Before Punta del Este—the coastal city where the Rio de la Plata becomes the Atlantic Ocean—became the place to be seen in Uruguay, the Riviera of the South, the beach of the rich and famous, before that happened, Charles Darwin came to visit. It was 1833 and the Beagle anchored just off shore to await repairs. Over the following months, young Charles boarded in the city of Maldonado with excursions to Montevideo and other nearby towns and environs.
In The Voyage of the Beagle, he describes a city both recognizable and vastly different from the place I visited with my family one sunny December day:
It is a most quiet, forlorn, little town; built, as is universally the case in these countries, with the streets running at right angles to each other, and having in the middle a large plaza or square, which, from its size, renders the scantiness of the population more evident. It possesses scarcely any trade; the exports being confined to a few hides and living cattle. The inhabitants are chiefly landowners, together with a few shopkeepers and the necessary tradesmen, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, who do nearly all the business for a circuit of fifty miles round. The town is separated from the river by a band of sand-hillocks, about a mile broad: it is surrounded, on all other sides, by an open slightly-undulating country, covered by one uniform layer of fine green turf, on which countless herds of cattle, sheep, and horses graze.
His perception of the place, he readily admits, is colored positive by his recent “imprisonment” in a ship and the inflated value of his money, by which he comes by everything cheap. On an excursion to Minas, seventy miles north, he wows the locals with his compass and answers such long-ago-decided questions as “whether the earth or sun moved [and] whether it was hotter or colder to the north.” He describes the gauchos’ bolas, the three-balled rope implement thrown at cattle (and other animals) to bring them down, and shares an embarrassing experience when he tried to use them and wound up catching his own horse, at which the gauchos “roared with laughter.” Atop the hill Pan de Azucar, the highest point in the region, he finds “several small heaps of stones… similar… to those so commonly found on the mountains of Wales,” which sparks in him the idea that “the desire to signalize any event, on the highest point of the neighboring land, seems an universal passion with mankind,” an assessment I would agree with, having felt it myself.
Although he mentions many sights and sounds, introduces all sorts of characters, and catalogs a wide variety of mammals and birds, nowhere in the book does he mention his bathtub, a deep-bowled oversized shoehorn of a device that you can see for yourself in the Mazzoni Museum on Calle Ituzaingó just off 18 de Julio.
Somewhere in my mind I maintain a block on the meanings of the verb belie and its sibling phrase give the lie to. Any time they come up in my reading, or I am writing something that vaguely suggests their use, I have to look them up. The phrase is defined and exampled by my computer’s Oxford English Dictionary thusly:
give the lie to serve to show that (something seemingly apparent or previously stated or believed) is not true: these figures give the lie to the notion that Britain is excessively strike-ridden.
And the verb appears in two nuancedly different definitions, the second of which is the one my mind regularly conjures by a thread of association to this essay’s nominal subject:
belie 2. fail to fulfill or justify (a claim or expectation); betray: the notebooks belie Darwin’s later recollection.
So it seems to me now, in my first-ever sustained inquiry into the two verbal expressions, that they are often equivalent, a complementary pair, though the latter seems passive while the former is active, intentional; the phrase seems accusatory while the verb is not. I think I will remember “giving the lie” as the domain and purpose of science, to correct common misperceptions, such as the shape of the earth or the relationships between the animals. Belie I will wonder at, having read only bits of Darwin’s books, not his journals, and being unable to find another source for that phrase: “the notebooks belie Darwin’s later recollection.” What, I ask, has he misremembered? Where has he contradicted himself?
According to the Mazzoni Museum guide, a thirty-something woman who’d been working there a year, Darwin came to Maldonado in 1833, after he was already famous for writing The Evolution of the Species, the very book that mentions the time he spent along the Uruguayan coast. He stayed there for ten weeks while the Beagle was undergoing repairs, anchored off the backside of Isla Gorriti, which is why two carvings from the ship wound up in the museum’s collection. Darwin stayed at the home of a Señora Terán, a widow who ran a bed and breakfast on the site of what is now the Sumo Pizzeria, which I also visited to snap some photos of the side-corner Darwin informational shrine. In any case, Darwin had his bathtub with him, a new model that hadn’t yet arrived in the Americas, and maybe the widow was so taken with it that he left it to her as a gift, or maybe he just forgot it when he packed up and left, nobody quite knows, nor does anybody know its trajectory from there to a different widow’s toolshed, where it hung oxidizing until Francisco Mazzoni, local school principal and private collector, happened upon it in the early twentieth century and procured it for his house/museum, which he later in life donated to the departmental government, the whole place with all its colorful doodads and knickknacks and stuffed armadillos of every imaginable size and some quite unimaginable, too.
As she spoke, my eyes gazed intently at the bathtub, unassumingly occupying a corner amidst all the nautical brick-a-brac. I wanted to understand its strange shoehorn shape as somehow suitable to its function, somehow technologically advanced, ingenious, desirable. I tried to convey to the guide my attention and interest while simultaneously imagining a naked Charles Darwin standing or squatting in the tub (it was too small to lie down in), dribbling himself with water from a jar. I knew he’d have been twenty-four, but I kept conjuring the white-haired, bearded Charles, or, when I focused really hard, the Wallace-and-Gromity younger clay-animation Charles from the recent Pirates! Band of Misfits movie, which my kids had been watching a lot and which features another of Darwin’s bathtubs, turned into a getaway vehicle bounding down stairs and out into the street (it’s a long story). I hope the guide interpreted my wry smile as a sign of my respect and satisfied curiosity.
All through her spiel, I never stopped her or corrected her, as I am by nature polite and non-confrontational, and she didn’t seem to recognize the internal contradiction of Darwin being famous already for a book that he could not have written yet, as it supposedly contained the very account of visiting Uruguay. I could forgive her the erroneous title she gave the book, as its subject is certainly evolution, but I was disappointed that she didn’t know that Darwin’s Uruguay passages appear in The Voyage of the Beagle, not On the Origin of Species. With so many inaccuracies in the part of the story I knew, I’m surprised that I nonetheless basically believed her about the parts I could not deny with my prior knowledge. And now, with scant access to another source on such esoteric questions, and recognizing the difficulty of discerning otherwise, I believe her still.
Yet here, distanced by space and time and language, I coldly call her out on her inaccuracies. I’m in good company, at least. Montaigne, too, turned to writing when courtesy would not permit him to remonstrate in public.
Being displeased at some action that civility and reason will not permit me openly to reprove, I here disgorge myself. — “Of Giving the Lie”
In that same essay, he wonders that we take offense at being caught in a lie, which I invert for this essay, to note the shame, too, of catching others, which is almost but not quite my situation. I was reluctant not to give the lie to her story but perhaps to give the mistake? Like the biblical first parents, I was embarrassed because I had knowledge; like the young Charles Darwin, delaying publication of his theory in deference to his wife’s staunch faith… Is ignorance bliss? Does the evolution of species include or preclude shoulders-of-giants expansion of knowledge? With all our misknowings and lies, self-deceptions and villainies, can we yet lurch forward to greater compassion?
That I live and write in a time and place of such contention over Darwin’s theory seems apt for this brief essay, as I consider how I’ve situated myself on both sides of the question, by my allegiances to both church and academy. Though I find nothing in the official doctrines of Christianity to preclude Darwin’s explanation for the flowering forth of life, I nonetheless recognize that many of my fellow Christians hew to an irresponsibly simplistic notion, a tidy parable, suggested by a too-literal reading of scriptural accounts, unrecognizedly undermined by prevalent latter-day figurative readings of such things as timeframe or reptilian nature in those same stories. And as I look to my own hedged beliefs about our mysterious origins, the bubbling driving forces and biological processes by which I, and you, have landed on this earth, I recognize that they are formed almost entirely from my cultural moment, bathed in the ethos of science, to which I have looked my entire conscious life for understanding beyond my senses, by which I have been splendorously surprised countless times, but never more fully than the moment I knelt atop the largest boulder atop Pan de Azucar, all Maldonado and the great river-sea as backdrop, took Karina’s hand with all the earnestness I could muster, expressed my particular universal passion, and she answered yes. The conscious part of my mind recalls that the day was blustery, with a penetrating mist from the south, yet I swear, too, that I recall glorious sunshine, even choirs from the heavens. That’s the story I told my children as we frolicked at the playground below the fateful hill, sun blessing, breeze kissing, memory brightening.