"Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!"
For reasons I can’t make out, organizers of congresses and literary get-togethers throughout the world appear to have been inspired by a common theme: America. In Germany, in Spain, in France, in Holland, writers are being asked to talk about this faraway place that is either an overwhelming country or an underdeveloped continent. This question americaine, I believe, is based on a misunderstanding.
On April 25, 1507, there was printed in the Alsatian town of Saint-Dié, in eastern France, a book of universal geography by Matthias Ringmann and Martin Waldseemuller, under the modest title Cosmographiae introductio. In it, the authors proposed that the new continent discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus should carry the name not of Columbus himself, as would have been expected, but of the great seafarer Amerigo Vespucci, whose letters the wily Alsatians appended to their text. Columbus himself, who had died barely a year before the book was printed, had given less importance to the vast land he had chanced upon than to the fabled Cathay he never reached, and didn’t bother to put forward as toponym his own name, which he hoped would one day christen a legendary kingdom in Asia. Columbus was a practical man and he took his mythology seriously. Commenting, for instance, on the sight of what he thought was a mermaid swimming in the Caribbean Sea, and was probably a manatee, he noted, "Unfortunately, they are not as beautiful as we have been led to believe." As we all know, Columbus never reached Cathay and the land he dismissed became known as America.
The Native people, who had lived on the continent for thousands of years, were, of course, not consulted about this change in nomenclature. In fact, in the eyes of Europeans, the new name seemed to grant the place a clean slate, a brand new beginning, a licence to ignore the rights of any previous occupant, including the right to exist. Speaking of this New World, the Vicomte François René de Châteaubriand described it as he would an empty stage, with himself as the only visitor. "One evening I lost my way in a forest, some distance from Niagara Falls; soon daylight faded all around me and I was able to enjoy, in all its solitude, the beautiful spectacle of night in the deserts of the New World."
Even by Châteaubriand’s standards, "the deserts of the New World" would not last long as "deserts," and very soon every tract of forest and field would be spoken for. In a marvellously haughty gesture, signing the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, the Pope divided the New World into two halves, one for Portugal, one for Spain, consulting no one except perhaps the God of Rome. But this re-christening would not last long either. In most of the New World states, the children of the exploiters of the Natives tried in turn to free themselves from their Mother Country, which they felt exploited them, and the whole nineteenth century is little more than an effort to reclaim the meaning of the name "America."
But for all their struggles for independence, by the early twentieth century it appeared as if the libertadores had done little more than shake off one yoke for another, causing the revolutionary Porfirio Díaz famously to exclaim: "Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!" From early on, the United States had begun to cast an interested economic eye on its neighbours south of the Rio Grande, and during the tenure of their fifth President, James Monroe, in 1823 (barely seven years after, for instance, the Argentine Declaration of Independence), the so-called Monroe Doctrine came to be formulated. Its common short form is given as "America for the Americans" and it plays on a clever double entendre: "America," in the first instance, stands for the continent the Alsatian geographers had sought to name, but "Americans," in the second instance, stands exclusively for the citizens of the United States. The pun became policy, or the policy became the pun. In any case, the citizens of the twenty-seven other countries on the continent have wallowed ever since in a mixture of attraction to and resentment of the wicked uncle who appropriated their common name.
Some of the trouble can be resolved by resorting to the plural, "Americas." But by and large, the name has been co-opted forever, and "America the Beautiful" fails to evoke either the Pampas or the Amazon, except in the dreams of Texan industrialists. In Argentina, when we studied history in school, we had to rely on the context to tell us whether we were speaking of "historia americana"—the history of the continent, or "historia americana"—the history of the country. Under CIA-supported military rule, the two connotations became the same. To distinguish between them, we would specify: "sudamericano" or "norte-americano" (leaving poor Canada as Uncle Sam’s uneasy bedfellow). Thus Borges speaks in poem about an early Argentinian martyr to the cause of Independence, of him coming to terms with his "destino sudamericano." Our "destino"—our fate, in Argentina (but also in Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and so on)—was, we thought, a philosophical one, even metaphysical; we distinguished it from the "destino norteamericano," which we wanted to believe was merely materialistic, money-grabbing. We thought the insult was a novelty; we didn’t know that by the early nineteenth century it was already commonplace, and that in his foreword to the Manuscrits italiens Stendhal repeats the truism of "Young America, where all passions are more or less reduced to the worship of the dollar."
One wonders what Stendhal would have thought of a character such as President Bill Clinton. Would he allow that, at least privately, the "worship of the dollar" sometimes gives way to the "worship" of something else? Here too, as in the incipient imperialism of the first American forages into South America shortly after the Civil War, there are foreshadowings: Clinton’s cigar adventures curiously follow the example of another American president, Ulysses S. Grant. During a state visit to India (according to a description by the British viceroy), Grant "got as drunk as a fiddle [and] showed that he could be as profligate as a lord. He fumbled Mrs A., kissed the shrieking Miss B., pinched the plump Mrs C. black and blue—and ran at Miss D. with intent to ravish her." Finally, after throwing all the female guests into hysterics, he was carried away by six sailors on board the ship that relieved India of his presence. But that was not the end. When the president was deposited in the public saloon cabin, where Mrs. Grant was "awaiting him with her cock in her eye, this remarkable man satiated there and then his baffled last on the unresisting body of his legitimate spouse, and copiously vomited during the operation." The viceroy added: "If you have seen Mrs. Grant you will not think this incredible."
The name "America," then, less continental than national, inevitably awakes contradictory passions, transforming it into a variety of mythical realms that range from Hell’s Kitchen to the Green Pastures of Eden, from the "America" of anti-Yankee slogans to the "Amerika" that for Kafka could still carry the echoes of El Dorado.
As a Canadian (though born in Argentina), I have an ambiguous relationship with America (the Americas) and America (the United States). As to the first, Canada is the only country on the continent born not from a revolution but from a counter-revolution. This imploded creative energy is at the root (perhaps) of our uncertain and much-debated sense of identity. Apparently, at some CBC competition to choose a phrase for Canada’s equivalent to the well-known "as American as apple pie," the winning entry turned out to be: "as Canadian as possible, under the circumstances." This mildness suits us: among all the countries of the continent, we alone have a reputation, at times undeserved, for laid-back common sense and active human rights. As to our relationship with the States, its looming presence worries us no end, though the concern is unrequited. It is said that while a sure-fire bestseller in the States would be a book titled Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog, a sure-fire flop would be titled Canada: Sleeping Giant to the North.
What then remains of the vast name our distant Alsatians chose for the land they were never to set eyes on? The thrill of adventure, brutish greed, anger, lust and fear, an overwhelming and intrusive presence, a history in which everyone, Derek Walcott says, is either "screaming for pardon or revenge"? Something else remains, especially here on this side of the Atlantic: a seemingly endless space. "America" conjures up, still, a continuity of land whose horizon is always beyond the place to which we are headed. The gargantuan novel On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato ends with a perfect image of such a place. The protagonist, a young man who has hitched a ride south from Buenos Aires, stands with the driver by the side of the road, peeing into the falling darkness, the Patagonian plain extending all around them. The moment becomes infinite, like the land they are crossing. The reader thinks: "America."