, and the many sorts of text and languages through which they may be conveyed. It is practical knowledge a lot of the time. Medicine is a good area to talk about in this regard. As you know, the middle classes in Chile or Brazil, who do they really go to when all else fails? They go and talk to the curanderos, who of course carry forward with them knowledge that has been around in America for very much longer than Old World immigrants.  Maybe I’ve been slow, resisting the idea of intellectual continuity being only too aware of the pitfalls it can imply. But if you then accept that it exists, and you do look at, say, the Navajo today, then you begin to hear the way they talk about their  own tradition, reinventing it like any other tradition, but from absolutely specific precedent. What is continuity in any case? We all secretly know that the dominant West freely invents and invests itself with “traditions” and values on evidence which elsewhere would be mercilessly deconstructed by its science, a true privilege of power. Take all that “medieval” architecture in Cambridge, some of it that old maybe, some of it definitely not, yet the overall illusion or aura is seamless.

This could just about bring us back to that synchronicity of science we were talking about earlier, so as to feed it into that question of language. For linguistics began to exist, as it were, just because of its synchronic understanding of language, and a famous deprecation of philology (a subject Stephen Ullmann taught me how to love at Leeds) and its “hopeless” diachronicism. As a result, given the largely unchallenged ascendency of linguistics, the word continuity itself has acquired a certain bad breath. For some, it appears, continuity is synonymous with intellectual limitation, like a failure to advance, adapt, incorporate, and that is of course not at all the way that I like to invoke it. You said that I don’t talk about colonization. Well, I think it is not quite true in the sense that I am very interested, and I have written about, native texts which incorporate the experience of colonization and the ideas of the colonizers, reworking it all in their own terms. These constitute the best kind of texts because you see the continuity, you see where it is coming from, you see how this interpretation of the zodiac in the case of the Codex Mexicanus is coming from an earlier interpretation of the zodiac and mixing it with new or imported ideas, etc. There are many examples of that kind. So it is in that sense, I think, that it is not as though I just ignored the existence of coloniality. The way the very word is used in Gruzinski’s La colonization de l’imaginaire [1988; translated into English as The Conquest of Mexico], bothers me because if you start from that basis, well then it’s all over really. That is the problem I have.

FGH:  One could perhaps critique you for avoiding “Spanish” and “colonial” in relation to “American Genesis” and perhaps also in relation to your work. It is like you are not really quite into explaining the transformations, mutations, processes of domination and subordination of all these categories, or is this not so?

GB: Actually you lost me in the last bit of that one, what is being subordinated in your view?

FG: The Native American dimensions.

GB: So I want everything to be subordinated to that as it were?

FGH: I see a tendency in you that is going for fission and not for fusion. And you said it very well in relation to Gruzinski, your work stops where Gruzinski’s work begins chronologically. I am not saying that he is going further than you. Or the other way round, you begin where he stops. But I also think that Serge Gruzinski’s work, and you said it very nicely, unlike Mignolo’s work for example, contains, let us say, a melancholic feeling about it. Gruzinski’s good work focuses on the early moments of colonization. He celebrates the notion of a rich hybridity and then it is almost like everything goes downhill from here. It kind of has to. Your work does not do that because also does not focus on that historical moment and you keep this moment at a distance.

GB: It has to go down. Yes, that is very fair. I think I also look for all the support that one can get, in works like Peter Gerhard’s The historical geography of New Spain, which reminds us how long how much American territory remained outside European control. And these brute geo-political facts remind us again of that phenomenon of “back projection,” in which somehow the European domination of the Americas was always there, was there even before Columbus arrived! (laughter), was expected and needed as even Neruda could hint in his high Stalinist days (“A pesar de la ira”, in Canto general).


FGH: Let me elaborate a little bit how I see your work in relation to two specific examples, just to characterize what I mentioned earlier about fission and not fusion. In relation to the Codex Mendoza, your reading does not go for what I would call the colonial condition of production of this historical document that has the Viceroy Mendoza supposedly presenting this “text” as a gift to Charles V. And I  must say that I do not quite find convincing Escalona’s approach that cleans up the alphabetic letter from there. I would say reading the puzzling, fragmentary juxtaposition of glyph and alphabetic letter inside the colonial setting is the way to go. Of course it goes without saying that this is a tremendously difficult, challenging perhaps even impossible task that, at least according to Escalone, will take two or three generations. Or in relation to Popol Vuh, a favorite text of yours, and you are definitely the expert here, there is however a rather loud silence about the insertion of this testimony inside the massive chronicle produced by the Dominican Friar Francisco Ximénez [or Giménez], born in 1666, the Historia de la Provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Guatemala. You don’t go to explore how this “indigenous” document is inserted in Ximénez’s big narrative, “Libro l que trata del tiempo de la gentilidad,” and how indigenous intelligence is thus coopted by the frame of colonial monasticism, obviously operating inside the Europe-centered institutionalization of Christianity as hegemonic and official belief-system in the XVl century onwards. In the name of the reconstruction of an indigenous cosmogony, what is now Popol Vuh is routinely detached from Ximénez’s account in the alphabetic letter in the vernacular Spanish language. I guess I am saying that I am resisting detachments, delinkings and separations. So, indigenous cannot be understood with colonial, colonial cannot be understood without Spanish, Spanish cannot be understood without English and so on.

GB: Regarding the Codex Mendoza, I am wondering if it was a gift or not. Everybody has assumed that it was when in fact it’s not that clear. The vice-regal name appears to have been attached a lot later, and the logic of its argument, its exposition, is entirely indigenous and stems from the classic codices. It’s a bit like referring to the actual Nahuatl authors of the Tepepulco manuscript or Primeros memoriales as nothing more than Sahagún’s “informants”. Or again, I’ve just been reviewing a book, some seven or eight hundred pages, called In the language of kings: an anthology of Mesoamerican literature–pre-Columbian to the present (2001), edited by Miguel León-Portilla and Earl Shorris with Sylvia S. Shorris [et al.],  a magnificent anthology of Meso-American texts. But it claims that the indigenous authors in question were taught the alphabet by the Christian missionaries. I resist this because I do not know that it’s true, maybe it was in some cases but perhaps wasn’t in others. If you read native texts like as the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, the Maya say they learned the alphabet from the Spaniards that they captured and who lived with them and learned Maya and fought on their side against other Spaniards. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t have been so yet few historians entertain the idea, rather the underlying preference is always for the white bringer of culture. It tends always to go in the direction of “these Indians are less intelligent than the Europeans”, yet, you know, it seems to me that if you make comparisons of that  kind, then it is clear that the Indians are likely to be better informed about their own affairs than the Europeans ever could be. But this is not what it is assumed. So much for Mendoza’s “gift”. Another thing that you must know from looking at my stuff is that every page of that text can be shown to belong to a chapter and that those three chapters can be shown to belong to a genre or type of discourse, which existed in the codices from pre-Cortesian times. Few people are interested in such literary notions. Now, to be able to begin to demonstrate that this might be so makes an enormous and definitive difference to how the text is best read and interpreted, and one hardly need spell out why. Because to describe Part three, which is perhaps the most interesting of all, people have even used, quite anachronistically, expressions such as “ethnographic account,” you know, as if the Indians were saying to each other, “see how interesting we are.” I mean this idea of gift just will not do. It’s humiliating, it seems to me, like Luis XlV getting the poor Flemish in Lisle to weave the tapestries of their defeat. It’s that kind of argument, it’s bad news. A former student at Essex, Joanne Harwood just did her PhD thesis on this very subject. In two volumes, she goes through every conceivable source and she shows when and how this idea of a gift was first introduced into the discourse, which was quite late, like over two centuries later. She also distinguishes two approaches to the text, one Spanish-Mexican and the other Anglo-German, and how this latter one favors far more, interestingly enough, the idea of viceregal and patriarchal imposition. Ten or more years ago, Enrique Escalona  made a fine 60-minute video of this codex, reconstructing how the first page was written/drawn with immense skill; contrary to all expectation, it actually became something of a commercial success, above all in provincial cinemas. Escalona had as a consultant Joaquín Galarza, who did a great job on the whole, though it is interesting to see how Galarza’s insistence on Nahuatl phonetics in reading the codex both illuminates and in certain ways reduces the text, the visual language of the codices having much more to offer, as we’ve been saying, than can be easily rendered phonetically. Again, that misguided notion that the alphabet was the great step forward in the experience of humankind, as if there were no matching loss.

In the case of Popol Vuh, the history of that manuscript and the copies of it is devilish. I read other people and in Book of the Fourth World I give their sources. Munro S. Edmonson gives a very fair account when he says is that the Popol vuh was written in 1550s by Maya of the Kavec clan in Santa Cruz Quiché, and we know where that is, and opens “within Christianity” as the Maya text puts it, there’s nothing obscurantist about that. It’s a statement in a very particular genre, known as the “título” in Spanish, which favors just the literary strategies we see at work in the Maya text, in order to justify the petition for rights being made within the Spanish colonial system. This is not a pure word coming in from nether space. The authors are a socially privileged group who intend to hang on to that privilege. But being native Americans they base their claim on evidence and knowledge that the court was very far from being able to refute, establishing a much fuller concept of precedent and legitimacy. They rehearsed their story from the very beginnings of time, in terms overwhelmingly more persuasive and coherent than the Biblical Genesis, as we were suggesting, only then to move into a historical mode, the story of the Guatemalan highlands into which Alvarado eventually intrudes. In other words, the law upheld by the court judges is shown to have entered American history very, very late. A far cry then from the Biblical history that the invaders proclaimed as uniquely valid through America and the world, even though America appeared to have been overlooked in that text (hence the Mormons etc). It’s that old question of who entered whose history, which the West on the whole has remained doggedly reluctant to ask. Witness again the Neruda of Canto general.

So those Maya strategies seem quite important. So, that when you say to me that I am delinking the text, I would say maybe, but I’m delinking it from a particular set of Western categories, pigeonholes, hooks, or whatever, putting it back where it belongs, in the corpus of native writing of that period that has similar objectives and perspectives, like other títulos, the Cakchiquel Annals, the Nahuatl histories of Chimalpahin that query the date Vespasian is supposed to have razed Jerusalem, and so on.

Beyond this again we should ever bear in mind that as far as really good philosophy goes native America has always preferred story to treatise, a narrative which like the Popol vuh demands your absolutely keenest intellectual attention.

FGH: Isn’t it true that GB wants to get caught as little as possible with the post-XV human geographies in between “indigenous” and “Spanish,” so that “indigenous” must be in some sense “non-Spanish” and “Spanish” non-indigenous is this dichotomy-based way of operation? And isn’t it true that your work mostly “jumps” from the pre-XV to the XX century? You have highlighted, more than once, your disagreement with Leopoldo Zea’s comment that philosophy begins in the XV century for Latin America. And you got a really strong point there. It is a weakness on the part of Zea’s vision, but you do not go all the way with this critique, which somehow would rescue Zea’s critique of the standard manufacturing of the discipline of philosophy. I do not quite see you inserting the Spanish invasion inside the larger horizon of Eurocentrism and Western expansionism or am I wrong?

GB: No, you are right. But how am I going to do this in a lifetime, Fernando? (laughter).


FGH: I am very aware that I do not want Gordon Brotherston to bring the whole truth of the human dimension in his work. I am aware that we are probably pushing the envelope too much. Wanting to stay close to your work, don’t you feel that it is a little bit in this country that pushes all of us towards bigger entities and dimensions? We have the labels of the Americas vis-a-vis Europe, we also have transatlantic literature unevenly in between English and non-English, we also have Third World literature, etc. We are dealing with bigger and bigger human geographies in environments that in some cases are less than conducive to a thorough, careful, meticulous approach to really complicated material. I would say some of this is implicit in your own work. I think it forces us to push the envelope and maybe reach perhaps some impossibilities and I confess that I do like these moments. I learned this from [Antonio] Cornejo Polar. He would say from time to time, “O.k. I have reached this point, this is my limit, I feel I am not entitled to go, I just cannot go there.” For example, I do not know the Quechua language well. And as you put it nicely, it is for others to tell or teach me something about this. I am also trying to rescue some notion of self-critique or a self-awareness of some limitations and of course we cannot do everything for everybody all the time in every single piece of writing. So that was going in that direction.

GB: It is very interesting how you steer things in this way and I hope we can go on talking along these lines. In what you were saying just now, for me a far greater preoccupation, that is, than whether or not I am engaging with the latest must-read analysis of colonization, is how I can collaborate with and not offend native scholars of the Americas. That interests me far more interested to me. Western scholars can look after themselves, we really can. Whereas few ever notice native view. For me the greatest satisfaction has always been, when someone who is native American sends a letter, an email, or comes up after a lecture saying they know my work and they think this or that to say about it.  I’ve had face to face experiences of that kind all over the continent.

FGH: So whatever “native” is, is clearly something you do not want to get caught up too much with colonization processes, Eurocentrism, etc. In this regard, you go for separations, the “native” separated from something else…

GB:  Yes, I suppose if you want to put that way, though it’s not as though I’m an apostle of apartheid. It’s much more out of a sense that these people have been completely trampled on, denied and lied about all the time. In the spirit of Voltaire, if you see someone being lied about, you’ve got to be indignant, particularly when the lies justify extermination, dispossession, the most appalling kind of racism which if it were directed at Jews or blacks, it would not be officially tolerated for one second. It appears native Americans have come to be housed in another room in the Western psyche. To counter Voltaire, as it were, St Augustine had this idea that the longer you involved your mind with something, regardless of how you thought you judged it, you could not help being dragged into it. And this apparently is what happens much of the time with the mendacious history of America the West invents and keeps repeating to itself. Whatever you think you think, however you expose and lament those lies, it will not in the end make much difference one way or another, because you will be part of it, the story endures. You have no other term. The “for or against” argument therefore has to be recast, in less rationalist or Cartesian terms. So in this sense I suppose I’m a bit pre-Descartes. My sense of intellectual limitation, not least my own, is considerable, and this propels me into wanting to hear and be part of this other story, their grand narrative, rather than the one I was born into.

FGH: Yes, I completely see that. You are pre- but also post-Descartes, no?

GB: It is more modest to say it simply one way.

FGH: Under the rubric “native american literature,” Gordon Brotherston goes native. Is this so? Or this is not the point?

GB: Not long ago I was mentioning to you Elicura Chihuailaf’s translations of Pablo Neruda into the Mapuche language, which he has published in a fine anthology called Ti kom ül/Todos los cantos. The thing is completely interesting for the way we get an entirely new view of Neruda through the poems Chihuailaf chooses to include, and which not to, and of course from the way they are translated, which in some exemplary cases of American landscape actually inverts the thrust of the Spanish with incredible finesse. It is beautiful to witness. Now, to be able to talk with a native American who is doing this kind of work, whose first language comes from there, is this going native? I don’t think so. It is enjoying a literary conversation.  If this is what going native is, then that’s fine by me.

FGH: So, you go to the native dimension, you go there, and then what happens with that indigenous intelligence? You go to the house of the West and you tell those inhabitants, take a good look at this and respect it.

GB: Certainly as long as there’s anyone there to look and listen, and given our training, even if there isn’t. At a conference on translation not too long ago, in Pittsburg, someone spoke about how in his view alerting the US to the subtleties of Vietnamese poetry might have made it that bit harder for GIs to kill speakers of that language in the way they did. All over this continent, Native American peoples continue to be killed and dispossessed in the most horrifying fashion, and the last one hundred years or so have been no less disastrous than the previous four hundred.





FGH: Let us continue digging what we might still want to call the “indigenous dimension.” I remember your question in relation to your course “American Genesis:” where is the Montaigne of Spain? Which I decoded as, Where is the good guy who, inside intellectual history, is genuinely welcoming, in your view, the otherness of America inside Europe? Which is in a sense asking for southern Europe to follow the modelic traces of the French, English and Germans, no? And in so doing, you interpellate me at the national level of almost official representation of historical dimensions, especially so since this was the only question you asked me. What would you say to this? A more elaborate answer is to follow after your response.

GB: There are a lot of quite heavy-duty connections and divisions being made in what you ask about. Perhaps the most striking of the latter is that between northern and southern Europe. It could just be that the absence or apparent absence of Montaigne in this instance in so far as we are talking about reverberations of his ideas in what you called southern Europe, has something to do with that kind of North-South geo-binary which gained certain currency over the last few decades. Yet I don’t really believe in North-South in that sense, I suppose, especially not when it’s stretched over the entire globe, shrinking the tropics. And I certainly do believe in Rome, West Rome as an ideological force that goes on operating over centuries, not least through its apparent antitheses. The Graham Greene model of the Catholic-Communist and the Communist-Catholic is what I have in mind. Also that brilliant excursus in Paz’s essay on Darío (“El caracol y la sirena”) where he invokes that Germano-Latin coherence of continental Europe (no division here) which insular England has tirelessly tried to deny and bring down, in Anglo discourse “fraternally” adopted whenever convenient by the US. As you know, Britain (though not Celtic Ireland) disappeared altogether from André Breton’s map of Europe.

FGH: I am working with what I perceived to be the assumptions in your question, the reversal of that would be to do the following move, and there is little novelty in my procedure: where are the jarchas [Islamic-Hispanic love poetry] in the U.K.? Where is the Siete Partidas [massive legal treatise in the thirteenth century, the Toledo translation school, the collaboration of the three religions of the book, Christianity, Judaism and Islam], in Germany? Where is anything equivalent to  the Valladolid Debates and the resulting legislation, the New Laws of 1550-51, on the nature of Indians in imperial France [and one could take further this argumentum ad adsurdum musically, who is the Chucho Valdés of the Soviet Union, the Michel Camilo of Palestine, the Tito Puente of Pakistan, the Jerry González of the Philippines, the Camarón de la Isla of Liverpool, etc.].?



GB: We seem to be in danger of turning this into football league, and we also seem to be losing sight of America.

FG: I am aware of that. But I still believe that this might be a way of dealing with this rather bulky Europe, often thus with no adjectives. It is true that two traditions that have been articulated inside Europe as the German-English and the Romance Languages house, what was called in the good old days Germanística and Romanística. And for example in relation to intellectual history, I do something similar to this in relation to the notion of utopia. Where is the utopia in sixteenth century Spain? And I develop this reasoning in chapter one in my Good Places and Non-places in Colonial Mexico: The Figure of Vasco de Quiroga (1470-1565) (2001). There is something about that way of asking that is a little bit like placing a void or a blank space in an outside or another place, and then almost like the whole gesture has a schoolteacher tone to it, and this would perhaps take us to the notion of the “native intellectual.” But let me go on with the answer I would give to your question: the XVl Century is too early a time for the recognition of the genuine American hermeneutic impact at a global level. Is the twenty-first century already the right century for this? The way I see the Sixteenth Century, and this is my narrow focus if you will, the Western Indies (or better Indias Occidentales) cannot compete with the intellectual proximity of the Islamic presence and the Jewish presence inside the Iberian peninsula (there are no massive migrations, there is only a trickle down of a few intellectuals, el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega for instance, the dramatist Juan de Alarcón, viciously satirized by Quevedo as “Corcovilla,” etc., the label “Indian” would be one possibility among the motley crew of “in-between” populations, mozárabes, muladíes, moriscos, conversos, etc. I would not know how to talk about these in-between sectors post-XVl and early XX century. We may imagine [some of this intercontinental connectedness near] criollo circles, for example Simón Bolívar. There is the 1898 moment. There is the Modernismo group, that you know well, in the early twentieth century, the Boom-Barcelona circle in the 60s, etc. Going back to the Sixteenth Century, one could mention a few names: Vasco de Quiroga is as far as institutional/official Spanish Empire could go. Bartolomé de las Casas becomes the prophetic voice in the wilderness, nothing to do with the stature of Francisco de Vitoria, for example, inside the Order of the Dominicans. I am afraid I will always resist Frenchifying in the manner of a lack, or a bad thing, the intellectual production of the Iberian peninsula in relation to historical processes especially in the context of the United States… Perhaps the challenge is for us to think this “lack” not in the manner of an automatic repudiation, and almost demanding an apology on behalf of others out there, but instead the suggestion would go on about thinking of the lack in relation to something that is hiding underneath our throbbing skin here in the immediate circumstances. America, always in the continental sense, is still finding its meaningfulness globally in this new century. This is perhaps too lengthy and you will have a chance to rethink, correct and add. Yet what do you think of this way of dealing with your question?

GB: It is true that being a Hispanist, because this is what one was, and what one was called, one did deal with this kind of question. As we noted at a recent meeting, the Iberian peninsula was severed from the rest of Europe nearly two centuries ago at the Congress of Vienna, which certainly put Spanish and Portuguese in a special spot within Romanistik. The problem has after all been diagnosed by Américo Castro in España en su historia: Cristianos, Moros y Judíos (originally published in 1948). The wealth of that Toledo environment and the whole translation school, wittingly elided in order better to invent the (Italian) Renaissance (those Germans again), a wealth testified to amply in Cervantes, inexhaustible, immense, the key to most subsequent European literature in prose. So none of that is difficult for me. Though we do have to admit that more recently, in the 20th century, those Iberian dictatorships have hardly helped the debate along, fomented as they were by the US, especially Franco’s, far more than legally-elected governments like Atlee’s socialist government of 1945: El Cid as Christian crusader, sword on high, groomed already for Hollywood; the Golden Age as honor code and wife murder (something rather savored in the 1950s, it would seem, by a certain style of US Hispanist); the demeaning of modernism as French decadence (its true origin, America, being dismissed in colonialist terms); the Premio Nacional de la Fecundidad that women strove to win…. (Can this really have happened?). But yes, overall the Américo Castro thesis persuades me easily. We English are now buying lots of houses in southern Spain and feel comfortable remaining in complete ignorance of the language, the culture and the history, which is pretty offensive. No question about that, about my loyalties there at all. However that is not really the issue. When I made that remark about, you know, show me the Spanish-speaking Montaigne, it was not made in that spirit at all.

FGH: I do know that. I do not quite see you [as the type that will drink Spanish wine and eat calamari like someone out of the recent film Sexy Beast]. And yet there is something about that way of questioning. I guess I am quarreling with the notion of intellectual impact as you have used it. That is what I have in mind. How could I put this? You are looking for some notion of intellectual knowledge production inside some areas that are not, let us say, inside economic realms, or not inside legal realms, or not inside institutional realms. So this takes us to ask, what does mean to be an intellectual in the sixteenth century? You are looking for something that you say you find in Montaigne that is [not elsewhere] and feel free to elaborate what it is that you find in Montaigne that implies the impact of the Americas at the intellectual level inside what we quite reductively call Europe.

GB: Yes, all that. Not just implied, Montaigne actually states and exemplifies that impact. A big factor in all this, for me anyway, is the Counter-Reformation. I do confess that I have an undying antipathy for everything that that movement represents from every conceivable angle, particularly in relation to sexual behavior. And after all it slammed shut that tiny window on America and found Montaigne heretical, along with many others, some of them Spanish. All this is reactionary, a closing down. At the same time it’s clear that in terms of intellectual ambition, the Council of Trent’s Contra-Reforma had not given up entirely in terms of intellectual ambition, of being the authority for the western Christendom. In the whole business of the Gregorian Reform and correcting the Julian Calendar, by then ten days out of sync, the Vatican really tried its best in availing itself of the science of the day. In fact, it was the Protestant countries which were reactionary in refusing the Reform, because of course it was papal and came from Rome. But what Rome did at that time was by contrast “progressive”: in trying to discover the exact length of the solar year – measured quite ineptly in the Julian Calendar and quite brilliantly American calendars already in the first millennium BC  – the Christian experts actually built observatories and busied themselves with what would later be called the scientific enquiry, astronomical research (though as we know that unfortunately did not prevent them from going on to burn Galileo to death). So, what should we say? If my antipathy is undying, at least my sense of the complexity of the Counter-Reform has perhaps increased a little (laughter).

FGH: Having made all these comments, let us return to the “witches’ brew” of the native American dimension. I must confess I am always a little puzzled by the vocabulary of “native,” “indigenous” and “aboriginality.” I do not quite know how to negotiate the language of the authocthonous, the rooted, the grounded. And perhaps we may juxtapose these notions with “identity,” “strategic essentialism,” if aware that these notions are mostly operative inside academic circles in the U.S. I do not know what utensils to use, how to taste and swallow what appears to be the witches’ brew of nativism. What face should one present in the high society of cultures of scholarship? I see the dangers of the telluric and a-historical freezing often put forth by the “identity” talk.




GB: You’re using an ingestive model here, one which has an impressive pedigree in America, especially Brazil (in Oswald de Andrade’s Antropofagia). Discussions of identity here must surely include people who identify themselves as native Americans in the various parts of the continent they continue to occupy. Maybe they were the first settlers, they probably were, yet that in itself is not the point. Rather it’s better to refer to their accounts of the culture they have and have demonstrably held on to over centuries and longer, the languages they still speak in some cases in large numbers, the customs they still have, the food they still eat, so as to build up ideas of American identity, without getting caught up in ahistoricism or any of those unhelpful essentialisms. A tiny example. A group of native Americans in this Native American course has asked now as part of the course, to institute a ceremony involving a meal of ground grains of blue maize, to indicate the kinds of significance that millennial food may have. Now, what do you say to that? Our first reaction is, let’s see. One withholds judgment, one does not immediately go on automatic pilot, saying this is superstitious nonsense, or folkloric or whatever, you know.

FGH: Yes, and I am absolutely sympathetic with this attitude. And yet there is something a bit worrying about the freezing of any notion of identity and the use of that notion a bit too dangerously close to the verb “to be [or not to be]” as a precondition for knowledge production, which I guess it means that I am much more interested in identity formation, identity processes that “travel through” the status quo, even in non-identity or identities in the radical plural form. What I am saying, and I do not have now anyone particularly in mind, is that some dangers in making those big or small identity proclamations in this postmodern multicultural society which ultimately boil down to not much of anything. This precondition does not go anywhere, does not quite allow for debate, does not grow into anything else, does not give you historical vistas. It actually assumes institutionality as the rather naturalized be-all and end-all for enunciating knowledge. I do not know if you see this point. I completely see your attitude of “let us see what happens.” I fail to see in most cases the evaluation of what is being generated under sometimes those banners that I find sometimes a bit too conditioned, by statements that are a bit too rigid, too unwilling to rattle the cages of this or that “identity.” I don’t know if you see if you see it this way.

GB: Yes I do, although I do not quite share your view of it because if you look at the continent now, in many parts of it is not a question of institutions. It is a question of a much starker encounter, invasion, or whatever you want to call it. Quite simply, of terrorism. So much of this concerns land. I mean this in the most radical sense. It is an inalienable concept. To go on discussing as we are and forget that land is, should we say, a premise is a mistake. We can’t proceed, really. If Indians and land are that readily separable, we are simply replicating intellectually, and this is an argument that you have heard from me repeatedly, what has actually been going on, on a military scale, for the last five hundred years. And you know, it is easy enough to cite examples such as Chiapas, or Tepoztlan in Morelos. The reinvention of the Tepozteco identity, to use your language here, has been absolutely important to the resistance of that particular town in Mexico over the last ten or more years to the consequences of the changes in the Mexican constitution made by [the former Mexican President] Salinas in 1992, which effectively tried and did legally put an end to communally-owned land. One of the main reasons the Revolution was fought, notably by Zapata in Morelos, had after all been to establish that communal principle. So, the movement in this case, I would say, has been successful and the capitalists involved – a company called KS from Chicago, financiers and speculators within Mexico, including various members of the national government as well as the State legislature of Morelos – failed. In other words, the Chicago capitalists got scared, the KS scheme was stopped. The scheme was like the Mohawk case, you know, grabbing a lot of land to make a golf course. It is as simple and as brutal as that. And the capacity of this particular place to resist, since I witnessed it I feel more or less confident in this, depended to a large degree on the capacity of this tradition, native or whatever it is, to reinvent itself.

FGH: “Indigenous” and “native.” I am after the assumptions underlying these notions that your most important work has at its core. In trying to decode these notions, I came up with the following synonyms, and please let me know if this is a fair equation. You mean non-West, third-world, subaltern or dominated groups, even though you resist the notion of “subaltern,” “minority” populations or non-white, and I am using the American idiom here quite advisedly, so the fourth world is one subsection inside the third world which is mostly the non-European-USA geography. Is thus “indigenous” or “native” the strategic or euphemistic soundbite when we really mean non-West, not of European stock, third worlds or subordinated worlds of creativity and expressivity?

GB: There is a real clutch of concepts there. “Minority,” I would strike out right away. Because clearly if  you are looking at countries such as Guatemala or Bolivia it’s obviously absurd to speak of Indians as minority. And truly one of the gross kinds of crimes perpetrated against those countries has rested precisely on the absolutely, and a lot of the time wittingly inaccurate use of the term “minority,” it is much more like South Africa, where no one in their right mind ever referred to Blacks as minority.

FGH: But it is certainly a meaningful term in relation to the U.S. for example.

GB: Now within the U.S., yes.

FGH: And also Argentina, etc. This has to do with the proportionality within total populations. So, “minority,” a distinctly USAmerican language, has the undisguised connotation of “non-white.”

GB: It must be my etymological bias. I do not like what has been done with this notion of “minority.” And I do not like what has been done with the notion of the “third world” either, which is originally a Babylonian concept, it is that old!, and in their three-part mappamundi it refered to Africa. I see no harm in remembering that, actually, and of course it is presupposed in the very title Book of the Fourth World. It seems to me that Africa is the most amazing continent about which I am far too ignorant. But the more that I discover, or rather the more I think I discover about the Americas, the more I see differences and probably this is not the place to try and spell them all out. The history of European colonization followed other paths, dates and modes; and the whole question of Arab domination of Africa, typically the big missing piece of the story, was so long-standing and had such a profound effect. Let alone the whole question of slavery and how one starts to think about that. I mean, there are patterns developing in the African continent in agriculture, urban settlement, recording systems, that differ, it would seem to me anyway, from what happened in the New World. So for the time being, let us keep them separate and respect what has been the separation of Asia, Europe and Africa begun in Babylonian cartography, the model that was shattered only with Columbus, by that categorically new world of America.

About “subaltern,” it is true, it is a bit like “minority”; it’s not so much that one objects, it’s rather how useful these terms can be. “Non-white,” let us leave that one alone. “Non-West,” probably is as close as possible, and also probably leaves the most space for this idea of intellectual traditions which, again going back to a previous point, diversify and invent themselves endlessly but nonetheless have something different about them  in what they choose – and this would be a key point – to profile in identifying their own origins.

FGH: Is the language of “race and ethnicity” the inevitable language that calls attention to non-European, non-white, non-major-metropolitan-language locations inside the rather repressive Eurocentric constructions of the mostly English-only vehicle of the West, as it is often, or perhaps always, articulated in the U.S.? Is it fair to say that your work wishes with “native” or “ethnic” to mean something other than this “Europe,” something other than this “English-only,” something other than this “white-only,” something other than that “West-only” so that any notion whatever of the “West” is not the ultimate model for the whole world?

GB:  Yes of course maybe there are ambitions of that kind deeply lurking. In the first instance it could be put down as innocuously and simply as an intellectual exercise, you know, for the purposes of discussion, of course not just that at all, but in answer to your question or what I understood to it be, it is something like this that, if we are talking about the West, we are talking about an intellectual construction, and one of the things about it is that it is pretty exclusive. I mean, it does not really leave much more room for others and in the case of some “others,” none whatsoever at a certain intellectual level. I mean, the condition of being other is that you are less intelligent and that you are actually perceived, in a Cartesian sense, by the thing that makes the other the other. You know, it is the perfect Cartesian syllogism and that is what I deeply resist, or wish to resist. It’s a question that has political and ideological extensions of course also in everyday life, as you have suggested, particularly in this country too. This is absolutely right. That example that we took, trying to talk about genesis instead of saying “well we’ve got these Western ideas now, let us go and see at these other ideas…” Actually to start with this “other,”  in quotation marks, and make them “the” ideas,” the yardstick against which to measure those of the West… it’s a very simple kind of procedure but it is interesting what you can do with it, at least in pedagogical practice.


FGH: And yet this “indigenous construction” is often, always?, passing through the filters of intellibility and legitimation of white-supremacy, US-manufactured Anglo-Eurocentrism, which is a crafty second-hand version here in the U.S. It is in this case a nice  Englishman like you raising the indigenous flag in the U.S., a first-class foreign nationality in this setting. Should we make a big fuss about the nationality thing or not?

GB: It is quite wicked, isn’t it? I think I sense what you are after, though don’t know whether we should go own that path, go there, as they say in this country. No doubt having an English accent, a Cambridge background, and so on, enables you perhaps to do things in the US that were you a Latino worker from South San Francisco it’d be much harder to do, appalling as this is. I’d add though that in the English brigade in America not all the company is necessarily bad. Even Wallace and Darwin have their moments. D.H.Lawrence  identified America’s revolution with its Indian soul, as Artaud recognized; and in his essay on American literature he acutely relates Puritanism to expressed guilt, or lack of it, about  killing Indians.  Graham Greene involved himself passionately in the continent, though through one of his characters he preferred Jane Austin to Palenque and he himself could to the end never be reconciled with Mexico’s Revolution. Not Evelyn Waugh, though the humor in A Handful of Dust can be infectious and may be directed more at English gentility than at an Arawak taste for Dickens. Aldous Huxley, and Francis, excellent stock, just like Alex Cockburn now, son of the upper-class communist Claude bathed by the Amazon.

FGH: But it is still not easy to generate “native” meanings in the home of the brave. The complicated issue of institutional outlet. If Octavio Paz in Las Peras del Olmo labelled the colonial period the bastard daughter of all (national) traditions, the proto-colonial “indigenous or Third World” dimension, I would like to insist, passing through Western expansionism and colonialism, must surely be near. Are there comfortable places for this kind of research? Take two places that are built “near” the notion of native or indigenous Americas: the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, mostly devoted to pre-1776 East Coast USA, and take Dumbarton Oaks in Washington doing mostly “indigenous” pre- or proto-colonial archeology in Latin America, but not literature. I doubt that these two institutions are ever going to intersect vigorously as regards the indigenous American dimension. I have attended events in both places and the institutional language does not quite push the envelope of the grand frame of colonization, Western expansionism, USA supremacy, etc. In both institutions, one can almost smell a non-Spanish or even an anti-Spanish stance. Only marginal interest at best in the Spanish colonization of North America in the former. Only marginal interest to put it midly in the colonial or Spanish colonization of those archeological sites in the latter. Isn’t it somewhat ironic, as Americans would put it, that your work is situated institutionally with “Spanish” flags in both Indiana and Stanford? Is this meaningful in any way?

GB: To be honest, I don’t quite get the Spanish-y impulse in this, may I pass?

FGH: I do not know if you will accept this: your most important work is about America and also your work displays a nativist or indigenista disposition, which is also an almost naturalized, even cliched stance, among some Latinamericanist practitioners, let us call them left-leaning. How could we enrich and bring dynamism to the “native” category? I am quite aware of how different institutions construct differently the notion of the indigenous dimension. How would you differentiate your own work from other practitioners who are also into the business of trying to pay respect to the intellectual dimension in indigenous America, for example [Miguel] López-Portilla, Walter D. Mignolo, José Rabasa, or any other names that may come to you?

GB: Names I feel close to certainly include the three you have just mentioned.  Miguel López-Portilla’s career has been exemplary in quite specific ways. He started as the student of Garibay, deducing  “Aztec Thought and Culture” from 16th-century Nahuatl texts; that work, originally entitled La filosofía nahuatl estudiada en sus fuentes (1956), was deemed unacceptable as “philosophy” by the UNAM Faculty of Filosofía y Letras – a further evidence of the Western presumption we touched on earlier – and so he moved over to history. He has kept moving ever since, deepening his notions of text to include the codices written in native script. In tandem with this he has become ever more vocal as a public figure in defending indigenous groups who are being invaded and threatened in Mexico today. A dedication and achievement one can only envy. Walter Mignolo is a reference you and I historically share, as I’m sure this conversation will go on making apparent. A major statement, Writing without Words (1994) has the disadvantages of its advantages, that is, it has great range but no core agenda; without always detailing how and why, it moves between cultures in America, and America’s intellectual traditions (a concept not developed as such), and despite the “writing’ in the title has curiously little new to say about the notion and properties of script as such. For his part,  José Rabasa has done fine close readings of codices that engage with the Christian and Western impact in general, espousing as it were the local point of view, and he of course has questioned the whole Western “invention” of America. We met at one of the Essex Sociology of Literature conferences, a first encounter neither of us remembers particularly well, there was after all a lot going on.

To the three names you mentioned it’s easy to add others. Angel Rama, Antonio Cornejo-Polar, Jean Franco, Gerald Martin, Martin Lienhard, William Rowe, Peter Hulme, the list could be lengthened. I suppose while distinguishing one’s work has never been an overriding priority of mine, as a result of these contacts and friendships, I feel both agreement, and certain differences; it would take all night to go through both, so let’s take just a few instances. For example, in relation to left-leaning, I follow Cornejo-Polar, Rama, Lienhard in taking transculturación more from José María Arguedas than Ortiz yet I feel even more desire for literary text, and find myself quibbling about this continuity thing. For Lienhard for example, everything before 1500 differs categorically from everything after. Possible lines of connection appear to be denied as it were in principle, and I take this to be part of the Marxist deal, which in most respects I suppose we’d take as given . With Gerald Martin, Asturias’s Hombres de Maíz may serve as a reference, along with the lesser or greater emphasis each of us would place on the role of text in the conversion we discussed, that occurred after Asturias read and translated the Popol Vuh, when his attitudes towards the Maya people changed radically. How much emphasis is put on native text in that story would be the question. An Andeanist, William Rowe has an acute sense of poetry, in English and Quechua as well as Spanish, and perhaps for that reason I find myself being instructed by him and rarely disagreeing. At the same time Rowe was a main driving force behind the founding of Travesía, now known under the less pretty title Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies. This initiative was the first outside Latin America to focus critical attention on this subject, a fact rather grudgingly acknowledged by certain US-based colleagues. In its day, Jean Franco’s The Modern Culture of Latin America (1964) was a landmark for us all in Britain. Peter (Hulme) came to Essex from Leeds to do his doctorate with Jean but in the meantime she had left for Stanford so he was stuck with me. You can see the signs of our long-standing collaboration in an edition of Borges (1976) which was recently revised and republished, in one or two articles, and in the volumes that emerged from the Essex Sociology of Literature conferences which he and Francis Barker and others organized in the 1980s (and which drew in the likes of Jameson, Spivak, Belsey, Norris, ….).

Central to all this is the process of mediation, the idea of the direct window. If we as a group look at a page or a chapter of a book that was written definitely before there can have been any question of Western influence, we can actually read together, you know, according to certain principles that you can learn to some degree but which are agreed on for the most part among those who have been looking at these books for longer. In so doing, you can inform yourself, you can gain insights into the world out of which this text is emerging and these may be tiny, imperfect, inconsequential, sometimes even incomprehensible in terms of their larger significance in that world, but they all have the great virtue of immediacy. Putting such emphasis on this experience, on this order of close reading, is not something I am aware others insist on so much.



Note: Design, transcription, editing by Fernando Gómez Herrero for the original project titled Foreign Sensibilities. Gordon Brotherston added his own corrections and additions to the original transcript in the following months after the interview was taped. The interview took place while we were both working in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, Stanford University. The conversation took place on January 22-24, 2002. The edited version of the complete conversation has the final date of May 25, 2002. This is a manageable portion of the final version for Culture Bites.