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Wisdom and Knowledge
[José Arcadio Buendía] would spend the day walking through the house. "Incredible things are happening in the world," he said to Úrsula. "Right there across the river there are all kinds of magical instruments while we keep on living like donkeys." (1.10)
It's interesting to think about what happens to a very isolated area that receives infrequent updates of world knowledge. José Arcadio Buendía's attempts to invent ways of using the gadgets the gypsies bring make us think of a guy named Srinivasa Ramanujan, who discovered many higher math concepts by himself with no formal mathematical training. Sure, he was obviously a genius, but once a concept has been discovered and explored, its rediscovery is significant only on a personal level.
The idea of a peninsular Macondo prevailed for a long time, inspired by the arbitrary map that José Arcadio Buendía sketched on his return from the expedition. He drew it in rage, evilly, exaggerating the difficulties of communication, as if to punish himself for the absolute lack of sense with which he had chosen the place. (1.20)
You've got to love the humor of the situation here. José Arcadio Buendía gets angry and draws a sarcastic doodle of a Macondo peninsula – basically a tantrum on paper. Then that drawing is actually taken seriously by everyone around him. There's a recurring theme in the novel of emotions getting in the way of facts and of reason being influenced by the irrational.
But at the time when Úrsula went to lament by [José Arcadio Buendía's] side he had lost all contact with reality. She would bathe him bit by bit as he sat on his stool while she gave him news of the family. […] She thought she noticed, however, that her husband would grow sad with the bad news. Then she decided to lie to him. […] She got to be so sincere in the deception that she ended up by consoling herself with her own lies. (6.6)
This moving scene rings so true. There's something touching about the idea that Úrsula makes herself feel better with the spin about the family she's feeding José Arcadio Buendía. Today this kind of approach would be used as a psychological strategy to heal from emotional trauma: tell yourself a story about what happened to you but reframe the experience.
When he finished the book, in which many of the stories had no endings because there were pages missing, Aureliano Segundo set about deciphering the manuscripts. It was impossible. The letters looked like clothes hung out to dry on a line and they looked more like musical notation than writing. One hot noontime, while he was poring over the manuscripts, he sensed that he was not alone in the room. Against the light from the window, sitting with his hands on his knees, was Melquíades. He was under forty years of age. He was wearing the same old-fashioned vest and the hat that looked like a raven's wings, and across his pale temples there flowed the grease from his hair that had been melted by the heat, just as Aureliano and José Arcadio had seen him when they were children. Aureliano Segundo recognized him at once, because that hereditary memory had been transmitted from generation to generation and had come to him through the memory of his grandfather. (10.6)
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist from the early 20th century, developed a theory of the collective unconscious, which is basically a set of universal, inherited ideas and concepts. Here we've got that happening but on a smaller, genetically determined scale: the knowledge of Melquíades passed down from one generation of Buendías to the next. Why is it only the men that share in this collective memory?
Actually, Remedios the Beauty was not a creature of this world. Until she was well along in puberty Santa Sofía de la Piedad had to bathe and dress her, and […] it was necessary to keep an eye on her so that she would not paint little animals on the walls with a stick daubed in her own excrement. She reached twenty without knowing how to read or write, unable to use the silver at the table, wandering naked through the house because her nature rejected all manner of convention. […]
It seemed as if some penetrating lucidity permitted her to see the reality of things beyond any formalism. That at least was the point of view of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, for whom Remedios the Beauty was in no way mentally retarded, as was generally believed, but quite the opposite. "It's as if she's come back from twenty years of war," he would say. (10.33, 35)
What kind of knowledge does Remedios the Beauty lack? What kind does she have, according to the Colonel? What is it about his experience in the war that makes him think this?
At that moment the town was shaken by a whistle with a fearful echo and a loud, panting respiration. During the previous weeks they had seen the gangs who were laying ties and tracks and no one paid attention to them because they thought it was some new trick of the gypsies, coming back with whistles and tambourines and their age-old and discredited song and dance about the qualities of some concoction put together by journeyman geniuses of Jerusalem. But when they recovered from the noise of the whistles and the snorting, all the inhabitants ran out into the street and saw Aureliano Triste waving from the locomotive, and in a trance they saw the flower-bedecked train which was arriving for the first time eight months late. The innocent yellow train that was to bring so many ambiguities and certainties, so many pleasant and unpleasant moments, so many changes, calamities, and feelings of nostalgia to Macondo. (11.42)
This is a pretty technophobic book: generally it seems like the more technology Macondo gets, the worse off it becomes. Check out the difference between the Eden-like place we start with and all the horrible things the train brings with it: government interference, banana plantations, every Buendía that ever tries to get away from Macondo.
[Macondoans] became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears of affliction had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many felt that they had been the victims of some new and showy gypsy business and they decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortune of imaginary beings. Something similar happened with the cylinder phonographs that the merry matrons from France brought with them which for a time had serious effects on the livelihood of the band of musicians. At first curiosity increased the clientele on the forbidden street and there was even word of respectable ladies who disguised themselves as workers in order to observe the novelty of the phonograph from first hand, but from so much and such close observation they soon reached the conclusion that it was not an enchanted mill as everyone had thought […] but a mechanical trick that could not be compared with something so moving, so human, and so full of everyday truth as a band of musicians. (12.1)
There's a great transition here from the funny (people getting mad that actors switch roles from movie to movie) to the philosophical: the question of which is better, an artistic moment caught in time and endlessly, exactly repeatable, or the unpredictability of a live performance which is never the same twice? In a world in which so much is ruled by fate and so little is left up to chance, maybe it makes sense that the Macondoans prefer the mild chaos of live music?
[Úrsula] concentrated on a silent schooling in the distances of things and people's voices, so that she would still be able to see with her memory what the shadows of her cataracts no longer allowed her to. Later on she was to discover the unforeseen help of odors, which were defined in the shadows with a strength that was much more convincing than that of bulk and color, and which saved her finally from the shame of admitting defeat. In the darkness of the room she was able to thread a needle and sew a buttonhole and she knew when the milk was about to boil. She knew with so much certainty the location of everything that she herself forgot that she was blind at times. [ . . . ] Quite simply, while the others were going carelessly all about, she watched them with her four senses so that they never took her by surprise, and after some time she discovered that every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour. […]
Nevertheless, in the impenetrable solitude of decrepitude she had such clairvoyance as she examined the most insignificant happenings in the family that for the first time she saw clearly the truths that her busy life in former times had prevented her from seeing. […] She realized that Colonel Aureliano Buendía had not lost his love for the family because he had been hardened by the war, as she had thought before, but that he had never loved anyone, not even his wife Remedios or the countless one-night women who had passed through his life, and much less his sons. […] She reached the conclusion that the son for whom she would have given her life was simply a man incapable of love. […] Amaranta, however, whose hardness of heart frightened her, whose concentrated bitterness made her bitter, suddenly became clear to her in the final analysis as the most tender woman who had ever existed, and she understood with pitying clarity that the unjust tortures to which she had submitted Pietro Crespi had not been dictated by a desire for vengeance [but that her] actions had been a mortal struggle between a measureless love and an invincible cowardice. […] Úrsula began to speak Rebeca's name, bringing back the memory of her with an old love that was exalted by tardy repentance and a sudden admiration, coming to understand that only she, Rebeca, […] the one with an impatient heart, the one with a fierce womb, was the only one who had the unbridled courage that Úrsula had wanted for her line. (13.1,7)
Úrsula has never seen so clearly as in blindness. Her ability to use her other senses to compensate for her loss of sight is heightened into almost a superpower here. What do you think about the way Úrsula reframes her understanding of her children? Do you buy that the Colonel is a completely loveless man? That Amaranta is driven by a mixture of love and fear? And why is José Arcadio absent from these thoughts? It's telling that Úrsula recognizes that change for the Buendías can only come from outside the family, from someone with a new genetic contribution. Unfortunately, this realization comes way too late.
Aureliano Segundo remembered then the English encyclopedia that no one had since touched in Meme's old room. He began to show the children the pictures, especially those of animals, and later on the maps and photographs of remote countries and famous people. Since he did not know any English and could identify only the most famous cities and people, he would invent names and legends to satisfy the children's insatiable curiosity. (16.1)
Maybe Aureliano Segundo isn't displaying much knowledge here, but he sure brings a healthy dose of wisdom to the table, at least in the category of parenting.
Aureliano did not leave Melquíades' room for a long time. He learned by heart the fantastic legends of the crumbing books. The synthesis of the structures of Hermann the Cripple, the notes on the science of demonology, the keys to the philosopher's stone, the Centuries of Nostradamus and his research concerning the plague, so that he reached adolescence without knowing a thing about his own time but with the basic knowledge of a medieval man. (18.1)
This is funny, but it's also closely related to the ideas we discussed in the first quotation of this section. Knowledge isn't static; it's shifting. Its usefulness is connected to time and history. Aureliano's education is broad and far-reaching, but it's totally inappropriate for someone in mid-twentieth-century Macondo.
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