To paint the portrait of this new territory, the mapmakers in their workshops are drawing free-hand sketches of coastlines that are not a whit newfangled, but for their way of appraising our world scornfully, as if from a foreign shore. Bringing islands into existence on paper is a heady game: I have taken it up myself in order to appreciate such intoxication as trumpery procures, that of an adventure on the high seas, at hardly any cost, drawn out in the meticulous outline of gulfs, hills natural harbours, headlands, capes, deltas, swamps, bone-heaps and rocks peopled with grey fowls; it sufficed to set some corsairs gamboling there. But the mapmakers go further: they invent the natives of these territories too, drawing their faces in the manner of the Guanches of the Canaries, or Ukrainians driven by force to Genoa; without inventing much they invent loincloths copied from Madeira, shoes copied from Ceylon, and sticks of incense copied from Bactria but placed in the mouth. As for the amorous rites of the natives, the clerks in Isabella’s workshops only had to leaf through the ledgers of the Old and New Inquisitions, but aslso the works of Tertullian where he denounces the excesses of the Gnostics & their collective mating practices, involving devorations, anthropophagy, child sacrifices, sodomies complicated by the age of the subjects and their numerousness. They plunge into these annals as if into the reservoir of all possible combinations, the imagination being for them but a principle of permutations, and nothing else. The Cathars, before they retracted, addressed their torturers with periphrases we find almost unchanged in the accounts of many impostors returned from the New Indies. We can see that the promoters of these lands under the horizon did not have to look very far for their lying words, which they simply cut from books, sometimes with their images, combining them freely with those old lullabies that our grandmothers recited now and then, no longer believing in them, but transmitting them all the same since one must talk of something if only to fill the day’s idle hours.
By reading these works, by plundering the archives, in other words by resurrecting these long dormant voices, each can see for himself that this world arbitrarily pulled out of the sea is neither a new idea, no an ingenious invention of our admirals, but rehashed legends, dressed up in drama and luxury to appeal to modern appetites, embellished sometimes with the help of parades of passive, nude savages, insinuated by the conquerors—the sole novelty these crude, chronically celibate men are capable of inventing to excite their fantasies, nay, the consummation of these fantasies in a tightly clenched fist, since love, discovery, and imagination are for them matters of force. No one can convince us that the Atlantic islands are an original idea, or that sailors from Lisbon or Genoa are telling for the first time of western archipelagoes adrift on the tenebrous sea. There are in our libraries so many allusions to Atlantis, to the voyages of St. Brendan, to the Seven Cities, to Ante Illa, and to the island of Brazil; so many now tattered books tell of the drifting of the Apostles of God toward the unbelievers and scorpions of the east and of the west, so many tattered books describe the walls of legendary cities and islands in the shape of tortoises: you would swear that the adventure of the new world were naught else than a hardly embellished copy of our old legends, a copy graven on the sea, instead of on paper: farce for farce, we could have been just as glad with a book.
From Pierre Senges’s novel The Major Refutation, new in English translation by Jacob Siefring from Contra Mundum Press.
The narrator is Antonio de Guevara, unsigned author of Refutatio major (c. 1517-25), an argument (?!) against the really real reality of The New World.
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[…] I’m crawling through Pierre Senges’s The Major Refutation (Eng. trans. by Jacob Siefring), mostly because I have to look up names, look for images, get lost in early depictions of “The New World” (and, uh, the refutation of the New World). . So far, it reminds me of the kind of fantasy-based literary criticism that I love: Eco, Borges, Calvino. Excerpt here. […]