historian vs novelist: felipe fernández armesto takes down j.m.g. le clézio’s take on mexico

The Mexican Dream is a book of dreams: the dream that was the religion of the Aztecs, the dreams of the Spanish conquistadores, the dream of a counter-history, of a continent still inviolate from European contact and conquest, and finally a dream of the present—a lyrical meditation on how indigenous Mesoamerican civilizations affect the European imagination. Le Clézio said of this book, “What motivated me was a sort of dream about what has disappeared and what could have been.”

Le Clézio on the literary aspects of history:

It is, I believe, the primary charm of poetry to give the lesson of mirage, that is, to show the fragile and vibrant movement of creation, in which the word is in a certain way human quintessence, prayer….


In their purest form myths, not unlike tragedy, are perhaps the most important moment in the troubled history of Mexican civilization. The cement of dreams, the architecture of language, made of images and rhythms which respond to and harmonize with each other through time and space, their wisdom is not of that which can be measured on the scale of the everyday. They are concurrently religion, ritual, belief, phantasmagoria, and the primary affirmation of a human coherence, the coagulating strength of language against the anguish of death and the certainty of nothingness. Myths express life, despite the promise of destruction, of the weight of the inevitable. They are without any doubt the most durable monuments of men, in America as in the ancient world. (pp. 9 – 11)


Le Clézio on the collision of cultures:


From that imbalance rose the tragic results of the coming together of two worlds. It was the extermination of an ancient dream by the frenzy of a modern one, the destruction of myths by a desire for power. It was gold, modern weapons, and rational thought pitted against magic and gods: the outcome could not have been otherwise. (p. 3)


We know of no other event like it in the history of the world, except perhaps the first confrontation in Europe between the neolithic peoples who came from the East and the primitive hunters. But no witness ever wrote of that great drama. (p. 6)


Abruptly, with the shock of the Conquest, the sober and puritanical man of the Christian Inquisition encountered, through their violent and upsetting nature, peoples who through their rituals were identified with the gods. (p. 48)

—all quotations from Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations

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But wait! This prominent historian takes issue with Le Clézio:

“Evil victors, easy victims”

By Felipe Fernández Armesto

J. M. G. Le Clézio


Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations


Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

232pp. University of Chicago Press.

$25 (paperback, $15); distributed in the UK by Wiley.

£17.50 (paperback, £ 1 0.50).

9780226 110035


The argument of The Mexican Dream — as far as it can be made out — is that "Mexico is a land of dreams", by which, J. M. G. Le Clézio explains, he means a culture with an idiosyncratic notion of reality, or "made of a different truth", as he says in his characteristically obscure way. In the episode commonly known as the Spanish conquest, rival dreams collided: the conquerors, with their "dream of gold", dreamed their victory, while the natives, obsessed with a nightmare of self-annihilation, dreamed their defeat. The conquest "interrupted Mexican thought" because the conquerors effectively suppressed and "silenced" indigenous cultures. Had those cultures survived, aspects of the natives’ civilizations that Le Clézio thinks were "ahead of Europe" – including "medicine, astronomy, irrigation, drainage, and urbanism" as well as "harmony between man and the world, that balance between the body and the spirit, the union of the individual and the collectivity" – would have enriched the West. We might have enjoyed "a new scientific and humanist way of thinking", established ecological equilibrium, and, under shamans’ instruction, "integrated dream and ecstasy into daily life". No one knowledgeable about Mexico is likely to find any of this persuasive, from the vapid initial assumption to the feebly sententious, faintly ludicrous conclusion.


The Mexican Dream originally appeared in 1993, since when scholarship has revolutionized understanding of the history of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The author has not taken advantage of the appearance of a paperback edition to make revisions. Because he reads texts uncritically and ignores most of the findings of the last twenty years, he presents seriously warped and outdated pictures of the conquest and the colonial period. He treats colonial-era chroniclers as authorities on the pre-conquest world. He cites Bernal Díaz as an authority on native religion. He thinks the writers Las Casas and Motolinfa were "witnesses of the conquest".


Le Clézio further thinks that all the indigenous cultures of Mexico — and even most of those of the New World — were foredoomed to disaster by fatalistic and apocalyptic superstitions. He accepts colonial stories of Aztec morale subverted by "omens" that no reliable evidence attests. He believes Spaniards’ self-interested claims that natives accepted the invaders as superior because they mistook them for gods. The publishers’ blurb tells us that Le Clézio has studied Mexican history for thirty years; yet he thinks the search for El Dorado began before the conquest. A look at some accessible recent works, such as Matthew Restall’ s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (2003), Michael Smith’s archaeological study of the Aztecs, or even Charles Mann’s painstaking vulgarization, 1491, would have saved him from his most egregious howlers and enabled him to bring the text into line with current scholarship.


Le Clézio’s account of the colonial period also traduces the facts. He realizes that millenarian movements exhibited continuity from pre-conquest times, but if he had read Frank Graziano’s recent book on the subject (2006), he would have been able to re-evaluate and date these accurately. He also seems to sense that the conquest did not put an end to native mythopoeia, which, he claims, "still vibrates in the work of Agustín Yáñez, in the poetry of Gilberto Owen and Octavio Paz". In general, however, unaware of the durability of indigenous culture, the vitality of native agency and the cultural creativity of many colonial encounters, he sees the colonial epoch as merely destructive, and wildly overestimates the extent of Spanish power over the natives. The collaborations between intruded and indigenous elites, without which the colonial regime is unintelligible, pass the author by. In Le Clézio’s account, evil Spanish victors, who seem to have stepped straight out of the "Black Legend", crush uniformly resistant and noble but hopeless native victims.


A chapter on indigenous myths represents a pitiably old-fashioned style of anthropology, which Mr Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch would recognize, concerned with finding universal symbols and themes. The cultural differences, which make the native worlds of Mexico enthralling, vanish. A couple of interpolated short chapters struggle for relevance, on the poetry attributed to Nezahualcoyotl, pre-conquest ruler of Texcoco, which Le Clézio unquestioningly accepts as authentic, and on Antonin Artaud, the drug-crazed ex-Surrealist who briefly, in the 1930s, sought refuge in Mexico from the supposed decadence of Western civilization. The rambling conclusion, with its mawkish romanticization of indigenous societies and its confidence in the myth of the "ecological Indian", seems to arise not from the book but from prejudices in the author’s head.


No doubt, because of its author’s literary prestige (J. M. G. Le Clézio was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008, mainly for his novels), it will attract sycophantic reviews and receptive readers. The effect will be to set back the good work of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists in creating a realistic picture of Mexican history, with its blend of continuity and change, and of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, unbenighted by mentalité sauvage, with their fascinating and profound differences, and their subtle, multivalent relationships with the Europeans and Africans who joined them in the colonial era.

—from the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009