Willa Cather in Acoma

Abroad in the plain the scattered mesa tops, red with the afterglow, one by one lost their light, like candles going out. He was on a naked rock in the desert, in the stone age, a prey to homesickness for his own kind, his own epoch, for European man an his glorious history of desire and dreams. Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out of reach, like the crustaceans in their armour.

—Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

I have a never-to-be-published centaur story that expresses this sentiment pretty much exactly, even from the same setting, in grosser, less polished, but no less problematic terms. So many layers of interpretation to get through before we come across anything remotely like objective truth, yet the core meaning remains as plain as a scalpeled-open vein. I’ve felt this feeling and its accompanying shame.

This is Willa Cather, frontier-raised, classically educated white woman of the 1920s, writing from the limited experience of travel about a time and place eighty years and two thousand miles removed, the mesa-top, precolombian settlement of Acoma pueblo, New Mexico, as visited by a French missionary bishop in 1848.

Her comparisons to turtles and crustaceans signify nothing so much as alienness. No female character has yet had a line of dialogue. The bishop’s Indian guide speaks broken English, she tells us, deliberately, because he prefers its simplicity and sound. The bishop himself thinks in French and laments this desert’s dearth of olive oil and good wine.

This is just the kind of experience I was looking for when I opened this book, honestly. It confirms and stratifies what I already know, that there’s no expressing anything without wading across disconnect and alienation. The struggle to communicate is the study of otherness and loss.

A Penance in Verapaz

Verapaz means “true peace”. The neighboring Guatemalan departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz are so named because of the warlike Achí Maya, who like the Apache in the US stubbornly refused to be conquered until long after the rest of the country. When they finally did submit, it was because of the spread of religion, not the sword.

This is a story of breakdown and redemption, in which I strive again and again to interrogate and dismantle my assumptions only to find more awaiting beneath, until finally, mental and physical resources spent, I give up hope, only to be lifted up and saved by human kindness.

Before the dawn of January 25th in the mountainous jungle town of Lanquín, Alta Verapaz, I cursed out a small crowd of self-important American adventure tourists packed into a rickety minibus bound for Antigua. That evening, I danced goofily (the only way I know how) with a small crowd of teenage Achí Mayan girls to a marimba band at a saint’s day fair in the desert valley town of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, then fell asleep on a cardboard pallet on their kitchen floor long past midnight on the 26th. These were serious breaches of character for me. I get angry, but I never vent it at other people no matter what kind of assholes they are; I bottle it up, then expel it into exertion or prose. I dance in public only under duress or the influence of strong drink, and I open up to people under more or less the same circumstances.

Understanding the cause of these transgressions perhaps requires a little backstory.

I’ve read much on the subject of Guatemala; I’ve written stories, blog posts; I’m working on a novel. I don’t consider myself any kind of authority. I’m a hobbyist, a tourist. But I try. I love Guatemala, and I want to do it justice, to treat its people and culture with empathy and respect. This is where the assumptions come in: privilege, whiteness, entitlement. I’m trying to see through these things to the truth, trying to understand what it is to be born to the opposite of those things in a place I love because of them.

At the end of this, my fourth and latest visit, I’d planned three days to myself. This concept was anathema to the white kids on the minibus, who with shrill laughter equated the notion of an afternoon alone even in Antigua, a city full of English-speakers, to waking nightmare. For me, though, those three days alone were a promise of release, a getting back to myself. Disinclined though I’d normally be to resort to Christian metaphor—particularly since the motivations in question include no small pagan influence—I thought of it as a penance. Penance for the cushy, full-bellied vacationing I’d done with my family up to this point; penance for the cushy, full-bellied living I’d been doing at home.

What I sap I am, I know. And this is long. So I’ll forgive you for not clicking….

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Layers, Echoes, Decay and Its Lack

zaculeu_ruined_shrine

This is an unnamed shrine southeast of Plaza 1 at the Zaculeu archaological site, Huehuetenango, Guatemala: an example of the temple-within-temple phenomenon I mentioned in the last post. Hard to say what happened to leave both inner and outer layers exposed like this. I’ll hazard a guess: a somewhat more judicious use of the excavation-by-dynamite technique employed by early British explorer Thomas Gann (and no doubt others) to disastrous effect at Chichen Itza and elsewhere. At least here—if that’s what happened—they only blew up this wee little outlier shrine instead of the main attractions. The white structure you can see in the near distance is a corner of the ballcourt; the mound on the right is Structure 9, an unfinished temple whose construction was interrupted by the conquest.

Then there’s the other layer, not immediately noticeable: click the above to zoom in and you’ll see that this entire bombed-out shrine and even a couple feet of earth surrounding it has been covered over in concrete. The United Fruit Company, in 1946, hired another incompetent non-archaeologist, John M. Dimick, to ‘restore’ the temples at Zaculeu as part of their PR campaign to appear to be improving Guatemala’s infrastructure and protecting its cultural heritage while sucking its land and people dry. Dimick, a building engineer from Iowa who’d caught the Mayanist bug, came to the understandable but stupid conclusion that all the weird angles in the pyramids were the result of incompetence, and the ancient Mayans had really intended everything to be at nice clean right angles if only their engineering skills had been up to snuff. Concrete was the obvious material of choice: cheaper, harder, withstood earthquakes better and lasted longer than the traditional Spanish colonial stucco (which was already falling into disuse), never mind the orginal Mayan cooked limestone mortar.

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Zaculeu’s concrete-encased temples are the only ones I’ve ever seen without weeds, or even whole trees, growing from cracks between stones. They’re the only thousand-year-old temples I’ve ever been allowed to climb and leap all over like in a Prince of Persia video game. They’re also the only temples, with the exception of the Castillo at Chichen Itza (also restored, though with infinitely more painstaking faithfulness and care) with any kind of functioning acoustics: not the effect its original architects intended, for certain, but it’s not like I was ever going to get that anyway. Shout in front of the ten-terraced Temple 1 at Zaculeu, you get back ten harsh, staggered echoes, like yelling into one of those toy echo microphones with a vibrating spring inside you had as a kid. The effect is disconcerting, dissonant: it forced a halt to our conversation until we’d reached a point oblique to those unassailable planes. Interestingly, though, when two hundred people gathered in the plaza before the temple, the press of bodies dampened the effect; instead of feeling shouted down by several angry copies of myself, it just seemed like there were twice or three times as many people in the crowd, clapping, cheering, babbling.

Gonzalo de Alvarado conquered Zaculeu in 1525, after a protracted, horrific siege during which the entrenched Mam resorted to eating their dead. For 421 years, it decayed. Then it stopped decaying. The effect is something like that of an alternate history Mayan ruin replica as conceived by aliens. No, not that kind of aliens.

You know what it’s like? Those concrete tipi motels on Route 66. Or the miles of parking lots and concession stands surrounding the Niagara Gorge, the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. What was maybe at one point a well-intentioned effort to allow regular people to interact with this beautiful, unfathomable thing without destroying it has in the intervening generations become an ageless, indestructible monument to epidemic cultural disconnect. And the doomed effort to traverse all these layers of misinterpretation and time becomes part of the point of being there.

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One of the “traditional” Mayan costumes centers on a mask depicting what I can only interpret as an absurdly stylized roly-poly German gentleman, complete with rosy cheeks and ridiculous moustache. These costumes also come in red monkey, black monkey, jaguar, black moustache guy, demon, tiger, etc.

What does this effigy mean to the guy wearing it? I get the impression this style of costume is a throwback to a different time, where the relationship between the colonizing and colonized culture was simpler, more black and white, though still weird and screwed up. And maybe it’s trotted out now only when called for by political pageantry (such as a PR tour for a future presidential candidate) or tourism (such as Oxlajuj Baktun). Certainly I only saw this style of costume in the context of the government-funded 13 Baktun celebrations when there were armed police present and helpful educational banners strung up everywhere, as opposed to the more intimate events where real Mayans followed their own beliefs with less regard for the crowd watching.

Traditions change, things cease to mean what they meant, and it happens over and over. Other things, though, seem as transparent now as ever:

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Tree Meditations

How is a tree like a Mayan temple?

Layers. Every 52-year cycle of the Calendar Round (every time the synodic period of Venus made it halfway back around to resynchronization with both the orbital period of Earth and their own 260-day sacred calendar), the ancient Mayans built a new layer of temple atop what was already there. Trees build fifty-two new layers in the same period. Both are meditations upon time.

Some of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen have been at Mayan sacred sites (like the ceiba at the gate to Tikal). Coincidence?

Kaminaljuyú is the ancient Maya city on top of which the modern-day Guatemalan capitol is built. It’s huge–widely cited as the greatest archaeological site in the Americas–but most of it is buried now under highways and high-rises. The archaeological park preserves only a tiny fraction behind a 12 foot high barb-wire fence in what is perhaps not the nicest neighborhood. Not a lot of nice neighborhoods in Guate. Like at Takalik Abaj, centuries’ accumulation of earth has turned the temples into green hills covered in jacarandas and moss-bearded cypresses (this is where I saw the foxes). At the foot of this particular tree, two Maya priests were celebrating, still at it two days after the solstice, the tourists long gone. They asked me not to take pictures of the sacred fire atop their little brickwork altar or the offerings of tamales and aguardiente.

The tree was just as awe-inspring.

Same tree from the squirrel’s POV. Also my desktop background.

This enormous, amazing tree has been growing in the central plaza in Tecpán outside the church I daresay since before the church was built. Pedro de Alvarado’s troops built their first permanent military base here in 1524 just after they razed the nearby Cakchiquel capitol of Iximché, at the ruins of which I spent the night of Ojlajuj Baktun. I have never seen a tree like this–it’s clearly some kind of conifer, but the foliage is fernlike, soft to the touch, though much thicker than a fern’s. I’ve researched to the end of my ability and I can’t figure out what it is. The twitter of a thousand birds in its canopy competed with the ranchero band ringing in the new era at the other end of the plaza. I sat on that wall with my back to its trunk and ate a chocolate-covered frozen pineapple.

Laguna de Chicabal is a tiny volcanic crater lake in Quetzaltenango department that spends about half its time inside a cloud. On the trail descending to it from the mountain, a hand-cut wooden sign asks visitors to stop and ask permission of the Mam ancestors before going on. On the path around the shore are twenty altars piled with calla lilies and carnations, each corresponding to one of the twenty days of the month in the Mayan ritual calendar. I paced it out labryinth-style, thinking of nothing, while the cloud condensed in gray jewels on my eyebrows. This tree corresponds to the altar of Noj, day of self-reflection and creative thought.

Next, maybe some temple meditations.

Tlön, R’lyeh, Orbis Tertius (Notes for my Bibliofantasies Panel)

Friday 3:00 p.m. Vaughan BIBLIOFANTASIES
Many classics of the fantasy and supernatural revolve around mysterious, exotic, arcane, or potentially threatening books or collections of books. The panel will go beyond the Necronomicon to discuss examples, and the enduring popularity of the trope. Helen Marshall (M), Tina Connolly, Jennifer Crowe, Michael DeLuca, Don Pizarro.

All books are codifications of thought–they take something mutable and subjective and make it fixed and objective. This has vast potential negative consequences; e.g. religious doctrines. Writing anything down is an act of exclusion.

Myth-encodification

  • Book of the Dead, Egyptian, Tibetan
  • Popol Vuh – fascinating example because lost and found again. What happened to the myth in the intervening time? It exploded.
  • Plato’s Phaedrus – A Socratic dialogue wherein Socrates shoots down the written word as lazy and weak.
  • The standardization of the Bible. apocrypha, gospel of Judas
  • Malleus Maleficarum
  • Grimm’s, Mabinogion

Fictional books are a resistance to this process. They restore subjectivity and mutability–at least, until somebody actually tries to write them. Thinking about this conflict leads me to Borges and Lovecraft: Lovecraft because he’s in the panel description, Borges because I’m pretty much always thinking about Borges.

Lovecraft
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” –Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

By which of course he means also the opposite, that terror is founded on the attempt to correlate experience with that which contradicts experience. I really like and am sad that I can’t corroborate the theory (Wikipedia, elsewhere) that Abdul Alhazred’s last name comes from “all has read”, that the Necronomicon is the result of a human being attempt to comprehend everything–or at least, everything that has been written.

Wilbur had with him the priceless but imperfect copy of Dr. Dee’s English version which his grandfather had bequeathed him, and upon receiving access to the Latin copy he at once began to collate the two texts with the aim of discovering a certain passage which would have come on the 751st page of his own defective volume. This much he could not civilly refrain from telling the librarian–the same erudite Henry Armitage (A. M. Miskatonic, Ph. D. Princeton, Litt.D. Johns Hopkins) who had once called at the farm, and who now politely plied him with questions. He was looking, he had to admit, for a kind of formula or incantation containing the frightful name of Yog-Sothoth, and it puzzled him to find discrepancies, duplications, and ambiguities which made the matter of determination far from easy. As he copied the formula he finally chose, Dr. Armitage looked involuntarily over his shoulder at the open pages; the left-hand one of which, in the Latin version, contained such monstrous threats to the peace and sanity of the world.

–Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Borges

“…an enormous circular book with a continuous spine…that cyclical book is God.” –Borges, “The Library of Babel”

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is the fragmentary, subjective history of a conspiracy to create an encyclopedia describing a fictional culture whose establishing principle is subjectivity. It may in fact be an indirect reference or homage to the Necronomicon? Lovecraft died 1937, story first published 1940. And we know Borges read Lovecraft, though he didn’t like him much, because later he wrote “There are More Things”, an acknowledged Lovecraft homage (in reference to which Borges calls Lovecraft “un parodista involuntario de Poe”). And (skipping over Clark Ashton Smith etc) the fan reproductions/insertion of Necronomicon entries in card catalogues etc seems to originate in the 70s, possibly influenced in turn by Borges (or by a secret conspiracy to allow Borges to influence the legacy of Lovecraft)? Cool! Johannes Valentinus Andrea, 17th century philosopher referenced in “Tlön”, “invents” the Rosicrucians in approximately the same way Borges invents the cult of the Necronomicon? Through satire. Hee! And by drawing this silly connection, I am more or less aping the philosophers and literary theorists of Tlön, who “seek not truth, or even plausibility–they seek to amaze, astound.”

Consider, with respect to all this, the old saw that it becomes less scary once you see it. Lovecraft suffers from this–At the Mountains of Madness becomes a story about eldritch cosmic bureaucrats once we learn too much about them. In “The Dunwich Horror” I wish the big slimy whipporwill-tweeting thing would have stayed invisible. Does this mean being in the position of Adbul Alhazred–knowing everything and making the decision to record the most awful part of it (making it the truth?) would actually be, not sublime, not awe-ful, but freaking boring?

Still, for some reason, in this my fourth or fifth time through “Tlön, Uqbar”, I find myself most intrigued by the reclusive Texan millionaire, Ezra Buckley, whose arrogance impels the clandestine society of Tlön to create not a country but a planet, and who ends up being as responsible as anybody in this story for the world’s true history being eclipsed by that of Tlön. I’m kind of itching to write a story about him.

More Fictional Books in Classic Genre

  • Eco – Name of the Rose
  • Alexander – The Book of Three
  • Gaiman – Sandman, Destiny’s book, the Library of Lost Books
  • Ende – The Neverending Story – interesting example, since it at once creates the fictional book and codifies that book, but only partly so. As I interpret it, the second half of the novel breaks out of the bindings of the fictional Neverending Story, though of course not the physical one.

Fictional Books I’ve Read Recently and in the Near Future

  • Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind
  • Gabriela Damian Miravete – “Future Nereid”, in Three Messages and a Warning
  • Me – “Other Palimpsests”, everybody else (or so I presume) in Bibliotheca Fantastica
  • Samatar – A Stranger in Olondria – There’s an ebook coupon for a free sample of this in your WFC swag bags.