Stages in the Recognition of the Other

by Luis Villoro

Translation by Sierra Skye Nilsson

The main problem with a plurality of cultures is the difficulty of reciprocal recognition. The encounter between the western and aboriginal cultures of America has been the event in the history of humanity that has shown the terrible drama that this problem can lead to with the most force. This chapter and the next are about this moment. Its testimony will serve, I hope, to shine some light upon the challenge, in our epoch, of the recognition of the other.

Upon arriving at the plateau of Anáhuac, the Europeans find themselves, for the first time in their history, before a complex civilization that is completely foreign. As far away as they were in the West, they had accumulated news over the centuries about the other pagan cultures that allowed for the Europeans to situate them. Always, there seems to be a feature of them that could be considered analogous to the Christians. Others, like Judaism or Islam, had common spiritual roots or were, at least, a war-tested contender; other more remote ones, like the Hindu or Chinese, were known by historian and traveler stories, by sporadic commercial or diplomatic contact, or yet by the indirect influence of their old wisdom in some Western thinkers. For centuries, since Ancient Greece, Europe knew of their remote presence; it had learned to live and dream of them. Now, instead, is an encounter with a distinct human reality. First, the Indians are naked, as if coming from paradise at the first instant of creation. Next is the strongest shock: a strange civilization that combines the most subtle refinement with the bloodiest cruelty. It does not seem like anything known, nor does it remember learned notions. It lacks the elements that would appear to be conditions of all superior civilizations: it does not know iron, the wheel, or the horse, for example. Regardless, it reaches a moral and artistic elevation, an unusual political “police.” Order and wisdom coexist with bloody actions in honor of horrific stone images. The European does not yet know if this is a front of civilization or barbarism. All the stories of conquistadores and reporters reflect a fascination before an all “new” world, raised from the water, pure and strange, inhospitable and foreign, mixed and contradicting feelings of admiration and horror at the same time. Indian culture is “the never before seen,” the radical other.

It is impossible to deal with the other without understanding them, this is true more so when we want to dominate them. The necessity to understand a foreign culture is born in a will to dominate.

For the first time in its history, the West formulates the problem of difference in America. Is it possible, in principle, to understand the entirely different? What are the limits of understanding? Can they be overcome? The 16th century, in New Spain, offers a privileged laboratory to answer these questions.

If a whole culture’s system of beliefs is based, ultimately, on a way of seeing the world according to certain values and basic categories, in an attempt of comprehension of the other we can distinguish, at least, three different levels. The first level of comprehension of the other consists of conjuring its otherness, that is to say, to translate it into terms of known objects and situations of our own world, susceptible to fall under familiar categories and values, within the framework of our “figure of the world.”

Understanding the other by means of the categories in which the typical interpretation of the world is expressed assumes the establishment of analogies between features of the foreign culture and others similar to ours, thus eliminating the difference. This is what the Europeans have done since Columbus and Cortés. The unfaithful Americans assimilate to the Moors and their conquest prolongs the Christian crusade; a “cacique” is a king, when not an envoy of the Great Khan; the “tlatoani” is an emperor in a Roman way; an Aztec temple is a mosque; their idols, other Molochs; their cities, new Venices or Sevillas. But the analogy with known terms has a limit. There are deep features of a foreign culture that resist to fall under the usual categories, because they do not fit inside of the subject’s world, which sets the mark and the limits of the understandable. These features that are untranslatable then constitute the negative par excellence.

Given that they are outside of our “figure of the world,” they must be judged either as something prior to all culture and history, or as something that contradicts and denies culture. This is why, the interpretation wavers between two poles. At one, the Indian in his otherness is seen as a natural being, Adam-like, prior to the establishment of any republic and, therefore, of any history. He is the innocent that ignores sin, but also science and law. This is the vision that Columbus had upon his first contact with the Americans, the same that is later prolonged in many pens. The most notorious is that of Friar Bartolomé de las Casas.

But if this interpretation can, strictly speaking, apply to the Caribbean tribes, it would be wrong to adjust it to the complex Aztec State. The irreducibleness of the other now has to be understood in a different way. It is no longer prior to history, but that which contradicts it. Given that it cannot be reduced to our “figure of the world,” it is that which negates it, its “reverse.” If the purpose of history is the final triumph of Christianity, if its march is governed by the design of Providence, the irreducibleness of Christianity can only be the contradiction of this design, and the contradictor, in our cultural tradition, has a name: Satan. The culture of the other, in the measure that it cannot be translated into ours, can only be demonic. It is the most common interpretation between missionaries and reporters. The basic western belief establishes that there can only be one truth and one human destiny. This basic belief marks the limits of the understandable. Above it rises a conventional interpretation that is not questioned: if another culture pretends to have another truth or another destiny, it negates our “figure of the world.” It can only be understood, therefore, as pure negativity. The other is the dark and the occult, that which says “no” to the world: the demonic. It is, by definition, that which cannot be integrated into our world and can only destroy it.

Up until here, in this first level of comprehension, the foreign culture is a determinable object by the categories of the only subject of history, the member of the Western culture, inside the frame of the only “figure of the world” considered valid. The voice of the other is only heard by the measure that it can coincide with our concepts and values that are communally accepted in our society, because the real world can only have meanings that do not differ from those that are given by the only valid subject. The other cannot give the world a different meaning, or be recognized as valid. The other, in reality, is not accepted as a subject of meaning, just as an object of the only subject.

Over this first level, a second level rises. It is that which Las Casas goes through, alone, as he parts from the previous comprehension level. However, even he cannot exceed the “figure of the world” that includes the basic belief in Providence as the bestower of sense to history. He also has to reduce the foreign culture to features that conform to his “figure of the world.” But his “figure of the world” contains principles that allow him to judge the other as an equal. It is not reducible to conventional beliefs, communally accepted by the majority of society; there are also ideas of Christianity that allow these beliefs to be brought into question and subjected to critique. All men are sons of God: all, free and rational, as different as they may seem. All have the same rights before the law of the people and the divine designers. The other is not reducible to a pure object, subject to exploitation. Given that he has inviolable rights that make him equal to the European, he is like him, a subject. Between subjects it is required to establish a dialogue. The sign of colonization is the conversion of the Indians to Christianity, but this should be realized with respect to the liberty of the other, our equal, our brother. It has to be accomplished by conviction and never by oppression or violence. Las Casas asks that we listen to the other, that we hear their own voice. This is the first recognition of the other as a subject. Nevertheless, this recognition has a limit.

Las Casas cannot accept the possibility of multiple truths. The Indian interlocutor has but one option: to be convinced or ignored. It would be unthinkable to Las Casas for the Indian to convince him of the validity or limitations of his own view of the world. The position of Las Casas is in the extreme opposite as that of Fernández de Oviedo or that of Sepúlveda. They justify the domination of the Indians and the destruction of their culture. He condemns Spain for its acts for having betrayed the real mission that consisted of justly attracting the Indians, without violence, so that they would freely embrace Christianity. As big as their differences are, Las Casas shares an assumption with his adversaries: all are arguing upon a base assumption that does not need to be brought into question: the other cannot have more sense or destiny than to convert to the world of Christianity. Consequently, the real world cannot have the meaning that the other gives to it, but only the one established by our “figure of the world.” The dialogue only admits the other as an equal so that he may voluntarily choose the values of those that have the only true sense of history. Admitting that the foreign point of view was, by itself, capable of giving a valid sense to the world would be to renounce, as much for Las Casas as for Sepúlveda, the framework of beliefs that allow them to understand it.

Recognizing the other as a subject of rights before God and before the law —much like Las Casas does—is to recognize an abstract subject, determined by the legal order that governs in our own world. The most irreducible otherness has not yet been accepted: the other cannot determine the order and the values by which it could be understood. The other is a subject of rights, but not of meanings. We could say that Las Casas recognizes the sameness of the other, but not their difference. For that he would have to accept the other as having a distinct view of himself and of the world and would have to accept himself as susceptible of seeing himself through this gaze or view.

This opens the possibility of a third level in the recognition of the other. It would be the recognition of the other in their sameness and in their difference at the same time. Recognizing it (the other) in the sense that he himself gives to his world. This level was never realized. But there were those who discerned it, just to immediately retreat from it. The first and most notable was Friar Bernardino of Sahagún. He opened a window and from it faced an outsider’s gaze, but he could not see himself in it.

Sahagún is the first to listen to the Indians with full attention, in systematically giving them the chance to speak. He calls upon the elderly that kept the memory of their culture and asks that they express their beliefs about the world in their own paintings, just as they did before the conquest. Later, he gathers their best disciples, also indigenous, so that they may transcribe the paintings interpreted by the elderly into náhuatl. For more than forty years of intense work, he gathers the invaluable testimonies of all aspects of the Aztec culture, in which the direct voice, with no intermediary of the other, can be heard. He himself writes in the tongue of the defeated and dedicates entire years to be able to dialogue with his Indian interlocutors, in order to understand and describe their world. Finally, the other has language, his own distinct language. It is the Christian who listens.

And what world does the words of the other reveal? They paint an elevated civilization, perfectly adapted to its conditions and needs. Sahagún describes the force that builds and nurtures this society: an ascetic and rigorous education, capable of pacifying natural inclinations and building a virtuous republic. She rested, above all, on the cultivation of virtue: fortitude, “that which among them was more esteemed than any other virtue and which they raised to the ultimate grade of valuation” [Sahagún, T. I, pg. 13]. The rigor of their punishments, the austerity of their life, the discipline and frugality that they imposed in everything, their diligent laboriousness allowed them to maintain —Sahagún hears— an adequate social regimen that would counteract their inclinations. Only in this way did they accomplish a great civilization. Saharan comments: “This way of governing was very in line with a naturalistic and moral philosophy, seeing as the temperance and the abundance of this earth, and the constellations that she reigns in, greatly aid human nature in being vice and idle and very prone to sexual corruptions, and moral philosophy taught these natives by experience that to live morally and virtuously, the continual rigor, austerity, and activities were necessary as helpful things to the republic.” [Sahagún, T. II, pg. 242]

The moral ideas of the Aztec society are expressed in precious speeches “where there are very curious things said regarding the fineness of their language, and very delicate things regarding the moral virtues” [Sahagún, T.I, pg. 443]. The parents teach their children temperance and humility, chastity and love of work, persuading them of respect for their elders, honesty and modesty in all their behavior. The moral code, based in strength and austerity, is maintained in the society thanks to an inflexible and proven justice, and to the example of a virtuous nobility, capable of presenting itself as a model to any community. Their republic was, in the opinion of Sahagún, governed by the wise and the brave.

But that morality and self-policing was closely interwoven with matters of their religion, for perhaps there was not a community more consecrated to their gods. In customs and institutions of the Aztec society, religion appears at all times as a cultural manifestation that permeates all of education and morality and provides meaning in the Indians’ eyes. It was present in all of the indigenous society’s activities; it articulated all of their speeches; it gave meaning to their social behavior. If Mexican civilization, socially and practically, presented itself as a work of human reason in struggle with vicious inclinations, how could Sahagún exclude religion from being one of its strongest foundations?

In transcribing the words of the other, albeit in the field of religion that the missionary was dedicated to destroy, we find extraordinary concepts. Their supreme god has attributes more closely attributed to the Christian god than the god of the pagans. They would say — Sahagún transcribes — that he was the creator of the heavens and of the earth, all powerful, invisible and impalpable, like darkness and air. He was at all places and all things were clear and manifest to him. The god had unlimited power “to whose will they obeyed all things, to whose disposition depends the regime of the whole world, to whom all is subject” [Sahagún, T. 1, pg. 447]. Not only was he the fountain of all power, but also of liberality and goodness personified. “Oh our Lord,” they prayed to him “in whose power is given all happiness and refreshments, sweetness, softness, richness and prosperity, because only you are the Lord of all good things” [Sahagún, T. I, pg. 452]. They thought that the plans of God were hidden and conceived of only by the divinity as an autonomous being par excellence, as absolute liberty.

In spite of their distinct spirit and a few ideas that should appear to a Catholic as a huge error, especially despite their cruel practices, like human sacrifice and cannibalism rituals, indigenous morality and religion present an elevated figure, at times sublime, that should impress even the most orthodox Franciscan. The other has spoken and what we have heard is a fascinating world.

The invitation made to the other to reveal its own world could have led to their recognition. However, something stops Sahagún from taking that last step. The participation in the interpretation of the common world of his time provides a paradigm in order to understand history. The only meaning of America is given by its role in the divine economy. This signals the end of the history of the advent of the reign of Christ and the conversion of all the “pueblos” to the Gospel. The evangelization of America is the only act that allows us to understand its existence. God had kept America hidden until the moment of its discovery: “It is also known for certain”, writes Sahagún, “that our Lord God (on purpose) has kept hidden this half part of the world until our times, that by his divine ordination, he has revealed it to the Roman Catholic Church for the best” [Sahagún, T. I, pg. 13]. How could he admit then that the Indians had gotten to an elevated form of religion on their own, comparable to Christianity, if they had been hidden from revelation and grace. Sahagún would have to accept that, after everything, they were not that astray. What sense, then, would the presence of Europe in America make? What sense is there to make of evangelization? And of Sahagún’s own life and that of his brothers? No. Sahagún can accept the discourse of the other up until a limit: until the moment that he denies the basic belief that makes sense in his own life and the presence of Christianity in America. He cannot deny what the other shows him, but neither can he reject his own interpretation of the world, that which constitutes him. He has to, then, conjure the vision of the world that the other presents so that he can include it as an integral part in his own. His solution is a split.

Those that appeared as gods in the eyes of the Indians were actually demons. From the other’s point of view, a judgment of the truth is offered that is foreign to them: “The real light to know the real God”, argues Sahagún, “and the false gods and the cheaters consists in the intelligence of the divine Scripture,” (Sahagún, T. I, pg. 78] . . .

We should not be surprised that he deduced the evilness of the foreign religion from the sacred texts more so than from direct observation. Syllogism now replaces experience. “By virtue of the divine Scripture we know that there are not, nor could there ever be, more than one God […] Clearly, Huitzilopochtli is not a god, neither is Tlaloc, neither is …” etc. [Sahagún, T. I, pg. 78]. The indigenous world appears, then, as the direct opposite of Christianity. While in this way it gives compliment to the Scripture, in that way it denies it. The “pueblo” in sin would be the ingenious one; the “pueblo” redeemed by grace, the Christian one; reign of Satan that one, of Christ this one. Like this, Tezcatlipoca, that great god that presented attributes so elevated he was … Lucifer in masquerade.

“This [Tezcatlipoca],” Sahagún proclaims to the indigenous, “is the evil of Lucifer, father of all wickedness and lies, greed and sadness, that cheats our ancestors” [Sahagún, T.I, pg. 83]. All the objects of the Indians’ religion then acquired a two-face: in the mind of the indigenous, TezcatlipocaandHuitzilopochtli appear as divines, ordained with sublime attributes, but, in fact, were they? The law given by the true God tells us, on the contrary, that they were demons. What is saintly, according to intention, is converted into an abomination. No longer does god have the meanings that the Indians gave him, but rather the ones given by the Catholics. A distinction is established between the intentional object of the belief of the Indian and that same object as a reality outside of him, in the eyes of Christianity. But both facets cannot be real. To save his own “figure of the world,” Sahagún will declare that of the Indian as appearance and that of the Scripture as reality. In this way, our missionary will be able to recognize the Indian’s beauty and lifting of prayers without thinking of his radical deception. With this attitude, he does not prejudge the other’s intention or worth, in their eyes, of their world. Yet at the same time he condemns their true self.

Sahagún has wanted to listen to the other subject, but when the visions of either go up against one another, only one view, that of the evangelizer, can reveal reality; the other can only be illusory. The true being of the foreign culture is not what his own subjects grant it, but that which a different perspective reveals.

Upon letting the other reveal their own world, Sahagún has confronted an insuperable contradiction. The foreign world, as he interprets it, calls into question the only frame that he can understand it in. He cannot accept it; he must reinterpret it to be able to integrate it into his own vision. This movement is seen clearly, not only in his interpretation of the indigenous religion, but also in his practical proposals.

The Aztec civilization, Sahagún maintains, is adapted to the natural inclinations of its creators. For that reason, it reached great virtue. The Spaniards, on the other hand, destroyed the regiment that the Indians had laboriously built; they annihilated their social structure and tried to replace it with something completely different. Held as they were by their personal inclinations, by customs, laws and beliefs, upon destroying these, the Indians fell into vices, sensuality and sloth. Nobody can survive the destruction of their cultural world without losing themselves. The superiority of ancient education and regiments is proven in the lack of success of colonization. Sahagún claims:

“Shame on us that the wise and sensible ancient people knew to give remedy to the damage that this earth prints on those that live in it, circumventing natural things with opposing exercises, and we drown under our evil tendencies; and as sure as some people were raised Spanish as as they were Indian, is it unacceptable to govern them and difficult to save them.” [Sahagún, T. I, pg. 83)

Sahagún proposes, then, to return to a social regime analogous to that of the Aztecs, within forms of education and institutions that can be equivalent in Christianity:

“If this way of governing was not so infected with idolatrous rituals and superstitions, it would appear to me that it was really good. If cleaned of all the idolatry it had, making it all Christian, it could be inserted into this Indian and Spanish republic and surely it would be a great good. It would be the cause for ridding one republic like the other, from the great evils and works that govern them.” [Sahagún, T, I, pg. 83]

In his monastery, Sahagún tried to carry out this idea, by introducing similar practices to those that the Indians had in their schools, the tepochcalliandelcalmecac, naturally translated to the Christian beliefs and practices. But it failed. The Indian’s world was different; by lacking its own proper religious dimension and its own mentality, the new practices turned out to be empty and ineffective. Sahagún understood the cause of his failure. The ancient regiment was intimately connected to the Indians’ religious world. Their culture constituted a whole; without fractures; with their religion ruined, their moral education and the practice of their civic virtues had to perish without remedy. And Sahagún recognizes that the destruction of all the indigenous culture was inevitable, once he had decided to eradicate its “idolatry.” With a bitter aftertaste, he says:

Because they (the Spaniards) overthrew and cast all the customs and ways of governing that the natives had to the land, and they wanted to subdue them to the Spaniard way of living, in divine things as in human things, they understood them to be idolaters and barbaric; they lost all the regiment that they had; it was necessary to destroy all the idolatrous things: all of the buildings, and even the customs of the republic that were mixed with rites of idolatry and accompanied by ceremonies and superstitions, of which there were in almost all the customs that the republic had and by which they were governed. And for this reason, it was necessary to disrupt everything, and put them under another kind of policing, in a way that there would be no aftertaste of idolatry. [Sahagún, T. II. P. 243]

Trying to retain one part of the world of the other without accepting all of it was impossible. From there stemmed the failure of Sahagún’s attempt. What had happened?

“The figure of the world” has a vital, not only theoretical, but practical function. It presupposes a choice of meaning and ultimate value. To deny it, for Sahagún, would be to deny his own identity as a European and as a Christian; it would be to renounce the global project that gives meaning to his life. It would be, on the other hand, to remain empty and be an unarmed outside look; he’d have, then, to see himself as the other sees him, it would run the risk of being dominated by him. He has, then, to interpret his own world as real, and the foreign world as illusory, which is equivalent, after trying to discover the other as a subject, to denying him and holding him to us, that is to say, to dominate him.

“The figure of the world” cannot be denied to the extent that it protects us from being dominated by the other and insures our dominion over them. This function is manifest in conquistadors and jurists, like Cortés, Fernández de Ovideo, o Sepúlveda, who hold the right of Spain to subdue the Indians. The other can only be understood by denying them their role as a subject and reducing them to a determined object by the European’s categories. It would seem that he can, then, be dominated. It would appear that in the cases of Las Casas and Sahagún, upon opening themselves to the Indians as subjects of their own world, upon giving them equal rights and listening to them, that attitude of domination would disappear. In fact, Las Casas questioned the political domination of the Spaniards over the Indians and their right to conquer them. Faced with the ideological discourse of the conquistadors and jurists in service of the Crown, his language is disruptive, it is seen by all as subversive and even treasonous to the interests of Spain. Although with less acrimony, the work of Sahagún is also perceived as dangerous for the colonizing business, as much for the Crown as for the ecclesiastic hierarchy. The diffusion from the point of view of the Indians about their world, of their beliefs and even of their tongue, is considered subversive. One decree of Felipe II, in 1577, expressively prohibits knowing and, with greater reason, spreading the work of Sahagún. In fact, this would stay unpublished throughout the whole colonial period and would only be published, partially, in the 19th century. There is nothing more dangerous than granting the other with words when wishing to dominate them. However, not even these subversive authors, in the face of the colonizer, can escape from an unconscious will of domination, before the other. Las Casas accepts the Indian as his equal and grants him the rights that the Law of the People gives to all men, but does not plainly recognize their difference, by not being able to conceive any other paradigm of interpretation of the world other than his own. Sahagún, on the contrary, listens and understands the difference of the world of the Indian, but cannot grant it equal validity as his own. In both, their own “figure of the world” is not to be questioned. The exchange with the other subject only can lead to reaffirming it. The discussion is realized, from the beginning, within the limits that signal only one paradigm, that of the European, and it would never be conceived that the outcome of the dialogue would be put into question. Only the colonized can “convert,” never the colonist. When this risk is perceived, like Sahagún, it must immediately be limited. Otherwise, it would put his identity in danger. Is there not an unconscious attitude of domination here, prior to any exchange with the other?

The study of the works of Las Casas and of Sahagún can illuminate the limits to the discovery and recognition of another subject. Precisely because their works challenged the domination to which the other was subjugated. Because their lives were an example of the will of opening towards it, their failure to properly recognize it is the most meaningful. It cannot be attributed to bad faith or selfish interests, it must have a more profound origin: the impossibility of putting into question a basic belief that assures a vital function: to firmly maintain oneself as the dominator and to protect oneself from the domination of the other. This is the ideological function. What we have called the “figure of the world” is the ultimate ideological barrier that impedes the exact recognition of the other, as an equal and at the same time as different.

If Las Casas and Sahagún point to a limit of the acceptance of the other, is it possible to overcome it? It would only be feasible upon the supposition that the other “figure of the world” was radically distinct from that of their own and that of All men of their period. It would only be possible if we parted from a basic belief and accepted, on principle, that reason is not one, but plural; that truth and sense are not discovered from a privileged point of view, but that they can be accessible to infinite others; that the world can be understood beginning with different paradigms. For that we’d have to accept an essentially plural reality, both by the distinct ways of “configuring” itself before man and by the different values that give it meaning. We’d have to break from the idea, of all European history, that the historical world has a center. In the plural world, any subject is the center.

Only a “figure of the world” that admits the plurality of reason and meaning can understand the equality and diversity of subjects at the same time. Recognizing the validity of what is equal and diverse to us is to renounce all prior ideas of domination; it is losing the fear of finding ourselves, equal and diverse, in the eyes of the other. Is this possible? I don’t know. And yet, only this step will allow us to prevent the danger of destruction of man by man forever, only this change will allow us to rise to a superior level of human history.