Climate & Culture in Colombia

A review of The Greenhouse Gaze: Climate and Culture in Colombia (1808-1928), by Felipe Martínez-Pinzón.

The field of ecocriticism emerged in literary studies as early as the 1980s, but only recently have Latin Americanists begun to study the interplay of nature, culture, and literature in the region. Felipe Martínez-Pinzón’s 2012 New York University doctoral dissertation, La mirada invernocular: clima y cultura en Colombia (1808-1928), directed by Mary Louise Pratt, offers a productive contribution to this budding critical approach. Martínez-Pinzón traces how Colombian elites represented their country’s tropical spaces during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a vertical scale of climate and civilization, in which peoples living at high altitudes such as Bogotá were whiter, more civilized, and more productive than those living in the tropical lowlands. In a welcome twist, he also uncovers alternative narratives, often by marginalized or dissident writers, that depicted their tropical environs in more diverse and liberating forms. By examining what he calls the “greenhouse gaze,” Martínez-Pinzón shows that Colombian elites traveling in European hot-houses, known in French as jardin d’hivers and in Spanish as invernáculos, imagined an ideal tropical space devoid of people of color from behind the comfortable protection of glass walls. This transparent separation, he maintains, allows the viewer to see without being touched, to separate nature from culture, and therefore to dehistoricize space. The author unravels the ramifications of the green-house gaze from within and without in the works of Francisco José de Caldas, Francisco Javier Matías, José María Samper, Candelario Obeso, José Asunción Silva, and José Eustasio Rivera. The many images of greenhouses, Colombian river boats, and nineteenth-century maps illustrate the dissertation’s thesis admirably and allow the reader his or her own greenhouse glimpse of this fascinating time in Colombian cultural history.

Chapter 1 juxtaposes the climate and race theories of Francisco José de Caldas, the colonial-era geographer and botanist, with the drawings and writings of the semi-literate botanical artist Francisco Javier Matías. In 1808, Caldas established what Martínez-Pinzón calls an “ideological map” that divided Colombia into healthy, Andean climates populated by white and criollo, or creole, inhabitants and insalubrious lowland tropics populated by savage bodies. The veiled purpose of this way of thinking at the time of Latin America independence was to allow the residents of Colombia to become equal to the Spaniards, biologize culture and separate themselves from the social groups who could challenge the elite’s power. In an important rescue of a forgotten text, Martínez-Pinzón contrasts this racist position by demonstrating the indigenous botanical ways of knowing that Matís recounts in a story about “El Negro Pío,” a slave known for his skills as a medicinal herb collector, known in Spanish as an herborizador. In recounting the expert knowledge of the slave, Martínez-Pinzón argues, Matís “textualizes” the tropics and presents it as a propitious space for all forms of life.

Martínez-Pinzón again makes use of the juxtaposition of opposing viewpoints in Chapter 2, in which he compares the elitist vision of Colombian agricultural exporters such as José María Samper to the mulatto poet Candelario Obeso. Here the author reads Samper’s writings about his travels on the Magdalena River as emblematic of the contradictions in Colombian political liberalism. In contrast, Obeso’s fantastical poetry evokes an Amazonia unfettered by capitalistic constraints and racial theories. In his collection of poems Cantos populares de mi tierra (“Popular Songs of My Land,” 1877) Obeso celebrates leisure, recreates the voices of the river workers, and effectively reverses Caldas’s ideological map. For Martínez-Pinzón, Obeso is a subaltern subject who rejects the modernizing goals of the elites and champions ethnic and cultural heterogeneity.

The best portion of the dissertation, which has now been published as an excellent article, is the first half of Chapter 3, “The European Greenhouses of José María Samper: Spatial Utopias in and out of the Tropics.” In it Martínez-Pinzón uses geographer David Harvey’s theory of a “utopia of social form” to prove that for Colombian elites like Samper, greenhouses such as London’s Crystal Palace were places in which the dream of an ostensibly civilized tropics, devoid of peoples but full of plants, could come true. For Martínez-Pinzón, this fantasy of civilizing the tropics is parodied by José Asunción Silva’s De sobremesa (“After Dinner Conversation,” 1887-1896). This sub-chapter is novel in that it proposes reading Silva, a canonical author of cosmopolitan modernismo, as a national intellectual who defends an alternative vision of the tropical world.

Chapter 4 breaks the previously established dialectic of text and counter-text by performing a close reading of José Eustasio Rivera’s La vorágine (“The Vortex,” 1924), a classic Spanish American novela de la selva, or jungle novel, that is enjoying a critical resurgence among ecocritical scholars. Martínez-Pinzón breaks new ground in examining Rivera’s personal library and debunking the generally held notion that the author did not engage with European literary traditions. In this chapter, Martínez-Pinzón argues that Rivera establishes what he calls “la voz de los árboles,” or the voice of the trees, a poetic or narrative vehicle that counters the elite, hygienist discourse of the jungle as a place of sickness and denounces the barbarity of the supposedly civilized rubber barons. The most provocative aspect of this chapter is that Martínez-Pinzón puts forth the proposition that Arturo Cova, the poet-narrator of the novel, is not devoured by the jungle but rather chooses to live there with his young family. Martínez-Pinzón accurately points out that at the end of the novel Cova calls the jungle a “refuge” (refugio) and a place to “seek shelter” (guarecerse) and powerfully critiques contemporary critics for refusing to believe that Cova might prefer the tropical lowlands to life in Bogotá. Yet the significance of the conclusion of The Vortex is precisely its ragged and truncated form. It is the ambiguity of the protagonists’ fate—in which readers imagine their own outcomes—that distinguishes The Vortex from other telluric novels such as Ricardo Güiraldes’s Don Segundo Sombra or Rómulo Gallegos’s Doña Bárbara.

The conclusion of the dissertation neatly transposes the greenhouse gaze onto the window of the airplane. This image is especially laden with meaning because, as Martínez-Pinzón explains, Colombia was the first nation in the Western hemisphere to offer commercial domestic flights, thus fulfilling the elite fantasy of viewing the tropics without being in them. This is a well-researched dissertation that will be of interest to scholars of Latin America and critics working on the intersections of nature and culture in colonial and post-colonial societies.

Charlotte Rogers
Assistant Professor of Spanish
George Mason University

Primary Sources

Matís, Francisco Javier. “Relación sobre el descubrimiento del guaco.” In: José María Vergara y Vergara, ed. Historia de la literatura en la Nueva Granada.  Bogotá: Imprenta Echavarría Hermanos, 1867. 407-413.
Obeso, Candelario. Cantos populares de mi tierra. Bogotá: Imprenta de Borda, 1877.
Rivera, José Eustasio. La vorágine. Bogotá: Cromos, 1924.
Samper, José María. Viajes de un colombiano en Europa. Paris: Thounot, 1862.
Silva, José Asunción. De sobremesa 1887-1896. Bogotá: Cromos, 1925.

Dissertation Information

New York University. 2012. 378 pp. Primary Advisor: Mary Louise Pratt.

 

Image: José Manuel Groot, “Unos yerbateros” [Some Quack Doctors]. Watercolor on paper, circa 1845.

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