Conquistadores and Cowboys: An Occasional Discourse on the Feudal Origins of American Institutions (Part II)

The second and final part of S. J. irving's survey of the Iberian contribution to American culture and folklore.

3. The Cowboy as a Failed Semiotic

Notice that the heroic pictures painted for us in the fictional genre of Westerns — in anecdotes, camp-fire stories, countless novellas, songs and decades of films — are not historically accurate representations of a cowhand’s life, but that doesn’t necessarily make them false, invalid or of any lesser value. These strictu sensu historical misrepresentations, in fact, conceal an even deeper and stronger European heritage.  The fact is that Western fiction ‘rings true’ so to speak. Our reservoirs of passionate inner experience seem to confirm this vivid fictional trope. Even besides showing us, in the narrower sense, the ‘spirit’ of the system in which the cowboy partook (but was not necessarily protagonist), this genre of fiction conceals behind the imagery of the Cowboy a whole world of inner experiences and cultural self-reference for those to whose blood it genuinely speaks. Under the weathered skin of the rugged yet handsome, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped hero, we have a re-modulation of all the previous forms of protagonist in (proto-)European fiction. After all, is the cowboy not reminiscent of brave Roland of song and story or the Arthurian knights of British legend? Or, more distantly, the larger-than-life epic heroes of Antiquity?

The iconographic power of the Western protagonist is that all the virtue and vigour of an historical noble hero is given fictional popular packaging. Without this packaging, however, our protagonist remains more or less in tact. There is a genuine appeal about the hero-gunslinger which only increases when he is extracted from the imaginary (and much more fanciful) stretch that he is somehow an ‘everyman’ as it were.

The cowboy hero evokes the virtues of independence and self-reliant landownership, the (feudal) right of resistance, the protection of (obligated) dependents, honourable dueling — in short, a circumspection of the whole Spanish system in the New World. He may be seen through individualistic, Anglo-Saxon eyes, but the hero himself, so beheld, bears a distinctly Iberian stamp.

An historically grounded consciousness recognizes him for what he is. To give him a more concrete historical form, we may simply call him the protagonist of the Spanish New World, even after its decline. Granted, it is a conflation or mix-up of the vaquero (cowboy) and caballero or even the nobleman, but this proves rather than disproves the immensely profound and symbolic content of the protagonist as a representation. Mutatis mutandis, this is the sort of confusion one experiences when mistaking a conscripted foot-soldier for a knight or believing that there is no difference between, a gentleman and a nobleman; between ὁπλίτης and στρατηγός, soldier and general.

In any case, we see that the full-blooded protagonist is of a pure-blooded (Iberian) provenance.

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4. Spanish Blood, American Institutions

In Iberia arose the concept which the Spanish called nobleza immemorial, a blood of an exaltedness beyond memory. The Spanish intuitively understood, as all great peoples originally understand, that the greatness of the nobility is a property of the nobility itself, an after-glow of the blood’s quality. It is an aura which emanates from the nobility; it is not granted to them by any Crown. The oldest nobility predate kings and royal crowns and are, therefore, not beholden to the same for their title. Such titles are owed to blood and iron alone. (In fact, the monarchies of Northern Spain seem to have originated as the ‘elective’ sort.)

The stabilizing, feudal institutions of the Middle Ages were long in decline by 1492. Nevertheless, the discovery of the Americas galvanized the Iberians. Interacting with their new material conditions (in the New World), the sea-tossed sons of Iberia’s most venerable lines organize themselves in accordance with instinct, so that they can salvage the art of rulership from the dim and distant vestiges of Mediæval political arrangements, for the rebuilding of that sacred Hierarchy of the Blood. Ethnic (racial-cultural) and environmental factors are inter-related in important ways, so that there must be something consistent in the environment (or from one environment to another), something agreeable to the biology of an organism, for that organism to propagate successfully therein. After all, European vegetation was transplanted to the Americas and, vice versa, American vegetation — like tobacco, maize or the potato — was brought to the Old World. Likewise, something in the European’s heritage was able to thrive in the wide open spaces and upon the rich soils of the Americas and some distinctly American lessons were carried back to Europe, to ignite the European imagination. (See Carl Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum for an exhaustive, scholarly exploration in this connection.)

The European conquerors and settlers found across the Atlantic were largely uncultivated, continentally vast expanses of wild and wide-open nature, interspersed with the ancient stone monuments and sacred spaces of the native civilizations. What they discovered was a roaming “new world” and, in their experience of it, they (re-)discovered, by extension, the ancestral experience of the Indo-Europeans. Their new world was at one and the same time a return to the pre- and ultra-historic origins of the old world, which they carried in their blood. In such a context, it is easier to understand the radical ‘re-feudalizing’ of the Iberian nobles conquering, (sub-)dividing, apportioning and administering the newly discovered continents. They re-discover a greatness for which they still lack words, expanding astraddle the Atlantic ocean and briefly riding athwart history.

Similarly, the Portuguese and Spanish conquerors of non-American territories, most notably the Philippines, found the same re-invigoration. There, they even (albeit unwittingly) planted the seeds which would ultimately preserve the best of Western martial arts, as integrated in the knife- and sword-fighting art known as eskrima. In the Philippines, a distinct warrior culture and a complex quasi-feudal system of native political organization, appropriate to an archipelago of some seven thousand islands, pre-existed their colonization by Iberian powers by centuries. Nevertheless, only the Americas provided the vast, unbroken tracts of land which must have seemed almost a tabula rasa to those highborn warriors whose instincts were to carve out personal, feudal domains and institute strict, sweeping land-tenure arrangements.

In any case, we find the Spanish nobles and their armies in the years following 1492 seeding their newly conquered American territories with the hacienda system described in the previous installment of this article, tailoring it to their own needs and dignities, while retaining some harmony with the Crown and the Church.

Chiefly, the force working against the aristocratic order was, as elsewhere, absolutism and the centralizing tendencies of the Crown. The neo-feudal institutions of the Iberian-American nobility — the greatest aids of that Iberian imperative toward greatness — were opposed by royal institutions, particularly those of the Spanish Crowns more clearly, crudely and egregiously than the Portuguese. To wit, they had to contend with the bureaucratic administration oriented toward the Spanish homeland, the skewed privileges of the peninsulares (the chief weakness in the Spanish-American caste system), the taxation and other offerings expected by a grasping Crown an ocean’s breadth away; and all this enforced by the compulsive apparatuses of the modern, developing Leviathan state (albeit more slowly in Spain’s case than the nations of Northern Europe).

By the end of the eighteenth century, the newly amalgamated Kingdom of Spain (formerly the Crowns of Castile and Aragon) had succeeded; during the nineteenth, the Crown revoked outright many of the privileges developed and enjoyed under the Crown of Castile by Spanish-blooded criollos and Spanish-born alike. (The Portuguese experience is less traumatic because the Portuguese Crown’s treatment of the nobility was less audacious.) Spanish absolutism and centralized state bureaucracy sealed the fate of Spain’s already-dwindling empire. Alas, all iterations of absolute monarchy fail because royal absolutism contains in it no political concept of necessary spatio-material limits, no understanding of the ubi finitur armorum vis which, at the height of European feudalism, was intimately understood by great and prudent nobles.

The polarizing effects of Crown policies included the disastrous (for Spain) result of pushing disenfranchised men of good breeding into various republican and independence movements — men like Bolívar himself, who (it must be remembered!) sought a form of government for Latin Americans built around an hereditary Senate of the best blood. Bolívar, a great admirer of Napoleon, was similarly ambitious, on a similarly continental (dare I say, imperial) scale and was, ultimately, a believer in hereditary (military) aristocracy as much as was the Emperor himself.

Of course, through a clouded and foreshortened hindsight, men of this breed in their particular historical moment, much removed from our own, appear to us like menacing specters in the Jacobin mold, but a goodly many of them were simply the heirs of a once-great blood, of many storied and exalted lineages, fighting to assert their rank and reclaim their rightful privileges, albeit in necessarily new and mutated forms. Their cause, for which they fight as warriors born, is continuity.

When the royal-bureaucratic institutions failed them, they endeavoured to carve out new institutions, which better fit with the older aristocratic ones, which recalls the faded glimmers of traditions felt in every aspect of their existence — brought over on their ancestral ships, carried on their saddles, put forth at their sword-points and coursing through their very veins. In an historical moment which favoured ‘Progress’ and dissolution, specifically a nihilistic centralization within the form of the State, theirs may have been a hopeless task, but not so hopeless that nothing can be gained or salvaged. Its actual significance is that it fueled the subterranean fires just enough that something lasted; their embers can be carried off to light fires in new hearths, to use a metaphor which Nietzsche borrowed from Voltaire. So, while it was then a hopeless task, it nevertheless remains today a worthy task. We may yet salvage that Spanish legacy — and it will be to the future gain of ourselves and our posterity, not to mention the glory of our shared forebears.

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5. The Endless Dance of Blood

Philosophically, we are well advised that all continuous (as opposed to discontinuous) change — whether recursion (i.e. repetition) or even revolution (literally, a complete turning around) — carries us back to the old ways but also carries those very ways themselves into the future. This not only resonates with what Montesquieu calls constance, but also effectively describes the sublative aspect of Hegel’s philosophy of history, the mystifying process of Aufhebung in the Hegelian dialectic. Sublation is preservation by carrying-off. It is momentum. More precisely, then, it is a kind of conservation. By analogy, the conservation of motion or of mass. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Indeed, the more they are enabled to endure.

A generation pregnant with inherited greatness will seek to arrange political life in accordance with the half-forgotten glimmers of its inherited, traditional way of life, to clear the overgrown but structurally solid ruins of the old aristocratic order so that its foundations may support new glories. Occasionally sacrifices must be made — but sustainably, so that flourishing life may not only be saved in the present moment, but continued with dignity; and so these young yet ancient-blooded aristocrats hew from older, more gnarled, seasoned trunks the fresh timber appropriate to its task of construction and renovation.

Moreover, a generation which consciously gives birth to itself as it were, which answers Pindar’s call to “become who you are”, actually reclaims civilization for itself. Men of this breed are even more pronounced in their nobility than the men of Bolívar’s milieu — immeasurable more so! They are more bold, daring, arrogant and sure of themselves. Once they take their courage in their hand and genuinely, fully own up to the inheritance described above, they become discoverers, conquistadores and horseback warriors all over again — maybe even gunslingers of an unforeseen sort. They are, in short, worthy heirs of their — and our — most distant and exalted ancestors.

In this case, the young nobles of Latin America endeavoured valiantly but did not break through the entanglements of the modern world to recover their aristocratic ordering of society or the feudal-tenurial privileges which go with it. What of the next time? For another such generation will arise, as surely as there will always be cowboys of a sort to serve them. No doubt, they will continue to seek such an arrangement of political life as just described. Perhaps they will be stronger this time; perhaps wiser; as much favoured by the preparations which the prolonged passage of time affords as by the opportunities surrendered to them upon the arrival of a fortuitous episode — if only it is seized in precisely the instant in which it appears. On the balance of probabilities, a great generation, even if it numbers only a solitary great man, appears sooner or later.

Indubitably, Old Iberia’s lessons for America and her contributions to a flourishing posterity are still unfolding. It is up to us to seize upon them.

About S. J. Irving

S. J. Irving is a writer from Scotland. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Devil's Review.