22 March 2021
Eleni Kefala University of St Andrews
The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2020 (Extragavantes series)
How could a book on Byzantium and pre-Columbian America be related to a project on twentieth-century urban modernity? As with people, books can be connected to each other in ways that are not always immediately visible.
The Conquered may have been written during a fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016-2017, but its origins are rooted in my decade-long project on cultural modernity and Buenos Aires, which resulted in a monograph with the title Five and One Theses on Modernity: Buenos Aires Across the Arts, 1921-1939 (forthcoming with the University of Pittsburgh Press in the series Illuminations: Cultural Formations of the Americas). While writing the “Introduction” to Five and One Theses, I found myself researching modernity’s conceptual others, those “nonmoderns” and “premoderns” against which modernity defined itself. For a comparatist like me, with a background in postcolonial and decolonial theory, a focus on Latin American and Modern Greek studies, and an early interest in Byzantine studies, it was a matter of time to end up studying Byzantium and pre-Columbian America, partly in an attempt to understand the complex phenomenon that we call modernity, partly out of pure intellectual curiosity. I was very keen on the role Byzantium and pre-Columbian America played in modernity’s self-imagining and became increasingly drawn to the comparison of what to many may have looked like an improbable marriage. The initial “Introduction” soon grew out of proportion, eventually becoming a separate monograph that is now close to completion.
Meanwhile, the comparison of Byzantium and America stuck. I knew about Dumbarton Oaks since my undergraduate years in Cyprus, where I did a degree in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. What I did not know, however, was that the Blisses, who founded Dumbarton Oaks, were also avidly interested in pre-Columbian America, so much that they had set the stage for a world-class research centre for Byzantine and pre-Columbian studies. Applying for a fellowship there felt like the right thing to do. The aim of the fellowship was to probe issues of cultural trauma and collective memory in the threnos (lament) “Anakalema tes Konstantinopoles” (“Lament for Constantinople”) and the icnocuicatl, or songs of sorrow, “Huexotzincayotl” (“Huexotzinca Piece”) and “Tlaxcaltecayotl” (“Tlaxcala Piece”), which commemorate the fall of Constantinople (1453) and Tenochtitlan (1521). I was interested in the viewpoint of the defeated. How did they see their conquest? Composed by anonymous authors relatively soon after the fall of the Byzantine and Mexica empires in the mid-fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, these texts convey the trauma of the fall of the two imperial cities as they stood at the threshold of modernity.
For decades, pre-Columbianists and Byzantinists have been meeting weekly to follow each other’s research reports in what for many remains an improbable marriage. What is there in common between these distinct civilizations beyond their accidental encounter at Dumbarton Oaks? The project, I thought, could turn the fortuitous marriage into a meaningful partnership. Although it was initially conceived as a chapter of a future monograph, soon it became clear that bridging Byzantium and America, two seemingly unrelated fields, was too broad a project to be contained in a single chapter.
Apart from their encounter at Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantium and pre-Columbian America are drawn together by other serendipities. Perhaps one the most striking among them is the year 1492, when Christopher Columbus would reach the shores of what he thought to be the West Indies. For the Byzantines, or Romaioi, as they called themselves, the year 1492, which in the Orthodox Christian calendar corresponded to the seven-thousandth year since Creation, would signal “the end of the world”, or synteleia. The Byzantines may have been slightly off in the timing of the fall of Constantinople, but they nevertheless anticipated with eerie accuracy the end of the world as they knew it.
“Serendipities” is the opening chapter of The Conquered, followed by “Byzantium, America, and the Modern”. What is there to compare between the imperial cities of Constantinople and Tenochtitlan beyond some bemusing serendipities and the fact that, on the grand scale of history, their conquests occurred so close to each other? Chapter 2 historicizes the comparison of Byzantium and America “on the cusp of modernity”. They are both constitutive of European modernity as they played an important part in its self-imagining and they made its actualization materially and epistemically possible. In other words, America and Byzantium were instrumental in the rise and consolidation of the modern. Chapter 3 (“Tradition and Theory”) provides background information on the aesthetic traditions of the Greek threnoi and Cantares mexicanos (Mexica Songs), a unique corpus of ninety-one songs composed in Nahuatl and rooted in pre-Hispanic cultural practices, as well as on theories of cultural trauma and collective memory on which I draw in my analysis of the texts. Chapter 4 (“Imparting Trauma”) provides a close reading of the three laments, while the final chapter (“Texts and Their Afterlife”) follows their fortunes in Mexico, Greece, and Cyprus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In theory, all three accounts could serve as vehicles for the transmission of cultural trauma. In reality, different historical contexts gave rise to different historical trajectories.
Eleni Kefala is Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. She holds an MPhil and a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and a BA from the University of Cyprus. Her work explores modernity across different periods and cultures from a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective. She is the author of The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (2020) and Peripheral (Post) Modernity: The Syncretist Aesthetics of Borges, Piglia, Kalokyris, and Kyriakidis (2007), and editor of Negotiating Difference in the Hispanic World: From Conquest of Globalisation (2011). Her third monograph, Five and One Theses on Modernity: Buenos Aires Across the Arts, 1921-1939, is forthcoming with the University of Pittsburgh Press in the series "Pitt Illuminations: Cultural Formations of the Americas" (2021). She has been a recipient of an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Humanities (University of Pennsylvania), an Arts and Humanities Research Council Early Career Fellowship, and a Dumbarton Oaks Research Fellowship.