Begin by imagining a scene—of Christopher Columbus on his third voyage. The year is 1498. It is six years since The Admiral of the Ocean Sea ran into the islands of the Caribbean, returned in triumph to dazzle Spain and Europe with tales of his “Indies,” and attempted a second voyage to colonize them, with disastrous results for both himself and the indigenous peoples. He has neither found the gold he was sure he would find there, nor have his Indios turned out as he first thought these “natural Christians” would: they have proved quite willing to defend themselves, and quite unwilling to be enslaved, or even work. Since the Spaniards who have shipped out to settle Española (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) have refused to work either, and show nothing but contempt and loathing for the place, Columbus and his brother Bartolomeo have resorted to draconian measures to try to pacify the island (with all the horror and murder that entailed) and obtain the payoff the Admiral has continually promised, but not found.
Now this, the third voyage, is designed to take the search farther south—to find the passage to India Columbus is sure exists, and to find the wealth he is even surer dwells in the South: the land and/or islands of the antipodes where everything runs counter to the quotidian world of Europe, where headless men walk upside down, and Amazons rule, and gold is not scarce but plentiful as grass. His hope is that this will be a third voyage in every sense of that magical, trinitarian number.
Imagine him where he is, then: having successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the third time, he has sighted Trinidad, the island off the coast of Venezuela, and named it after the holy Trinity. He has navigated the strait between Trinidad and what he takes to be yet another large island but is really the huge South American continent, to enter what appears to be more ocean but is really an enclosed gulf, the Gulf of Paria, formed by Trinidad and the continent. He has sailed north in this Gulf forty miles or so to another narrow exit from this strange sea, a sea where salty ocean water mixes with what seems a miraculous quantity of fresh water. He doesn’t attempt to brave this exit yet, though. He decides to go south, coasting southwest in this tropical, balmy wonderland, as gorgeous a place as he has ever seen or even dreamed of, with palm trees and exotic fruit and natives dressed strangely, and strangely light-skinned—lighter-skinned are these southern Indios, he says, than those in Española; lighter-skinned, too, than the natives of Africa who live at the same parallel, where the searing African heat contrasts remarkably with the balmy climate here. He heads southwest to search out a western exit, the strait that he is sure will take him around what must be a southern island off Asia, and to fabulous India and the lands to its south where he is sure there exists, again parallel with Africa, wealth undreamed of.
The Admiral is not without anxiety about all this. He is carrying three shiploads of supplies for his brother, desperate for them on Española. He is worried about this strange fresh-water sea he’s in—a sea he has now christened the Golfo de la Ballena—the gulf of the whale. And the name, as Columbus’s names always are, is prophetic, mythic. He is Jonah in the belly of the whale, Columbus is now, and he knows it. He has entered it via a dangerous strait—he names it the Boca de la Sierpe, the mouth of the serpent—which, shortly after it is entered, has struck him with a tidal wave so violent and terrifying that years later he could still, he wrote, “feel that fear in my body lest the ship be swamped when she came beneath it.” And while he has found a northern exit, it too smells dangerous because it marks a meeting of two conflicting waters—the ocean trying to enter and the fresh water trying to exit—and so he again mythically names this one the Boca del Dragon: the mouth of the Dragon.
So imagine him now, a European breasting an unknown continent in a puzzling fresh-water sea, caught between the mouths of, on one hand, a serpent and on the other, a dragon, with a seafloor he can see is constantly shoaling—forming dangerous sandbars that can trap him, run him aground, maroon him forever in the belly of the whale. In truth, it is hard for us to imagine now, what it must feel like to be under sail in sight of land whose location and extent and nature one has not the slightest notion of. No charts. No familiar landmarks at all. Nothing. The sense must be one of total disorientation; dread.
For Columbus, the moment is even more dizzying, for he had the habit, when at sea in a new place, of staying awake almost constantly, for weeks at a time. On this voyage, his absolute fascination with the North Star has kept him even more wide-eyed and wild-eyed than usual. By sighting on Polaris at nightfall, at midnight, and at dawn, a 15th century mariner could derive some sense of his latitude. Longitude was a matter for instinct alone, but latitude Columbus could determine by the reading at nightfall. It was in this way that he had concluded he was at about the latitude of Sierra Leone in Africa, near the equator. The trouble was, he was also finding a huge disparity between the reading of his star at nightfall and at dawn—some ten degrees—which meant to him something very strange indeed. It meant he had entered a new zone. A special zone, a literally higher zone, though he wouldn’t make sense of it until later. What rolled over him now was that everything was strange: he was in a temperate place—like Andalusia in May—when he should’ve been burning up at the equator. He had seen people who were lighter-skinned rather than darker than those natives he’d seen twice before on Hispaniola. And all was surpassingly beautiful. And puzzling. Enchanting, and dangerous.
Then he got the news from a ship he had sent to reconnoiter: the exit at the bottom of the gulf (the South American continent itself), which he was sure was the strait to India, turned out to be, appeared to be—a river! Several river mouths. Huge. Unprecedented in their hugeness. A monstrous flow of fresh water was entering the Whale Gulf, so it had to be a river (it was in fact the Orinoco, part of the Amazon). But at first the Admiral refused to believe it. So much water was unheard of, not even the Nile or the Ganges produced such volume. And Columbus was insightful enough as a geographer to realize what it meant: such a huge river would require not a mere island, but the drainage from a huge land mass, a whole continent. Or a miracle.
Confusion. It was all so confusing and he was so exhausted and pressed for time. And then there were the natives. His men had gone ashore. The natives welcomed them in their ‘naturally Christian’, beautiful way. Fed them, feasted them, made love with them, gave them chicha—the maize liquor of the Indians; in short, treated them like gods and begged them to stay. Promised that there was much gold over the hills (though frustratingly, the metal they actually possessed was a mixture of gold and copper—guanin they called it—and useless from Columbus’s point of view.) Showed them pearls, enormous quantities of pearls which, the natives indicated, could be had by the bushel on the ocean side.
Pearls. The pearl of great price. He had found it, had Columbus. It was not exactly what he had been hoping for, praying for. It was not the strait or the gold (though in fact there would later turn out to be Andean gold and silver in quantities that even Columbus would have found miraculous). But it was something. And that something, all these various somethings breaking over him like that monstrous tidal wave, breaks him.
Or rather, something in Columbus breaks here. Something breaks. The tension of not knowing, of not finding what the monarchs have been pressuring him so hard to find, and of now being lost, trapped in dangerous shoaling waters that make no sense, land that makes no sense, climate that makes no sense, his hopes once again dashed, his beliefs once again hard up against intractable, damnable facts—something breaks. He cannot muscle the new world here as he has elsewhere, as he had on the second voyage when he had forced his crew to swear that Cuba was not an island as everything indicated, but a mainland. No, he cannot. And so the new world breaks in upon him, and he knows, though he will to the end of his days deny it, that this new world is, in fact, a new world. Another orb entirely, an otro mundo, he calls it in his letter to the Spanish monarchs, and it is paradisal. In fact, this is as close as Columbus ever gets to a real, an authentic paradise, which in some part of himself he knows. Knows he has come to the end, has completed his quest, completed himself, and should simply stay. He should stay here in paradise. Be in paradise. Give in to the immobility, which to him is paralysis, of Paradise.
And yet. He does not. That also breaks. He does not stay because he cannot; he has to get moving again, he knows, or die, the whole Indies project will die. So he orders his men to return to the ship, leave the women (save for four Indians he orders seized as “specimens”), leave the chicha, leave the heavenly feel of being treated as gods, and be ready to sail at midnight. And he does. He sails north to the Boca del Dragon, stalls terrified by the clash of waters and winds unable to go back or forward or move at all—until somehow, at the most perilous, paralyzed moment, when all three ships are about to be cast upon the rocks by the currents, feels himself miraculously popped out of the strait, out of the belly of the whale through the mouth of the dragon he is popped like a baby birthed from the womb, “without a scratch.”
For when God wishes that one or many should live, Las Casas later paraphrases the Admiral, water becomes their medicine [instead of their poison.]
Thus reborn, the Admiral exults in the movement of sail and wind, of being on the move, always happier Columbus was to be on the ocean and so in motion right past the pearls he directs all three ships as if afraid to stop, hoping he can retrieve them on another trip but never doing so at all. Others harvested his precious pearls, and the non-sailor Vespucci, the very next year, embarked on the voyage that had his name affixed to the entire landmass Columbus had found. But nevermind, without a pause, he heads securely north in what will become his greatest feat of dead reckoning ever, hitting from a strange longitude the island of Española within a few miles of where he has aimed himself.
Which wasn’t even the most important thing. More important is what happens on the way. Moving, he is at last moving. And looking back to where he has been. And looking back, he is writing about it in his journal, and meditating on the strangeness he has just witnessed—the North Star variations, and the temperate climate, and the paradisal place its people called ‘Paria,’ ‘Paria’—Paraiso—that’s it! Where he has just been is, it must have been: Paradise. The Earthly Paradise. For do not all the holy books say the Earthly Paradise stands at the farthest point in the East, that it is temperate, that there is a huge outpouring of waters which makes it the source of all the great rivers? They do. Which must be where that huge volume of fresh water was coming from, the heights of Paradise, and that’s where I was, writes Columbus looking backwards. I have been near Paradise. The more I reason on the subject, the more satisfied I become that the terrestrial paradise is situated on the spot I have described.
Now. Most commentators have found this material embarrassing. Columbus really lost it here, they say. These mad ravings after losing all that sleep must be an aberration in an otherwise great mind, a prototype Renaissance mind that at this moment reverted to naïve medievalism. But in a real sense, a mythopoetic sense, they are wrong. This is the essential Columbus. The rational, that is, rationalizing Columbus. Who cannot simply be, but must think, must do, must make something. For the point is this. Columbus was, in fact, in a kind of paradise. The most paradisal place he had ever been, or ever would be. Or perhaps anyone ever will be: in a world fresh, new, unfettered, unfiltered, unspoiled. He was there. He was invited to stay. He wanted to stay (and his men certainly did). But he did not stay. He could not. Could not just be. Which is what one does in Paradise. Be in and of one’s place.
Rather, Columbus had to get moving. He had to move and do something. Make something. He had to make Paradise in his mind. He had to look back, mentally, and decide, ‘that’s what it was, I have been in Paradise.’ Unable to simply be where he was, he had to get away, and then look back and mentally create it, recreate it, write about it. Make an artifact of it. And, in fact, his artifact endures because his evocation of the new world as paradise, as the site of the Earthly Paradise, is the first move in the long western myth we are all still living—that Paradise is in fact possible here on earth. Do-able. Utopia, all our modern utopias stem from Columbus. And the attempt to make utopias on earth, including socialism, communism, and the American experiment itself (including all its various utopias, like Brook Farm) all stem from this moment. Which is how all the centennials have presented Columbus: as engenderer of the American myth, the paradise-on-earth-can-be-made-by-man myth—to be created first with mental, imaginative moves, then with politico-cultural moves, and more recently with the scientific, technological moves that define our present.
Which is also to say that, Vespucci notwithstanding, it is Columbus who ‘makes’ America, Columbus who, thereby, creates every Italian immigrant. Consider: In the Italian villages from which most migrants came, a person, no matter how poor or disenfranchised he might be—and most were dirt poor and totally disenfranchised—still had a place. A place to be. As a human, as a Christian, everyone had a being, an identity in place and of place that went back centuries. Of the soil of which they were made. Of the local stone of which their homes were made. Of the village of which their families were made. And knowing this in their bones allowed them to have an identity, a being, regardless of what they did or did not do. Regardless of earthly achievement or possessions, in other words.
When they arrived in America, all that changed, and identity was lost. For them, as for all Europeans, America was the place of no place; the place not of being, but of doing. You are what you do, what you accomplish. It was not enough to simply be a human living, being in place. One had to “make America.” This is the expression the Italian immigrants coined, fare l’America, and it is a beautiful and multi-leveled expression. It means to “make it” economically, yes, to make money, which is the sign in America always that one has ‘done something.’ But it also means to make America itself, remake it, make its roads, yes, which is to make its culture, its society, its government, its way of being a paradise. Remake it, retake it out of the wilderness to remake it on the ideal model. Flatten it. Make roads as grids that cut straight through the natural landscape, not circling villages on hilltops according to the natural terrain, as in their native Italy, but flattening the whole thing, including its native people. And in the process, making, remaking oneself, flattening oneself and one’s gestural, expressional self as well as remaking oneself as a flat-out and flattened-out mover, maker, do-er, shaker.
And for all this, the pattern laid down by Columbus was the ur-process. Columbus in Paria could not simply be; could not simply be in Paradise, be in his place. He had to flee, move on, and then make paradise, think it, construct it as a mental artifact that would have great resonance in the world he was desperate to move up in, the world of great accomplishments by great men whose names, like those of the great Romans even then being resuscitated by the Italian Renaissance, were remembered. And that is precisely what he did. Once out of Paria and away, he looked back on the information he had, and made sense of it by consulting his books and ‘realizing’ that the place he had been, higher than normal as the North Star proved, was close to heaven because the earth must have a bulge right there, and the bulge, the pear shape, the nipple on the breast of the globe (all his images of mothers are significant), was the site of the Earthly Paradise and he, Columbus, had been approaching it by a gradual ascent. Had found it. And written about it. He wrote about it in his letter to the Spanish Queen:
..but this western half of the world, I maintain, is like the half of a very round pear, having a raised projection for the stalk, as I have already described, or like a woman’s nipple on a round ball…I do not suppose that the earthly paradise is in the form of a rugged mountain, as the descriptions of it have made it appear, but that it is on the summit of the spot, which I have described as being in the form of the stalk of a pear; the approach to it from a distance must be by a constant and gradual ascent… (Four Voyages to the New World: pp. 131, 137)
And writing about it, in his view, made it so.
He could not, in sum, be at home in Paria, in Paradise. He could be only the idea of it, the conjuring it and writing about it looking back.
This is the tragedy of us all, particularly us Americans. We cannot simply be. Cannot simply be in place, because the paradise which is being-in-place is not available in America—the place of no place, as the name itself suggests. Named for Amerigo Vespucci, the word “america,” as analyzed by Djelal Kadir in Columbus and the Ends of the Earth, parses into several roots from Greek—the negative “a,” plus the root, “meri”, plus the genitive ending for earth, “ge” (from Amerigo)—all of which scans as “no-place-earth.” America: no-place land. And if we look closely at America and the settlement of the North American landscape by European immigrants, we see that, in fact, America has always been interpreted by Europeans, acted upon by Europeans as empty, as lacking, as a land of no-place. As U-topia, which itself scans as no-place. And what this suggests is that Americans from the beginning have never been interested in the place as place. As land. As land having meaning and history and depth, as it did to its indigenous peoples. No, the land and its peoples have interested Americans mainly as obstructions blocking movement across and through it to take from it and them whatever could be taken as fast as it could be taken and sold. Land and people as commodities.
In this, as in all things, Columbus in Paria is the progenitor. For if he had indeed found Paradise, if he had been, if not there, at least within striking distance, why did he not stay? Why could he not stay? Peter Mason, in Deconstructing America, offers a clue: “the siren-like hold which the natural world of America exerts on Columbus can be shaken off only by the process of disenchantment, by which Columbus transforms the wealth of natural beauty into a commodity” (p. 170). The enchantment of Paradise requires a disenchantment. Otherwise, we fear, we fall back or regress into paralysis, into nothingness, into the annihilation of all boundaries, all oppositions. And one way to disenchant ourselves from all this is to ‘transform the wealth of natural beauty into a commodity.’ We destroy the natural topography to mine the earth, we flatten the natural topography to grid it and industrialize it for agriculture, we poison the soil and its variety with a pervasive monoculture, and then we destroy once-bountiful agricultural land to fashion endless, invariant, vacant suburbs.
Making America, in this sense, is making America empty; void of all that makes for place, makes for a place worth living in, makes it a Geography of Nowhere, as James Kunstler puts it. So while Columbus’ journey is, indeed, our enduring myth—that is, that Paradise is actually an achievable thing, here on earth—the irony is that that achievement ultimately, and disastrously becomes the achievement of no-place. Or perhaps this is not ironic at all; perhaps it was implicit in the journey, in the language of that journey from the beginning. Paradise, unlike Utopia, is not something we do or make. It is not no-place. Paradise is precisely place, originally a garden. A place that makes us, keeps us in place, provides us with who we are, maintains us as we are. And it is Columbus who shows us just how perilous-seeming the reality of that can be, and how urgent appears the need to flee from it.