The Aztecs

I visited the Royal Academy’s Aztecs exhibition today. The most interesting thing about the Aztecs is simply the extent to which their art represents a largely alien aesthetic sensibility, of a society largely isolated from influences beyond their continent, one that seems both strange and macabre (as with the statue of Mictlantecuhtli and various other undead gods; their skins flayed and their livers exposed). A society that disdained gold and preferred feathers. A society capable of massive construction projects and impressive craftmanship but which was technologically backward in most respects. As this Spiked Online review notes, the Aztecs raised a primitive base (quasi-neolithic) to a very sophisticated level (The Incas had developed a sophisticated irrigation system and used draft animals). Many of the exhibits were sculptures made of basalt, which was robust enough to survive the Spanish, but rather unpromising as a material (lack of resources being a common problem for the Aztecs; the resulting sculptures were, to be frank, mostly rather crude). Some of the most interesting artefacts amongst them were depictions of animals scared to the Aztecs all depicted several orders of magnitude larger than their normal size; the snake, the feathered snake and the frog.

I could certainly understood why JG Frazer was so enamoured of the Aztecs; their religion has a certain elegant simplicity to it in its sharp dualism, as opposed to the rather haphazard Greek pantheon. As such, much of their craft reflects the role of nature in their religion in using natural materials (feathers, carved bone etc); one does wonder if this is an inevitable constraint of a religion dedicated to worshipping aspects of nature. On the other hand, the only metal available to them was gold, lacking bronze or iron. Even basic resources like food were scarce, with sacrifice and cannibalism arguably being a result of this.

More interesting to my mind was the clay pottery; plates supported by tripods (each leg being a circle or a claw), braziers cast in the images of dead warriors, or a bizarre container designed to hold flayed human skin (its surface resembling a mass of pustules; apparently designed to resemble the bubbles in the fat layer under the skin). In terms of more intricate artefacts there were the masks; made of mosaics of turquoise and jade, fans made out of beautiful green feathers, flint knives (some with human teeth glued to them, often with handles decorated in the image of Aztec warriors), mirrors made from obsidian (more volcanic material), and wooden drums with beautifully intricate carvings. Finally, the codices were especially interesting; the surviving Aztec texts still had the most vivid colours. My only complaint with the exhibition was simply that it was too popular; as I arrived, a queue stretched out into the courtyard alongside the academy’s rather miserable fountains and each room was decidedly crowded.

Before going to the exhibition I decided to do some research. Those who hold to determinist notions of history would do well to peruse The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz (in conjunction with a compilation of Aztec writings, Broken Spears to provide the opposite perspective; I bought this at the exhibition; it seems a shame that Diaz’s book could not be bought there also) which makes a compelling case (albeit unintentionally) for entropy.

My impression is that none of the assumptions one would normally make about an imperial state (i.e. concerning military and economic might) were correct. Instead, Spain was not a strong nation state but rather a set of dynastic alliances (starting with that of Ferdinand and Isabella), burdened with a small population and large debts; technologically backward, militarily feeble and culturally hermetic. Cortes was dispatched to the new world to negotiate trading agreements and lacked authority to begin mass conversions (though looting clearly took place the book is almost obsessive in the role it assigns to religion) or military campaigns (contrast to how the British were later to shun imposing christianity on India until the mutiny; this was, after all, still the society of the reconquista), taking the authority upon himself as the result of factional infighting. Cortes was certainly an opportunist, but I suspecting that following Fuentes and calling him Machiavellian was being too generous. The Spanish were massively outnumbered by the native population and suffered several humiliating defeats in the course of the Mexican campaign.

To a large extent, Cortes was succesful due to the weaknesses of Aztec rule. In the first place, Aztec subjugation and taxation of other tribes made it easy for Cortes to found alliances, especially after the flowery wars that had been inflicted on all the rival tribes. When Cortes held Montezuma hostage, the Aztec state essentially disintegrated as rivals sought to replace him; demands for his restoration seem to have been largely besides the point, When confronted with such a tottering edifice as this, divide and conquer was not especially difficult. The imposition of sacrifice onto the populace (Díaz recounts that each town had a set of wooden cages for the victims; notions of the noble savage are not easy to apply here, to say the least; since the Aztec supreme god, Huitzilopochtli, was the equivalent of both Zeus and Ares. In their favour, the Aztecs were more sexually enlightened than the Spanish) also made christianity an appealing alternative. In addition, Aztec myth spoke of Quetzalcoatl returning to rule over them, and the conquistadors were accordingly regarded as being gods, an impression magnified by the presence of that strange creature, the horse. The Aztec priests themselves suggested fealty to Spain on precisely these grounds. One further observation: I was greatly interested to learn that the appropriate recipe for Spaniard is with salt, peppers and tomatoes. One simply never knows when this might come in useful.

I read A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood on the way to the exhbition. Reading it, I began to recall some of Isherwood’s religious essays in Exhumations (published two years before the novel), where Isherwood had described his wish to write a religious novel, showing spiritual revelation in relation to the ordinary and mundane. The protagonist would be uncertain, and would not be able to say "No, I can’t – yet" when asked to affirm their belief. A Meeting by the River would appear to be that novel, a fact which is at the root of my antipathy to it. The novel describes the viewpoints of two brothers, one a succesful businessman, the other seeking to become a monk. In doing so, this dialogic form asks more questions than it answers. The brother suggests that the protagonist is in hiding from aspects of himself that he is seeking to repress; but this view is neither denied nor affirmed. The ‘yet’ lurks behind every such question. The novel also has an unpleasantly reactionary element to it; like Christopher Hitchens I tend to find the religious advocacy of docility and passivity to be nothing short of corrupt.

Also read was Sartre’s Words an autobiography that openly foregrounds its similarities with Roquentin’s development in Nausea (interesting to compare it to Gide’s If it Die). The interesting difference is that the autobiography collapses the character of Roquentin with that of the Autodidact. As such, Sartre’s development as a subject described in relation to a number of competing discourses. For example, Marxist; "teaching me my duties as a citizen and recounting the bourgeois version of history." Or Freudian; "a very incomplete Oedipus complex; no Super-Ego," as well as more staid variants such as Christianity (all of which are nonetheless teleological to some extent or other, as is existentialism). All of which competes with the more easily existentialist narrative; "a Platonist by condition, I moved from knowledge to its object I found ideas more real than things." As a consequence, there is something performative to Sartre’s personality; it comes as little surprise that he and his mother used to refer to each other in the third person plural. As such, what is especially striking about Words is the extent to which it undermines the authenticity of the notion of discovering being in itself. On the one hand; "I became it myself and stretched myself to breaking point between these extremes," and on the other ; "I could not admit that a person received his being from outside, I had stuffed my soul in the middle-class idea of progress." But Sartre’s release from this predicament is couched in terms of Marxist dialectic, from one episteme to another (perhaps hence Sartre’s irritation with Camus for observing that Marxism and Capitalism were variants of the Enlightenment discourse of progress).

The final book, I’ve just finished is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. There’s little to be said of this, other than that Calvino shows that the significance of each city is splintered into myriads of memories; "each man bears in his mind a city made only of differences, a city without figures and without form." As such, Tamara is recognisable by it statues (signs), whereas travellers disagree as to how to recognize Zirma.