Comparative Literature Studies 40.4 (2003) 394-414
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Representing the Other:
Ercilla's La Araucana, Virgil's Aeneid, and the New World Encounter1
We now know that these non-European peoples did not accept with indifference the authority projected over them, or the general silence on which their presence in variously attenuated forms is predicated. We must therefore read the great canonical texts, and perhaps also the entire archive of modern and pre-modern European and American culture, with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented . . . in such works.
—Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism 2
Like De Soto and Cortés, the reader of La Araucana also becomes a voyager, by extension one of the conquistadores who spread Spanish imperial power across the New World from Mexico to South America. The author, a courtier to Philip II of Spain, participated himself in the colonial adventures in Peru and Chile, and one approach to the poem has stressed what at one level seems obvious: La Araucana was dedicated to Philip II, the Indians depicted had rebelled against Spanish authority, and Ercilla's contemporaries understood clearly that the poem depicted the legitimate punishment of those who stood in the way of divinely sanctioned imperialism. 3 La Araucana contains three sections—accounts of the battles of St. Quentin and Lepanto and the invasion of Portugal—that are not integral to the Spanish activity in Chile, but they do serve to emphasize the grandeur of Spain and its ruler and therefore seem to reinforce the pro-imperial [End Page 394] theme. 4 Curiously, the poem does not have a dominant Spanish hero, but the pro-imperial line of criticism makes a virtue of necessity and posits that this space is filled by Philip II himself, thereby helping to construct and legitimate a national identity for Spain at a key point in its historical development. 5 Indeed, a study of the book trade in the New World reveals that La Araucana was the most widely disseminated representation of the conquest among the colonizers themselves. 6 Yet as sometimes happens in literary criticism, the opposite interpretation has been developed with equal persuasiveness. Menéndez y Pelayo, for example, notes that the natives had little direct influence on much of Latin American literature, but a significant indirect impact on poetry in Chile, for the determined resistance of the Araucanians became the principal theme of early colonial literature in that country. 7 This resistance was heroic, and in the process of writing about it, Ercilla ended up "presenting his clear preference for his enemies." 8 The female characters are treated with special sympathy, so that in the end, one can argue that the poem is presented from the perspective of the Indians. 9 From here, the next step is the appropriation of the poem into the national culture of Chile as "un libro nacional i querido: él es la fé de bautismo de nuestra nación" ["a beloved national book: it is the baptismal certificate of our nation"]. 10 Thus Ercilla becomes in the words of Pablo Neruda the "inventor y libertador" ["inventor and liberator"] of Chile, 11 and La Araucana stands as an anti-imperialist poem. 12
These two positions would seem to be impossible to reconcile, and as we might expect, the efforts to do so thus far have not been very satisfactory. Margarita Peña states simply that the poem supports both the Indians and the Spanish, 13 and Luis Leal suggests that it is both pro-Chilean and pro-Spanish, 14 but neither explains precisely how the same work can support two opposing positions at the same time. William Melczer at least attempts to do this, but his explanation strikes me as too subtle, arguing that Ercilla's ideological commitment differs from his moral commitment, so that he can identify both with the Spaniards' desire to conquer and the Indians' manifest virtues. 15 Elizabeth Davis describes both national readings of the...