X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.

How is it possible, from a time of disorientation, hatred of the "other", and possessiveness, to keep the capacity for wonder from being poisoned?


Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Stephan Greenblatt, professor of English at the University of California Berkeley, author of Marvelous Possessions, ?Learning to ?Curse, and several other distinguished works. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Greenblatt. How did Christopher Columbus know that the islands he stumbled on were the possessions of the Spanish queen?

SG: Well, of course he didn't know. It's one of the unresolved mysteries of the history of the period and of Columbus that he clearly thought he was in the outskirts of China, of the Empire of the Grand Khan, and there's a discrepancy that's never been resolved, that ?has ?exercised historians for centuries now, a discrepancy between, on the one hand, Columbus carrying diplomatic papers to present to the court of the Great Khan, in ?Hangchow, where he thought he was heading, and an authorization to take possession of those lands that he would discover. What the relationship was between those lands, which presumably they imagined were there for the taking, and the presentation of diplomatic papers at the court of the Chinese emperor has never been sorted out, although there are many theories that ?still have it sorted out, I mean usually involving one or the other side being a lie. But I myself, I'm not an historian and don't have a theory about this, but I'd like to sort of step back from that question, which at the moment, as far as I can tell, is unresolvable, and just try to figure out at least what he says went on when he first encountered the island, known as Watlings Island, but that the Indians called Guanahani.

MP: What was the state of mind of Europe in terms of strangeness of the world that shaped the way Columbus viewed it, when he came upon this island and the natives?

SG: I suppose we could say two things. It's crucial that in 1492 two major events happened in relation to others, to difference, in Spain. One was the conquest of Granada, the triumph of the Spanish crown over the Moorish community, which finally fell in the stronghold of Granada in 1492, so it meant the triumph of Christianity over the Moors, and the expulsion of the Jews. So that we have these, Spain had been remarkable as a country in which these three crucial groupsóJews, Christians, and Moslemsóall somehow were living together, often with great tension, but living together. By the end of the fifteenth century, that's over. The Jews have been expelled. Many of course, expelled insofar as they would maintain their Jewishness or otherwise forced to convert, go underground, and the Moors have been defeated. So we have these two others that have been defeated. So, Columbus goes floating out on ships that are highly charged with a national purpose, a sense of triumphant national purpose, that is also highly intolerant. That's a first thing to say. And a second thing to say that sort of sits in a funny relation to that, is that Europeans had for centuries been sort of fascinated in a kind of dreamy, speculative way about the weird things that lay just over the horizon. There were the sort of immediate othersóJews, Moslemsóimmediate if you were, certainly if you were in Spain, Jews if you were in Italy, Genoa let's say, but not Moslems, but in any case, those groups. And then there were the sort of quasi-mythical groups out there, somewhere else. The Indians, the inhabitants of ?Chipango, that is to say Japan, or the odd people from the Andaman Islands that Marco Polo writes about, people with testicles that hang down to the ground, people with the single huge feet that they can put over their heads as umbrellas to shade them from the sun, people with heads that grow beneath their shoulders, people with dog's heads instead of human heads, and so forth and so on. I mean there's an incredible, rich world of fantasy, very ancient, it goes back to the ancient world and elaborated in the Middle Ages, and it's reasonably clear that Columbus went with some expectation that he might encounter such people.

MP: Who are some of the writers and what was the validity of their experience? What did they rely on to validate their descriptions of the people dog's heads?

SG: Well, there are ancient writers, it goes all the way back to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who reports marvels of this kind, always saying that they're hearsay, but saying that in Africa or in the East there are such creatures. And then these stories get solidified, repeated over and over again, stories of people who train ants to go into the ground and bring gold back on their backs and so forth and so on, crazy stories, that get elaborated both in the ancient world and all through the Middle Ages, so that even very sober people, like Marco Polo, who on the whole is interested in the price of things, he's a merchant, how much, price of everything. How much does grain cost? How much does cotton cloth cost? How much does it cost to pinch a temple prostitute in India? And so forth and so on. And he'll record, gives a kind of dollar-and-cents guide to traveling in the East. Even Marco Polo feels it encumbent somehow upon him to report the marvels that lie just out, not in China, but just out on the outer reaches, out by Japan and the Andamans and so forth. And then, the other great medieval writer, fourteenth-century writer, of stories about the East was this strange person known as Sir John Mandeville, author of this odd book Mandeville's Travels, which was the most popular travel book of the Middle Ages and I think probably next to the Bible the most popular book of the Middle Ages. A fantastic, just judging from the number of manuscripts that survive, a fantastic number of manuscripts that indicate an enormous interest in this account basically of the strange things that lie on the other side of the horizon.

MP: I assume Mandeville must have spoken dozens of languages if he was able to go to so many countries and report on them?

SG: Well, he certainly claims he spoke dozens of languages. He even prints alphabets of many of these languages. Unfortunately, the alphabets are largely fantastic, made up. There's no indication actually that in reality, I mean he spoke, any language was likely to be spoken, any languages except French and Latin. And indeed, it's not at all clear, in fact it seems extremely likely that there was no person named John Mandeville. It's probable that the person named John Mandeville is a pseudonym for someone else, totally unknown, possibly someone who put together, stitched together, largely by plagiarism, a set of stories of the fables, the wonders of the East, and it's quite possible that whoever did it never traveled outside the monastic library or his local library in the center of France. Maybe her local library. No one knows anything about the identity of this person, although there've been lots of speculations. But of course, in our period, in the fourteenth, fifteenth centuries, it was taken for granted that such a person existed. And Columbus read Mandeville's Travels, as he read Marco Polo, almost certainly carried the texts of both with him, on his trip, and not as light reading. He clearly carried such books with him because he thought they might be useful, although it seems incredible now that he would think such things would be useful. On the other hand, if you go to St.ÝAlbans, Mandeville's Travels is supposedly written by an English knight, though it's almost certainly not written first in English, and almost certainly not by an English knight, but anyway, the English knight claims to be from St.ÝAlbans, which is just outside of London. And if you go to the cathedral of St.ÝAlbans, there's a very nice plaque to the most famous citizen of St.ÝAlbans, Sir John Mandeville, [laughs lightly], who doesn't exist, so he still is actually playing his little tricks into the twentieth century.

MP: The reason you wrote Marvelous Possessions, and I'm being, I know I'm playing on Sir John Mandeville and his ability to speak languages and his fantastic reports, and his ability to obviously travel in Turkish lands as a Christian [chuckling a little], that is even more outrageous.

SG: If you paid enough money, in the fourteenth century, I mean it was expensive, this was not cheap tourism. If you paid enough money, if you were careful, got permission, it was possible in the fourteenth century to be a pilgrim to the Holy Land. It just was expensive. You were almost certainly going to be ripped off. Not by the, necessarily by the Muslim authorities, Saracen authorities, but there were just endless numbers of deals that had to be struck with Bedouin guides, with this and that, I mean that would enable you to get through, but you could.

MP: But your point, and you became concerned with the Mandeville stories as reported, and the way he authenticated it, with his contacts with the Pope, and the fact that it in fact was a seamless story put together from the previous thousand years.

SG: What fascinated me in Mandeville, it's just a terrific book, by the way, it's just fascinating reading, I mean, because of its, partly just because of its wonderful zaniness, but also because repeatedly in Mandeville you, Mandeville starts by saying, "Look, we Christians have to get the Dome of the Rock back. We need to get the Holy Sepulchre, Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, we need to take our sacred places back. They're ours. And they're possessed by people who don't belong there." That's how it starts. But then as he writes, as he visits the Holy Land, and it starts as a kind of guide to the Holy Land, he begins to admire the Saracens more and more, the Moslems more and more, for their orderliness, for their decency, for the civility of their culture. And to feel more uneasy about the rapacity and aggressiveness and corruption of Christiantiy, and begins to record these criticisms. And then as he moves out beyond the Holy Land, to look at the rest of the world, ............ in this kind of fantastical way, I mean supposedly out to Tibet and China and so forth, he repeatedly encounters people who seem to him disturbing because they turn everything upside down. Black people who think that black is more beautiful than white, which to the author of a fourteenth-century book was an incredible idea. Cannibals who think that their cannibalism is more sacred, and holy, than the Eucharist. People who simply don't, and who seem to have it together, who seem to have lives that are decent, societies in which women have power and men don't. And so forth. And in response to each of these places, he expresses astonishment, marveling, and wondering at what he's seeing. And the point about that wonder is that it is a sign of feeling that you don't have the certain possession of the world and its values. So that, at the climactic moment in Mandeville, when he's describing, as he tells you he's describing Brahmins, he says, "Let no one despise a man for what he believes, for we know not whom God loves, nor whom he hates." Now, that's an amazing thing, for a fourteenth-century European to write. Fourteenth-century Europeans had as much tolerance as they had willingness to bathe, which is to say very little. This was not a culture with a high degree of tolerance for otherness of any kind. And to have someone say as a response to marveling at the other, let's not hate anyone for what he believes, we know not whom God loves, nor whom he hates, is an amazing achievement. So that's why I started with, well, it wasn't exactly where I started, but that's what fascinated me about Mandeville, was the notion that in the fourteenth century, in this tremendously important book, tremendously popular book in any case, you have someone expressing views that are really quite alien to the dominant tone of the culture, which is deeply intolerant, deeply impatient with people who don't believe what you believe in, deeply unwilling to grant the authenticity of cultures other than, or even the existence as alternative cultures, of anything other than what you have yourself. And that's where I start.

MP: So, Columbus had this sense. What happened when he came upon the first people, on the first land that he fell upon?

SG: Well, I'm not sure Columbus did have this sense. I mean, that is to say, Columbus had the book. He came from a culture in which wonder had been used as a sign of what you don't possess, what's not yours. But what fascinates me about Columbus is that in the late fifteenth century, all of this gets reversed, that, possibly in connection with what I mentioned before, the expulsion of the Jews, the triumph in Grenada, a sense of a new kind of, the whole late fifteenth century is a time of a kind of increased especially religious aggressiveness, and also national aggressiveness, not just in Spain, but you can see it in Italy, you can see it in France. There's a much more striking feeling of, well, I mean, you can feel it every, it's not just Catholic, you can feel by 1518 you can see it in Luther, spectacularly. I mean a kind horrible religious aggressiveness, horrible from my point of view, of course. But that it's through those later years of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth, and what happens in Columbus is, he uses the term "marvelous," absolutely constantly, he can't get away from it, it's like a kind of tic. This is marvelous, that's marvelous. But, its central force for him is not to mark what is not his, but to mark what he is about to swallow up for his sovereigns, the king and queen of Spain. "I have taken possession of these lands which God has so marvelously bestowed on us." Where that "marvelously" becomes a sign, not of dispossession, but of possession.

MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Stephan Greenblatt. He's professor of English at the University of California Berkeley. He is author of Marvelous Possessions, Learning to Curse, and several other distinguished works. So far, we've discussed the late fifteenth century, the works of John Mandeville travels of, travel book, and we're talking about the concept of marvelous and the role it played in the taking possession of the New World, particularly the role that played in Columbus's approach. You start with an actual paragraph that Columbus wrote, to get a sense of the marvelous and the possession.

SG: Well, let me not read the whole of it, but just a tiny sentence from it that took me aback, and that in a way is the sort of germ of the book that I have written. He describes arriving at the, the great victory of arriving at the Indies, as he says, "and there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable," that's important because he does not imagine this, this is parenthetically, he doesn't imagine this as an empty land, that you can take possession of because it's not inhabited. He recognizes right from the start, this is the first letter he writes back, that these lands are profoundly populous, profoundly inhabited. They probably had a higher population than they have now because of the devastation and death brought by the European arrival. "They are filled with people innumerable," to return to his words, "and of them all, I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made, and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me." Now, the Spanish, for that last phrase, "no opposition was offered to me," is y no ?mafue contradijo. And I propose that we don't rationalize it by translating it "no opposition was offered to me," but take it literally. "No one contradicted me." But of course that's absurd! Why would, that's why the translator sort of gets away from the literal sense and says "no opposition," and maybe it has a little of that sense, but y no ........... contradijo has its force of "no one contradicted me," but how could anyone contradict him? This was the first moment of contact. How could they have understood a word he said? How could they have understood what those banners were? or what the act was? And of course they couldn't understand. But Columbus was no fool. This is not simply some kind of medieval naÔvetÈ. He's following a legal ritual. He's taking possession of lands by doing the things that you're supposed to do when you're taking possession of lands. And, that act of possession, according to the Roman lawyers, said you can only take possession legally if no one contradicts you. So Columbus says "no one contradicted me." And so it ignores for the moment the fact that no one contradicted him because they couldn't understand, obviously, a word that he said! That's not a contemporary, that is to say twentieth-century perception. The perception that there's something a little funny about that founding act of taking possession of the New World, this is Day One, this is the moment, the moment in which the greatest act of real-estate acquisition in the history of the world begins to unfold. It takes place, as people have pointed out, almost immediately, on the basis of what is clearly an illegal act, because it's fine to say they can't contradict you, but they have to understand what you're saying. And it's my notion, this may not be true, but at least this is where I'm starting, I hope it's true, is that Columbus's insistent, almost obsessive, use of the marvelous is an attempt to fill the gap that he himself knows is there in the legal act. The more he feels, the more he registers the fact that there's something wrong with what he has done, simply, I'm not talking about some wrong morally, I'm thinking now purely legally for the moment, the more he senses that there's something wrong with this act, the more he begins in invoke, frantically invoke the marvelousness of all of this. Because if you're simply buying a piece of real estate, it's not all that marvelous. Or taking possession of it because someone gives it to you, it's not all that marvelous. If you're doing something that, in which something has to be, a threshold has to be crossed, a threshold of absurdity, then, of illegality, then you better have something else besides the pure legal act, you better have something approaching the miraculous. And that's the marvelous.

MP: He uses the word "marvelous" to describe mermaids, and he in fact says the mermaids look much more masculine and they're not even very good looking men. What was the concept of marvelous? and how does it transcend into possession, even given that you take it to an extreme?

SG: Well, the mermaids, the

MP: Thank you for being with us, XXX. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was XXX. Our engineer is Dan Gunning through Western Public Radio. This program is underwritten by Friends of Social Thought. Thank you for being with us on Social Thought today. We hope you'll join us again next week.

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   F     Û ÞSG: Well, the mermaids is, the ?Seramis, as he calls them, are in the context of saying that, he's looking of course for the things that he had read in Mandeville and Marco Polo you're supposed to find, and he in fact asked the Indians, through sign language, "Have you seen any dog-headed men? Have you seen anyone with genitals hanging down to the ground? Anyone with big feet?" You can imagine the signs that he had to make to convey these crazy idea. And he wasn't coming up with them. But he does mention that he saw these three mermaids, but actually they're among the things that he doesn't find so marvelous. He says, as you say, he writes that they weren't as beautiful as people had said, they looked rather more, rather mannish, I mean it's probably that he was looking, probably that he was looking at manatees, at least that's what contemporary scholars think. It's precisely that he doesn't find the wonders, in the medieval sense. What he finds is people, as he says, that are wonderfully well built, very attractive, living in small hamlets, living apparently with a sense of orderliness and peace. That's marvelous. That and the trees and the beauty of the flowers and the magnificence of the sea life, and so forth and so on. All of that he finds marvelous. But, he finds the marvelous as it were in what, not very far from what we find marvelous in the Caribbean, today. So it's, he's rather surprised that he doesn't find wonders in the medieval sense. But what interests me is, two things. One is, how it's possible for a passion, an emotion, and experience, called wonder, to move from, to be yoked now in the service of possession where before it had been a sign of dispossession. And then, secondly, I'm interested in a kind of utopian way, but not only a utopian way, also as a literary critic, in how it's possible for wonder to be detached from this ferocious possessiveness, and be returned if possible to a sense of the non-possessive, tolerance of the other, that you could find in Mandeville. And that's really what the plot of book is, is the capture of wonder by Columbus for real estate, as it were, national real estate, and then the attempt to regain some sense of wonder as lying outside of what you can swallow, and precisely to mark was is not yours, what you can't fully comprehend, what you must look at with respect, and from a distance.

MP: Apparently, within this marvelous concept, Columbus was able to actually speak with the natives, or he had a sense of almost transparent, you use the word "transparent" understanding of what they were saying.

SG: Well, he thought he did. I mean, I think we should be profoundly skeptical. Not that he was necessarily lying, though I wouldn't preclude a certain amount of fabrication, because what we have, we have someone who is presenting a case before the Spanish crown, wanting to get support. So that it's entirely, I mean I think we have every reason to be profoundly skeptical of everything that's said here. To try to read through and behind and in, things that appear to be very straightforward. That said, I think it's quite possible Columbus wasn't simply lying, but I think that he very much, desperately, wanted to believe that he was making, especially initially, that he was making communication, even simple communication with these people, and especially when they appeared to be giving him everything. He said, "Oh, they marveled at our ships, and they made gestures that indicated that they wanted me and, of course, the king and queen of Spain to take possession of these lands." Well, they didn't do anything of the kind, almost certainly. But they did make some sort of gestures, which he chose to interpret as we ................... do, in the way that was most favorable to him. So, already Columbus's contemporary Las Casas, a great Dominican friar who befriended the Indians and worked his whole life, mature life, to defend their rights, Las Casas says, We must not believe what Columbus and others said as far as the transparent understanding that they were having. There actually was very little transparency. They were opaque to the Europeans, but the Europeans insisted that they were transparent for political reasons.

MP: And others. Because, Columbus was entitled to a royalty for, a royalty income on his possessions.

SG: Yes. That's a case that subsequently takes a long time to work out in the Spanish courts, because the, Columbus had worked a very nice contract, before, a deal, before he left on the first voyage, in which he and his heirs in perpetuity were given a very handsome percentage of whatever would be the profits of the discoveries. But when it became clear, as it did gradually, that this was an immense acquisition, the crown, predictably, regretted this handsome arrangement and they took steps legally to try to undo it. Very clever legal steps, basically by saying that this was not a discovery, this was a recovery, because the crown lawyers said if you read Isaiah, the book of Isaiah, very carefully you'll see that the ancestors of the king of Spain already owned these lands. Well. Like a lot of legal arguments, you can look at Isaiah a great deal and not discover anything about Spain or let alone the New World, but, in any case, in the context of this very technical argument, they made such a case. And it was eventually actually ............ settled on behalf of the crown, it was a very complicated settlement.

MP: Columbus brought people back with him, I guess six on the first voyage, or six survived in the first voyage. Under what pretext did this occur?

SG: Well, the first act in the New World, after the initial formal legal act of taking possession, was, were two acts. One, the giving of gifts, small trinkets, bits of cloth, crockery, and so forth. And the other is kidnapping. So, it didn't much require a pretext, it had been a very long-standing practice, not just of the Spanish, not of the Italians, I mean just a general European practice, and also there are plenty of examples of it outside the European context in Asia and Africa. When you encounter a people, you have to figure out, learn the language, you're not about to enroll in the local Berlitz school. You have to figure out quickly how to make some communication and the simplest thing to do is kidnap some people, and give them a crash course in your language, force them to translate for you. And that's absolutely standard operating procedure all through the sixteenth century and beyond, so that there are, both by Columbus and then by subsequent voyageurs, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people kidnapped in this way, to serve as interpreters, a gobetweens. Columbus took some, took them back to Spain, and also converted them, or professed to convert them, in any case they were baptized, given new names. So that there was also a religious motive. But I don't think, at the beginning at least, one should, though Columbus was a profoundly religious man, this voyage in its initial moves did not have very much of the religious about it. I mean there was no priest on board, for example, which is quite interesting. There was a notary public on board, to record the legal actions, but there was no priest. And that suggests that conversion was not the first motive here, even though I believe Columbus was quite sincere in his professions of an ardent religious faith.

Professor Stephan Greenblatt, professor of English at the University of California in Berkeley, author of Marvelous Possessions, available from the University of Chicago Press in 1991, and his earlier book Learning to Curse, from Rutledge, 1990