Monday, December 23, 2013

The Mad Doctor

The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress called An American History.

I approached Mission San Juan Capistrano with fear and trembling.  What horrors awaited me?  It's a shock to learn that a narrative you believed all your life is not exactly true.  As I write this, in retrospect, from a coffee shop in Fullerton, I have a book beside me, a recent biography of Father Junipero Serra.  The book portrays him as a skilled administrator.  However, like the skilled administrators of Nazi Germany, what he wrought was horrific--death, loss of native languages and cultures, a total disruption of the world of thousands of Native Californians.  

One of the things that made Serra so effective was his ability to navigate and control a complex bureaucracy.  It reminds me of philosopher Hannah Arendt's description of the Nuremberg trials of war criminals of Nazi Germany.  She coined the term "the banality of evil"--how ordinary men were able to commit great atrocities.  They believed what they were doing was right, they were following orders, and they were skilled bureaucrats.

It's the same with Father Serra and the padres and soldiers of the California Missions.  They believed what they were doing was right, even holy--bringing the "light" of Christianity and civilization to "poor savages."  What the padres couldn't imagine was that these "poor savages" had been living full and imaginative lives for longer than Spain had been a nation, longer than even Christianity existed.  Here was a case of tragic cultural blindness, an example of how NOT to interact with a culture different from yours.

What is even more disturbing is that 200 years later, in the 21st century, Father Serra is still regarded as a good man, a pioneer, even a saint.  There are statues of him at all the missions, and even one in the National Museum in Washington DC.  There were no Nuremberg trials for Serra and the Spanish padres and soldiers--no justice for the Indians whose lives they helped destroy.

And so, I was filled with fear and trembling.  In my mind, a single emphatic word kept repeating: "Why? Why? Why?"

I think it has to do with the importance of narratives.  The stories we tell ourselves about the past inform how we order and understand our world in the present, and set a precedent for the future.  If we tell ourselves a false narrative, a narrative like the one Californians tell themselves about the Missions, it allows us a measure of self-justification.  If we tell ourselves the false narrative that the Missions were good places, places where European civilization and Native cultures interacted in a peaceful and beautiful and idyllic way, creating a new California identity, we feel good about ourselves.

If, on the other hand, we tell ourselves a different, darker, more complex, and truer narrative, --that, with what they considered good intentions, the Spaniards effectively wrought desolation on the first peoples of California, that Europeans and later Americans essentially stole this land by conquest and violence--then we do not feel good.  We feel obliged to ask ourselves, even in the 21st century, "What right do I have to even live here?"

A good, hard look at the true past, whether by research or time machine (or both) dazes and astonishes us, makes us tread softly on those asphalt and concrete streets and freeways we've constructed, makes a constant question ring like a Mission bell in our minds, "Why?  Why?  Why?"

I understand why people prefer to believe comfortable myths about the past.  They help us live with ourselves in the present.  But for someone like me, I cannot believe lies.  I must have the truth, even if it breaks my heart and strains my mind.

As we approached the Mission, we encountered a man like myself, who saw clear-eyed the horrors.  His response was to go mad.  He was leaning against a live oak tree, dressed in tatters.  As we approached him, the sun was setting on the fields where Indian slaves were working the fields, this crazy bearded Spaniard kept quoting Dante:

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter!"
"Abandon all hope, ye who enter!"
"Abandon all hope, ye who enter!"

William Wolfskill regarded the man indifferently.

"Who is that man?" I asked.

"That's doctor Aguilar, the mission doctor, or what's left of him.  The padres say he has a demon.  Me, I say he just went nuts.  This here land is not for the weak-willed.  It's a shame really.  I liked the doc.  Nice fella."

Seeing us with the bound Indian, Dr. Aguilar rose to his feet and gently placed his hand on the Indian's wound.  There were tears in his eyes and he began speaking in a native language, and then in Spanish:

"Lo siento, lo siento," he said softly.

And then, he fixed his eyes on Wolfskill and on me, and he asked with anger, "Porque?  Porque?  Porque?"

"See," said Wolfskill, "Crazy as a loon."

The doctor appeared to have lost his mind, but what he said seemed a perfectly sane response to this wounded, bound Indian, led by two white men.  

What the doctor had said was, "I'm sorry,  I'm sorry"  and "Why?  Why?  Why?"

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