My opening sequence in class this semester has generated the most interesting and searching discussions. I’m so happy with it.
The aim is to set up a conversation about representing, not indigineity as such, but memory of indigineity in relation to conquest. After all, there is no direct informant. Centuries have passed, so how do we form a sense of humanity in memory? How does the gaze form that memory? This is the “imagining” part of the course title “Imagining ‘the Americas’,” exploring how the past is constructed in different frames, with different interests, and toward different futures – whether in the 16th or 21st centuries. It really says something that that act of imagining is an ongoing, fraught process. How does the gaze form memory?
Las Casas, Carrasco, and Gibson produce often real flawed responses to that question – but fecund, probably inevitable, and provocative flawed responses.
La otra conquista is a much more sophisticated take than either Las Casas or Apocalypto, if you ask me, but … it is also utterly christological and unapologetically so. We build to that. And really for me we build to one of the opening shots, here in the photo I’ve attached, when Topilzin (then Tomás) awakens as the survivor of a massacre at the temple. He rolls out from underneath a dead body, sits, and writes the memory of atrocity.
What does it mean to write the memory of atrocity? That is the question of the course, really, which is about the shadow of conquest and the Middle Passage in imagining ‘the Americas.’
The memory of atrocity is for Topilzin, not Tomás (his Christian name), to make and bear. He never passes that along. For me, this is Carrasco’s atrocity: to bury atrocity in the name of a spiritual mestizaje. What atrocity becomes is the source of Tomás madness: he can’t bear the thought of Mother Goddess and the Virgin Mary at the same time. It seals his death and they lie together in spirit and icon. Stunning conclusion to the film.
But atrocity can’t be fully buried. Of course it cannot. Carrasco lets Topilzin bury atrocity, becoming (perhaps) Tomás once and for all, yet it lives for Friar Diego. The friar put the fragment of atrocity, the surviving shred of Topilzin’s codex, in his Bible, marking, of course, the Book of Revelations (the text just reads “Apocalypse” as title).
It made for an amazing conversation today. They could see the atrocity of tying humanity to conversion (Las Casas) played out in La otra conquista, but the advance of Carrasco’s reckoning is the ghost of conquest for the conquistador – the friar, not Cortés (the governor) or Cristóbal (the general).
What do we do with haunting? This is my puzzle for a project on post-reparative thinking. La otra conquista will be a key part, because in placing the codex fragment in the Bible, Friar Diego makes worship ghostly, haunted by atrocity and irreversibly so. But Carrasco ends against himself: the third photo below is the final scree, an appeal to God as transcendent and reconciling of difference through the figure of the mother (goddess, virgin).
That moment did not need to happen. I understand that mestizaje is a powerful thought and a thinking that tries to undo so much, but when thought, as it is with Carrasco, on the model of reconciliation rather than site of atrocity and forging meaning in violence, you neutralize the ghostly character of imagining the Americas.
Las Casas shows up here. The humanity of the indigenous is tied (less strongly with Carrasco than with Las Casas, but still there) to conversion of at least the engagement with the relation of conversion. It tells the story where Apocalypto ends: what comes after apocalypse. And apocalypses.
Next up is Death in the Andes. Not sure what students will make of it, except to see how reckoning with the opacity of the indigenous past and present is not a task for modest thinkers. And how bold thinkers – Gibson, Las Casas, Carrasco, Vargas Llosa – mix beauty with crushing failure.
In other words, this is already shaping up to be the kind of course I love teaching.