Patagoni Essay - Critical Essays

Paul Metcalf


If Patagoni defies convenient genre categorization, it does impose a familiar literary pattern upon its subject: tragedy. The American hemispheres Metcalf surveys in the twentieth century have nearly lost their grandeur, and Patagoni, juxtaposing the old glory and the new wastage like an archaeological dig, reveals that past masteries of Indian civilization and the shadow masteries of North American mechanized civilization. The contemporary Peru of Inca Cola and starving Indians, and the Detroit of the 1950’s, with its historical tours and vast, empty airports, are full of echoes for the historian, and Metcalf ponders what went wrong and what has been lost.

The problem with America, for Metcalf, is the white man’s presence. Through centuries the Indian developed his consciousness of dependence on his native earth. His religious rites bound his life to nature and daily reminded him in folklore and superstition of his subservience to the “great creature” on which he lived:the earth is a great creature, the rivers the bloodvessels, the earth turns one way and another, to warm itself at the sun . . . the first man mated with a gentle doe, and deerlike, generation by generation, the race of indians evolved . . . out of the phallus of the chief came the first maize, from his head gourds.

The Indian’s intelligence evolved in harmony with his location. His architecture was a continued projection of the energies of the living earth, as trees supported verandas and building stones slid seamlessly into union. A Castillian entering this homeland was dubbed a vagabond, his wandering an indication to the Indian that the earth had not borne him: “such as were bred of ye scum of the Sea, without any other Origen or Linage, . . . that you are ydle persons, and have not wherein to imploy your selves, because you abide in no place, to labour and till the ground.”

The white man ruined what the Indian so delicately constructed. Metcalf’s collage elements depict an alien white intelligence converting everything it found into raw materials for its own products, the foremost of which was movement in space. Carved Tihuanacuan stone and building blocks were crushed and used as fill for railroads. Timber for railroad ties was shipped from Oregon. Patagoni’s central theme is the incompatibility of the rooted agricultural red man and the rootless technological white man; yet, since Detroit workers today make abstract art from old tailpipes and crank-boxes, Metcalf also propounds the permanence of iconography. The explorer was moving too fast to see, but his spirit was not as alien to the Indian’s as his speed made it seem. This blind movement spelled tragedy for the white as well as the Indian.

Metcalf settles on Henry Ford as a luminous example of the white man enmeshed in the tragedy he created by his foraging. Metcalf’s section on Ford begins with a quotation from McGuffey’s Eclectic Fourth Reader, which in its instructions on how speakers ought to control the pronunciation of words bespeaks reliance on mechanistic control in a world where no regional past sustained the settler. Ford is such a rich symbol for Metcalf because he was the supreme mechanist while...

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