Paradise : Iván Hofman

Sergio Vega / Pic-nic. The Golden Age with Mosquitoes

Sergio Vega / Pic-nic. The Golden Age with Mosquitoes


Paradise :
Iván Hofman

Among the privileged concepts that may belong to a politico-theological lexicon, “Paradise” has been endowed with both the loftiness characteristic of the solemn promise it augurs, as well as with the light-headed, almost ludic, good news (gospel) of the future it sets forth. The history of its concept has been marked by the obsession to find not only its spiritual but also its ‘corporeal’ reality. Tertullian believed Paradise to be located in a place surrounded by an immense fire wall. Thomas Aquinas speaks instead of mountains whose heights could reach the Moon.Dante described Paradise as being composed of circling spheres by which the poet ascends to finally behold the mystery of God. They were part of a long Christian theological tradition that sought to find and describe the exact location of the Eden. The geographical references evoked by Genesis became the subject of much medieval theological discussion.2 If some considered it to be an intangible, incorporeal supercelestial place, others rather believed it to be a real place lost in the midst of the unknown world, a terra incognita sometimes localized in the “Orient”—in “a place situated in the east, its name being the Greek for garden,” as Isidore of Seville says—or more specifically in India or Palestine.3 Aquinas himself conceded that the Garden of Eden could be located not in the Moon’s circle but rather in a “torrid region,” right under the equinoctial line, “shut off from the habitable world by mountains, or seas,” which explains why topographers have not written about it.”4 Saint Brendan, the sixth-century Irish monk, set out on a seven year journey to find the “Land of Promise of the Saints” and is believed to have perhaps made his way across the Atlantic, arriving at an island he believed to be the Eden.5

In the early modern period, the imagination of explorers, sailors, and conquerors was re-ignited with the ardent desire and impulse to find Paradise. America provided them with the perfect place where reality and fantasy could merge, as the Edenic ideal was imagined as realized in the discovery and colonization of the “New World.” The theologoumenon, through this violent history, is thus revealed as having a political core. Vespucci would think that the New World was the “quarta pars orbis” of the Ancients. Many, such as Bernardino de Sahagún or Fray Jerónimo de Mendieta, attributed the “discovery” to a providential plan. After the ‘discovery’ of America, indeed, Paradise became an ambivalent and ambiguous concept: it both captured the European imagination, giving new life to utopian thought, and provided the colonial project with much of the theologico-political impetus and justification for the “spiritual colonization” of the indigenous populations. In America, it was believed, the long-lost Garden of Eden, a land of plentifulness and freedom, had finally been found again. This fantasy, that of finding the exact place of the terrestrial Paradise, moreover, was intertwined with political desires to turn the current social conditions of Europe “upside down.” Paradoxically, Utopia, the non-place, became the last place of Paradise, located in the American geography by the political theology of the colonization. While construing “Paradise” as a utopian political concept, I trace the colonial foundations and postcolonial effects of locating “Paradise” in America.

Paradise on Earth

From the Avestan pairi-daeza, paradise referred to an enclosed walled area, often a garden, but sometimes also a zoo. The Christian theological imagination, which gave itself the task of depicting a heavenly ideal sphere was never devoid of political aspirations. An enclosed and distant space, often inaccessible because of its location in mountainous regions or because of it being surrounded by oceans or fire walls, this paradisal place upholds a perpetual golden age, where harmony between human beings and nature is preserved, and where a locus amoenus of freedom, perfection, happiness, peace, and abundance can be found.6 In early modernity, since the colonization of America, the fates of utopian political thought and theological fantasies would be intertwined. As much as Paradise served to provide a sense or “principle of hope” in the eschatological imagination, so too did it become a political fantasy, a political notion or “creature” of the imagination that was to structure much of the colonial project—one that would not only be constitutive to the image of America in colonial times, but that would also be secularized and maintained in its utopian permutations in postcolonial times.

As soon as the ship La Pinta arrived at the island Guanahani, after its shore had been seen by Rodrigo de Triana in 1492, Columbus, along with his escrivano or letrado Rodrigo d’Escobedo, set foot on the “New World” with flags of the Catholic kings. The first impression the admiral records about the inhabitants of the immediately acquired land is that “they must be good servants and have good wit [deven ser buenos servidores y de buen ingenio],” before adding “which is why they would easily become Christian [cristianos], as it appeared to me that they had no sect [ninguna secta].”7 The natives are immediately seen as predisposed to servitude and as having no culture—they are a tabula rasa, and the newly possessed land is considered a res nullius, no-one’s land, and thus legally available for expropriation. Columbus would call the land “otro mundo,” and Peter Martyr d’Anghera named the “countless Elysian regions” of the Caribbean “Orbe Novo”; ‘new’ not just because it was ignored by Europe until then, but because the world itself was believed to be renewed and regenerated in its immaculate yet sensuous geography.8 Columbus would perform the ritual possession of the land: a symbolic ceremony and legal act which would be repeated throughout the colonization of America. Legitimized by the papal bull Inter caetera, through which Pope Alexander VI granted the Indies to the Spanish kings, the question of whether the newly ‘discovered’ lands could be claimed by the Europeans was not problematized until Francisco de Vitoria, in his Relecciones sobre los indios, claimed, in 1532, that the “barbarians” were owners and had control over their property. Alongside other members of the School of Salamanca like Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, Vitoria established the legal parameters under which the conquered lands could be appropriated under Spanish dominion, and thus his thought and theory of just war—often seen as the origin of human rights and international law—need to be considered instead as the legal justification of the colonization.9 Before Vittoria, however, the very question of ownership and appropriation was not even problematized. The early conquistadors saw America as res nullius and were eager and believed themselves justified to claim it: Bartolomé de Celada took possession over Cáceres, Honduras, by walking around the land, cutting trees, pulling weeds, digging the land; Vasco Núñez de Balboa took possession over the Pacific Ocean (Mar del Sur) by waiting for the tide to rise, going into the water with a flag of the Virgin Mary in one hand, a sword in the other, exclaiming, rather preposterously, that the lands and oceans were now in possession of the Spanish royalty.10 Theatrically absurd rituals such as these gain significance when one takes into consideration the incessant repetition by the colonizers that the beauty of the lands discovered was unheard of. Not only was there an economic urge to possess the lands and a missionary zeal to convert the “barbarians” into the Christian faith, but there was also a realization that heaven on earth had been finally found. At stake was nothing less than the possession of the Garden of Eden.

Columbus incessantly remarks the overwhelming beauty he sees in the new-found lands.11 Of the smell of Haiti’s flowers, he says that it is “the sweetest thing in the whole world [la cosa mas dulce del mundo].”12 He exclaims, referring to Edenic motives, that the New World is the most fertile land he has ever seen, full of riches and abundance. He is filled with awe at the sight of the fabulous trees, the colorful and exotic animals, the warmth of the weather. The American geography is seen form the prism of the Biblical images whereby Eden means abundance and plentifulness in reference to the great copiousness of food and magnificent trees found in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 2–3; Ezekiel 28, 31). Similarly, Vaz de Caminha describes in his letter to king Manuel I of Portugal the lands of Brazil as a prelapsarian world whereby the innocent natives, though naked, have no shame: “without shame (which she didn’t have!) so gracious that many women of our land . . . would be ashamed of it [sin vergüenza (que ella no tenía!) tan graciosa que a muchas mujeres de nuestra tierra . . . las avergonzaría].”13

But it is Amerigo Vespucci who most explicitly proclaims the New World to be paradise on Earth. He writes in a letter in 1500: “Their trees are of such beauty, and of such gentleness, that we thought to be in the Earthly Paradise [Paradiso terrestre].”14 He repeats this in a letter dated two years later, in 1502. After describing the wonderful plants and animals he has seen in the new lands, he says: “sometimes I was so marveled by the sweet odor of the grasses, and of the flowers, and of the flavor of those fruits, and roots, so much so that I thought I was brought to the Earthly Paradise [Paradiso Terrestre].”15

Fig. 1. Jan Brueghel the Younger, “Paradise,” oil on panel, ca. 1650. Fig. 1. Jan Brueghel the Younger, “Paradise,” oil on panel, ca. 1650.

This was a tropical paradise depicted by Jan Brueghel the Younger in his painting “Paradise” or in his depiction of the “Story of Adam and Eve,” one which was not a no-man’s land, a pristine natural world untouched by human hands (as in Brueghel’s representation, where the couple holding hands in the background is almost purposively concealed), but one recognized early on as populated by natives construed as “good savages.” Columbus sees them as virtuous good subjects—“they are loyal and have no greed [son fieles y sin cudiçia de lo ageno].”16 They are “credulous,” “fearful and meek [temerosos y mansos].”17 Ironically, the Indians are construed as the antithesis of the conquistadors, who portray themselves as being obsessed with appropriating the wealth and beauty of the New World. If the conquistadors are represented as cunning and lustful, the natives are seen as meek, gentle, and naïve servants. This tropical paradisiacal world of “good savages” is, moreover, seen as a utopia found on earth. Utopias, as their name indicates, are spaces with no real place; a utopia is meant to project the negation of the existing social order into an imagined space. In Michel Foucault’s words, utopias reflect a “society turned upside down,” society when it achieves a perfected form.18 Before being called “utopias” by Thomas More, Erasmus of Rotterdam suggested that these peculiar places should be referred to as “Nusquama,” from a Latin adverb meaning “nowhere.”19 Yet, although early modern utopias are of classical and specifically Socratic and Virgilian inspiration, they have always been grounded in a colonial geographical imagination. Oxymoronically, Utopia, the non-place, was conceived as the last place of Paradise, a terrestrial abode whose entry was located in the mouth of the Orinoco River.

The Eden found in America seemed to realize what Tommaso Campanella and Thomas More had envisioned for their fictional commonwealths: Columbus and Vespucci found in the New World an idyllic society where property was shared and people were not subjected to the will of a leader. From the time Latin motifs were Christianized in poems including Ephrem the Syrian’s Hymns on Paradise, Prudentius’ Cathemerinon, or Claudius Marius Victor’s Alethia, the Christian Edenic vision of a terrestrial pre-lapsarian abode was intertwined with the classical utopian motif of the Golden Age and the Virgilian Aetas Aurea.20 Yet, it was in early modernity’s colonial imaginary that this fusion was provided with an exact geographical place and a precise historical reality. Columbus, echoing Hesiod, Virgil, and Ovid’s Golden Age, says that the Indians did not know of “iron nor [did they know of] steel or weapons [hierrros, ni acero, ni armas].”21 Peter Martyr d’Anghiera wrote in his De Orbe Novo that the natives of la Española “living in the Golden Age, without laws, slanderous judges, and books, they are content with the state of nature.”22 In the Indies, the colonizers found what they believed was an Epicurean proto-communism. Columbus was unable to determine whether the Indians have private property, or whether such a concept did not exist for them.23 Vespucci saw the same thing: these “rational animals [animali ragionali],” he wrote, “have neither law nor faith, and live according to nature. They do now know the immortality of the Soul, they hold no property of their own, because everything is common: they have no limits to Kingdoms, and Provinces: they have no King: they obey no one, each one is Lord of himself.”24 In reference to a similar suggestion, made this time by some of the first European explorers of Brazil, who described the Tupinambá Indians as a “people without god, law, and king,” Pierre Clastres comments: “What could be strangest, for people coming out of societies in which authority culminated in the absolute monarchies of France, Portugal, Spain? They were confronted by barbarians who did not live in a civilized society.”25

Clastres locates this observation within a broader ethnological discourse, culminating in the language of political anthropology. The latter was only able to assess the existence of an archaic form of power, one that did not rely on coercion and violence, and was independent from any hierarchy, negatively, as a “lack,” or as the clear sign of the underdevelopment of political institutions (like the State) in “archaic” societies. Yet, for the first European observers—Columbus, Caminha, Vespucci—this “lack,” and this is something Clastres does not comment on, was rather seen in positive terms, as the symptom that the fulfilment of an originary, virtually forgotten, promise was close at hand: Paradise on earth—the mirror image of Europe—a locus amoenus of plentifulness where bons sauvages lived in freedom and peace, without the burden of toil, had finally been found.

It was Antonio de León Pinelo, a seventeenth-century Jesuit lawyer born in Valladolid but raised in South America, whose Jewish grandfather was burnt by the Inquisition, who made this motif—that of the terrestrial paradise, no longer lost but rather found in the utopian land of America—into the central subject of his 1656 extensive study, Paradise in the New World [El Paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo; comentario apologético, historia natural, y peregrina de las Indias Occidentales, Islas de Tierra Firme del mar Occeano], described by Raúl Porras Barrenechea as an “encyclopedia, both scientific and fantastic, of the Spanish Indies in the midst of the seventeenth century.”26

Pinelo’s book, like Jacques d’Auzoles Lapeyre’s 1629 La Saincte Géographie, examines the theological opinions and scriptural evidence regarding the exact localization of Paradise. After discussing whether the location of Paradise ought to be read in allegorical or literal terms, whether its reality is spiritual or corporeal, d’Auzoles concludes—and by doing so he repeats what Augustine had already stressed in his De Genesi ad litteram—that the Terrestrial Paradise is truly as corporeal and real as it is spiritual.27 Following this, he receives favorably the opinions that it is in “the New World, which we call today America” where this Garden of Delights is to be found.28 D’Auzoles, however, considers not only America but also Mesopotamia, India, and Palestine as possible places where the Garden was planted, and concludes rather vaguely, after Isidore of Seville, that its location ought to be found in the “Orient.”29

Pinelo is more specific. He states that the place where Adam and Eve lived before the Fall is to be found in the meridional Indies (Peru). The evidence, he claims, is overwhelming: the rivers of Paradise as described in the scriptures are those of the Amazon, Plata, Orinoco, and Magdalena, which have been transferred by God into the New World. The Plata River, which stands according to Pinelo for the Pishon as described in Genesis 2, sustains via subterraneous passages the Nile; the Magdalena, which stands for the Tigris, sustains the Ganga; the Gihon is identified with the Amazon and the Euphrates with the Orinoco.30After all, Augustine had claimed that “it is probable that man has no idea where paradise was, and that the rivers, whose sources are said to be known, flowed for some distance underground, and then sprang up elsewhere.”31 For Pinelo, the description of the biblical paradise in Genesis 2 is none other than the description of the “natural and peculiar history of the Indies [historia natural y peregrina de las Indias],” which the second part of his book is committed to write. And the fruit eaten by Eve was not an apple but one that could only grow in a tropical weather: the maracujá or passion fruit. Given the fantastic animals, precious plants, wonderful monsters, sublime riches, and extraordinary lands of the Indies, Pinelo states that it is in America that Paradise is to be found. He argues that the Eden is not a supercelestial non-place but rather a worldly geographical region. Paradise, he claims, is “a corporeal place, real and true [un lugar corpóreo, real y verdadero].” And it is America, Pinelo writes, that “deserves the primacy of the Orb, and that it be understood that where nature so abundantly and liberally poured out her treasures and manifested her power, there was the place of Paradise.”32

Fig. 2. León Pinelo, Paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo, 1656, f 126.

Shortly after the publication of Pinelo’s study, in 1684, another seventeenth-century Jesuit intellectual, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, wrote a curious work descriptively and lengthily entitled Parayso occidental, plantado, y cultivado por la liberal benéfica mano de los muy Catholicos, y poderosos Reyes de España Nuestros Señores en su magnífico Real Convento de Jesús María de México: de cuya fundación, y progressos, y de las prodigiosas maravillas, y virtudes . . . da noticia . . . Carlos de Sigüenza, y Góngora.33 Here, instead of considering the pre-Columbian world that had been found in the “New World” as a garden of earthly delights, Sigüenza allegorically describes the foundation of a convent in colonial Mexico as the creation of what he calls a “Western Paradise” in the “New World”—a gift given by Christianity to the newly civilized lands. He describes the founding of the Conceptionist nun convent of Jesús María which he sees as having helped found a “Western Paradise” that surpasses the originary vision of the “Oriental” Eden and which he thus calls “an improved Paradise [el mejorado Parayso].”34 In this baroque text, famous for the inclusion of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’ autobiography and notable for its portrayal of women’s lives in monastic enclosures (it is said to be, though written by a man, a “history of women for women [historia de mujeres para mujeres]”),35 we can see the Counter-Reformation’s attempt to deploy the Baroque, which Eugenio d’Ors claimed to be “secretly animated” by the “nostalgia for the lost Paradise,”36 for foundationalist purposes: that of founding a Christian edifice in America—a Catholic heaven in the midst of the torrid, wonderful and yet untamable nature of the “New World.” Sigüenza thus represents a counter-tradition that sought to overturn the utopian political undertones with which the concept of Paradise (with ambiguous and polyvalent effects) had been endowed throughout the colonial project. He sought to subsume the concept into a foundationalist Christian and imperial project: he hyperbolically construed the foundation, by the Spanish kings, of a paradisiacal convent, and the cultivation of its garden, as surpassing the pre-Columbian utopian Eden in building what he calls a “delicious Paradise of religion and virtue.” The longing for the lost yet localizable mythical Paradise, and the idea of Utopia being located in America—these oxymoronic topoi were for a moment recruited for a missionary effort, that is, the attempt to deploy the concept to build a philosophy of origins and a politics of conversion.

Paradise Turned into Hell

Indeed, the darker side of the discovery of the terrestrial paradise in America was the missionary and military branch of the colonization. The very desire and will to possess Paradise turned it into Hell. Bartolomé de Las Casas exposed the conquest of the New World as a process of terrible violence, exploitation, and systematic genocide. He called it the “destruction” of the Indies as he made evident the orderly depopulation (despoblamiento) and methodical massacre that the Spaniards undertook. The mirage was inverted: Paradise was turned into Hell.37 The Spaniards, Las Casas writes, have done nothing to the Indians but “tear them apart, kill them, distress, afflict and torment them, and destroy them from their entrails”; they have systematically murdered the “meek sheep [ovejas mansas]” by which he defines the Indians.38 His account is a remarkable report on the inhuman tyranny of the Christians. If the chronicles about the New World from Columbus to del Castillo, passing by those of Vespucci and Caminha, in addition to portraying the worldly Paradise, were also filled with depictions of the allegedly immoral nature and cruelty of the Indians in their human sacrifices and alleged cannibalism, Las Casas’ chronicle is the mirror image of these accounts. He presents the conquistadors as the true “devils.” He recalls seeing how on one occasion a group of Indians was feeding fish to the Spaniards, and suddenly, out of nowhere, “the devil deceived the Christians [se le revistió el diablo a los cristianos]” who killed, without any “reason or occasion” more than three thousand souls.39 He describes innumerable “inhuman butcheries [carnicerías inhumanas],”40 whereby the Spaniards, whom he calls “inhuman men,” systematically depopulated full towns in a matter of hours. He exhibits these “tyrannies” and “execrable evils,” illustrated by Theodor de Bry in their grotesque realism and barbarity, as realizing Hell on Earth: “the tyrannies that the Spaniards exercise against the Indians . . . is one of the cruelest and most condemned things that can exist in the world. There is no hellish and desperate life [vida infernal y desesperada] in this century that can be compared to it.41 Las Casas, by using the theologically charged language with which the Indians themselves had been demonized and dehumanized, consciously reverted the politico-theological discourse which legitimized the colonization of the New World. It is not the Indians but the Spaniards, the Dominican intends to show, who are the true “inhuman men”—cruel, evil, and greedy tyrants. If the Indians had been depicted as blood-thirsty anthropophagi, the Spaniards, for Las Casas, are “famous butchers and shedders of human blood, well accustomed and experienced in the great sins of the world [insignes carniceros y derramadores de la sangre humana, muy acostumbrados y experimentados en los grandes pecados].”42 De Bry’s Narratio Regionum indicarum per Hispanos quosdam devastatarum verissima shows precisely this: how the Spaniards are the new savages, the true practitioners and administrators of cannibalism, traffickers of human bodies, and other barbarian practices.

Fig. 3. Theodor De Bry, Narratio Regionum indicarum per Hispanos Quosdam devastatarum verissima, engraving, 16th century.

If Vespucci and Columbus discovered a utopian community without law and private property in the “terrestrial paradise” of the New World, Las Casas found in the colonized New World a lawless place whereby the extreme cruelty of the conquistadors had no limit or punishment. What he saw as their un-Christian “cruelties, massacres and robberies [crueldades, matanzas y robos]” had indeed transformed the Indies into the New Hell: he characterizes the crimes he saw (e.g., the burning alive of numerous Indians in a locked house, or the cutting of their hands, noses, and ears just because the colonizers “felt like doing it”) as nothing but “demoniacal works [endemoniadas obras].”43 If in his 1822 Traité de l’association domestique-agricole Charles Fourier could introduce the metaphor of l’enfer social as a “labyrinth of passions,” in which men are trapped by commercea metaphor that became widely used in the moral discourse of utopian socialism and a structuring image in Marx’s thought44—Las Casas should be seen as having written the colonial prehistory (and as having provided the theological vocabulary) of the extreme cruelty that inaugurated racial capitalism in its early forms as the expropriation of the New World turned the indigenous population into a landless, sub-human labor force, and as the mass Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the instauration of the plantation system were put into place (Las Casas himself, as is well known, called for African slaves to be brought to America to replace the Indians as labor force).45

The total destruction of the Indies was recorded not only in Las Casas’ account but also (though this time triumphantly) in Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s narrative of the conquest of Tenochtitlan (Historia verdadera de la conquista de la nueva España), not to mention León-Portilla’s La vision de los vencidos, whereby the account of the general destruction of the Indies is confirmed as a conversion of Paradise into Hell. When Tenochtitlan finally fell in the hands of Hernán Cortés, del Castillo describes the utter destruction as such: “now everything is lost on the ground, and there is nothing left [ahora todo está por el suelo perdido, que no hay cosa].”46  But this was not only a material destruction and a human genocide. It was an attempt not only to possess Paradise on Earth but rather (as Sigüenza’s metaphor so clearly reveals) to found the Christian Paradise on Earth: to use the formulation of Robert Ricard, the colonization was primarily an endeavor of colonizing the soul of the Indians.47 The spiritual colonization of the New World, concerned with the destruction of the thought-structure, forms of life, and beliefs of the indigenous cultures, is best summarized by the Colloquios y doctrina christiana, a set of Franciscan sermons delivered in Tenochtitlan to Nahua thinkers, who were told that it is necessary that they “hate, despise, dislike, spit upon those whom you have gone about having as gods [aborrezcáis, despreciéis, no queráis bien, escupáis a aquellos a los que habéis andado teniendo por dioses].”48 José de Acosta, the Jesuit missionary, programmatically formulated the spiritual colonization of the New World when he stated that their mission was concerned with nothing but the removal of the idols from the Indians’ “hearts” as well as from their “eyes.”49

Tawantinsuyu as Utopia

Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, considered by some as the first Latin American intellectual, is heir to the unfinished mission of Acosta. If Acosta would have liked to blind the hearts of entire civilizations by fully removing the idols from the Indian’s eyes, Garcilaso recounts his uncle’s pain, in both his heart and his eyes, as he told him some of the stories he included in his Comentarios reales de los Incas: “not to make you cry, I have not recited this story with tears of bloodshed in my eyes, as I shed them in my heart from the pain I feel to see our Incas ruined and our empire lost.”50 Garcilaso needs to be read in light of the humanist Renaissance tradition of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Luis de León, Judah Abravanel (whose Dialoghi d’amore he translated), and Campanella.51 His Comentarios reales are a hermeneutic attempt to reconstruct the totality of Inca civilization including its forms of life, cosmology, and metaphysics, as well as its history and final destruction. If he did not see the Inca empire as a Terrestrial Paradise, as Pinelo did, he nonetheless saw it—along with Guaman Poma de Ayala—as a utopian society, as the apotheosis of “good government.” Menéndez Pelayo and others dismissively characterized the Comentarios reales as fantasies, fictive utopias, “illusions of a fairy tales” or even as a “child’s credulity.”52 The significance of Garcilaso’s project, however, may not be assessed on the basis of the facticity of his account. Instead of following the tradition of political realism represented by, say, Aristotle or Hobbes (“mas as he is”), Garcilaso, by synthesizing the utopian idealist Renaissance humanism of his time with the knowledge he received from relatives of his mother’s side (the last members of the Inca imperial house), conceived a project for an exhaustive hermeneutic reconstruction of the religion, history, economic practices, and political organization of a suppressed and destroyed culture in its totality. And it is from the prism provided by his uncle’s pain at the destruction of this culture, which he shared, that Garcilaso sets to describe the “good government” of the Incas and their just distribution of land.53

Similarly, Guaman Poma de Ayala construed an image of the Inca empire in utopian terms. In his Primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615), addressed to Felipe III, King of Spain, he denounces the cruel practices of the Spanish colonizers while recollecting the ideological basis of the Inca’s good government: the Inca is not a king but the vehicle by which Father the Sun, in his mercy, deploys his transcendental moral force, laying the foundations for good governance. It is the vessel through which the Inca’s divine authority succeeds in establishing a just government, in which land is properly (and complexly) distributed, and tributes correspond to the capacities of the people.54 Whereas the utopias of More, Bacon, and Campanella, though grounded in the colonial imaginary, were conceived as no-places, the utopias of Garcilaso and Guaman Poma had a specific place, as well as a defined history in the Meridional Indies, the exact place where Pinelo had located Paradise on Earth: Tawantinsuyu.

Modern Iterations

José Carlos Mariátegui’s Marxist approach to his idealization of Inca society should be read in continuation with this tradition. If the utopian communism found by Mariátegui in the pre-colonial Inca world could recover the topos inaugurated by both Columbus and Vespucci—whereby the natural man of the New World lived in a “terrestrial Paradise,” understood as a just society without private property—this was the case because Garcilaso and Guaman Poma had turned the motif of the earthly Eden into a political utopia. This topos, as the closure of this entry will briefly show, brings together the Marxist thought of Mariátegui with the modernist writings of the anthropophagous movement in Brazil and the Neo-baroque writings of José Lezama Lima.

In his Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928), Mariátegui studied the economic colonial destructuring of Inca society.55 The colonization of Peru was for him fundamentally an economic problem which refashioned the social relationship to the land. The Spaniards transformed the agrarian Inca society into a feudal one, primarily through the encroachment and expropriation of the commons, a transformation which Máriategui sees as necessary for the subsequent development of capitalist relations in the New World. Before the process of colonization which Máriategui understood, not unlike Rosa Luxemburg, as central to the accumulation of capital, Tawantinsuyu was for him an “Incaic communism” based on an agrarian ideology, which secured the communal property of the land while espousing a universal solar religion.56 The land, water, and the forests were commonly held by the ayllu (the community or set of families in a locality); work was done collectively too.57 It is through the creation of the latifundio that the Inca notion of “community” was destroyed and their traditional economic, political, and cultural organization replaced. Mariátegui sees this process as giving birth to possessive individualism in the New World, replacing the communal practices of indigenous socialism with individual work, ultimately leading to the destruction of the pre-Columbian archaic communism.58 In the same year when Mariátegui published his Siete Ensayos, Oswald de Andrade released his “Manifesto Antropófago” in Revista de Antropofagia.59 Irreverent, humorous, and witty, the “Manifesto” would give voice to the philosophical, politico-economic, and aesthetic program of Brazil’s modernist anthropophagous movement. If Columbus was looking for the country of the anthropophagi, for Amazonian women, cyclopes, and acephalous men in his trips around the New World,60 the Brazilian modernists recovered the myth of cannibalism, best represented in the colonial account of Hans Staden, to lay claim on a matriarchal socialism, both primitive and avant-garde, ancient and modern, which, by devouring and internalizing European surrealisms, sought to humanize industrial society. In the “Manifesto,” but also in Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma, as in Tarsila do Amaral’s paintings, the Amazonian jungle is portrayed as a sensuous Paradise inhabited, not by a “frugivore” bon sauvage, like Rousseau’s natural man, but by “evil” barbarians who devour humans.61 They lived in the “country of the palm trees,” in “Pindorama’s matriarchy,” where, like in Máriategui’s Tawantinsuyu, the true primordial cosmological communism is to be found. As the “Manifesto” puts it: “We already had communism. We already had surrealist language. The golden age.”62

Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma, the literary representation of the anthropophagous movement, tells the story of how Macunaíma, Brazil’s anti-hero, “without character,” is stripped of his talisman or totem—the muiraquitã given to him by his beloved Ci, the goddess of the jungle. In his epic quest to recover it, Macunaíma leaves the jungle and sets out for São Paulo after the giant Pietro Paíma. Macunaíma leaves the dense Amazon jungle—where he finds himself in cosmological unity and balance with nature, as well as libertine sexuality and laziness—and submits to the mercantile logic of the industrial metropolis. The jungle, which by the end of the novel is in the process of becoming a waste land, is nonetheless the representation of a terrestrial Paradise in which the Amazonian gods and heroes engage in all types of mischiefs and adventures. The novel portrays it as a Paradise lost due to the forces of industrialization.

The critic Alfonso Reyes uses the expression “geographical mysticism” to refer to the fantasies and chimeras construed around the image of America in the European imagination at the time of its discovery and colonization.63 This expression, however, is more accurate to refer to the imaginative poetic world of the anthropophagous movement in Brazil or to a thinker like José Lezama Lima, who inherited the colonial fantasies of Columbus and his contemporaries, but transformed them in radical ways. When Lezama, the author of Paradiso, calls the American landscape a “gnostic space,” he is inheriting colonial theological fantasies but is also recovering aspects of earlier pre-Columbian mythical thought like so many of his contemporaries would do. Unlike the anthropophagic avant-garde, which was influenced by European primitivism, Lezama recovers instead the traditions of German Romanticism and Idealism. In his 1957 La expresión americana, he quotes Schelling’s idea that while nature is the visible spirit, spirit is invisible nature,64 to develop his notion that the American landscape constitutes a “gnostic space” which relentlessly seeks to be seen by human beings.65 This space, a synthesis of culture and nature, is seen as open to the descent of Spirit, and thus as a source of gnosis. As an “ancestral” and yet “open” space ready to receive and reconfigure European artistic and cultural forms, it provides a place in which decadent style can acquire an affirmative Dionysian energy. It “establishes an affirmation and an exit from the European chaos.”66 Lezama finishes his La expresión americana by saying that America’s gnostic space offers in its jungles “the turmoil of spirit” which, peacefully distributed among its rivers, becomes an image of “nature that interprets and recognizes, which prefigures and yearns” for the future.67

Hegel, and I shall end with Hegel, expressed what Mariátegui, the Andrades, and Lezama had in mind: “America is the land of the future,” he wrote, “and its world-historical importance has yet to be revealed in the ages which lie ahead . .  . It is a land of desire for all those who are weary [or bored] of the historical arsenal of old Europe. Napoleon is said to have remarked: ‘Cette vieille Europe m’ennuie.’”68 Hegel’s projection unto the “New World” of the desires and fantasies that are to re-instill a sense of vigor and excitement, of liveliness and enthusiasm, into the old, decadent Europe that so bored Napoleon is a momentary suspension of his philosophy of history which echoes the Leibnizian optimism mocked by Voltaire in Candide. As Candide tries to console Cunégonde, who is in distress during their voyage from Cadiz to the New World, he tells her: “All will be well . . . the sea of this new world is already better than our European sea; it is calmer, the winds more constant. It is certainly the New World which is the best of all possible worlds.”69 Candide, while parodying Leibniz’s theodicy and his “sufficient reason,” denounces and mocks the providential significance with which the colonial imagination had endowed the discovery of the American Paradise—the utopia of Eldorado—which in fact had been subjected, as Las Casas shows, to unimaginable violence and suffering, the kind of “physical and moral evil [le mal physique et le mal moral]” that Candide comes to see as the best objection to Pangloss’ optimism.70 As I have shown, “Paradise” is disclosed as a privileged theologico-political concept, indeed, as the premier theologoumenon,  in the colonial history of conquest in the Americas, which attributed it to a particular geography and disclosed it as having an underlying political kernel: it provided much of the impetus for the missionary ethos of conversion and the thirst to possess the newly-found “Garden,” but it also enlivened the utopian imagination, which sought to turn socio-economic conditions “upside down.” Indeed, Voltaire did not only mock and deride, while simultaneously inheriting, the theological-colonial imagination, but also found America to be a privileged landscape for the imagination, prone to the Dionysian future-oriented liveliness that Hegel would only momentarily concede to it. Hegel, unlike earlier colonial chroniclers and later utopian thinkers, remained committed to a philosophy of history according to which the Christian Germanic realm, and no other, was to finally institute real freedom. Even if America is to be considered as the “land of the future,” he adds: “What has taken place there [America] up to now is but an echo of the Old World and the expression of an alien life; and as a country [or land] of the future, it is of no interest to us here.”71 Like Sepúlveda and others, America was seen by Hegel as a tabula rasa and a res nullius, an empty land that could be fashioned to become a mere repetition of the old world. As a “land of the future,” some of the most original aesthetic movements of the twentieth century saw in it the potential for the realization of its Edenic promise: Paradise on Earth. Félix Guattari recognized this when he said that “the laboratory of the future is in Latin America, and that it is there where one ought to think and experiment.”72 As Mexican critic Alfonso Reyes puts it: “It started by being an ideal and it continues to be one. America is a Utopia.”73


I am grateful to Emily Apter, Eduardo Subirats, Agnese Di Riccio, Political Concepts’ managing editor, as well as to the participants of the 2022 Political Concepts Graduate Conference, for their comments on this essay. I am also grateful to Sergio Vega for his permission to reproduce his piece, ‘Pic-nic. The Golden Age with Mosquitoes,’ in this article. The writing of this article was supported by the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes and by the CONACYT.

Published on March 4, 2023


Iván Hofman is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature (NYU)


1. Sergio Buarque de Holanda, Visión del Paraíso: Motivos Edénicos en el Descubrimiento y Colonización del Brasil (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1987), 210.

2. See Jean Delumeau, History of Paradise: The Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition (New York: Continuum, 1995), 4.

3. Isidore, Etym., xiv, 3, cited in Thomas Aquinas, The “Summa theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne Ltd., 1920), I, q. CII, art. 1.

4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. CII, art. 1; Sergio Buarque de Holanda, Visión del Paraíso, 212–3.

5.“St. Brendan’s Voyage,” in Eileen Gardiner, ed., Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante (New York: Italica Press, 1989), 81–133. I am grateful to Yana Makuwa for pointing me to this reference.

6. Delumeau, History of Paradise, 5–6.

7. Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, ed. Consuelo Varela (Madrid: Alianza, 1984), 31, 49; all translations are mine unless otherwise noted. 

8. See Buarque de Holanda, Visión del Paraíso, 266–7; Delumeau, History of Paradise, 110–1.

9. See Eduardo Subirats, El Continente vacío: La conquista del nuevo mundo y la conciencia moderna (Guadalajara, México: Universidad de Guadalajara, 2019), 67–70.

10. Francisco Morales Padrón, “Descubrimiento y toma de posesión,” Anuario de estudios americanos, 12 (1955), 331, 342. Stephen Greenblatt provides an account of the absurdity of these ceremonies: without expecting the Indians to understand Castilian, the conquistadors would nonetheless take possession of their land, while making them participant of such incomprehensible rituals (Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992], 52–60). Columbus confesses the linguistic problem involved in these rituals: “no sé la lengua, y la gente de estas tierras no me entienden, ni yo ni otro que yo tenga a ellos; y estos indios que yo traigo, muchas veces le entiendo una cosa por otra al contrario” (Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, 67). 

11. Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, 50.

12. Buarque de Holanda, Visión del Paraíso, 42.

13. Vaz de Caminha, Primera Carta desde el Brasil [A Carta], trad. María Tecla Portela Carreiro (Madrid: Celeste Editorial, 2001), 31.

14. Américo Vespucio, El Nuevo Mundo: Cartas relativas a sus viajes y descubrimientos (Buenos Aires: Editorial Nova, 1951), 100.

15. Américo Vespucio, El Nuevo Mundo, 144–6.

16. Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, 99.

17. Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, 55.

18. Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité (1984), 3.

19. Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 131.

20. See Delumeau, History of Paradise, 10–15.

21. Buarque de Holanda, Visión del Paraíso, 237.

22. Buarque de Holanda, Visión del Paraíso, 238. About Cuba, he wrote: “la tierra era de todos, así como el sol y el agua, que lo mío y lo tuyo, germen de todos los males, no existían para esa gente” (ibid.).

23. Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, 144.

24. “Non tengono né legge, né fede nessuna, e vivono secondo natura. Non conoscono inmortalità d’Anima, non tengono fra loro beni propri, perché tutto e commune: non tengono termini di Regni, e di Provincia: non anno [sic] Rè: non obediscono a nessuno, ognuno è Signore di se” (Américo Vespucio, El Nuevo Mundo, 146).

25. Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology (New York: Zone Books, 1987), 15.

26. Antonio de León Pinelo, El Paraíso en el nuevo mundo, prólogo por Raúl Porras Barrenechea (Lima: Imprenta Torres Aguirre, 1943), xxxvii. On Pinelo see: José Aragüés and Rosa Pellicer, “Antonio de León Pinelo, El Paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo (antología),” in Manuel Pérez (coord.), Libros desde el Paraíso: ediciones de textos indianos (Madrid: Iberoamericana; Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert, 2016), 75-91.

27. Jacques d’Auzoles Lapeyre, La Saincte Géographie, c’est à dire, exacte description de la terre, et veritable demonstration du Paradis terrestre (Paris: Antoine Estiene, 1629), I:V, 14. I encountered a reference to this obscure book in the photo-essay by Sergio Vega, “Paradise in the New World,” available at; accessed December 2022. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram, viii, 1, cited in Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. CII, art. 1.

28. Jacques D’Auzoles, La Saincte Géographie, I:VI, 15.

29. Jacques D’Auzoles, La Saincte Géographie, I:VI, 18.

30. León Pinelo, El Paraíso en el nuevo mundo, I:139, II:531.

31. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram, viii, 7, cited in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. CII, art. 1.

32. León Pinelo, El Paraíso en el nuevo mundo, II:3. An anonymous English author had already written, in 1554 about Brazil that “it is now thought that the earthly paradise can only be located on the equinoctial line or close to it, for the only perfect spot on earth has its place there” (cited in Delumeau, History of Paradise, 111), thus confirming Aquinas early judgement that Paradise must be found near the Equator. 

33. “Western Paradise, planted and cultivated by the liberal beneficent hand of Our Lords, the very Catholic and powerful Kings of Spain in their magnificent Royal Convent of Jesús María of Mexico: of whose foundation, and progress, and of its prodigious marvels and virtues . . . Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. . . relates.”

34. Kathleen Ross, The Baroque Narrative of Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora: A New World Paradise, c1993, 62. See also: Margo Glantz, “Un paraíso occidental: el huerto cerrado de la virginidad,” in Carlos de Sigüenza y Gónora, Parayso occidental, plantado, y cultivado por la liberal benefica mano de los muy catholicos, y poderosos Reyes de España Nuestros Señores en su magnifico Real Convento de Jesus Maria de Mexico: de cuya fundacion, y progressos, y de las prodigiosas maravillas, y virtudes . . . da noticia . . . Carlos de Siguenza, y Gongora (Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2004),

35. Sigüenza y Góngora, Carlos de, Paraíso Occidental (México: Cien de México, CONACULTA, 1995), bk. 3, 45.

36. Eugenio d’Ors, Lo Barroco, Colección Metrópolis (Madrid: Tecnos, 1993), 17, 35.

37. On this inversion, see, e.g., Eduardo Subirats, El Continente vacío, 178–90.

38. Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias, ed. André Saint-Lu (Madrid: Cátedra, 2016), 77.

39. Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias, 92.

40. Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias, 118.

41. Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias, 144, my emphasis.

42. Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias, 165.

43. Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias, 165.

44. William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 76–85.

45. See, for instance, part two of Sylvia Wynter’s “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” The New Centennial Review 3 (2003), 257–337, on the dispute between Sepúlveda and Las Casas.

46. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, vol. 1, ed. Carmelo Saenz de Sta María (Madrid: Universidad Rafael Landívar, 1982), 261.

47. Robert Ricard, La Conquista Espiritual de México (México: Editorial Polis, 1947). 

48. Cited in Eduardo Subirats, El Continente vacío, 78. 

49. “quitar los ídolos del corazón” y “quitárselos también de los ojos”; cited in Eduardo Subirats, El Continente vacío, 172. 

50. El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Comentarios Reales de los Incas, in Obras Completas, vol. 2, ed. Carlos Araníbar (Lima: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores del Perú, 2015), bk. 1, 50. The Spanish reads: “por no hacerte llorar no he recitado esta historia con lágrimas de sangre derramadas por los ojos, como las derramo en el corazón del dolor que siento de ver nuestros incas acabados y nuestro imperio perdido.” 

51. See, e.g., Eduardo Subirats, El Continente vacío, 237–41, 267–87. 

52. See Carlos Araníbar’s introduction to El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Obras Completas, vol. 2, 10. 

53. See El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Comentarios Reales de los Incas, bk. 1, 353, 221. 

54. Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615-1616), trans. Jorge L. Urioste, ed. John V. Murra and Rolena Adorno (México: Siglo Veintiuno, 1980), 84. 

55. José Carlos Mariátegui, Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (México: Era, 1979). 

56. Some echoes to Campanella’s astrological utopia, his City of the Sun, are striking. 

57. José Carlos Mariátegui, Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana, 50. 

58. José Carlos Mariátegui, Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana, 72–3. 

59. Interestingly, Louis Baudin’s L’empire socialiste des Inka was published in the same year (Paris: Institut d’ethnologie, 1928). 

60. Alfonso Reyes, Última Tule (México: Imprenta Universitaria, 1942), 61–5. 

61. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Second Discourse,” in The Discourses and other Early Political Writings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 193–4, 196–7. 

62. Oswald de Andrade, “Manifiesto Antropófago,” in Obra escogida (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho), 1981, 65–72; quote from “Cannibalist Manifesto,” trans. Leslie Bary, Latin American Literary Review 19:38 (1991), 40.

63. Alfonso Reyes, Última Tule, 16–21.

64. José Lezama Lima, La expresión americana, ed. Irlemar Chiampi (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2017), 188. On this idea of Schelling’s see Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781–1801 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 368.

65. José Lezama Lima, La expresión americana, 201.

66. José Lezama Lima, La expresión americana, 202.

67. José Lezama Lima, La expresión americana, 204.

68. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 170.

69. Voltaire, Candide ou l’Optimisme, ed. Fréderic Deloffre (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), 56.

70. Voltaire, Candide, 67.

71. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 171.

72. Félix Guattari and Nelly Richard, “Entrevista con Félix Guattari,” in Revista de Crítica Cultural 4 (1991), 12.

73. Alfonso Reyes, Última Tule, 93.