Cover image for Wonder and Exile in the New World By Alex Nava

Wonder and Exile in the New World

Alex Nava


$78.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05993-8

$37.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05994-5

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240 pages
6" × 9"

Wonder and Exile in the New World

Alex Nava

“A rare and brilliant book where exceptionally wide scholarship leads the Anglophone reader into a deeper understanding of some of the wondrous resources of Spanish-speaking cultures.”


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In Wonder and Exile in the New World, Alex Nava explores the border regions between wonder and exile, particularly in relation to the New World. It traces the preoccupation with the concept of wonder in the history of the Americas, beginning with the first European encounters, goes on to investigate later representations in the Baroque age, and ultimately enters the twentieth century with the emergence of so-called magical realism. In telling the story of wonder in the New World, Nava gives special attention to the part it played in the history of violence and exile, either as a force that supported and reinforced the Conquest or as a voice of resistance and decolonization.

Focusing on the work of New World explorers, writers, and poets—and their literary descendants—Nava finds that wonder and exile have been two of the most significant metaphors within Latin American cultural, literary, and religious representations. Beginning with the period of the Conquest, especially with Cabeza de Vaca and Las Casas, continuing through the Baroque with Cervantes and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and moving into the twentieth century with Alejo Carpentier and Miguel Ángel Asturias, Nava produces a historical study of Latin American narrative in which religious and theological perspectives figure prominently.

“A rare and brilliant book where exceptionally wide scholarship leads the Anglophone reader into a deeper understanding of some of the wondrous resources of Spanish-speaking cultures.”
Wonder and Exile in the New World is a truly exciting scholarly contribution with some profound insights into the soul of Spain and Latin America. Indeed, once I began reading this book, I could not put it down and read it in one day-long sitting. This is simply a mesmerizing work, which itself provokes the very sense of wonder that the author so painstakingly examines.”
“It is rare to find scholarly works that incorporate the qualities of profundity, novelty, and beauty in prose. Nava’s Wonder and Exile in the New World is one of these rare finds. And this says nothing of its most important achievement. Through a creative use of the concepts of wonder and exile, this work opens up possibilities for a new understanding of the creation of the Americas. And as if this were not enough already, it also helps us comprehend the religious dimensions in the works of classic Latin American writers. I can honestly say that I highly recommend reading this book.”
“Alex Nava traces the multiple and inextricable operations of wonder—awe and puzzlement, marvel and mystery, exuberance and exile—in Spain and Latin America over almost five centuries. Wonder is historicized, beginning with European wonderment at unknown territories and peoples in the Americas, moving to the very different kinds of wonderment in Cervantes and Sor Juana, and arriving at the magical realism of our own time. The Baroque and New World Baroque overarch this far-reaching study, underpin its comparative cultural insights, and amplify our own sense of wonder at the dimensions of our shared experience.”

Alex Nava is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona.



List of Abbreviations


1 Wonder and Exile: Mystical and Prophetic Perspectives

2 Wanderers and Wonderers in the New World: Voices of the Dispossessed

3 The Hidden God of the Baroque: Baroque Wonders, Baroque Tragedies

4 Baroque Artists in Exile: Cervantes and Sor Juana

5 Mysticism and the Marvelous in Latin American Literature






Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could forever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Few things enchant the human mind more than tales of travel to faraway lands. Such stories can carry us away and take us to places that are barely imaginable, places that are beyond the borders of what our mind conceives as possible or logical. There is, for this reason, something delightful and wondrous in travel narratives. Perhaps they delight us for giving verbal expression to the infinite impulse and restless craving that make human beings set out in quest of knowledge or wisdom, beauty or love, or else something more indefinable and mysterious. Or perhaps it is for their daring, their willingness to confront danger and trespass familiar limits in the search some unheard of, fantastic truth that causes us to admire and delight in these stories. Herman Melville, for one, likened the tall tales born from such expeditions to the pleasure of sinning because they were equally seductive and indulgent, wild and romantic. They were sinful for exciting and swelling that dangerous appetite—curiosity (too frequently the path to heresy in the Middle Ages). And they were sinfully delightful in their capacity to stimulate our deepest urges and propel us into new worlds of possibility. For those unable or unwilling to risk the actual geographical journeys into unknown lands or seas, the stories would function in their stead and cause their enthralled listeners to wonder at the strange and bewildering phenomenon that is life.

At the outset of my own story in this book—a book about the distant mysteries that the New World represented—it is important for me to provide a brief map of the journey, lest the reader end up lost in a barren maze as Melville warned. So, let me begin by saying something about the ambiguity and perplexity of this thing called “wonder.” At the very least, there are a few entrances to the labyrinths of wonder. For one, the experience of wonder can suggest something pleasurable and attractive, something that can ravish and intoxicate. In this sense, when we are faced with something wondrous, we are stimulated by a beauty or good so inviting and charming that we want to revel and lose ourselves in it. Though wonder represents what the mind cannot fully know or understand—for being so novel and startling to our normative conceptions of knowledge—this very intractability and inscrutability makes it all the more seductive, all the more intriguing. It stimulates curiosity and beckons us to explore its hidden mysteries.

Curiosity, naturally, is an element of this hunger for the unknown, the itch of the human heart for exploration and adventure, for movement into strange and exotic regions of human knowledge. Wonder and curiosity are manifestations of the soul hunger that drove Melville’s Ishmael to take to a whaling ship. And it was a similar torment, even before this American wonderer, that brought the ever-expanding mass of European explorers to the unknown shores of the New World. It seems to me that this taste of wonder stimulates the insatiable drive of the human spirit for impossible things, sometimes with a name, sometimes lacking anything so predictable. The passage of wonder, in this sense, marks the route into unfathomable, transcendent dimensions, within and without.

If this glimpse of wonder’s alluring and radiant beauty—the gush of life—is the most pleasing, it is not the only one. We all know that the feast of beauty is often interrupted and spoiled by the unnerving appearance of suffering, as if the stale bread of exile was suddenly the only food available in a once abundant feast. So much for aesthetic abandon—when exile enters the feast, the expression of wonder takes on a different tone, something closer to dread than ecstasy. This face of wonder is tormented and foreboding, and makes the blood freeze, the soul shudder. Wonder takes on something like a blue note in these circumstances, sounding like a scorched voice, a tear in the throat, a melancholic expression of what is both awe-inspiring and awful at once. Under the impact of exile, wonder is dragged through muddy waters and it hollers, screams, shudders, wails, laments. And in this process, wonder emerges more soulful than before.

Or if you prefer, wonder emerges with some of the dark, scarred features of the sublime. For many contemporary thinkers, at least, the sublime has become a favorite concept that announces the presence of a great immensity, force, or grandeur that exceeds representation. For them, in their own unique reading of Kant’s third critique, the sublime is a version of wonder in a wounded, fragmented form. It shares with wonder the encounter with something indeterminate or unthinkable, but the sublime, in this account, fragments and disrupts the harmony of classic aesthetics. It introduces us to something that would make reason cringe and recoil, the presence of an absence or void that has suffering written all over it.

When wonder embodies the sublime, then, it sings the blues and gives tortured voice to the alphabet of suffering. And make no mistake about it: the alphabet of suffering is never like the innocent and thrilling first moments of a child learning his or her letters. It is, instead, a scrambled alphabet, hard to decipher, unintelligible, inscrutable. If something is learned from it, it exacts a heavy price for disclosing its secrets. And this is, perhaps, one of the lessons of both wonder and exile: that for mere mortals, wisdom is always an inexact science, always a kind of knowledge that comprises jumbled letters, half-heard words, stammering expressions. It is, at best, a gift half understood, half comprehended.

Notorious for its inclusive and bountiful imagination, the Baroque, or so my book argues, is one of these gifts, a capacious, beautiful, tragic representation of wonder in a variety of guises, including this trace of the sublime. Anticipating modern and even postmodern themes, the Baroque included doses of both dimensions of wonder noted above, like a brew made with a variety of potions, some charming and delightful, others frightening. The Baroque combined the beautiful, strange, and terrible in an uneasy and disjointed harmony. The result was intoxicating, a Baroque concoction that has something of the dark arts in it. Initiated into these arts by the deeply felt misfortunes and struggles of their age, Baroque artists would give us classic descriptions of the tragic contours of wonder. They would create black magic out of the terrors of their own soul and give us something similar to Rudolph Otto’s account of the sacred as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

The book before the reader is devoted to travelers that knew this ambiguity of the sacred, its allures and terrors. Their capacity for wonder propelled them on quests of the most uncanny and foreign sort, even at the price of great danger and peril, like having to cross the menacing abysses of ocean or desert, having to go farther than anyone has gone before. The course of my book follows the imagination of American explorers, beginning with the figures of the Conquest (Columbus, Cabeza de Vaca, Bartolomé de Las Casas in chapter 2) through the Baroque (Cervantes and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in chapters 3–4) and into twentieth-century literature with the genre of so-called magical realism (Miguel Ángel Asturias and Alejo Carpentier in chapter 5). I am interested in how these explorers and artists represented wonder and what this can teach us about the history of the New World, from its great promises to its failures and tragedies. Each of my subjects in this study has something valuable to say in this regard, including the one who never made it to the New World despite numerous attempts to secure a post in the Indies (Cervantes).

Indeed, because Cervantes seems to be the exception to my focus on New World figures, a comment is in order about his inclusion. In addition to the biographical fact that Cervantes had requested on at least two occasions (in the early 1580s and early 1590s) to travel and work in the New World (his petitions were denied by the Council of the Indies), his literary creations seemed to follow in spirit this desire of his and, thus, are imbued with a plethora of New World themes, images, dreams, and aspirations. As Diana de Armas Wilson has shown so well, Cervantes’s novels traveled to the Indies in imagination when he was prohibited from going in person. The most notable case of this concerns the intersection of Don Quixote’s chivalrous dreams with the imperial and conquering dreams of Columbus and other conquistadors. Traces of this impulse are evident in many instances, but when Don Quixote describes to us the military attributes of the knight in shinning armor, resonances with Spanish imperialism are loud and clear. Clearly, and notwithstanding Don Quixote’s other lofty and admirable purposes, Don Quixote celebrates the great pleasure of victory in battle: “What greater contentment or pleasure can there be in the world than winning a battle and triumphing over one’s enemy?” (DQ, part 1, 18). Columbus and other conquistadors may not have described this pleasure in such a candid and blunt manner, but it is impossible to deny that their aspirations were concentrated on conquest and that their lives and chronicles had quixotic traits (hopelessly romantic or wildly delirious, as the term “quixotic” suggests in our own time).

If this is at all true, and if the final purpose of the Cervantes’s novel is to destroy the illusions and fantasies of chivalric genre (as the last page of the novel suggests), then Don Quixote represents a deconstructive satire of the “real-world discourses connected with the conquest and colonization of the Hispanic Indies,” and a criticism of what is insane about Spanish imperialism. In the terms of my study, we can say that Don Quixote is a warning and censure of any form of wonder (from fantasy to religious fanaticism) that soars too far from the earthly, historical, mortal nature of the human condition.

In studying Cervantes in this way—in light of the New World—we would also be faithful to Walter Mignolo’s insistence on recognizing the “darker side of the Renaissance” by meditating on the Renaissance and Baroque from the perspective of the colonies, vis-à-vis the Atlantic and Pacific. It would enable us to bring greater attention to the part played by the history of conquest and colonialism in the formation of the modern age (and on this matter, Mignolo acknowledges the pioneering work of the theologian Enrique Dussel). And it would force us to reconsider the work of many of the greatest artists of the early modern age, to see how the wounding traces and scars opened up by 1492 altered their conceptual maps and consciousness.

The inclusion of Cervantes in my study, finally, should remind us that we cannot subject the continents of the Old and New Worlds to a “historiographical divorce” (in the words of J. H. Elliott). There are numerous instances in my book where I travel between the two worlds in seeking to understand the pleasures and wounds of wonder and exile. My book follows the same restlessness of Don Quixote’s wandering (another metaphor of the impulse for travel and exploration widespread in the sixteenth century), and hopes to shed light on various artists as they grappled with suffering and injustice, with beauty and mystery. It follows in the footsteps of these ancient travelers as they crossed borders of ocean and desert, and as they crossed more mysterious borders.

This latter preoccupation should make clear that my study is interested in the theological inclinations of New World explorers, writers, and poets. In interpreting the language of wonder and exile, therefore, special care is devoted to the matters of the soul among these pioneering American voices. In fact, the theological features of my study are crucial to the particular accent of it, thus distinguishing it from other studies that have influenced my approach (like the work of Stephen Greenblatt, Lois Parkinson Zamora, Roberto González Echevarría, Rolena Adorno, Walter Mignolo, and others). This book could not have been written without their scholarship. I am, however, also leaning on a rich tradition of religious studies in the course of my study. In this case, I am working with an assumption that, I trust, is not too contentious: that religion is a key feature of Latin American cultures and traditions. Indeed, I would echo Cornel West’s claim that religion is fundamental to many of the cultures of the oppressed in the Americas. For West, one of the greatest flaws and prejudices among the political left concerns its refusal to appreciate the role of religion among oppressed peoples. “It is,” he writes, “the European Enlightenment legacy . . . that stands between contemporary Marxism and oppressed people. And it is the arrogance of this legacy, the snobbery of this tradition, that precludes Marxists from taking seriously religion, a crucial element of the culture of the oppressed.” Fortunately, none of the scholars mentioned above suffers from this snobbery, but it is, nevertheless, an active presence in the world of academic scholarship. I hope that my study threatens any form of this presumption, from enlightened contempt for religion to fundamentalist confidences.

In addition to this fidelity to the cultures of the oppressed in the New World, there is another benefit, it seems to me, about a theological approach, and it concerns the wide-ranging scope of my book. As my study unfolds, it should become clear that my primary concern in exploring the history of the New World is the value of the past for present-day problems and issues. Though the historical method is essential to any study of the past and informs every page of my book, theological concerns demand attention to the constructive nature of historical studies, to their relevance in our own time. In my reading of the theological enterprise (in the tradition of Karl Rahner, Paul Tillich, and David Tracy), theology must always be able to demonstrate the relevance and importance of past traditions for our contemporary situation, to correlate the voices of ancestors with the voices of the present.

I am interested, thus, in the ideas of past masters for how they enrich our present and future, how they can elevate our lives. In addition to the theological method, I am following Nietzsche in this way, by insisting that history provide us with the models and incentives to re-create, invent, and discover anew, not to remain fixed and frozen in the remote past. As Nietzsche argued, when the historical method is the sole and determining approach, intolerant to anything other than its dream of “objectivity,” it becomes the domain of the “spoiled idler in the garden of knowledge” and, subsequently, withers and degenerates. As he suggests, we must pry history loose from antiquarians and specialists in order to move forward and not stand still, in order to use history to not only preserve but to create life. The broad span of time in my book has this purpose in mind, then, to appropriate the images and monuments of the New World past for the struggles and hopes of our own age.

In fact, even better than Nietzsche’s portrait of the uses and abuses of history is the model Cervantes gives us. He reminds us what happens to the mind and spirit of someone who is trapped in the remote past: he loses his mind. Though we admire Don Quixote’s defense of ancient values, every reader knows that this comes at the heavy price of his sanity. With his sole concentration on the immediate present, however, Sancho Panza’s perspective is not without its problems and shortcomings. In balancing multiple voices and perspectives, Cervantes was able to achieve a brilliant fusion of the past and present. According to Carlos Fuentes, this was Cervantes’s major achievement in the creation we know as the novel: “Cervantes was able to go beyond the consecration of the past and the consecration of the present to grapple with the problem of the fusion of past and present. . . . The past (Don Quixote’s illusion of himself as a knight errant of old) illuminates the present (the concrete world of inns and roads, muleteers and scullery maids); and the present (the harsh life of men and women struggling to survive in a cruel, unjust and shabby world) illuminates the past (Don Quixote’s ideals of justice, freedom and a Golden Age of abundance and equality).”

This fusion of the past and present in Don Quixote, where the narratives of the past meet the conflicts, uncertainties, and disasters of our present, is the model for my own study. In my reading of past masters—from Las Casas, Cervantes, and Sor Juana to twentieth-century “magical realists”—I am following Don Quixote’s enchanted imagination in his defense of ancient values, in his devotion to the ideals of justice, freedom, and equality. And with Sancho Panza, on the other hand, my study hopes to remain grounded in the concrete beatings and nightmares that constitute the histories of the New World. Thus, guided by the knight of faith and his squire, this study will explore the histories of wonder and exile in the New World.

In order to understand better the theological approach of my study, I begin in chapter 1 with a preliminary exploration of the language of wonder and exile in light of the mystical and prophetic traditions of Judaism and Christianity. The distinctiveness of my study from strictly literary approaches shines brightest here and should illuminate the interpretive method used throughout the rest of my book.

The central thesis of this study is that wonder and exile are both forms of absence or dispossession: wonder as a form of absence in the order of knowledge, and exile, in place and location. Wonder is defined by an encounter with something we do not and cannot fully understand, or by a recognition, and here I am following Stephen Greenblatt, that our grasp of the world is always incomplete and indeterminate. Wonder marks the radical otherness and impenetrability of a given phenomenon, the ineradicable mystery at the heart of all human knowledge. Given this feature of wonder—its intellectual modesty and learned ignorance—our age would do well to embrace it to resist the self-righteous triumphalism and absolutism of any form of human understanding, from religious fundamentalism to the fundamentalism of some Enlightenment narratives. If human knowledge is frozen in place, definitive and confident, there will be no place for wonder and, thus, nothing will be surprising, nothing remarkable, nothing novel.

Exile, too, is characterized by absence, but with the terrifying face of absence, an absence that is intimate with the terrors of history, with the forced displacement and dispossession of the poor and oppressed of the world. As a tear and cut from house and home, exile is wounding and heavy-handed, born of history’s cruel passages. Our own age is reeling from the effects of exile, and there is no greater evidence of this than the desperate exoduses of millions of migrants throughout the world. Whether forced or voluntary, the passage of migrants in our times is the clearest manifestation of our unsettled and unhoused age. Homi Bhabha calls these facts the defining features of our postmodern condition:

If the jargon of our times—postmodernity, postcoloniality, postfeminism—has any meaning at all, it does not lie in the popular use of the “post” to indicate sequentiality. . . . For instance, if the interest in postmodernism is limited to a celebration of the fragmentation of the “grand narratives” of postenlightenment rationalism then, for all its intellectual excitement, it remains a profoundly parochial enterprise. . . . For the demography of the new internationalism is the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasant and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees.

As much as my book is concerned with the portrait of wonder in the New World, then, a central concern is with these great migrations and displacements, past and present. As a Mexican American myself, born close to the U.S.–Mexico border in Tucson, I can testify to the stream, or better, river of migrants walking through the vast and perilous deserts of border territories, dying to live, desperately wanting the opportunity to live and blossom in a context that provides the body and soul oxygen to breathe. Every year, hundreds do not make it so far and end their long sojourns in the middle of the desert, to die, like Moses, before ever making it to the Promised Land. When I speak of exile in this study, even through the lens of older voices and laments, I have in mind the scorched lives of these immigrants and refugees.

Though my study is unabashedly academic and theoretical, I hope that it is also the desert space in which a poetics of wonder encounters a poetics of exile, and are each changed as a result, wonder now mindful of the suffering and trials of history, on the one hand, and exile gaining in imagination. In this case, my book argues that wonder turns ominous and menacing, even grotesque, when the force of exile is felt the most, as in prophetic and apocalyptic literatures. As I read them, these texts are haunting examples of how profoundly wonder is changed under the most disjointed and oppressive conditions of history. Latin American history is a case in point and its classic texts, whether theological or literary, often resemble the apocalyptic imagination with its brood of eccentric wonders. I hope that my study proves this case by exploring some of these classic texts in which wonder and curiosity (a “Baroque curiosity” in the words of José Lezama Lima) coexist with a wrenching bewilderment at the horrors of history.

To return to Melville’s Ishmael, we might see him an allegory of these themes of wonder and exile. Melville tells us that life at sea generates the most astonishing and wildest of all marvels, as if travel on the remotest waters, to the farthest ends of the earth, in such latitudes and longitudes, produces an imagination like no other, one bursting with energy and pregnant with the “wonderfullest” of all fancies. Ishmael, no doubt, is tantalized by these marvels, by the anarchic pleasure of sailing forbidden seas and landing on barbarous coasts, but he soon becomes acquainted with another facet of the sea. The sea is freedom for Ishmael, but it is also terror (Melville is a Calvinist after all). Ishmael may want to drown in the sea of wonder, but his name, too, conjures memories of his ancient ancestor, the biblical Ishmael who is exiled from the Promised Land (with his mother, the slave woman Hagar). So, Melville writes of the marvels of life, but with the warning noted in the epilogue of this introduction: that there are dangerous, destructive wonders that lead to barren mazes and leave us overwhelmed, ones that carry us into the maelstroms of history and leave us capsized and lost, exiles in the abyss.

At the end of Moby Dick, when Ishmael’s ship (the Pequod, piloted by the mad Ahab) is destroyed, Melville invokes another biblical figure, mother Rachel weeping for her exiled and dispossessed children: “By her still halting course and winding, woeful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children because they were not.” And Rachel weeps for other American children as well, “because they were not.” Much of the literature of the New World exhibits the same tears as mother Rachel, the same hardships as Hagar and Ishmael, the same capacity for wonder as Melville and the other American artists that are the subjects of my story in this book.

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