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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.1 (2002) 119-123
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Love and Empire in the Colonial Americas
Unrequited Conquests: Love and Empire in the Colonial Americas. By Roland Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. xii + 289 pp.
The scholarly literature on the European encounter with the Americas was already vast when in the late 1980s and early 1990s the approaching quincentenary of the Discovery swamped the field with publications of both great and dubious merits. One of the topics that surfaced with particular force and originality was gender, specifically, the ways in which European cultural discourses on gender difference and power informed the ideologies and practice of conquest and imperialism in the New World. Much of this work focused on the erotics of conquest, on how European notions of sexual relations helped define the human, geographic, and material objects of conquest. Roland Greene's Unrequited Conquests is one of the most original and complex contributions to this discussion.
Greene explores the role of masculine desire in the conquest enterprises of early modern Europe as expressed in the texts of discoverers and conquerors, poets, and historians engaged in the cultural transformation that ensued. His fundamental insight is that the unrequitedness of heterosexual desire in Petrarchan lyric poetry was the defining trope of the "discourse of love" that shaped Europe's relation to the New World in the sixteenth century: "The discourse of love is not simply interpersonal, as one might expect, but political and imperial, and Petrarchism, the convention of writing about unrequited love derived from the work of the fourteenth- century poet Francesco Petrarca, is one of the original colonial discourses" (1). The introduction to this book makes ambitious, exciting claims for the centrality of Petrarchan lyrical discourse at the inception of the Americas. Unrequitedness and its aesthetic correlative autoreflexivity are together the key aspect of Petrarchism's highly conventional language "that adequately expresses colonial experience as a set of relations between individual standpoints, treats the frustrations as well as the ambitions of Europeans, and [End Page 119] gives Americans the capacity to play out their role as unwilling (or at best deeply ambivalent) participants in another's enterprise" (6). For example, Greene cites the requerimiento, a declaration of intent to conquer that the Spanish conquistadors read to the Indians at first encounters for the express purpose of obtaining their peaceable acquiescence to subjugation. 1 Perhaps Greene's most debatable idea is that Petrarchism also served as a vehicle for contestation, that is, a means of articulating the Indians' resistance to conquest.
Ultimately, Unrequited Conquests studies a process of cultural transformation focused on Europe. Greene describes it as the "anacultural" dimension of Petrarchan discourse in the sixteenth century:
European poets of this period adopt ideologemes that express their urge to have it both ways: they want to maintain their privileged, culturally particular standpoints, but also to step away from those standpoints and experience otherness, in their lovers or themselves. They want to produce a lyric poetry that responds to traditional classical and vernacular models but also acknowledges contemporary forms of difference. Poems of this sort often test the scrim of lyric subjectivity in their quest for otherness, but their speakers do not become other to themselves after all; rather, in a humanist paradox that readers of Petrarch will recognize, the more they remark difference, in themselves and their world, the more they become themselves. Therefore, anaculturalism or the virtual crossing of cultures, while it originates as a response to unrequitedness, becomes a spur to that condition--an unrealizable ideal for a class of Europeans who will never again feel entirely at home in the newly-expanded world. (14)
Among Greene's anacultural ideologemes are exile and shipwreck.
The beauty of this book is in the details, and in this respect Greene is up to the challenge posed by the bold opening argument, providing meticulous [End Page 120] textual analysis in every chapter. (The book also contains twenty-three illustrations and a genealogical chart.) The result is a model of interpretive acumen and serious scholarship...