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Scenarios of Colonialism and Culture: Oswald Spengler's Latin America

From: MLN
Volume 128, Number 2, March 2013 (Hispanic Issue)
pp. 256-276 | 10.1353/mln.2013.0021

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In 1897, at the age of seventeen, Oswald Spengler wrote his first work of literature, a verse drama of ca. 120 pages titled Montezuma. Ein Trauerspiel. His uncle did not like it, and so Spengler left it unpublished, becoming famous twenty years later with his work Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West) (1918-23), translated immediately into several languages. Montezuma was not mentioned, and Mexico, even though named as one of the eight higher world cultures by Spengler in his book, was discussed only on a few pages in the second volume.

The existence of this early, now published manuscript, as well as of numerous later drafts expanding on it, raises several questions that I would like to discuss here. What relevance does Spengler's early interest in the conquest of Mexico have for his work, The Decline of the West, and in particular its ideas on colonialism and culture? What does this interest say about the place of Latin America in Spengler's cultural philosophy? And how did Latin American readers respond to Spengler's philosophy and the place it gave to Latin America?

Spengler was known to be an enemy of the Weimar republic, and a noted figure of what later came to be known as the "conservative revolution." Spengler's views, as expressed in The Decline of the West and in Man and Technology, his most translated works, welcomed the end of Western civilization as inevitable, with the hope that a new culture of similar strength might arise elsewhere, perhaps in Russia. At heart an imperialist, he was convinced of the natural expansion of "high cultures" over weaker ones, and of the closed nature of such cultures, who grew into empires by their own force, withering once they had reached their highest point, all of it happening in the space of no more and no less than 1000 years. Yet for Spengler, Mexico was an exception to his rule, as it had been destroyed at the height of its development, and he termed the encounter between the Spaniards and the Mexicans therefore a tragic one. We can consider this a trace of his earlier narrative scenario, indicating that Spengler had studied carefully the history of Mexico. Still, it is striking that Mexico, having been the first foreign culture Spengler studied, became the exception to his theory of world cultures rather than a first instance. Also, Spengler conspicuously refrained from publishing anything relating to Mexico or Latin America—with the exception of one short article— even though his correspondence and drafts betray a lifelong interest in the history of the Americas.

The Decline of the West was the first world history based not on the study of individual texts and monuments, but on an intuitive approach to history, considering cultures in all their manifestations: mathematics, architecture, art, literature, law and economy. Spengler postulated the existence of the same cycle of rise and fall for eight higher cultures, based on his analysis of the "symbolic forms" that had shaped them. In the case of the West, this was, for example, the Faustian desire to reach toward the infinite, whereas the classical culture of the Greeks and Romans he called "Appolonian" in character, associated with Euclidian space and time. Especially for writers outside of Europe, Spengler offered a refreshing reprieve from Eurocentric views of world history, in so far as he situated "the West" in contrast to other equally high-standing cultures which had risen independently from each other over the course of four thousand years. This basic argument seemed immediately convincing, especially in the aftermath of World War I, when many had doomsday feelings about the West. Spengler's pessimism was a perfect expression of the Zeitgeist of the 1920s, and it seemed less important that he had left out from his panorama a large part of the world—for example, all of Africa and most of Latin America.

The Latin American interest in Spengler was therefore not surprising. Many writers and intellectuals had grown suspicious of the nineteenth-century positivist paradigm that had regarded Latin America as trailing culturally behind its former European colonizers, and Spengler's argument, engaging scholarly studies of ancient cultures as...



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