Adorno, Rolena. The Polemics of Possession in Spanish American Narrative.
In The Polemics of Possession in Spanish American Narrative, Rolena Adorno offers an in depth appraisal of colonial writings to explain the pervasiveness of these texts in contemporary Latin American literary culture. She explores the manner in which colonial historians and polemicists left an intellectual legacy of issues pertaining to colonial legislation, just war, territoriality, and Amerindian rights. Adorno explains: "This study poses two main questions: What did the writers of the sixteenth century have to say on the subject of the polemics of Spanish territorial possession of the Indies? Does it matter today?" (3). In twelve chapters that include a comprehensive overview of the field, a lucid discussion of her critical approach, and critical issues underpinning her reading of sixteenth-century chronicles, Adorno makes the case for the intellectual significance of the cronicas. Essential to the rethinking of the early history and culture of the Spanish Americas is how Guaman Poma de Ayala, Bartolome de las Casas, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, and El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega participated in an intellectual dialog that provided a central strand of contention that has resurfaced across time and space, particularly during the nineteenth century as the idea of the nation was defined and later recovered in twentieth-century historical fiction.
Adorno argues that the colonial intellectual legacy embraced through generations of intellectuals is part of a process of cultural self definition coterminous with the emergence of a critical attitude towards colonialism. She begins by clearing the field of commonly held misunderstandings of the polemics fueled by the protagonists and authors on whom she focuses. Chapter 3, "Bartolome de las Casas: Polemicist and Author," is an obligatory reading for anyone interested in this sixteenth-century advocate of Amerindians rights. Adorno highlights the centuries of misreading and misinterpretations that have prevailed in the historical assessments of Las Casas. Revisiting colonial writings as a form of political and social practice, Adorno ably validates him as the central intellectual figure of the most important debates that define the sixteenth century's European contact with indigenous societies of the Americas. She reminds us of how Las Casas initiated a polemic that is central today in discussions of human rights, equality, and in the critique of the many forms of neocolonialism prevalent across the hemisphere. Most impressive in this book is Adorno's provocative reading of primary and secondary sources about this crucial figure, which support her arguments of how Las Casas has been represented in history and fiction. As shown in this chapter and the rest of the book, we cannot read sixteenth-century texts in isolation since they reflect the intellectual milieu of their times and the persistence of the debates in which they participated; this dialog is precisely what lies at the center of Adorno's project.
The challenges, successes and shortfalls of these historians are well represented in chapter four, "Councilors Warring at the Royal Court," which deals with the infamous debate on the humanity of the Amerindian populations and the justification of war and Spanish domination. If we take into account Anthony Padgen's critical positions on Juan Gines de Sepulveda's views or, those by George Mariscal, this chapter could be considered the most polemical part of this book. Adorno argues for a different perspective on Sepulveda's views on indigenous societies by explaining how, while supporting the policies of empire, he presented a humanist perspective on the nature of Amerindian populations that was very similar to those of Las Casas, an imperialist viewpoint that was not as evil as it has been depicted. Adorno revisits Sepulveda's positions in his Democrates Secundus (or Tratado de las justas guerras) to elucidate the arguments that form the basis of early discussions on the justification of military power, sovereignty and individual rights. At the core of these lie Sepulveda's definition of natural slavery and the understanding of what it meant to be human, "the constellation of virtues that accompanies the plentitude of the exercise of rationality" (116). For Adorno, Sepulveda did not propose that Amerindians needed to be enslaved, but that they needed to enter into the natural hierarchy modeled by the domestic administration of the household. In other words, his proposals were not as derogatory towards the Indians as have been acknowledged, but they are the result of the political culture of the period and his understanding of Aristotle.
Another clear example of fresh new insights into colonial historiography is found in Chapter 6, "The Encomendero and His Literary Interlocutors." The analysis of the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva Espana engages with Bernal Diaz del Castillo's intertexts in his recasting of the encounters, battles, and role of the soldiers in the conquest of the Aztec empire. The author's readings of the writings of Juan Gines de Sepulveda, Francisco Lopez de Gomara and Bartolome de las Casas to persuade the members of the Spanish Court and councils are essential as he offers his testimony and constructs his authority. As it is demonstrated, his authority is derived from what he had learned from the juridical tradition and not his role as participant and eyewitness of the events he narrates. Most of the criticism of Diaz del Castillo reinforces this latter point.
Other important chapters are devoted to the exploration of American borderlands (Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca), the exotic representation of the Amerindian (Bernardino de Sahagun and Jose de Acosta), and the fictionalization of the experience of shipwreck and subsequent transculturation (Gonzalo Guerrero). In each one of them, Adorno shows the complex and polemical nature of the colonial accounts from a comparative perspective that demonstrates that the interpretation of these texts is incomplete if we don't consider the widespread circulation of ideas and texts that informed each of the political and personal agendas that framed these accounts.
The coalescence of Las Casas's ideas and arguments is evident in the last chapter, "Seeing Ghosts: The Longevity of the Serpent of Sandals." After analyzing Alejo Carpentier and Reinaldo Arenas's historical fiction, Adorno concludes by asserting how the "Lascasian shade" still permeates the interpretation of history, critiques of colonial violence and the longing for independence represented in the fictional reconstructions of Columbus and Servando Teresa de Mier's itineraries.
The chapters of The Polemics of Possession in Spanish American Narrative elaborate an intellectual geography and genealogy where Lascasian thought sits at the core. She demonstrates how these key historians departed from his ideas to engage on discussions of the right to conquest, treatment of the Indians or the justification or denunciation of European political power. Adorno's contribution also points to the importance of the situated nature of these discourses where representations and underlying meanings are deeply influenced by the moment and place of their production.
Adorno brings to a close this book by stating: "contemporary fiction reaffirms the vitality of Spanish American sixteenth century polemics of possessions and its capacity to be transformed and become pertinent in our own day" (324). In what manner did early transatlantic geopolitics, a key critical issue in the understanding of empire and colonialism, permeate and feed the ideology of Spanish American colonial texts and its impact on Spanish American literature? This important question gets an answer in this outstanding study that explores the transcendence of Las Casas, whose efforts against violence and the European exercise of power form the core of the polemics of possession.
University of Kansas
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|Title Annotation:||Rolena Adorno|
|Date:||May 1, 2011|
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