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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.1 (2002) 267-276
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What Mexican Indians Did to Titian and Ovid
SUNY-Buffalo/Charles Warren Center, Harvard University
La pensée métisse. By Serge Gruzinski. Paris: Fayard, 1999
What do modern filmmakers and artists have to contribute methodologically to the well-worn subject of the "conquest" and "discovery" of the New World? What could a study of Mexican sixteenth-century frescos by a French historian possibly have to add to current debates on "multiculturalism," cultural studies, and identity politics in the United States?
La pensée métisse is Serge Gruzinski's most recent attempt to study the process of occidentalisation that took place within the indigenous communities of Central Mexico after the Conquest, particularly in the sixteenth-century. Gruzinski has made a name for himself by exploring the changes brought about by the Conquest to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, particularly changes overlooked by a scholarship long fixated on chronicling economic and demographic transformations. His work has not sought to identify the "Indian traditions" that through dogged resistance survived Europe's assault, "traditions" purportedly waiting for the modern anthropologist and enthnohistorian to make them visible. Unlike many U.S., European, and Latin American scholars who approach the past of the indigenous peoples of the Americas looking for the "non-Western" voices of [End Page 267] subalterns buried amidst "Western" records of domination, Gruzinski has throughout his career looked for the "West" in the "Other."
Gruzinski's first book, Les Hommes-dieux du Mexique (1985), for example, traced the transformation of a particular form of Mesoamerican religious sensibility, the ixiptla, that assumed that the sacred seized individuals, making them divine, a view of the embodiment of the sacred in the world not to be confused with pagan avatars or Judeo-Christian incarnations. Gruzinski identified many man-gods who appeared in Central Mexico between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries to challenge the Catholic clergy. Although written within the paradigm of resistance studies, the book showed in exquisite detail the changing nature of the discourses wielded by these challengers, who as the colonial period unfolded came to share with their clerical enemies similar mental landscapes and religious languages. 1
In La Colonisation de l'imaginaire (1988), Gruzinski chronicled other aspects of the process of massive transculturation witnessed in colonial Mexico, particularly in the sixteenth century. 2 His focus this time was the hundreds of "painted" codices to which scholars have usually turned to document the prehispanic past. With the exception of a handful, most of these codices, however, are not prehispanic but colonial, drawn at the request of Spanish patrons, litigants in colonial courts, and self-aggrandizing indigenous elites determined to carve out for themselves a niche in the new colonial polity. Through a skillful and creative handling of these sources, Gruzinski demonstrated that the incorporation of alphabetical writing to the store of ideographic and pictographic scripts of Central Mexico was a negotiated, convoluted, and, most important, richly creative process. As new genres and new scripts arrived, new conceptions of the self, time, and space came into being. The arrival of "Western" forms of representation of sounds, images, space (maps), and time (historical narratives) suddenly collided with those that had been available, and the indigenous peoples of Mexico came away transformed forever. Gruzinski's L'Amérique de la Conquête peinte par les Indies du Mexique (1991) offered a synthesis of the same themes through a stunning visual compilation of many of these codices. 3
Gruzinski has maintained unabated his emphasis on illustrated colonial documents and on chronicling processes of cultural transformation. In La [End Page 268] Guerre des images de Christophe Colomb à Blade Runner, 1492-2019 (1990), he studied the indigenous appropriation of colonial Christian religious iconography. 4 In L'Aigle et la Sibylle (1994), Gruzinski turned to a long overlooked genre of colonial images, namely, the frescos decorating the walls of dozens of sixteenth-century Mexican clerical buildings, some 300,000 square meters in all...