“Vae victims”

Perhaps because it is itself so completely ahistorical, the left has a great need for history, which it proceeds to squeeze with the fiendish rapacity it would attribute to the Tropicana fruit juice corporation. Of the three books under review here, all purportedly of a historical nature, only one of them—David Henige’s—really is a work of history. And only one of them—Mr. Henige’s again—appears to be the product of an adult mind. The past three years, in particular, have not been kind to leftism and its perpetrators, and The Conquest of Paradise, by the aging New Leftist Kirkpatrick Sale, is an indication of the degree to which the left, having failed in its attempt at revolutionizing Western civilization by means of the economic argument, is currently wielding the ecological one to the same end. The Conquest of Paradise is emphatically not a contribution to historical literature; rather it is an example of contemporary political ecology, culminating in a full and uncritical endorsement of the absurd conclusions developed by “ecologists” like Bill McKibben in The End of Nature and Dave Foreman, formerly of Earth First!, in Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. (Sale, among whose previous books is a history of Students for a Democratic Society, belongs to the New York Green Party, of which he was a founder.) Indeed McKibben—a former editor at the New Yorker with no reputed competence, to my knowledge, in the history of New World exploration—has provided “advance praise” for The Conquest of Paradise. “In his impressive book,” McKibben intones, “Kirkpatrick Sale shows that the first voyages of ‘discovery’ offer little for us to celebrate. This is not inspiring history, but it is absolutely necessary history; for the sad patterns set in 1492 govern our relationship with the New World to this day. Perhaps the 500th anniversary will begin with a new truth-telling. If so, this book will have been an important cause.” That Sale’s book and McKibben’s comments accurately represent the leftist mood as it builds toward the Columbian quincentennial next year is confirmed by the recent denunciation of Columbus by the National Council of Churches, which described his achievement as not a “discovery” but an “invasion”—a word that Kirkpatrick Sale regularly employs in the pages of The Conquest of Paradise. Thus Joseph Sobran’s “Hive,” and Harold Rosenberg’s “herd of independent minds,” begin to buzz and to low on cue.

The truth of an observation made frequently by the editor of this journal—that the root of all leftism is the hatred of one’s own kind—is substantiated by Mr. Sale and his silly but maleficent book. A wise man is philosophical in contemplating the past and polemical in his anticipation of the future; the fundamental dishonesty of leftist “historical” writing lies not just in its polemicization of history, but in its pretense to having a genuine interest in the subject at all. Sale’s thesis, argued with an almost risible onesidedness and incompleteness, is that late medieval Europe at the dawn of the modern age had made itself virtually uninhabitable by its violent, acquisitive, anthropocentric, and nature-hating tendencies, that it felt impelled as a result to search out new worlds to conquer as a means of releasing pent pressures, acquiring more of the material riches its insatiable appetite demanded, and finding “salvation” of sorts. In the first act of what developed as a world-historical tragedy, the new lands its outriders stumbled upon were home to a gentle, benevolent, peace loving, and “biologically centered” people, who lived in egalitarian harmony with each other and with their sacred mother, the earth. Arriving upon the outer shores of “what they dimly realized was the land of Paradise,” the Europeans knew no response beyond the theft, murder, genocide, enslavement, pillage, and environmental destruction to which they had recourse, while passing up “a chance for the people of Europe to find a new anchorage in a new country . . . and thus finally the way to redeem the world.” Instead of bringing redemption, Europe imposed hegemony; instead of adopting “the biological outlook on life,” it instilled the curse of Christianity (though Sale is not so forthright as to call it that) and the man-centered, Faustian imperative that Sale believes Christianity encourages and that he argues is likely to prove fatal to the entire planet. “There is only one way,” Kirkpatrick Sale insists, “to live in America, and there can be only one way, and that is as Americans—the original Americans—for that is what the earth of America demands. We have tried for five centuries to resist that simple truth. We resist it further only at risk of the imperilment—worse, the likely destruction—of the earth.”

It is an insult to the memory of Alfred Knopf, who loved historical literature and acquired and published many distinguished examples of it, that the firm he founded should have made itself responsible for a work that not only falls scandalously short of grappling with history but locates itself in a dimension lying beyond even reality. And it is an insult to that minute portion of the American public that reads (and buys) serious works of history that the University Press of Kentucky should have published Barry Lopez’s The Rediscovery of North America, amounting to 52 slyly unnumbered pages of-text (I counted) and approximately 6,240 words, and charge fifteen dollars for it! It is true that Lopez enjoys a considerable literary reputation; true also that this book, like any other of his that I have looked at, neither justifies nor explains that reputation.

As with The Conquest of Paradise, the thrust of The Rediscovery of America (which is dedicated to the memory of Rachel Carson) is more ecological than historical. Barry Lopez describes Columbus’s landing as “a process . . . we now call an incursion”; like Sale, he regards what followed “for decades” as “the acts of criminals.” He is entirely in agreement with Sale when he writes, “What Columbus began . . . what Pizarro and Cortes and Coronado perpetuated, is not isolated in the past. We see a continuance in the present of this brutal, avaricious behavior, a profound abuse of the place [America] during the course of centuries of demand for material wealth. We need only look for verification at the acid-burned forests of New Hampshire, at the cauterized soils of Iowa, or at the collapse of the San Joaquin Valley into caverns emptied of their fossil waters.” Like Sale, he thinks that the real wealth to have been gathered from the New World was “the cultivation and achievement of local knowledge,” the “thousand distinct cultures, a thousand mutually unintelligible languages, a thousand ways of knowing”; “languages, epistemologies, books, ceremonies, systems of logic and metaphysics”; the opportunity “to develop a philosophy of place,” to learn “the litanies of this landscape”; the chance to ask “the people or the animals or the plants or the rivers or the mountains: What do you think of this? We said what we thought, and bent to our will whatever resisted.” (Lopez quotes approvingly the words of a Koyukon Athapascan Indian he met in Alaska, who “sternly” told a friend, in Lopez’s hearing, “‘Every animal knows way more than you do.'”) Unlike Sale, though, Barry Lopez sees hope, “[n]ow that we have begun to listen to the land, to take into account in our planning the biological and chemical responses of a particular landscape. . . .” “[T]his violent corruption,” he argues, “needn’t define us. Looking back on the Spanish incursion, we can take the measure of the horror and assert that we will not be bound by it. We can say, yes, this happened, and we are ashamed. We repudiate the greed. We recognize and condemn the evil. And we see how the harm has been perpetuated. But, five hundred years later, we intend to mean something else in the world.”

Since I am one of those people for whom it makes no difference whether Columbus first landed in the Bahamas 491, 497, or an even 500 years ago, I was—to the extent that I had thought about it at all—counting on ignoring the quincentennial. Of course I was being naive in the extreme, and having experienced as a journalist the American Bicentennial of 15 years ago, I should have guessed what was coming. In 1976, at least, we did not have the unholy alliance of the environmentalists with the left sectarians to contend with. Today, the combination of the Greens and the economic and political left, plus the entire spectrum of aggrieved Third Worldists, promises to be very wearisome, bringing antinomianism—and, as we are seeing, neopaganism—to a fever pitch worldwide. In 1992 it will be either useless, or hazardous to one’s health, or both, to remind ideologically besotted audiences 1) that the idea of the Noble Savage remains as demonstrably a myth as it ever was; 2) that all men are sinners, the civilized along with the uncivilized, but that a savage was—and continues to be—a savage, even though many savages are good men; 3) that the basis for the European belief in the subjection of nature by humanity is to be found less in Genesis (St. Augustine wrote that “increase and multiply” referred to “physical signs and manifestations,” as well as to “thoughts which our minds conceive”) than in the New Testament, which teaches us that we must replace the principle of our natural life with that of our spiritual being; 4) that Western religious and secular learning are quite competent to refute the claim of Kirkpatrick Sale, Dave Foreman, and other modern “ecologists” that man is simply another biological species, on a plane of moral equality with bears, trees, and insects; 5) that the separation of the European cultural tradition from nature does not come from the Bible, that it is a defect of the virtues of that tradition, and that this defect is presently being overcome by the West, even as the former savages of the Third World, in their fascination with what Jacques Ellul calls technique, are doing their happy best to destroy the environments in which they themselves live; 6) that, though slavery were the worst evil imaginable (St. Paul tells slaves to obey their masters), slavery, far from being invented by Europeans, was mitigated to serfdom during the Middle Ages by Christian Europe; 7) that, far more than the Europeans who bought and transported black slaves to America, black Africans were culpable for selling their own people to the white “invaders” of the African continent; 8) that, Kirkpatrick Sale to the contrary, there is in fact plenty of evidence that the Indian tribes of the Americas did not learn violence, antisocial behavior, and “ecological hubris” from the European conquerors and settlers, nor were they impelled by them to resort to these things by the destruction of their aboriginal culture (Paul Valentine, in an article published some months ago in the Washington Post, concluded that, “The entry of Europeans onto this scene 500 years ago was . . . in an historic sense, simply an elaboration, an extension, of what had been occurring during the millennia before their arrival—expropriation, war, imperialism”); and finally that, even if the aborigines did learn these things from the Europeans, they were plenty quick and hotly enthusiastic learners.

It will be useless and unwelcome also to suggest that a partial but peculiarly distortive view of history results inevitably from the attempt, when inspired by resentment of one’s own people, to see the world from the standpoint of alien cultures. In other words, a lot of plain truths are going to be taboo next year. Perhaps prudent commentators who feel compelled to be anti-anti-quincentennialists will choose to defend the proposition—uncontroversial by comparison—that the world really is flat, after all.

In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the First Voyage, by David Henige, is an interesting and well-written textual criticism of the famous diario from Columbus’s first sortie into the Americas, as purportedly transcribed by Fray Bartolome de las Cases, the priest who later became the eloquent defender of the Indians in the hands of the conquistadores. By comparison with Kirkpatrick Sale and Barry Lopez, Henige has chosen for himself a restricted canvas indeed; but how good to read the work of an author who knows what he is writing about!

In his book, Henige argues that a variety of errors and misstatements suggests that the diario may no longer be accepted as comprising Columbus’s own words, or even a faithful transcription of them; that the account it gives of the first voyage may not be an accurate description; and that the identity of the Bahamian island on which Columbus landed may never be discovered, or discoverable. Charging that historians, faced by the Columbian enigma, have been effectively tempted by foregone conclusions, sentiment, and the urge to special pleading, Henige takes as his epigraph for chapter one the words of Peter Hulme: “Columbus scholarship is a fertile ground for that peculiar academic blindness whereby an interesting but indefensible hypothesis is followed to its logically necessary but increasingly lunatic conclusions.” 


[The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, by Kirkpatrick Sale (New York: Knopf) 453 pp., $24.95]


[The Rediscovery of North America, by Barry Lopez (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky) Unpaginated, $15.00]


[In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the First Voyage, by David Henige (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press) 359 pp., $24.95]