Week 6: More than Meets the Eye

by Maria Bustillos

Here’s a rundown of the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, via Wikipedia.

According to official Catholic accounts of the Guadalupan apparitions, during a walk from his home village to Mexico City early on the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw a vision of a young girl of fifteen to sixteen, surrounded by light. This event occurred on the slopes of the Hill of Tepeyac. Speaking in the local language of Nahuatl, the Lady asked for a church to be built at that site in her honor. From her words, Juan Diego recognized her as the Virgin Mary. When he told his story to the Spanish bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the bishop asked him to return and ask the lady for a miraculous sign to prove her claim. The Virgin then asked Juan Diego to gather some flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill, even though it was winter when no flowers bloomed. There, he found Castilian roses (which were of the Bishop’s native home, but not indigenous to Tepeyac). He gathered them, and the Virgin herself re-arranged them in his tilma, or peasant cloak. When Juan Diego presented the roses to Zumárraga, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared imprinted on the cloth of Diego’s tilma.

This same alleged tilma is still on view in the Basilica of Guadalupe, and over five million people make a pilgrimage and/or attend the festival there every year.  It’s the most visited Catholic  shrine in the world, according to the Vatican (http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/ZSHRINE.HTM).

One of the weirdest aspects of the cult of Guadalupe is the idea that images of people appear in her eyes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhScF5BBHzE Most commonly, it seems, these images are thought to reflect the scene at the moment the image appeared on the tilma in 1531. Even ordinary people’s eyes exhibit such reflections, which are called Purkinje images. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purkinje_images Difficult though it is for gringos to believe, Mexico is chockablock with people who literally believe this tilma to be a supernatural object, made from unearthly materials and pigments, literally not painted by human hands, its subject literally containing the reflections of 16th-century personages in her eyes. Attempts to force the object and the story to yield to scientific and/or historical inquiry have been many, and futile. That people see what they wish to see in the image of Guadalupe speaks directly to the mysterious, multifarious nature of Mexico itself.

Bolaño transposes this supernatural image, Mexico’s most durable and iconic image, onto the cement wall of Charly Cruz’s garage. It’s not at all surprising that such an image would appear in such a lowly place, by the bye. Those of us who live in L.A. or other places with a large Mexican population will be familiar with this image, which appears on everything from t-shirts to pencils to murals on a thousand restaurants here in Los Angeles alone. But the image has been distorted in Charly Cruz’s garage:  one eye is open, and one closed.  I don’t doubt that this is of major significance to our narrative, but I’m not convinced of any of my own ideas about it, which are as follows:

1. “One eye open and one closed” is a figure of speech in Spanish, indicating something along the lines of, “more aware than I appear to be.”

2. Or it’s a deliberately blasphemous image, in which the Virgin is winking at what is going on here.

3. Maybe the Virgin doesn’t like what she sees, and is closing at least one eye against it.

4. Given that Charly Cruz and his pals are up to a lot of questionable things, maybe he doesn’t want the Virgin seeing him, and that’s why he caused the picture to be painted this way. Or he’s painted it shut, in order to conceal his own reflection.

5. Since we are getting closer to the truth, but can’t see it completely yet, and since the Virgin is a redemptive figure, a figure symbolizing Mexico itself, maybe she’s just starting to open her eyes on our behalf, or Mexico is starting to open its eyes.

In any case, the whole passage is full of mirrors, and reflections, and eyes, and cinema—“optical illusions,” if you like.  Much of it is about mistrusting what we see with our own eyes.  Amalfitano points out to Charly Cruz that “images linger on the retina for a fraction of a second.”  We carry the impress of what we see with us; it’s recorded in our eyes, but our eyes can also deceive, and we can willfully blind ourselves, “refuse to believe our own eyes.”

Then we have the story of the “borrachito” or “little old drunk,” a description of a different kind of optical illusion, one in which a spinning disk convinces us that the laughing little old drunk is behind bars, although the bars of the prison are drawn on the opposite side of the disk; Amalfitano concludes that the little old drunk is laughing at our credulity, because he’s not really in jail at all. Or we could say, we don’t know what side the bars are on. Charly Cruz seems to be suggesting, I think, that Amalfitano himself is in jail. But Amalfitano isn’t going down so easily.  Maybe he is less clueless than he seemed at first.

And indeed, so he turns out to be. But I’m really worried about what happens to him after Fate and Rosa take off.

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9 Responses to “Week 6: More than Meets the Eye”

  • Comment from Daryl

    Whether or not my noodling adds to what you’ve said here, Maria, I hit on this same topic the other day here. At the time, I had lost sight (har har) of the other mentions of optical illusions and such, but the topic came up somewhere in comments and, now, here. It’s neat to learn the “one eye open and one eye closed” expression; certainly seems relevant.

    Steve points out in a comment on my post that the Virgin of Guadalupe has been painted on many wartime flags, tying her irrevocably to violence.

    There’s a passage in this week’s reading on the sacred, and you’ll read more about the sacred for next week. Perhaps there’s something of that in this desecration (?) of a holy image too.

  • Comment from Maria Bustillos

    Hey Daryl! I did see your post when mine was halfway written … I’m glad we’re on the same page, here, as it were. Gave me confidence. On other other hand, I’m not totally fixed on the meaning of this image on the garage wall, not the way I was over the reference to Plato’s Cave earlier in the book, where I felt on sure ground with every single word of it.

    As for Guadalupe being tied to violence, I don’t think there’s a strong correlation there. She’s more like a nationalist symbol of Mexico, uniting the Catholic (European) part and the mestizo part, because the image also symbolizes both the Virgin and, apparently, the indigenous Mexican goddess Tonantzin. So it’s about Mexico, the idealization of Mexico, like the Stars and Stripes are in the US I suppose. Though you could certainly use the Stars and Stripes as a symbol for war, violence, corruption and so on (this has been done before!) it’s not the only way to look at it.

    The more I think about it, in this instance I think that the Virgin was protecting Fate and Rosa. I liked Steve’s reading of the closed eye as being a wink at Fate. But I still think we’re missing something!

    • Comment from Daryl

      Great minds think alike, as they say. 😉 Seems like I had a couple of posts I thought were good ones last summer for the IJ read, and I had no more than hit publish than I opened up my feeds and saw that somebody had beat me to it, sometimes by mere minutes.

      I’m inclined to agree with you about the violence, I think, and I like the reading of the painting as a sort of protection. I’m most of the way through next week’s reading now and have seen a couple of things that have made big loud alarm bells go off. In at least one place, I’ve scribbled a note about our virgin. Whether or not I can make anything sensible of it remains to be seen.

  • Comment from Maria Bustillos

    p.s. just for fun, Our Lady of Guadalupe in various guises:

    on a building;
    souvenir (terracotta?) version;
    on a Oaxacan vase;
    an edible version;
    a wearable one.

  • Comment from Steve

    Of course, I am not saying that I am “right” about this winking Virgin thing. (Is there such a thing as a correct reading of anything in this book?) This is simply how I chose to read it right now. I will join you in this search for more information, Maria.

    The Virgin of Guadalupe is more popular than the Beatles down here.

  • Comment from Maria Bustillos

    My mom reminds me that in Spanish “durmiendo con un ojo abierto y otro cerrado” (sleeping with one eye open and one closed” also communicates wariness.

  • Comment from adriana

    muy cierto lo que dice tu mama

  • Comment from adriana

    ahora tambien en libro es un signo de que hay que estar muy alteras en nuestro entorno. NO TE DUERMAS.

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