Monday last was Columbus Day. For me the sole practical implication of that fact was that there was no mail delivery, but I was aware of a cloud of metaphysical implications forming on the horizon. We had just enjoyed a rare visit from a dear friend from Austin, Texas, who reported that his city council had just voted to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I have also been reading the papers. I know that Mayor Di Blasio, whose father’s German name (Wilhelm) was of less political utility than his mother’s Italian one, had been musing aloud about the problem of Columbus Circle and its conspicuous statue of the Mediterranean mariner.
He wants to cleanse the city of its fascist heritage, but perhaps for the moment he will be satisfied with such low-hanging fruit as the sidewalk plaque commemorating the ticker-tape parade that honored Marshall Petain in 1931. Then, more gradually perhaps, he could abolish Columbia University. The disposition of the District of Columbia, Columbus, Ohio, the Columbia River, the Knights of Columbus, “Way Down in Columbus Georgia," etc. might be posptponable to the next administration.
I have been here once before, in 1992, when I was one of the curators of a major exhibition at the Library of Congress marking the Quincentenary of Columbus’s first voyage. In 1892 the Columbian Exposition had celebrated a number of the unlikely virtues of a medieval Genoese mystic: his Yankee fortitude, his Protestant work ethic, his indomitable will to succeed in business. Now we were supposed to find in him nought but blind luck, unquenchable greed, and an appetite for genocide. The verb discover and its kinfolk were to be banished. Columbus could not have “discovered” America, as America was never lost. People already lived there. Of course my whole life has been a series of great discoveries—such as girls, Shakespeare, and spaghetti alle vongole—that somebody else probably already knew about.
Neither the atrocities committed by some Europeans nor the valid indignation of some contemporary seekers after justice are to be dismissed or belittled, but historical truth is ill-served by ideological erasures and air-brushings. Karl Marx famously said that changing the world should take priority over merely understanding it. The first stanza of the “Internationale” contains the following aspiration: Du passé faisons table rase—“Let us make a blank slate of the past”—or more literally a tabula rasa, an erased wax tablet, the student’s notebook of ancient times. In the last century, in Poland, in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, and elsewhere, political regimes ostensibly committed to making the world a better place through principled erasure amassed hecatombs reckoned at about a hundred million human lives.
At the end of the 18th century, the Indians of the Northeast were not without grievances, but neither were the European refugees. Among the crimes imputed to King George in our Declaration of Independence is his attempt “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The etymological meaning of the word “savage” in English was forest-dweller; the evolved meaning grew out of observed experience. Even so, early (Anglo) American writers, following the lead of such French Romantics as Bernard de Saint-Pierre and Réné de Chateaubriand give us admiring and idealized pictures of Indians and Indian lore. I think of the novels of Fenimore Cooper or Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” a masterpiece condemned by the political correctness of people who have never read it.
I do not know whether Bill Di Blasio has studied all of Columbus’s writings, but I have. I am especially interested in his “Book of Prophecies," which holds interest for me in its reflections of medieval Franciscan millenarianism. Columbus was a sailor of amazing skill and daring, and he grasped a navigational principle, in retrospect obvious but at the time audaciously innovative. As an observer of phenomena unknown in Europe he is often disappointingly banal. Things are either “like we have in Castile” or “different from what we have in Castile”—the initial reaction of many tourists even in our jet age. As to the human inhabitants of his “India," he looked for what he had been taught to look for by ancient geographers like Pliny and Strabo and medieval Munchausens like John of Mandeville. That is, he looked for giants, pygmies, monocular men, retrohumeral men, macropedes, and dog-headed men, also known as cannibals. We usually find what we are looking for, if we look hard enough.
We may fault Columbus for blinkered vision. Although he was among the earlier world travelers, he lacked a cosmopolitan view. In other words he is different from what we have in Castile, or perhaps Berkeley. But if cultural solipsism is to be deplored in the 15th century, one might pause before indulging it in the 21st.
The past is very important, but it is actually hard–very hard–to grasp. We are prone to treat its events and personages as inkblots in our self-designed Rorschach tests, and then to believe that our inkblot is essential truth.