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  • “From Fear to Wisdom”:Augustinian Semiotics and Self-Fashioning in Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación
  • Steven P. Liparulo

In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen . . . in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.

—2 Corinthians 11:26–27

In the penultimate chapter (37) of his Relación, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca gives inordinate narrative emphasis to what might seem a rather unimportant episode in his 1537 return to Spain after his eight-year sojourn in the New World.1 He depicts himself aboard a vessel halfway through its homeward Atlantic crossing, menaced by ships that turn out to be French and rescued by what turn out to be Portuguese ships, initially seen at such a distance their sails can't be read. Since the episode ends with no damage done, we have to wonder why this anecdote dominates the chapter—what work is it doing? In this paper I will suggest that this episode epitomizes Cabeza de Vaca's textual self-image as well as his place in cultural and literary history, and also enacts the vital human processes of truth-seeking, improvising, misreading, and revising: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca floats ambiguously between Old and New Worlds, between the Kingdom of Spain and the Kingdom of God, between medieval and Renaissance, conquest and compassion. Cabeza de Vaca stands as an exemplar of the [End Page 1] go-between, a heterodox whose simultaneity and acts of revision seem to render unstable and incoherent multiple systems of signification and identity. I will also portray Cabeza de Vaca as reader and writer operating within multiple semiotic systems and elaborate on how sign-reading and revision are as much a part of the Relación as a whole as they are of this episode, which fittingly seeks to assure its own truth through the ritual affixing of the author's personal sign (his signature) at the end of the chapter. I will propose an interpretive strategy for the peculiarities of Cabeza de Vaca and the stories that he tells, established through a dialogue between several recent critical works and Saint Augustine's On Christian Doctrine, as it describes a process of interpretation and revision.

In his Premio Plural award-winning essay, Juan Bruce-Novoa identifies Cabeza de Vaca as a founder of Chicano literature, and as a character "marked with the sign of Americanness" (17), a go-between "ever traveling between solid zones." This phrasing represents Cabeza de Vaca's liminal character with more sophistication than did Morris Bishop half a century before, when he wrote that "his country was entering upon the difficult Renaissance, the puberty of the modern world" (10). Anthony Pagden further refines the description of both Cabeza de Vaca and America as "in-between." The sheer presence of America, Pagden writes,

provided a marker between epochs, a convenient date with which to begin a distinctively modern period in European history, a period in which the vision of human time as the steady unfolding of a divine plan—Saint Augustine's ordo saecularum—was replaced by the image of a constant process of perfection, the evolution of purely human objectives.

(European Encounters 11–12)

Following Bruce-Novoa, numerous critics have dealt with heterodoxies of both the Relación and Cabeza de Vaca himself, including Beatriz Pastor, Maureen Ahern, and Ann Ortiz. In making such claims, however, these scholars tend to view religion as something incidental or subordinate, considered of value according to some other scale than a religious one. To some extent, this stands as reasonable post-Enlightenment skepticism towards the potential for tyranny inherent in acknowledging and empowering a "transcendent signifier" in a [End Page 2] discourse of religion. But this skepticism in turn causes a problem for interpretation. Bruce-Novoa describes the critical tendency to reductively impose upon Cabeza de Vaca "the structural mark of a binary polarity: one is this or that; the space in between the two poles becomes forbidden, condemned in...


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