From Cuzco to Constantinople:

A Journey through Comparison

17 April 2021

Gregory Jusdanis Ohio State University

Sometimes ideas for books arrive to us like the winged words of Homer, downloaded into our minds. Or suggestions come from other people rather than being generated by ourselves. This has happened to me many times in the course of my career, most recently with my just-completed manuscript on Greece and Latin America. I remember the moment of its inception clearly.

Looking out from my room on the sixteenth-floor of the Hilton Mexico City Reforma, I was admiring the Palacio de las Bellas Artes on the Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, the grand avenue of the capital. I had come for a two-day conference organized by the Onassis Foundation which considered the place of Hellenism in Latin America. My paper for the conference was a culmination of my own efforts to learn Spanish and teach in Latin America in the previous few years. And I was fortunate that the Onassis Foundation had sent me to give a series of seminars in Buenos Aires that year and in Cartagena and Bogota, Colombia the year before.

What had started in Puerto Rico and spanned the entire continent was coming to an end in Mexico City. Thus, I gazed unto the Avenida Paseo de la Reforma with melancholy, thinking that my talk at the conference, a comparison of the literary manifestos of Yiorgos Theotokas and the Brazilian writer, Oswald de Andrade, was the final segment of my Latin America journey.

And then the phone rang. It was Dr. Maria Sereti, the Director of the Onassis Program, who had sent me to Latin America in the first place and who was now inviting me for a drink. Fearing that something had gone wrong with the conference, I took the elevator with some trepidation. But, rather than complaining about my talk, she suggested that I consider expanding it into a book. I was a bit shocked by the proposal, pleased and worried at what she was proposing. But in the course of the weeks and months ahead, I began to consider the possibility of such an undertaking, and, eventually, undertook a new project, one I had never thought of doing myself, but one that continued my odyssey into Latin America.

The result has been a completed book manuscript, “From Cuzco to Constantinople: Rethinking Comparison.” My own unusual peregrinations through the continent, which took me from Puerto Rico to Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, pushed me to take an unorthodox perspective to the topic. In other words, what began as an initial attempt to learn Spanish, teach, and travel in Latin America opened up new vistas on the way I saw the communication between peoples and nations. I would not have been able to write the book, had I not taught and journeyed in Latin America, and had I not spoken to colleagues, friends, strangers, and listeners in these countries about the continent. In the courses of my studies and travels, I came to cross epistemological boundaries that I had not known I was capable of doing. In other words, I decided to bring together my new area of discovery, Latin America, with my old specialization, modern Greece.

Soon I began to consider texts from Greece and Latin America side by side. But I realized that I needed some structure. So, I grouped texts according to topics of interest to me such as empire, travel and antiquity, nationalism and belatedness, and European literary dominance and world literature. Each topic became a chapter. In chapter one, for instance, I juxtaposed the destruction of Cuzco, as chronicled by Garcilaso de la Vega el Inca, with the fall of Constantinople, as described by Kritovoulos and Laonikos Chalkokondyles. In the second chapter I linked the first Latin American traveler to Greece in the eighteenth century and precursor to Latin American nationalism, Francisco de Miranda, with a pioneer of Greek nationalism, Rigas Velenstinlis. In the following chapter I looked at Adamantios Korais, a scholar of the Enlightenment, and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, an Argentinian journalist, activist and president, used the barbarian-civilization dichotomy in response to the perceived belatedness of their respective societies. And finally, I initiated a dialogue between two literary manifestos from the early twentieth century, one written by a Brazilian theorist, de Andrade, and the other by a Greek fiction writer, Theotokas, both of whom address the overwhelming dominance of European literature.

In one respect, the whole project seemed precarious. For it goes without saying that the authors I examined did not know of each other. Sometimes, as in the case of Theotokas and de Andrade, they overlapped chronologically, having written their manifestos within a year of each other; in the other cases, they lived roughly at the same time or not at all. If there was no contact between them, if they did not share a history, if they lived thousands of miles apart, it is legitimate to ask what justified their comparison. Was there a basis for juxtaposing unrelated material? I began to see that these authors had interests and preoccupations in common. They shared what Michael Herzfeld in his study of Greece and Thailand would call “paradigmatic” connections, that is, mutual formal features, such as experience with dictatorship, as opposed to “syntagmatic” links that arise when both countries have a historical relationship. Though the authors did not communicate with one another, though they exerted no influence on each other, and though they did not speak the same language, they reacted to certain geo-political problems and confronted comparable sociological situations, such as belatedness, imperial power, periphery, or literary marginalization within world literature. In short, although there did not necessarily exist an equivalence amongst the people I studied here, there was ground for comparison.

In other words, while these authors did not chance upon each other in a real way, as the Athenian sage Solon conversed with the Lydian king Croesus, as the Venetian Marco Polo entered the court of the Mongol Kublai Khan and as the Conquistador Pizarro captured the Inca Atahualpa, they met in my manuscript to help me reconsider empire, nationalism, freedom, travel, world literature, European domination, and the role of classical antiquity in the modern world. Since they did not exchange views in real life, I “coaxed” this conversation, so to speak. Like Odysseus in Book XI of the Odyssey, before his descent into Hades, I summoned these souls to address the issues of interest to us today. In issuing such an invitation I did not engage in creative fiction. Nor was I writing counterfactual history, that is, considering might-have been possibilities or events. My aim, in other words, was to ask not what could have happened had Kritovoulos talked with Garcilaso de la Vega el Inca about the destruction of Cuzco and Constantinople. This undoubtedly would have been a fascinating exchange, posing its own questions about the tension between fictional and analytical narratives. Rather than providing an alternative, fictional universe, I wanted to project alternative views on history.

Of course, I can’t avoid these tantalizing speculations and indeed my work implicitly is open to the contradiction emanating from counterfactual narrative between fact and fancy, between what Aristotle in the Poetics defined as the particularity of history and universality of poetry. “The poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probably or necessary.” History, he explains, “describes the things that has been” and poetry “kind of thing that might be.” I would like to resolve, temporarily at least, this tension and ask that we consider not the actual meeting of Byzantine and Inca historians, but more modestly, the comparison of their work. Such an unorthodox juxtaposition can restore old routes and lead to novel pathways in research.

But it is legitimate to ask: What can we gain by reading these books side by side which have nothing in common other than that they chronicle the end of their civilizations, the Byzantine and the Inca? At the very least the convening together of these authors encourages us to ask what an empire is and rethink the meaning of the postcolonial. In other words, can Garcilaso and Kritovoulos be considered nascent chronicles of the demise of one empire and the arrival of another? By posing this question, I am not seeking alternative histories but rather alternative views to people, events, and institutions. I am trying, in a sense, to see convergence where there is divergence, to see common ground where others recognize empty space.

We take pleasure, Edmund Burke writes, in tracing resemblances among unrelated things. When we find two objects that are unlike, he argues, we are not surprised since this is what we expect of the world. This discovery, thus, “makes no impression upon our imagination.” But “when two distinct objects have a resemblance, we are struck, we attend to them, and we are pleased.” The human mind, he proceeds, has a far greater tendency to trace resemblances than in searching for differences because “by making resemblances, we produce new images; we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock but in making distinctions, we offer no food at all to the imagination.

While I disagree with Burke’s last sentence, I think his thesis points to a powerful human tendency to look for similarities between objects. But can we see resemblances in the distinctions we make? There is something paradoxical here that I try to develop. For by inviting a discussion between two culturally and geographically unrelated authors, say between an Inca and late Byzantine historian, I ask whether a possible convergence can occur exactly in order to “enlarge our stock” of possible conversations. I am not suggesting that the Inca Garcilaso and Kritovoulos are alike, but rather that they experienced comparable conditions -- the destruction of their own state structures by other empires. It would be thus productive to “unite” them temporarily in order to produce “new images,” in this case, new conceptions of empire, of colonization, and of imperial cities. In short, I consider what happens when we channel our drive to look for resemblance in the juxtaposition of dissimilar things. Burke is right. To say that Garcilaso and Kritovoulos are dissimilar is to affirm the world as it is. Can we provide “food for the imagination” by yoking them together despite and because of their geographical, cultural, and temporal gap between them? Can we gain something by bringing them together in a chapter on the fall of empires?

Central to my work is the idea of incongruous comparison which I define as an attempt to juxtapose ideas, authors, institutions, texts that do not share a common history or geography. Incongruous comparison highlights both the logic and agreement that traditional conceptions of comparison presume and necessitate and the discordant note that this practice actually strikes. In seeking to reveal as many differences as points of commonality, incongruous comparison is patterned on social communication that requires both symmetry (shared interests, ability to translate into one’s own language) and asymmetry (gaps, disjunctions, misunderstandings, lack of full translation).

I offer two examples of incongruous comparison, first from literature and the other from the realm of navigation. To be sure, the roots of incongruous comparison lie in literature, (or art in general) where all is possible, especially in surrealist poetry, the dreamlike association of unrelated images and things. I am thinking specifically here of Nikos Engonopoulos’ “Bolívar. A Greek Poem,” written in 1944 under the Nazi occupation. Beginning with its startling title that appropriates the quintessential Latin American liberator as a Greek hero, the poem fuses the possible and the impossible. In the introduction the speaker/poet feels torn between singing about Odysseus Androutsos (1788-1825), a fighter of the Greek Revolution and Simon Bolívar (1783-1830), the Spanish American Libertador. Preferring to write a praise poem of Bolívar, he addresses Bolívar in the second person and eulogizes his accomplishments and physical features. At times the work resembles a Pindaric ode honoring a fallen Olympian athlete. In a homoerotic appeal the speaker declares that “Bolívar, you are as beautiful as a Greek.”

By crossing the seas of our imagination, we come to the south Pacific for another example of incongruous comparison. The people of Polynesia, as Christina Thompson has shown, traveled between tiny islands and without modern navigational tools in what is the most terrifyingly expansive body of water on the globe. Relying on a host of inherited techniques, from reading the stars and the position of the moon, to interpreting swells of the seas, to sensing different currents, and being receptive to the flight of birds, they were able to travel for many weeks in canoes without the sight of land. But what made these voyages possible, however, was their conception of the ocean as assemblage of seaways rather than an amorphous, liquid expanse. They could venture anywhere from Hawaii to Easter Island or New Zealand because they were not bound by preestablished routes. In other words, they could endeavor into the unknown of an unfathomable sea because they were open to new ways of getting from place to place. Their willingness and recklessness to consider to the possibility of reaching unknown territory, enabled them somehow and despite all else to arrive at Easter Island, the most isolated island in the world, thousands of miles away from any place these and other individuals could have known. I would say that these mariners traversed the endless Pacific because they were open to incongruous comparisons.

I suggest that we follow their example of being receptive to new opportunities in the comparisons we make. We need to rethink the traditional pathways we have followed and the conventional thinking propelling them. In God’s Shadow, a study of the unexpected impact that the Ottoman Empire might have had on the “discovery” of the new world, Alan Mikhail has done exactly that. Taking a more comparative perspective on Columbus’ epic journey to the new world, he is able to see connections between the Ottoman Empire and the Americas that others have missed. He argues, for instance, that one of the motivating factors behind Columbus’ mission for an alternative route to India was the Ottoman stranglehold on trade with the East. This, of course, might seem obvious. Less apparent, however, is Mikhail’s argument that the Conquistadors actually came to understand the natives of the Americans as Other, exactly as they had seen the Moors of Spain and the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. In other words, they imported into the New World and imposed on its inhabitants their conceptions of and prejudices about Muslims. Conscious of the long struggle between Christianity and Islam on the Iberian Peninsula and European generally, they imposed on the “Indians” their view of Muslim as enemy and Other. Many of the conquistadors had in fact participated in the wars against Islam and used this experience in the wars against the indigenous peoples of the Americas. For me what is important is his contention that we can’t really understand the voyage of Columbus and the subsequent Spanish crusade to conquer and convert the natives of the Americas without taking first into account Spain’s relationship to the Moors and Islam in general. And he is able to make this argument exactly because he follows unorthodox routes in the way I’m advocating here.

We all compare. Or rather, we compare, therefore, we are. Comparative thinking is universal, endemic to the sense of self, be it personal, religious, sexual, racial, and national. This was the insight discovered by Odysseus. The alternative to comparison is to withdraw, like Achilles, to our own tent, out of anger or for terror of stepping out beyond the security of our specializations. If comparison raises the danger of erasing difference and local context, the danger of not comparing is even greater for it undermines mutual communication while also preventing us from comprehending broad historical changes and even analyzing inequality. Comparison then is essential to understanding the self and an inevitable part of human cognition. We build our identities through comparison. We posit ourselves always with reference to our neighbor near and far. We create our sense of selves through a conversation with the other who has as much to say about us as we do. This is true today as it was in antiquity.

Incongruous comparison has a utopian potential to question how we communicate with others despite our ethnic, national, class, and racial difference. It proposes that the crossing of boundaries entails not only conflict but also (self-)understanding. People may enter another territory with the intent of robbing, killing, maintaining their prejudices, and enslaving others. But they could also arrive in friendship. While frontiers are associated with hostility and xenophobia, Siep Stuurman reminds us, they are also precondition for sympathetic and open engagement with foreigners. Along the margin we establish both commonalities and differences. Until these lines are crossed, foreigners can only be figments of our imagination, our hopes, and our fears, like the Cyclops and the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey, or the refugees and migrants in today’s world. The stepping over a frontier, however, allows for the emergence of Herodotean ethnography, that is, the open negotiation with the other without relying one particular center, say Greece, as a mode of understanding and measuring the world. It is vital for us to rethink the connections we draw between societies and free ourselves from established routes and conventional thinking. Reading Greece via Latin America and Latin America via Greece offers us one possible way towards this goal.

Avenida Grecia, Santiago, Chile
Avenida Grecia, Santiago, Chile


Gregory Jusdanis, Distinguished Humanities Professor at the Ohio State University, is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy. Textuality, Eroticism, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture. Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2000), Fiction Agonistes in Defense of Literature (2010), A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet (2014). He is completing a biography of C. P. Cavafy with Peter Jeffreys.