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The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other

14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0806131375
ISBN-10: 0806131373
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Editorial Reviews


"Among the most interesting and genuinely illuminating studies of the discovery of America to have been published for many years." -- -- Times Literary Suplement

"An ethical interpretation of history." -- -- Le Monde

"Compelling...fascinating and engaging book." -- -- The New York Times Book Rebiew --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 274 pages
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press (March 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0806131373
  • ISBN-13: 978-0806131375
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #447,361 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 54 people found the following review helpful By mrgrieves08 on June 29, 2002
Format: Paperback
In The Conquest of America Todorov delves deeply into the dark consequences (intended and unintended) of the European discovery of the Americas and represents the first important study of the influence of religious belief on the interactions beginning with Columbus with the "savage" Other. While many people attempt to dismiss the religious aspect of this relationship, but as Todorov shows it is central to understanding the dynamics of European conquest and the ultimate fate of the "New World's" indigenous inhabitants. Both in his letters and his diary Christopher Columbus repeatedly expresses his primary purpose as a religious one. Perhaps, due to the obvious problems for the Catholic Church that this represents this motive has taken a backseat to the supposed thirst for gold that has overshadowed the religious roots of this horrific tragedy ever since.
An important aspect of Todorov's thesis is his well-supported claim that it was precisely the claim to European racial superiority that the Christianity strongly reinforced[es] provided justification for the actions of the Spanish, even in its most severe manifestation. In fact, Todorov invokes the unimaginably horrible image of Catholic priests bashing Indian baby's heads against rocks, ostensibly to save them from damnation to Hell, which their "savage" culture would have otherwise consigned them to.
The logic of this deed and other like them illustrates the pernicious influence of Christianity in the Colonial project, which lies at the root of the hegemonic self-image of Western experience-first defined from the perspective of Columbus and Cortez.
If religion was a guiding principle in the lives of the conquerors, as Todorov points out, so to was it for the conquered, especially in the case of the Aztecs.
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54 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Min Byong Chang on February 25, 2003
Format: Paperback
Tvetan Todorov's The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other perpetuates a number of the myths that surround the Spanish collision with the "New World".
Todorov reinforces the myth that the Aztecs believed the Spanish were gods, an idea that springs from the accounts of Diaz and from the earliest Indian accounts, all which were written over 30 years after the described events, by people without access to the inner workings of the Mexican court. The Indian accounts, written under Catholic supervision, do not relate to the "what happened" as much as they do to the "what should have happened." These Indians would not have known what happened and would have been well-versed in the accounts of their Spanish masters. The idea that Montezuma thought they were gods seems to be a good way for the Indians to explain what they did not understand.
Mistranslations of Indian words also account for this myth. Teotl, mistranslated by the Spanish to mean "god", more closely means "weird" or "strange". Todorov relies heavily on this myth to advance his thesis of miscommunication.
Todorov also falls into the trap of believing that the Aztecs were frozen by their obsession with signs and with astrology. He believes that the Aztecs were dominated by a past-oriented tradition whereas the Spanish were the only participants able to adapt. He argues that the Spanish use of written words gave them an ability that the oral-tradition based Aztecs did not. Reality, however, suggests that the Aztecs were very good at improvisation, especially during battle. Within the first few encounters with their Spanish enemies, the Aztecs learned how to beat horseman, how to avoid being hit by cannons, and that the Spanish were not impressed with tactics designed to frighten and demoralize the enemy.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By M. A Michaud on November 30, 2001
Format: Paperback
This study of cultural confrontation between the Spanish and the Indian peoples of Central America and the Caribbean, subtitled "The Question of the Other," is a true work of scholarship. The author, who has read deeply into primary sources in Spanish, explains the intellectual questions he is addressing, particularly concerning cross-cultural communication and the use of symbols. He concludes that the Spanish advantage lay more in those areas than it did in military technology. While the book is predictably critical of Spanish treatment of the Indians, it also persuades the reader that Hernan Cortez was a very clever man. Illustrations from the period are interspersed throughout the text. This book requires sustained attention, and is not for the casual reader. Michael Michaud, Vienna, Austria
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Rod Pepper on March 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
More than a simple history of the conquest of America, this book exposes many of the semiotic mechanisms that worked in favour of the conquistadors, and explains how the mighty Aztecs fell before a relatively small number of invaders. The narrative of the conquest of America serves as a sort of case study to illustrate Todorov's ideas concerning the Other, and ample supporting evidence is given from the writings of Columbus, Cortes, several Spanish historians of the period, and even some of the Aztecs' writings. The Conquest of America explores what happens when cultures collide, and signs loose their meaning. For example, and Aztec generals possess a special uniform that is designed to strike terror in to the hearts of the enemy, while for the Spanish, who are clearly not as supersitious as the Aztecs' former enemies, these special uniforms simply serve as a very clear sign indicating which soldiers to attack first. By targeting the commanders, Cortes quickly puts the defending army to rout. These miscues between the Spanish and the Aztecs occur at all levels: religious, linguistic, social, and in terms of general world view. Again and again both the Aztec and the invaders are unable to overcome (if that's the word) their inability to see what is happening around them through anything but their traditional frame of reference. When confronted with a new situation (i.e. a new continent, a new aggressor), each party proves unwilling to adapt, with grave consequences for the indigenous populations of Mexico. There are many lessons here for a world where globalization of trade and communication are bringing cultures into contact and, too often, conflict. A very enjoyable, eye-opening read.
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