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Spectacle and Topophilia: Reading Early Modern and Postmodern Hispanic Cultures
By David R. Castillo, Bradley J. Nelson
Vanderbilt University Press Copyright © 2011 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
Monumental Landscapes in the Society of the Spectacle: From Fuenteovejuna to New York
David R. Castillo
The 1980 Radio Televisión Española (RTVE) production of Lope de Vega's classic drama Fuenteovejuna (1619) concludes with a suggestive visual montage that brings the landscape into the scene in spectacular fashion: the stone walls of the royal palace of Fernando and Isabel slowly open up and then fade away to reveal a panoramic view of the Castilian countryside. The significance of this climactic scene is underscored by an intense, seemingly supernatural luminosity, which transforms the fields beyond the architectural setting into an ethereal panorama. This spectacular montage may remind us of Yi-Fu Tuan's description of the convergence of the terms "nature," "landscape," and "scenery" in the early modern period. As he pointed out in his foundational work Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitude, and Values (1974), the convergence of nature, landscape, and scenery signals the demotion of the all-encompassing cosmos of the ancients, as well as the fundamental transformation of the original Dutch notion of landschap (farms, fields). The core of Tuan's thesis is that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the landscape entered the realms of spectacle and make-believe (the world of the theater). In so doing, it claimed signifying centrality in official portraits and spectacles of power (133).
The semantic charge of the Spanish word paisaje proves that the modern connection between landscape and spectacle goes beyond the English language. The definition of paisaje in the Diccionario del uso del español (1998) (compiled by Moliner) confirms the centrality of this link: "Extensión de campo que se ve desde un sitio. El campo considerado como espectáculo" (536) (Extension of terrain seen from a specific site. The countryside viewed as a spectacle). The entry for panorama is even more telling for our purposes, in that it reveals a link between the meaning of "paisaje" and the "total view" suggested by the etymology of the word (pan-orama): "Paisaje pintado en una superficie cilíndrica, que se contempla como espectáculo.... Referido a vistas o dibujos de algo, hecho a cierta distancia, de modo que se ve el conjunto de lo que se quiere representar" (557) (Landscape depicted on a cylindrical surface that is contemplated as a spectacle.... Referring to vistas or drawings of something from a certain distance so as to view the totality of what we want to represent).
Denis Cosgrove recently investigated this link between landscape and spectacle, beginning with Renaissance art and theater. He notes that the word theater acquired connotations beyond its ancient meaning that brought it remarkably close to the emerging notion of landscape: "In the sixteenth century, theater not only had the architectural meaning, derived from the ancients, of a playhouse and the performances staged there, but also meant a conspectus: a place, region, or text in which phenomena are unified for public understanding" (101).
Returning to the 1980 production of Fuenteovejuna, I would argue that the spectacular panorama at the conclusion of the film works as a portrait of the body politic, "unified for public understanding." Paraphrasing Tuan, we could say that the expansive landscape of the state becomes the background of the king's portrait—or better said, the scene of his pose. As the camera zooms in, we see that the citizens or "paisanos" of Fuenteovejuna are slowly moving through the scene(ry). This "total view" of the body politic is strongly reminiscent of the illustration on the cover of Thomas Hobbes's foundational treatise Leviathan (1651), which represents the territory of the state as the body of the king, with his head rising over the landscape. On closer inspection, we see that the torso of the monarch is composed of countless human figures, whose own faces are turned toward the king's head.
The underside of this mythical portrait of monarchical omnipresence is the panoptic spectacle of vigilance, discipline, and punishment that is richly chronicled in the third act of Lope's play. I am thinking both of the graphic depiction of the brutal piercing and dismemberment of the medieval body politic allegorized in the figure of the comendador and of the compulsive repetition of scenes (near the end of the play) of inquisitorial interrogation of the king's subjects. It is important to recognize that this is not gratuitous violence but, rather, the price that must be paid for the establishment of the Absolutist order, the pound of flesh demanded by the emerging modern state. In the words of Fuenteovejuna's mayor, the exemplary voice of the new monarchical subjects: "Que Reyes hay en Castilla / que nuevas órdenes hazen / con que desórdenes quitan" (II, 1620–23) (For there are monarchs in Castile / who give [literally make] new orders / with which they eliminate disorders).
In erasing the history of social and political antagonism from the Castilian landscape, the mythical panorama of the pacified countryside, presented at the conclusion of the RTVE production of Fuenteovejuna, closely follows the monarchical metanarrative that is inscribed in the king's proclamation at the end of Lope's original text: "Y la villa es bien se quede / en mi, pues de mi se vale" (III, 2446–47) (And the town must thus remain within me, insofar as it has claimed me [as its legitimate ruler]). The implication is that the town of Fuenteovejuna, which allegorically represents all of Spain, voluntarily and heroically embraces monarchical absolutism as political desideratum and historical destiny. To be sure, Fuenteovejuna becomes a foundational topos, a monumental site that marks/commemorates/celebrates the birth of the Spanish State.
Tuan pointed out that topophilic spectacles extend the illusion of organic wholeness beyond local physiographic units inside the boundaries of the nation-state: "To enhance loyalty, history is made visible by monuments in the landscape and past battles are recounted in the belief that the blood of heroes sanctified the soil. Topophilia rings false when it is claimed for a large territory. A compact size scaled down to man's biologic needs and sense-bound capacities seems necessary" (99–101). The concluding montage of the RTVE production of Fuenteovejuna illustrates these notions in a deliberate and seemingly self-conscious manner. It makes it easier to grasp how Lope de Vega transforms an archival curiosity (a chaotic and contradictory story of local rebellion in a relatively insignificant rural area of fifteenth-century Spain) into a monumental place of national memory. The spectacular mythology of Fuenteovejuna functions as a double screen that protects the nation from the traumatic and potentially disintegrating encounter with its own historical real, both in the past and in the present. This may help explain why this seventeenth-century play has been used to promote self-celebratory images of the ruling order in political environments as diverse as Franco's Spain, the former Soviet Union, and revolutionary Mexico.
Today's spectators may feel a sense of déjà vu when watching this 1980 production of Fuenteovejuna, which, we should note, follows Lope de Vega's text very closely. Indeed, the climactic scenes of this baroque historical drama have much of the flavor of Hollywood epics and Disney productions. This should not be surprising when we consider that the modern world, the society of the spectacle according to Guy Debord, "was born from the world's loss of unity, and [that] the immense expansion of the modern spectacle reveals the enormity of this loss" (15). Insofar as the mass-oriented baroque spectacle is a public ritual of mourning (R. de la Flor) that offers consolation/compensation for the world's loss of unity (David Castillo, "Horror Vacui") in the language of the ruling order (Maravall), it makes sense to think of the baroque stage as a precursor of our own mass-oriented spectacles, from Hollywood to Disneyworld. The (re)constructive impulse that structures mass-oriented spectacles works on the same principle today as it did in the context of baroque culture, i.e., the principle of myth, which Roland Barthes aptly defined as a form of naturalization of history. As he puts it in Mythologies (1972): "Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.... We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature" (129).
While a comparative analysis of baroque theater, vis-à-vis the productions of our own society of the spectacle, falls beyond the scope of this essay, I will review a few scenes from the popular animated film Pocahontas (1995) to illustrate how mass-oriented spectacles continue to rework history into a compact mythology, an easily digestible series of self-celebratory landmarks of the ruling order. I will focus on the film's reconstruction of the American scenery as a transhistorical reservoir of the national spirit. I will also examine a music clip (included in the video release) that projects selected images of the film over the skyline of New York City. As in the concluding scene of the made-for-TV version of Fuenteovejuna, this video montage transforms the landscape (in this case the cityscape) into an ideological screen that protects the nation (the collective national fantasy) from a traumatic and potentially disintegrating encounter with its own historical contingency and its constitutive violence.
The storyline of Pocahontas is simple and familiar enough in its naturalization of colonial history. Pocahontas, the young daughter of Indian chief Powhatan, develops a romantic attachment with the courageous Captain John Smith, who, along with greedy Governor Ratcliffe, leads a shipload of British settlers into Virginian territory. As conflict breaks out between the local Indians and the British settlers, the Indian princess, always accompanied by animal friends, seeks the wisdom of Grandmother Willow. The ancient tree will help her understand her own personal destiny as part of a larger historical design.
We may be tempted to associate the film's mythical portrayal of Pocahontas as a free-spirited Indian living in perfect harmony with nature with new age ecological ideals. Yet images of close-to-nature (or nature-bound) Indians are but the gold standard of colonial discourse going back to Columbus's Diaries, as is the split of historical agents into noble idealists and greedy villains in such plays as Lope de Vega's El Nuevo Mundo descubierto por Cristóbal Colón (The New World Discovered by Christopher Columbus). The familiar notion of "manifest destiny" justifies the conquest and colonization of the New World by linking the colonial order to providential designs or, in the case of the Disney film, to the will of Nature. Thus, when the confused Indian princess discusses her mysterious dreams about a spinning arrow with Grandmother Willow, the ancient tree encourages her to listen to the spirits of the earth, the water and the sky who will guide her toward the right path: "All around you are spirits, child. They live in the earth and water, in the sky. If you listen, they will guide you." Pocahontas will eventually find the path she is searching for with the help of Smith's lost compass (the spinning arrow). In the end the Indian princess becomes convinced that she and her people must embrace the Land's manifest destiny, which is inextricably tied to the predestined presence of the newcomers:
Grandmother Willow: It's the arrow from your dream.
Pocahontas: I was right. It was pointing to him [John Smith].
Grandmother Willow: Let the spirits of the earth guide you. You know the right path, child. Now follow it!
This mythical version of "the encounter" is a foundational landmark that can be easily transferred to the present socio-political situation. Hence, today's (post)colonial landscapes, along with the socio-political structures contained in them, may be "naturalized" as the fulfillment of history: the shining city at the end of the "right path."
The music video version of the song "If I Never Knew You," which is performed at the conclusion of the film, reinforces this topophilic mythology. The central moments of the film are replayed against the night skyline of New York City as we listen to the nicely harmonized voices of Jon Secada and Shanice. On a few occasions the camera zooms in to give us a close up of an open door or window that reveals our own contemporaries looking up at the sky, seemingly mesmerized by the topophilic spectacle in which they play a part. We see ourselves in their eyes, sharing in the emotion of collective spectatorship. This is how we are integrated into the national landscape, not as "historical actors" but as "spectators" of the national drama.
The visual imagery provides a temporal and geographical bridge between the time and space of the mythologized Virginian "encounter" and the here and now of a cityscape that has been cleaned up to gloss over the daily realities of ongoing exploitation and violence. The mythologized meeting of a British captain with an Indian princess in sixteenth-century Virginia is explicitly offered as a metaphor for what/who we are as a nation: the world's beacon of freedom and opportunity. As the lyrics proclaim, "somehow we make the whole world bright." Remarkably, the city itself has been converted into a screen, an outdoor theater, for the continued projection of the ideological fantasies that sustain the trans-historical identity of the nation.
It is important to point out that this Disney version of the "Virginian encounter" (Pocahontas's path) does not differ a great deal from the historical narratives that are often pieced together in monument sites. The echoes of the self-justifying discourse of manifest destiny can be heard loud and clear in historical landmarks, museums, and monuments throughout the country. The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City may be a particularly apt example, insofar as it taps into one of the most enduring figures of the national imagery: the American pioneer. We can literally touch the world of our ancestors as various relics from the time of the pioneers are passed from hand to hand across rows of spectators, who sit in front of a stage-like presentation area. To complete the visit, the audience is ushered into a stadium-seating theater for a film presentation featuring carefully selected quotes from the diaries of the first colonists to arrive at the West Coast, professionally recited over a series of dramatic shots of majestic mountains, lush valleys, and cascading waters. This documentary produces a narrative of American determination, resourcefulness, endurance, moral rectitude, unshakable faith, and compassion. The words of Simon Schama may come to mind as we watch this magnificent (very carefully framed) spectacle of nature: "Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock" (61).
The film concludes with an explicit call to new generations of Oregonians to follow the path of the pioneers—that is, to share in the quintessential American values as presented or constructed by the narrative. The Oregon landscape is thus elevated to the status of a traditional monument (Jackson), which invites us to celebrate a carefully edited version of the nation's past while mapping the proper road to the future, the "right path." In this context, a panoramic view of Mount Hood, to speak of a particularly recognizable Oregon landmark, may be considered an "ideological construction" as effective as any commemorative monument at Gettysburg. Hence, I would argue that Reuben Rainey's analysis of the function of monumental sites in "Hallowed Grounds and Rituals of Remembrance: Union Regimental Monuments at Gettysburg" applies to the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center as much as to the self-consciously politicized landscape of Fuenteovejuna (in both Lope's original play and the made-for-TV production) and the New York cityscape at the conclusion of Disney's Pocahontas: "[The monument] not only instructs us about the great historical events of our culture but also reminds us of present and future social and political obligations.... [It] is a guide to the future as well as a celebration of the past" (69).
Excerpted from Spectacle and Topophilia: Reading Early Modern and Postmodern Hispanic Cultures by David R. Castillo, Bradley J. Nelson. Copyright © 2011 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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