What are due bahar di garofoli? Where is Moluca? In trying to navigate Antonio Pigafetta’s Relazione del Primo Viaggio Intorno al Mondo, an uneven account of how Magellan’s small fleet circled the globe, I keep running into such phrases. The Internet, other than by making an ePub file of the book available for $0.99, proves to be of no help whatever. I can’t even type the word bahar without Keypad Nanny trying to nip in and “correct” it to Baha’i. My search of the word garofolo (singular form of the above) insistently proffers the bio, film credits, reviews, etc., etc., of some Hollywood comedian by that name. The keyword phrase “garofolo in Italian” fared only slightly better. The comedian again… but also the surfacing of “carnation” as a possibility. The trouble is that natives of the islands around today’s Indonesia could not have been trading with the Spanish for carnations—bahars and bahars of them—unless the coin of the realm featured that flower as the French piece would a fleur-de-lis.
And please don’t ask what a bahar is. A former friend’s pleasant Iranian wife bore that name. The Internet informs us that it means “spring” in Persian and is widely favored when naming daughters. The area around Indonesia and Java was already largely Islamic by Magellan’s time, as well… but none of this explains bahar as a unit of volume. Go fish.
I eventually found the Molucca Sea on a map; but Pigafetta refers to an island which he appears variously to call Moluca, Maluca, and Malucca. Today the main island seems to be spelled Moluka (a perverse bit of virtue-signaling toward nativism, I’m guessing, of the sort that also gives us Beijing instead of Peking and Mumbai instead of Bombay). Once again, my original search turned up a performer who goes by the tag of Molucca. In fact, one spelling of the word (and Pigafetta offers vexingly many) brought up two pages devoted to this young black female vocalist. Well… how young can she be if Magellan’s ships discovered her?
For years, professors would trade stories about students who, in confrontation with a medieval text, would ask, “How did they know about Madonna back then? I knew she was old, but… wow!” At some point, the laughter turns to tears… and then the tears turn to a haggard, battle-weary stare… and then your university stops teaching medieval literature in light of its utter irrelevance to modern living.
For long years, too—before 1990, I should say—luminaries of the teaching profession have been heralding the Internet as the greatest educational tool since the pencil. Youngsters, it was said, would leap from bed to research the orbit of Mars or the historical origin of Halloween. Most of us realized at the time that the youngster described in this scenario was in fact from Mars, if not a more distant solar system; but a further truth is revealed in my struggles with the Pigafetta text that few foresaw, I think.
The Internet turns out to be a great purveyor of misinformation—not disinformation, as in “fake news”, though it may of course be that, as well; but faking the truth requires conscious effort, whereas the nourishing of numbskulls that I have in mind is an accidental effect. The most frequent “hits” move to the top. People type “lesbian” more often than Lesbos these days; so, if you’re trying to translate a passage of Herodotus and don’t pay close attention to Keyboard Nanny, you end up attributing to the entire populace of Ionia a certain deviant sexual practice. Molucca the vocalist is apparently attracting a following; so, if you attempt to chart the Magellan fleet’s progress, you end up learning a lot about a girl who posts selfies all over the Net.
The design of most search engines does not favor the dissemination of accurate knowledge: it forces upon us a stultifying planification of tastes, where all share a single response when given a cue.
Yes, there are more “scholarly” databases… but my fear is that mis- and disinformation are increasingly making one another’s acquaintance at such locations. As a scholar, for instance, I have researched Marie de France’s hero Eliduc in databases devoted to literary studies—and I find, over and over, that Sir Eliduc is a philandering swine who would be publicly shamed by the #MeToo movement’s flash mobs if he appeared at the county fair today. The academy, that is, has itself become so immersed in popular trend that complex factors like the tale’s Celtic provenance, Marie’s interest in Christianizing its pagan elements, and the era’s pronounced taste for allegory in characterization are all brushed aside impatiently. We’d rather stick with the vocalist and the comedian, even in “higher education”.
There’s a significant sense in which what most people want to be the truth or perceive to be the truth in our e-world becomes The Truth. Naturally, this has always been so… but it has not always been so to such a degree, it certainly hasn’t been a tendency that dominated the academy in the past as it does now, and it acquires a very strong toxicity when stirred into a democratic republic. It produces riots and lynch mobs. My best guess is that the recent spike in young female suicides must be somewhat attributed to the Internet—to its clever, persistent substitution of instantaneous trend (viz., Instagram) for reality. Young people have no deeper, richer layers of reality to soften the blow when the fragile glass screen where they live develops cracks. “My God, Madonna is five hundred years old! Now that the secret’s out, she might as well off herself!”
Just a final word on how the accidental and the conspiratorial can collaborate in the Numbskull Nursery. I kept referring above to Magellan’s fleet. That’s because the intrepid explorer himself was slain in the islands that we now know as the Philippines. What was the “captain general” doing that got him pincushioned by the islanders? Essentially, trying to convert them to Christianity. He had succeeded mightily with one group, and then allowed himself to be drawn into that tribe’s rivalry with another. Pigafetta notes early on that it was a bad idea… but Magellan appears to have been a deeply devout person who sensed a moral obligation in extending God’s grace to poor, naked savages. That’s not a popular attitude today—but in Magellan, it was most certainly not a cynical bid to dupe a less advanced culture, nor was it prosecuted with open contempt for local traditions. The man regarded himself as saving the souls of his fellow human beings; and if he was presumptuous in the undertaking, he paid the ultimate price for it.
Our Google world, with its thumbs-up/thumbs-down, toggle-on/toggle-off method of processing facts, readily airbrushes such fine points of motive from the record. All European explorers were pirates, rapists, and murderers: end of discussion. All native peoples were children living idyllically in the Garden before Westerners arrived (a trope which the compassionate Columbus’s diaries actually encourage). Everything European is a force for evil; everything non-Western is as sweet and natural as a cardinal singing in a rose bush. Not only do the details of individual lives not matter in this reckoning; the oft-repeated pattern of native groups competing with each other to appropriate Western firepower in their own to-the-death internecine struggles disappears from the picture. We are left simply with the caricatures of a cartoon.
And while such stereotyping occurs as an incidental misfortune attendant upon search engines and keyword phrases, we see daily now how unscrupulously it is manipulated in academe and the political world (if there’s any difference between the two). Mass guilt without any context is uncritically dished out in classrooms so as to encourage tribalism. The young are as susceptible to being co-opted into a “voter bloc”—black, Latino, white-hating Caucasian—as they are to burning their spare cash in pursuit of the coolest sneakers. We hear about “dog whistles” now—and the people who sling the phrase about most vituperatively seem to be the very people most invested in teaching their constituency how to bark. A black woman, a gay Latino: you gotta vote for that person unless you’re a racist piece of crap. Hashtag ImVirtuous.
Are any of those Spice Islands taking Western refugees, I wonder?