WHITECROW BORDERLAND

Dialogism

Note 4: Bakhtin: Vertical Time. 4/6/99

Mikhail Bakhtin makes an important distinction between the way contemporary perceptions of time and reality differ from the way people perceived the same things 300 years ago. He argues, for instance, that during the late, or high, Middle Ages the image most people had of the world was constrained by a general lack of knowledge of how far and wide any of the land and sea masses then discovered actually reached. The northern areas of Africa were known but no European had knowledge of what existed beyond the vast desert to the south of the Mediterranean coast of the continent. India and China to the east had been discovered but very little actual knowledge of the true spatial relationship between Europe and the Far East had been worked out successfully. The Americas, of course, were not known to exist at all and when Columbus reached Hispaniola at the end of the fifteenth century he thought he had uncovered a western route to China and India. The absence of any concrete and specific knowledge of the world then, according to Bakhtin, led Europeans to create images and concepts that filled in the gaps with fabulous, even bizarre, conceptualizations of what those unknown areas were like. Chaucer's Squire's Tale, written around 1385, is one example of how fabulous Far Eastern kingdoms came to be regarded by Europeans at the end of the Middle Ages. Bakhtin puts it this way in his essay, "The Bildungsroman," which deals with Goethe's conceptualization of space and time in the Romantic Period:

"As little as three centuries ago, the "entire world" was a unique symbol that could not be adequately represented by any model, by any map or globe. In this symbol, the "entire world," visible and cognized, embodied and real, was a small and detached patch of terrestrial space and an equally small and severed segment of real time. Everything else vanished in the fog, became mixed up and interwoven with other worlds--separate, ideal, fantastic, and utopian worlds" (43, in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays).

The fact that Thomas More (1516) and Francis Bacon (1626) both described utopian worlds that existed somewhere in (More), or beyond (Bacon), the Western hemisphere at the beginning, and well into, the Renaissance illustrates the power such images held over the spatial and temporal perceptions which existed in European consciousness. The so-called "Letter" of Prester John that circulated widely in Europe at the time also reported the existence of a fabulously wealthy Christian kingdom that was supposed to be located somewhere in Africa or in the Far East. Mandeville's account of Prester John's kingdom emphasizes the fabulous wealth and plenty that existed under his Christian rule. In Mandeville's description of Prester John's throne, for instance, we learn that there are seven steps ("degrees") leading up to the level where the king is seated:

"And all these degrees be bordered with fine gold, with the tother precious stones, set with great pearls orient. And the sides of the siege of his throne be of emeralds, and bordered with gold full nobly, and dubbed with other precious stones and great pearls. And all the pillars in his chamber be of fine gold with precious stones, and with many carbuncles, that give great light upon the night to all people."

One possible way to account for the wealth enjoyed by this Christian king, a wealth that clearly surpasses that of ordinary earthly kings (Richard II, who was king in England just after Mandeville wrote his account, was continually plagued by the absence of any disposable income), can be traced to the fact that his kingdom was located near one of the four rivers that flowed out of Eden. Though unspecified in Mandeville's text, the river Pison issues forth from a place in Eden more than adequately supplied with gold and precious stones (Genesis 2: 11-12). A second river, Gihon, flows from Eden toward Ethiopia, where Prester John's kingdom was thought by some people to be.

Bakhtin goes on to discuss the effects the medieval perception of otherworldly kingdoms, universally connected in one way or another with the Kingdom of God, had on European abilities to conceptualize the real world in which they actually lived. He says that

"the otherworldly and fantastic not only filled in the gaps of that impoverished reality, and conjoined and rounded out that patch of reality into a mythological whole; the otherworldly also disorganized and bled this present reality. The otherworldly admixture absorbed and broke down the real compactness of the world and prevented the real world and real history from gathering themselves together and rounding themselves out into a unified, compact, and complete whole" (43).

One effect that belief in the existence of these fantastic kingdoms filled with unimaginable wealth produced, apart from the one Bakhtin notes here, namely that reality itself never became a unified and completely whole image in European consciousness in and of itself, concerns the fact that the actual discovery of unknown land masses, especially the Western hemisphere, contributed to the notion that Eden itself might well have been found by European explorers. When news that the Spanish conquistadors had found civilizations in the New World that possessed more wealth than most European nations reached England and France, an ever-rising tide of greed was set in motion that soon overwhelmed native American cultures with wave after wave of white settlers. Myths, like the ones associated with Prester John, coupled with the absence of any real knowledge of the actual physical world, the idea that Eden itself was on the verge of being realized, either at home, because of the influx of new-found wealth, or abroad, because there was a vast and "empty" continent susceptible to unfettered exploitation, fueled a passion for potential fulfillment of Eurocentric ascendancy, a ride on the vertical shaft of time and history into heaven (on earth) itself, as it were, that quickly turned lethal, homicidal, and ultimately genocidal, when native Americans began to object to the appropriation of everything that had always already been theirs.

Bakhtin puts it in these terms:

"The otherworldly future, severed from the horizontal of terrestrial space and time, rose as an otherworldly vertical to the real flow of time, bleeding the real future and terrestrial space as an arena for this real future, ascribing symbolic significance to everything, and devaluing and discarding everything that did not yield to symbolic interpretation" (43).

The point to be taken here, of course, is contained entirely in the fact that Europeans very quickly realized that the Americas were not Eden, and that the hemisphere was not a place that concealed Eden. This fact is symbolized, so to speak, in the first four words of Bacon's The New Atlantis: "We sailed from Peru. . . ."; a statement that clearly places the eventual discovery of the true Christian kingdom, which his sailors find out in the Pacific, well beyond the limits of the Western hemisphere. When the Americas lost the "symbolic significance" that Eurocentric vision and greed attributed to them, they were devalued and discarded in every way that devaluation can occur. In essence, the New World became little more than a vast warehouse of stored goods that Europeans appropriated to build the wealth and power which enabled them to spread their life-denying, master-race theories of Christian superiority into every corner of the native world. India, Africa, and many parts of the Far East, like the whole of the Western hemisphere before them, became mere fruit for the labor of building the European master-civilization that has dominated and exploited, virtually to extinction, all native cultures and all native resources on the earth. In exchange, native people have been recompensed, as Sir George Peckham points out, by mere exposure to the glories of the Christian ideology that condemns them to death for not being citizens of the Garden of Eden after all.

Bakhtin's explanation for this process of devaluing a falsely perceived image of the Other, as European accounts of otherworldly kingdoms certainly were, makes complete sense of the complex set of issues involved in understanding why the "discovery" of the New World at the end of the fifteenth century turned genocidal when native Americans began to frustrate European greed for their possessions.


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