THE CONQUEST OF AMERICA: The Question of the Other by Tzvetan Todorov

THE CONQUEST OF AMERICA: The Question of the Other

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How European civilization met and defeated the indigenous civilizations of America, homogenizing the world and compressing its own soul in the process: a grand old subject, polished up here with some real originality, lots of passion, and a fair amount of intellectual hocus-pocus. Don't expect history in the usual sense: Todoroy is a semiotician, concerned primarily with the way different cultures produce signs and symbols, and the result is not conventional narrative but four compact essays on ""discovery,"" ""conquest,"" ""love,"" and ""knowledge"" which purport to explain the speed and scope of the European conquest. Todorov's theory is that Europeans were simply better at absorbing the existence of a radically different ""other""--a people in every way unlike themselves--and turning their knowledge of it to the bloody work of domination and exploitation. In support of this notion (a lot subtler than it seems at first), he comes up with ingenious, often brilliant re-readings of such well-known texts as the journals of Columbus, the first-hand accounts of how Cortes seized Mexico, and the polemical tracts of Las Casas, Diego Duran, and Bernardino de Sahagun. Readers familiar with the orthodox historical literature will appreciate the numerous connections along the way with the work of J. H. Elliott, Hugh Honour, and, most recently, Eric Wolfe. One major difficulty, however, is Todorov's frequent recourse to occult words (""praxeological,"" ""hecatomb,"" ""limitrophic,"" ""axiological,"" ""alterity"") and medicine-show cant (as in forms of discourse that ""incarnate increasingly complex interpenetrations of the two voices""); the effect is to make you wonder if there isn't less here than meets the eye. There is also the matter of who, exactly, he is talking about: his Europeans are 16th-century Iberians, his Indians Nahuatl-speaking Central Americans. In North America, of course, the situation was quite different, and Indian resistance lasted a good deal longer. Finally, at the very end, Todorov finds himself trapped, or nearly trapped, in distinctions between ""advanced"" and ""primitive"" societies that historians and anthropologists long ago rejected as hopelessly culture-bound. He means well, and is eloquent on the continuing importance of learning to live with the ""other,"" but it makes a troubling conclusion to an often engrossing book.

Pub Date: April 25th, 1984
ISBN: 0806131373
Publisher: Harper