Civilization in the Wilderness

22 May 2010


Sometimes a classic work reveals itself as a classic in its first few paragraphs. I can still remember the first time I read the opening sentences of Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror (and I must note in this context that Lautréamont was an Uruguayan). I learned subsequently that Gide had said of Maldoror, “Here is something that excites me to the point of delerium,” and this I can fully understand. And so it was with a certain measure of excitement that I read the first few pages of Sarmiento’s Facundo. The power of the work is immediately apparent. Sarmiento opens with a memorable evocation of the landscape of Argentina. The prose is confident without being arrogant and masterful without being pedantic, and these are among the necessary qualities of a classic.

For Sarmiento, it is the vastness of the Argentine landscape that is its central feature, and for him this is not a virtue. “Its own extent is the evil from which the Argentine Republic suffers,” and “Immensity is the universal characteristic of the country,” are typical passages from Sarmiento. This vast wilderness of the Americas, in Sarmiento’s view, has shaped a people defined by their struggles with this wilderness, and the consequent attitude to life formed in such a context if brutal and barbarous. I think that Sarmiento would have agreed, after a fashion at least, with what Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in his famous essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”:

“From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.”

Sarmiento had a different valuation of these “intellectual traits of profound importance” than did Turner, but that these intellectual traits derive from the frontier experience Sarmiento would have agreed. Sarmiento’s work has been known by many names, among them Civilization and Barbarism, and it is his central concern that Argentina be civilized. To this end, his two prescriptions are cities and education.

One might suppose that Sarmiento had experienced the sublime in the landscape of Argentina, and reacted to it not unlike Pascal, who famously wrote, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” (Speaking of Pascal, I was interested to see, while driving around Cordoba, that there is a Blaise Pascal University in the city.) Indeed, Sarmiento quotes Humboldt in a epigraph to the effect that, “Like the ocean, the Pampas fill the mind with the impression of the infinite.” The infinite is a paradigmatic form of the sublime, and it is common for authors to invoke the infinite when they have no better way to communicate their feeling of being overwhelmed to the reader.

It has often been commented that the Mediterranean civilization of southern Europe has been primarily an urban civilization, a civilization based in and upon the cities of the region. One especially thinks of this in connection with Italy and southern Spain, though it is true to a greater or lesser extent in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin, i.e., the former scope of the Roman Empire. One speaks of the Cento Citta, the “hundred cities” of the Italian peninsula, and this, of course, was the center of Roman power.

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento

The defunct Roman Empire remains with us in many ways, and one of these ways is the urban structure of the civilization of the region. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Roman Empire, centered on the Mediterranean, was economically based on trade and slavery. Trade takes place between centers of trade, and cities are centers of trade. In any case, Sarmiento, perhaps without realizing it, has reiterated this Mediterranean conception of cities as the center of civilization. In Facundo he wrote, “All civilization, whether native, Spanish, or European, centres in the cities, where are to be found the manufactories, the shops, the schools and the colleges, and other characteristics of civilized nations.”

In contrast, northern European civilization has its medieval roots (from which modernity was continuously derived, without any “strategic shock” separating medievalism from modernism) in manorial estates, ruled by a local sovereign enfranchised by a higher sovereign in exchange for certain feudal duties. Feudalism was always stronger in northern Europe than in the south. It is almost ironic that northern Europe has since become a center of great commerce while southern Europe languishes in a perpetual twilight of genteel decline.

The Mediterranean civilization of Spain was brought to the New World by the conquistadors, who simply iterated the only world they had known, although under changed conditions. Although the conquistadors knew only Spain when they left their homeland, they were among the best traveled men of their age, and by the time they had secured their conquests in the Americas they had seen things and wondered at things that no European had previously seen. One need only read the famous accounts of Cabeza de Vaca or Cortes or Pizarro to understand that these men understood that they entered a New World with its own ways, its own civilizations, its own peoples, when they encountered the Americas.

Apparently, some of these conquistadors eventually habituated themselves to life on the Frontier, for life in the Southern Cone is most definitely life on the frontier. In Argentina we are as far from the gold of Mexico and the silver of Potosi as if we were on the frontier of North America. One is also a long way from the centers of civilization. And so we find in the literature of the southern cone — and not only in Sarmiento — a lively interest in the meaning of civilization – how it should be cultivated, how it can be extended, what its fate will be in the wilderness of the New World.

The Estancia Jesuitica in Las Carreras is a small outpost of civilization deep in the hinterlands of Argentina. A relic not of conquistadors but of the Jesuits, it represents a European idea transplanted into the New World, but in Las Carreras we are so distant in the frontier, so far from the centers of civilization, but it is local character that prevails, and not the important European idea. Civilization, in moving from point A to point B, is transformed by its translation in space and therefore cannot be said to possess perfect symmetry. In so far as civilization has always concerned itself with symmetry, order, and harmony in the many orders of life, its failure of symmetry over space and time is not necessarily a failure of the idea of civilization itself, but it is an interesting component of civilization and further evidence of the incommensurability of civilization.

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Gibbous moon over the Estancia Jesuitica.

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3 Responses to “Civilization in the Wilderness”

  1. Dear Geopolicraticus,

    I became caught up in all the geography, but in the end I feel most compelled to state that in my experience, great literature seems obvious from line one. In fact, I have little patience these days for anything beyond the tenth page unless I’ve been stirred.

    I don’t clean my plate. I buy used books for next to nothing, and many of them go straight back there without having been read to pay for new ones. Life’s too short, and there’s so much I’ve not read.

    I’m entirely interested in _Maldoror_, now. Many of my favorite authors were suggested to me by my other favorite authors. Gide, himself, was recommended by Wilde, as they were friends. Wilde (somewhere or other) also told me to read Balzac and Meredith.

    Ah, I’m rambling now. Thank you for the recommendation. I’ve already downloaded it to my phone from Munsey’s and now have something interesting to read tonight.

    Cheers, Sir.

    Yours Truly,


    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear BothEyes,

      Thanks for your comment. There is much that we must read, simply to inform ourselves, that is not great literature, so patience is necessary in the service of knowledge. But great literature should be recognized for being something more than the journalistic standards so prevalent today.

      It is interesting that you should say that you have little patience for any writing, “unless I’ve been stirred.” Given that being stirred is a form of being moved, and being moved is the definition of the sublime, we may then conclude that great literature is sublime writing.

      Best wishes,


  2. […] Civilization in the wilderness (Argentina) JN Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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