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How the Discovery of the New World Changed the Old,
This review is from: European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism (Paperback)
Anthony Pagden's 1993 book, "European Encounters with the New World," is a socio-cultural historical study of the ways and means by which the 'discovery' of the New World left indelible impressions upon the Old World. The book revolves around European attempts from Columbus in 1492, to Alexander von Humboldt, in 1799, to understand what the discovery meant - from how Europeans thought about the New World itself, its original inhabitants, and whether any approach could sufficiently provide them with an understanding of themselves in light of the discovery. Concerned with the themes of 'newness,' 'authority,' and the seeming impasse of 'cultural incommensurability,' Pagden very clearly lays out the stakes for a wide range of disparate, often conflicting European ideas about what America meant in the Early Modern Period. Pagden's approach was at once comfortable to me - he works almost exclusively with the products of cultural production - letters, histories, philosophy, dialogues, and fiction. Subtly, Pagden as a historian seems to dispense with a radical dependence on statistics and data, in favor of a history of representation. One strength of the book is that it works, simultaneously, as informed and interesting literary criticism and as a cultural and intellectual history.
Chapter 1 takes on the history of European encounters with the New World at the level of the processes by which Europeans actually came into contact with the New World. From Columbus through Humboldt, Pagden argues, a 'principle of attachment' governed these encounters. In order for a traveller, migrant, colonist (and other varieties all finely delineated) to come to grips with the alienness of the new world - he first attempts a kind of mental transference, mapping the startlingly new with familiar forms, from rocks to native people. This is the attempt, which haunts Early Modern Europe, of trying to make the incommensurable commensurable with European experience and epistemology, which comes out of an explicit history of textual interpretation. Beyond the individual experience of America, the next problem, as Pagden sees it, is how to relate these wholly unique experiences to Europeans in Europe. In light of the tradition of textual interpretation, which depended upon the Bible, the Church Fathers, and finally the Ancients - all of whom the very concept of a 'new' continent is beyond conception - how does a person legitimize and authenticate his experience and make it legible? Using the writings of contemporary Spanish writers and missionaries, principally Las Casas and Oviedo, Pagden argues that a new tradition of 'autopsy,' which he defines as appeal to the authority of the eyewitness. In line with recent developments in philosophy, the time was ripe for such a literature in which a named narrator claimed the truth of his observations. However, according to Pagden, as the Early Modern Period continued, the focus on observational authority became increasingly dependent on concomitant claims to objectivity.
Chapter 3 deals with the reckoning which the discovery of the New World brought to bear on religious and intellectual history, and how the intellectual establishment coped and adapted to the assault on the integrity of its big three - the Bible, Chruch Fathers, and Ancients. Pagden also takes up the developing mythos surrounding Christopher Columbus - they way that images of Columbus as a 'culture-hero' shift and change from Columbus' own time through Humboldt's appropriation of him. Chapter 4 finds Pagden dealing with the linguistic encounters between the Old and New Worlds - the ways in which European languages found difficulties relating their authority, political and religious to natives and their own languages. It also takes up issues of temporality - how the Old World envisioned its investment in the New World as providing a peek into some kind of common human history. Chapter 5, centering around Diderot's "Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage," Humboldt's "Kosmos," and the writings of Herder examines the way in which Enlightenment and early Romantic writers represents the difficulties inherent in crossing into New World spaces. 18th century debates range from vehement anti-colonialist discourse, to absolute incommensurability, to the impossibility of a universal good, to Humboldt's belief that he was the objective explorer that the European imagination had been awaiting since Columbus.
Dealing only briefly with developments in critical theory over the past 20 or so years prior to 1993, including post-colonial studies, Pagden acknolwedges the use of studies which claim the 'other' is always a construction. Similar omissions, acknowledged or not, include the absence of African slaves, and sustained emphasis on commercial and religious discourses from his cultural history. On the whole though, Pagden's clear writing style and deep engagement with his cultural source materials, spanning different languages and historical moments is impressive, informative, and highly entertaining.
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