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America Illusion And Reality

July 2024
10min read

No event in the history of Western man provided so profound a shock as the discovery of America

Christopher Columbus is depicted landing in the West Indies, on an island that the natives called Guanahani and he named San Salvador, on October 12, 1492.

America was an experience man could only have once. Knowledge of China, knowledge of Africa, festooned as it was with the Spanish moss of myth and legend, had penetrated Europe from the days of Imperial Rome and beyond. When discovered, the animals of Australasia were stranger by far than America’s, and the aborigines and the bushmen of Tasmania were more primitive, even more uniformly naked than the Caribs whose appearance was so startling to Columbus. By then the strangeness of the Americas had destroyed the sense of novelty. There could only be one New World.

When confronted by novelty, men try to domesticate what is strange and alien; they attempt to fit the exotic into their cherished intellectual schemes and to absorb it into their interpretation of the world and its past. They retain, as it were, a husk of strangeness in which to take delight, or to weave fantasies, or worse still to construct rationalizations of their own evil intentions. The discovery of America had all of these effects and more, for no event in the history of Western man provided so profound a shock to the imagination or to the mind. And yet one might argue that the most important results of this discovery were far more mundane—maize, tobacco, gold, fur—the never-ending abundance of the land that led to the rape of a continent which became a golden pasture for human locusts.

Columbus, amazed, unsure, reluctant to accept that he was not in the Indies, found it easier to fit the Caribs into the legend of the Golden Age. As Peter Martyr, the friend of Columbus, wrote in the early 1500’s, they “seem to live in that golden world of which old writers speak so much, wherein men lived simply and innocently without enforcement of laws, without quarrelling, judges and libels, content only to satisfy nature.” This was the beginning of that ever-lengthening legend of the innocence of America which shifts from island to the mainland, from Caribs to noble Indian chiefs. It took many centuries to die; indeed, it is hardly dead yet, for nowadays the innocence has been transferred to the wilderness, to the desert, to the primitive land still unscarred in the West.

The theory that the naked Caribs lived in innocent bliss was soon dispelled. The Spaniards learned with horror that the Caribs hung up the hams of men and women to cure in the sun like sides of bacon. They relished the taste of human flesh; for them it was a gourmet’s revenge on an enemy. When the Spaniards began to root themselves inefficiently in Hispaniola, the denizens of the Golden Age rapidly became subhuman. The Spaniards stressed their cannibalism, their nakedness, their fornication, and their frequently deviant and public sexuality. This savage paganism made their salvation imperative and their servitude justifiable.

The Caribs wanted neither salvation nor servitude. Killed, hunted, tortured, beaten, and worked to death, they soon began to vanish, until genocide was virtually accomplished. Today scarcely any remain, but before they almost totally disappeared they had woven themselves into the imagination of Europe, as Hugh Honour has shown us in his recent book The New Golden Land , which is a brilliant discussion of the way the discovery of America haunted the European artistic imagination.

These Caribs, however, did more than stimulate the imagination. The brutal treatment accorded to them unleashed the passion of Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose bitter pen damned Spanish cruelty to a believing world of French, British, Germans, and Dutch—who, however, behaved no better themselves once they got a foothold in the New World. But Las Casas’ fiery words and the undeniable truth of his tale of the brutalities, the killing, the torturing, and the wholesale destruction of primitive peoples started an enduring theme in America’s history that still resonates in our own day. It is a long, bloody, bitter, and sad road that leads from Hispaniola to the slaughter at Wounded Knee or the atrocities in the forests of Brazil. Innocence and betrayal, fascination and disgust, illusion and reality, these have so often been the dual response of Europeans to the primitive peoples of America.

The discovery of America led to an appalling destruction of human life—probably over twenty million died in a half century—a fact all too rarely depicted in the artistic vision of America. It was the strangeness, the exotic nature of the people, the ornaments, their color that entranced the artist. They might pose them like classical heroes, but they dressed them in their own feather headdresses and feathered skirts or left them stark naked. For the first two decades these natives remained amorphous, exotic yet somewhat unreal, like strange Europeans. Many artists who painted them had never seen an Indian, although from Columbus’ first voyage a few men and women had been ripped from their homes to be displayed as curiosities in the courts of Europe.

It was only quite late in the sixteenth century that Indians were depicted more accurately, placed in more exact settings, and their customs, dances, and villages shown with some appreciation of reality. John White’s water colors of the Indians of Virginia, among whom he lived briefly in 1585-6, show greater precision and accuracy, even though he refrained from depicting the more primitive and savage of their customs. A Frenchman, Jacques Le Moyne, had been far more candid in his sketches of Florida Indians, but true realism had to wait until the seventeenth century, when two fine Dutch painters—Frans Post and Albert Eckhout—painted Brazilian landscapes and people exactly and vividly. And yet the art of fantasy in European paintings of Indians was not eradicated for centuries; even Delacroix in the early nineteenth century could paint Indians who looked like well-bred Europeans in fancy dress. The tradition of realism started by John White developed more slowly and only reached its apogee with Catlin, Bodmer, and Rosa Bonheur, just before the genocide of the Indians had begun in earnest.

It was not only the exoticism of the people that both entranced and horrified Europeans. Columbus had gone in search of riches, of the fabulous Cathay. The Spaniards wanted gold. And they found it, bountifully in Mexico and beyond their wildest hopes in Peru; and the gold in the end led to the mountains of silver in Potosi and Taxco. This success in the search for riches came slowly. There were very barren decades, so that every object that was rich and exotic to look at was valuable as propaganda in the courts of Europe, which had to finance the early voyages of exploration and colonization. So the splendors of Central and South American civilizations were soon on their way to Europe—the great golden disks, the brilliant featherwork cloaks, the terrifying death masks in jade and greenstone, works that when Albrecht Dürer saw them in Brussels made him marvel at “the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands.”

To the emperors they were indicators of riches to come, not works of art, and the golden vases, fountains, and animals that passed into the court of Charles V were quickly melted down for the money he always lacked. The feather cloaks were thrown away or left to rot in the attics of his palaces. Only a few men of taste or of obsessive curiosity found a home for them in their cabinets, and today only a handful of objects survive from the first century of European discovery.

Among the earliest collectors to appreciate the singularity and beauty of Mexican art were the emperor Ferdinand 1 (who died in 1564) and his two sons; the extraordinary Rudolph II, a patron of everything exotic; and not surprisingly, perhaps, the greatest family of art patrons in Italy—the Medici, who as early as 1539 had brought together, as Hugh Honour reminds us, forty-four pieces of featherwork as well as carved masks and animals in semiprecious stone. Perhaps the strangest fate of any American object in the sixteenth century was that of a Mexican obsidian disk that fell into the hands of John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician, who used it to conjure up spirits. It was, however, the common objects, novel to Europe yet totally adaptable, that were most quickly diffused—the first being the hammock, unknown to European gardens and ships until discovered in the West Indies; equally adaptable but later in time came the canoe of the American Indians and the kayak of the Eskimos.

Just as amazing to Columbus as the inhabitants of the West Indies were the flora and fauna of the New World. Some, of course, were easy to assimilate. The rather subdued colored parrots of Africa had been greatly prized possessions of the Europeans in the late Middle Ages, but the brilliant colored parrots of Brazil rapidly replaced them. These were represented as early as 1502 in Europe and appeared in a painting by Carpaccio, the Venetian artist, as early as 1507. Along with hummingbirds and Mexican quail, they were used as brilliant decorative motifs in the Loggetta of Raphael at the Vatican.

Hugh Honour has demonstrated the astonishing speed with which the artists of the Renaissance seized upon American birds and animals as well as Indians to use as dramatic motifs in their painting and sculpture. The turkey—now the all-pervasive Christmas dish of English families—reached Europe almost as quickly as the parrot. It was bred in Spain shortly after 1500, and the bird had reached Britain by 1525. Ironically, a hundred years after its discovery by Columbus the turkey had reached the East Indies. But it was the odder birds and animals that excited the most curiosity—the iguana, which was thought to be a dragon, discovered at last; the armadillo, whose true nature baffled scholars for decades; the opossum, which was the first marsupial known to Europeans; and the tapir and the llama, both of which defied description.

More important than the attempt to describe and to draw the birds, animals, and plants was the impact of their variety on the development of European botany and zoology. Knowledge of the new animals had reached Europe, along with specimens, from time to time. The rhinoceros had made a vivid impression on Europe, but Europeans had never been subjected to such a flood of wholly new birds, animals, fruits, vegetables, trees, and flowers as they were from the New World between 1500 and i55o. And it was this variety, its strangeness, and, at times, its marvelous adaptability and usefulness that led to the beginning of a scientifically precise observation—indeed, the beginning of botany and zoology as we know them.

The flora had a far greater impact than the birds and animals, so few of which could be domesticated. Maize, which could easily be grown in Europe, was exploited at once; within ten years of its discovery it was being cultivated in Italy, where it transformed Italian agriculture. Similarly, cassava, which reached West Africa very shortly after the Portuguese discovery of Brazil, had a like dramatic effect. The potato, which took far longer to establish itself as a crop rather than as a curiosity, ultimately had a more profound effect on European history than maize. The high nutritious quality of the potato enabled the European, particularly the Irish peasant, to maintain himself and his family on tinier and tinier garden plots. Millions of men and women depended on a single crop, and the disastrous potato blight of the nineteenth century destroyed the population in a monstrous famine in 1845 and, in an ironic twist of history, sent tens of thousands of starving Irish to find a new life and a new hope in America.

The contributions of the flora of the Americas to the enrichment of Europe is nearly endless; foods such as tomatoes, tapioca, chocolate, pineapples, avocados, runner beans, Jerusalem artichokes, passion fruit, and many more: flowers now common in Europe, such as morning-glory, nasturtium, dahlia, and the tobacco plant, the most dangerous and deadly of all the plants to reach not only Europe but the entire globe, certainly one of the greatest of all hazards to human health. It was thought oddly enough to be deadly and dangerous when first discovered, and no one damned it with greater vehemence than James I of England. But the habit of smoking proved contagious and the profit impossible to resist. The land of America was quickly ravaged by Europe’s addiction to tobacco—and not only America but also Africa, whence came the slave labor needed for its intensive cultivation. What in 1570 was depicted as a delicately beautiful flower decoration of Albrecht V of Bavaria’s prayer book became in less than fifty years a major export for America and a sweeping addiction with traumatic economic and social effects on Africa and Europe.

The potato and tobacco, along with maize, are perhaps the best known of the vegetables that changed the eating and social habits of Europe. What, perhaps, is not such common knowledge is that the great movement in landscape gardening that changed the face of the English countryside in the eighteenth century also owed a great deal to America, above all to Virginia. The Virginian oak was planted by the hundreds of thousands; so were a large number of American pines; and the Magnolia grandiflora became the prize possession of even small gardens. Without the influence of America the English landscape would look quite different today.

However, the mental image of America remained more powerful than the influence upon European artistic expression of its exotic people, plants, and animals, and surely matched even the influence of such exceptional material agents as maize, the potato, or tobacco. America remained for centuries the only New World. When the northern colonies established the first federal republic, at whose birth the liberties and rights of men were proclaimed as inalienable, another New World was born, as potent as that discovered by Columbus. A new political world had come into being, utterly distinct from anything Europe had known before—and one that created as entrancing an illusion as the civilizations the conquistadors had discovered.

To the poor and downtrodden peasants and workers of Europe it held out a new hope, a glittering image of riches and freedom. It is easy to forget the bitterness and brutalities of the ghettos of Europe or the starvation and deprivation that the wretched villagers of Greece and Italy suffered. It was their despair that eventually drove them to the coffin ships in which thousands died as they made the Atlantic crossing. The reality they found in America was harsher: hunger stalked on the Lower East Side; once more deprivation for many became part of their lot in life. And yet there was a reality in the illusion. There was more liberty, more social hope in America than in the lands they had quitted. There still is, in spite of the black ghettos and the long-enduring memory of slavery. The destruction of primitive peoples and slavery are the harsh realities of the American experience, for whose nakedness the Constitution, with its proud declaration of liberty, proved so pathetic a rag. So often illusion provided hope, reality the fate. And yet whatever the American experience might be, it remained for most Europeans an exotic continent.

After Buffalo Bill’s fabulous success small boys in Riga, in Manchester, in Lyon, in Milan, played for generation after generation at cowboys and Indians; in the twentieth century Hollywood provided the dreams for the masses, and Disney captured the imagination of the child. No longer a fairyland of exotic peoples, animals, and plants, America has created a new world of fantasy.

In the lives of children, in the dream time of adolescents, even in the sexual expectations of the adult world, America still feeds Europe with its illusions. As with the illusions of the past, a harsher reality is always breaking in: the drugs, the dropouts, the divorces. Perhaps the tobacco plant with its vivid flowers, intoxicating scent, and deadly leaves should be the enduring symbol of that strange combination of illusion and reality with which America has continued to haunt Europe since its discovery.

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