Insects, Colonies, and Idealization in the Early Americas *

Article excerpt

DURING THE FAMED MAGICAL BOAT RIDE in Cervantes's Don Quixote, the knight-errant describes to Sancho Panza a means of delineating their passage down a slow moving river, which Quixote has taken for an Atlantic crossing:

 
   Listen, Sancho: when the Spaniards, and all those who sail out of 
   Cadiz, head out toward the East Indies, one of the things that tells 
   them they've passed over the equatorial line is that all the lice on 
   board the ship suddenly die, to the very last one, and they can't 
   find a single louse anywhere on the boat, not for its weight in 
   gold--so run your hand down your thigh, Sancho, and if you find 
   anything living we'll have settled the whole business, and if you 
   don't, then we've already crossed over. (515) 

Sancho, of course, turns up an infestation, and concludes that "Either the experiment isn't a good one ... or else we haven't gotten to where your grace said, not by a long shot" (515). While the experiment collapses for Sancho, the construction of Old and New World differences along entomological fault lines was a recurrent device in the conquest and travel narratives of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And as Diana de Armas Wilson argues in her recent study Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World, literary representations of the Americas were immersed in a complex matrix of Old World expectations and idealizations. Often such representations at once adopted and abandoned various competing discourses--including, especially, the utopian and the chivalric. On the popular impact of the latter, Wilson stresses, "One and the same genre gave to the conquistadores their delirious dreams of El Dorado, to Spanish cartographers such exotic toponyms as `California' and `Patagonia,' to the Chroniclers of the Indies a `lying' genre against which to compare their own `true histories,' to Cervantes an exhausted genre he could revive and parody, and to Don Quixote an endearing case of bibliomania" (15). The conflux of these various narrative modes becomes clearer with such literal borrowings as the previous exchange between Quixote and his squire. The knight, for instance, here mimics the report in Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo's Natural History of the West Indies (1526), describing how "rarely are Christians in the new world bothered by the small pestiferous insects that grow in a man's hair and on his body. Because after we pass the line of the diameter where the compass needle changes from the northeast to the northwest, which is only a short distance beyond the Azores as we continue the voyage to the West, all the lice on the men's heads and bodies die, and as I have said, the Spaniards are clean and little by little all vermin disappear and are not to be seen" (Oviedo 104). (1) In this model, departure from Spain precipitates an abandonment of its hyperrealities, an escape from its minutiae, as if the voyage alone were sufficient to eradicate the incipient problems of the Old World.

Incorporated with such instances of erasure are broader discourses of idealization, especially involving what Beatriz Pastor terms the discourses of conquest and of failure. Here, the natural world of insects helps to measure and magnify the interaction of these discourses. What is illuminated by the testaments of Spanish New World chroniclers such as Columbus, Cortes, Oviedo, and Cabeza de Vaca is the repeated attempt to contort American reality into expected patterns while disclosing utterly unexpected ones:

 
   The initial narrative discourse on the conquest of America was 
   shaped by success. This success was problematical for Columbus, but 
   he managed to avoid disappointment by refraining from drawing 
   realistic comparisons between his findings and his expectations. 
   [...] The representation of the conquest and the model of a 
   conquistador created by Hernan Cortes, by contrast, was based on a 
   careful selection, reorganization, and reelaboration of historical 
   material designed to provide a fictional context within which 
   everything their author did led to legitimate and undisputable 
   success. …