Por Alfonso Reyes
He is one of the most revered essay writers and thinkers of Latin America. According to Borges, he was “the best writer of prose in Spanish of all time.” This is an extract of maybe his most celebrated essay, published in 1917, which offers a vision of Tenochtitlan -old Mexico City- at the moment when the Spaniards arrived. The encounter of two civilisations
“Traveller, you have arrived at the most transparent realm of the air”
In the Age of Discovery, books abounded with extraordinary news and entertaining tales of exploration. Compelled to discover new worlds, history overflowed its traditional banks and political fact gave way to ethnographic discourses and to the depiction of civilizations. The historians of the 16th century defined the character of the newfound lands as it appeared to European eyes, accentuated by an amazement that was sometimes exaggerated. The prolific writer Giovanni Battista Ramusio published his collection of traveller’s tales, Delle Navigationi et Viaggi, in Venice in 1550, a work consisting of three book-size volumes that were later reprinted individually, with profuse and charming illustrations. The usefulness of this work cannot be disputed; the chroniclers of the Indies of the 1600s (Solís, at least) would later read Cortes’s letters in the Italian translations contained therein.
In its illustrations, finely and naïvely drawn in keeping with the elegance of the times, the gradual conquest of our shores is revealed; tiny boats slide along a line that crosses the sea; in the middle of the ocean a sea monster writhes like a hunter’s horn, and in the corner there shines a fabulous nautical star. Nestled in the outlines of clouds, a fat-cheeked Aeolus blows to indicate the direction of the winds – the constant guardian of the sons of Ulysses. We see the pace of African life, under the traditional palm tree next to the conical straw hut, with smoke always rising; men and wild beasts of other climes, meticulously detailed scenes, exotic plants and imagined islands. And on the shores of New France, groups of natives engaged in hunting and fishing, dancing or building cities. An imagination as rich as Stevenson’s, capable of concocting Treasure Island on the basis of an infantile cartography, wove into Ramusio’s illustrations a thousand and one delights for our rainy days.
Last of all, the pictures show the vegetation of Anáhuac. Let us hold our gaze here a moment, for here we find a new art of nature.
The corn of Ceres and the plantain of paradise, fruit whose flesh bursts with an unknown honey; but, above all, the typical plants: the Mexican biznaga (with the appearance of a shy porcupine), the maguey (which we are told sucks its juices from the rock), the maguey that flowers at the level of the ground, shooting its plumage skyward; the parallel “organ” cactuses, stuck together like the reeds of the Pan pipes and useful for marking boundaries; the discs of the nopal – resembling a candelabra – conjoined in a necessary superposition that is pleasing to the eye. All of this appears to us an emblematic flora, as though conceived to adorn a coat of arms. In the sharp outlines of the illustrations, fruit and leaf, stem and root, are abstract forms, their clarity uncluttered by colour.
These thorny plants declare that nature here is not, as it is in the south or on the coasts, abundant in nourishing juices or vapours. Around its lakes the land of Anáhuac shows little sign of fertility. But over the centuries, man would contrive to drain its waters, working like a beaver; and the colonizers would devastate the forests that engulf the human settlements, returning the valley to its own ghastly character. Above the hostile, nitrous soil, looming tall, they raise their vegetable claws, defending themselves against drought.
The draining of the valley took place over the course of the years from 1449 to 1900. Three races have worked on it, and one might almost say three civilizations – so little there is in common between the Viceroyalty of New Spain and the prodigious political fiction [of Porfirio Diaz’s regime] that gave us thirty years of Augustan peace. Three monarchical regimes, divided by parentheses of anarchy, are here an example of how the work of the State grows and corrects itself in the face of the same threats of nature and the same land to toil. From Netzahualcóyotl to the second Luís de Velasco, and from thence to Porfirio Díaz has run the same mandate to drain the land. Our century found us still digging up the last spadeful and furrowing the last ditch.
The American traveller is fated to be asked by Europeans whether there are many trees in the New World. We would surprise them if we were to tell them of an American Castile higher than Spain’s, more harmonious and certainly less ragged (broken up though it may be by enormous mountains rather than hills), where the air gleams like a mirror and a perennial autumn reigns. The plains of Castile inspire ascetic thoughts, while the Valley of Mexico inspires simple and sober musings. What one offers in tragedy the other boasts in expressive power.
Our nature has two opposing sides. One is the virgin jungle of the Americas, so oft-sung it scarcely requires description. A compulsory topic of admiration in the Old World, it was the inspiration behind Chateaubriand’s verbal outpourings. A hothouse where energies seem to be spent with reckless abandon, where our spirit drowns in intoxicating emanations, it is the exaltation of life and at the same time the image of life’s anarchy: the verdure streaming down the mountainsides, the knotted tangles of vines, the canopies of banana groves, the deceptive shadows of trees that numb the senses and weaken the power to think; the stifling vegetation, the slow and voluptuous torpor, to the incessant hum of the insects. The screeches of the parrots, the roar of the waterfalls, the eyes of the wild beasts, le dard empoisonné du sauvage! In such profusions of fire and fantasy – poetry of the hammock and of the waving fan – other tropical regions surely outshine us.
Our region, Anáhuac, is something greater and more invigorating, at least for those who like to keep the will alert and the mind clear at all times. The most quintessential image of our nature is found in the regions of the central plateau: there, the harsh and heraldic vegetation, the orderly landscape, the atmosphere of extreme clarity in which colours themselves are drowned (compensated for by the overall harmony of the picture), the luminous ether in which every object stands out in individual relief, and, in short, to describe it once and for all in the words of the modest and sensitive Fray Manuel de Navarrate:
a resplendent light
that makes the face of the heavens shine.
This much has already been observed by a great traveller, who sanctioned with his name the wonder of New Spain; a classical and universal man like those of the Renaissance, who resurrected in his century the ancient way of attaining wisdom through travelling, and the habit of writing only of the memories and meditations of his own life: in his Political Essay, Baron von Humboldt noted the strange reverberation of the sun’s rays on the mountainous mass of the central highlands, where the air is purified.
Upon this landscape, not without a certain aristocratic sterility, where the discerning eye wanders, the mind deciphers every line and clings to every undulation; under this gleaming air with its habitual freshness and placidity, those mysterious men let fall their broad and brooding spiritual gaze. Ecstatic before the nopal cactus of the eagle and the serpent – the well-chosen symbol of our country – they heard the ominous voice of the bird that promised them a safe haven on these hospitable lakes. Later, out of that humble lakeside dwelling a city would grow, repopulated with the incursions of mythological warriors from the seven caves of Chicomoztoc – the cradle of the seven clans that spread out over our land. Later, the city would expand into an empire, and the clamour of a Cyclopean civilization, like that of Babylon or Egypt, would endure, wearily, until the fateful days of the mournful Moctezuma. And it was then, in an enviable moment of wonder, having crossed the snow-capped volcanoes, that Cortés’s men (“dust, sweat, and iron”) would look down upon that orb of resonance and brilliance – the vast circle of mountains.
Spread out at their feet, in a mirage of crystals, was the picturesque city, sprawling outwards from the temple so that its radiant streets extended the corners of the pyramid.
Sounding sharply in their ears, in some dark and bloody rite, came the wail of the hornpipe and, multiplied by the echo, the throbbing of the wild drum.
Translated by Martin Boyd