Monday, August 29, 2011
After World War II certain areas of Brooklyn, particularly Brownsville, remained largely unchanged, at least for a while, but the toughness of that neighborhood – the poverty, gangs, and anti-Semitism (despite large Orthodox Jewish populations) –developed a resilience of character in some people that drove them towards ‘betterment” in wealthy, optimistic postwar America. Their drive was beginning to alter popular culture.
Danny Kaye was a Brownsville product. He migrated to the Catskills, refined his showbiz chops in resort hotels, and took those talents to the new medium of television where people like Norman Barasch wrote for him. Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, and Phil Silvers came from Brownsville. So did Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, and Alfred Kazin.
In Brownsville, two teenaged friends, Eli Katz and Norman Podhoretz, drew a comic strip together called “Night Hawk”. As an adult, Katz changed his name to Gil Kane and created the comic book heroes the Atom and the Green Lantern. Podhoretz would edit Commentary and become a leading figure in the neoconservative political movement. “America’s junk culture can be found in superhero comic books, its high culture in magazines such as Commentary yet comics and intellectual journals were often created by remarkably similar people,” wrote Jeet Heer.
In the 1960s and 70s, the blurring of High and Low would characterize American art and entertainment – from the visual arts (Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg) to the movies (Mike Nichols, Frances Ford Coppola; from the comics (R. Crumb, Charles Schultz) to literature ( exhibit A: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller). Critics have attributed this development to many causes: the easy availability of paperbacks, tabloids, and television programming; technological advances (silk screening, photographic manipulation); advertising, with its hunger for co-opting original ideas to spur mass sales. But Heer is also right: Much of the energy behind this mixing of cultural products, aims, and ambitions came from the drive for integration by groups of people seizing opportunities formerly denied them.
Not surprisingly, individuals who held privileged social positions, and shaped their ideas of culture around them, fought change. On July 17, 1955 – shortly after a draft of the first chapter of what would become Catch-22 appeared in New World Writing - Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California. If “Catch-18” was part of the trend towards blurring, bringing with it new ideas of art, literature, and entertainment, Disneyland (in spite of its technical dazzle and television promotions) was part of a resistance to change, a wistful attempt at preserving “old” culture.
Originally, Disney, a son of the rural Midwest, had intended to call Disneyland “Walt Disney’s America.” His America was not Joe Heller’s. In fact, according to Raymond M. Weinstein, a scholar of modern culture, “Walt Disney had an intense dislike for Coney Island and what he thought it represented – dirty, disorganized…garish.” It wasn’t the amusement rides Disney objected to; his revulsion seemed tied to something deeper – perhaps the ethnic mix, the noisy clash of immigrant voices and styles?
“Disneyland was the embodiment of one man’s prepossession towards America’s most important beliefs, values, and symbol rooted in his boyhood experiences in the Midwest,” Weinstein wrote. In its cleanliness, logical organization (its perfection of park administration), and old-fashioned Main Street atmosphere, it would be the anti-Coney Island. “Disney understood well the mood of the 1950s – with its bomb threats, Cold War, domestic paranoia, foreign conflicts,” Weinstein said. “His brand of amusement played into everyone’s desire to go back to their childhood and the childhood of the nation.”
Well, not everyone’s – as the disruptive energy in the pages of The Green Lantern, Commentary, and New World Writing demonstrated. It is no exaggeration to say that in the pages of comic books, journals, and magazines, war was being waged for America’s soul. Superman had gone from fighting corporate greed to battling Nazis – now, in this era of atomic-bomb threats and rumors of UFOs, he fended off invaders from darkening skies. However ridiculous these scenarios seemed, they offered debates on threats to the nation.
Similar considerations filled Commentary and other journals. For example, as early as 1952, a prominent member of Commentary’s editorial staff, Irving Kristol, wrestled his conscience and broke with his fellow staffers’ liberal views. He wrote that Joe McCarthy was certainly a threat to the nation’s political integrity, but a bigger problem was the Left’s refusal to disavow communism. The Left’s dithering, he said, gave McCarthy ammunition. Kristol’s colleagues fired back, accusing him in print of McCarthyism. The battle for the nation’s soul – not to mention Commentary’s – intensified.
Meanwhile, inside Henry Luce’s empire, the arguments centered on corporate culture, corporate responsibilities. Fortune and Time, reflecting Luce’s belief that America must own the century, insisted corporate leaders had to do more than earn profits; they had to forge in America a “business civilization” in which financial values shaped everything from arts and entertainment to architecture to the nation’s infrastructure to the behavior of families. Capitalism had to have a ‘moral basis’.
What did this mean? Luce summed it up in practical terms: “I am biased in favor of God, Eisenhower, and the stockholders of Time Inc.” He promoted a certain image of American masculinity. Time and Life ran numerous articles on Billy Graham’s increasingly popular Christian crusades, describing Graham as lean, blond and handsome. Besides his physical attributes, a large part of what made Graham so attractive, said Luce, was the businesslike efficiency of his religious operation. When Graham went to New York City in the summer of 1957 for a series of rallies, he surrounded himself at news conferences with elite male business figures, including William Randolph Hearst, Jr., and Henry Luce. In Yankee Stadium, on July 20, Vice President Richard Nixon appeared at his rally. The stadium was an appropriate venue, not just for accommodating the crowd but also for stressing Graham’s athleticism and love of sports, part of his all-American image. Sports metaphors leavened his sermons. “Christianity is not a religion for weaklings,” he asserted. “We must be strong, virile, dynamic, if we are to stand.”
What role did women play in this mix of bodybuilding, business, and faith? “I never talk alone with a woman,” Graham told an interviewer. Fervently, he avoided “lovesick women and bobby-soxers”. The American soul demanded sexual vigilance; Henry Luce agreed.
Next to Time on the newsstands, competing views of masculinity waved their muscular pages, including the pulp version with postwar variations. “In wartime the Armed Services taught soldiers how to fight enemies, but back home, working-class soldiers depended upon the mass-market magazines for their civilian life-lessons,” wrote Adam Parfrey, editor of It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, the Post-War Pulps. “All of them had, among the lures of woman flesh and vicious bad guys, a lot of warnings, how-to’s, and comforting memories of wartime, when decisions were black and white, the villains darker and the victories sweeter.”
Bruce Jay Friedman went to work for Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management Company in 1954, after a stint in Korea. Racism, misogyny, and imperialism were ‘just the way things were” in titles such as Male, Stag, and True Action – known in the trade as “armpit” publications, he said, “We didn’t think twice about it”: this was blue-collar manhood.
Friedman hired a young writer named Mario Puzo who created giant mythical armies, lock them in combat in Central Europe, and have casualties coming in by the hundreds of thousands. Other regular features in men’s magazines included “Animal Nibbler” stories about people who had been nibbled half to death by ferocious little animals. “Sintown” stories were always a hit with readers. “I always though of them as ‘scratch the surface’ yarns,” Friedman said. “(Outwardly, Winkleton, Illinois, is a quiet, tree-lined little community…But scratch the surface of this supposedly God-fearing little town and you will find that not since Sodom and Gomorrah and blah blah blah) Any town with a bar and a hooker would do.”
Even here, amid the puerility, soul struggles elvolved. As Cold War dustups frayed the country’s nerves, and cracks began to appear in suburbia’s blissful pavement, previously suppressed fantasies crept into men’s magazines. They took the form of “Leg Shackler” stories: “Slaves of the Emperor of Agony,” “Savage Rites of the Whip,” “Tormented Love.” As Parfrey noted, “Damsels had been distressed since the turn of the century in pulps, but nearly always the illustrations suggested that a hero was nearby, and his rescue pending.” More and more, “heroes came to play and increasingly minor role in illustrations until they were completely phased out.” Apparently, readers of these magazines came to believe that “saving women from torture was no longer on any level heroic.” This growing trend would reach its peak in the mid – 1960s, Parfrey said, at ‘the time of the Vietnam War’s escalation and the emergence of feminism.”
Skirmishes over manhood, politics, or corporate behavior might have been restricted to small pockets of readers here and there, given the specialized nature of magazines. But the tensions escaped their stapled spines. The term culture war would not achieve currency until decades later, but a culture war this was.
In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he claimed comic books and men’s magazines were spreading the epidemic of juvenile delinquency and homosexuality among the nation’s youth. His supporters boycotted newsstands and burned comic books. Writing in Commentary, Norbert Muhlen cursed the “dehumanized” and “repetitious” stories of ‘death and destruction” in comic, which were helping to educate a whole generation for an authoritarian rather than a democratic society.” With little change, his words could have served a leg-shackling Nazi, but the U.S. Congress became concerned enough (or alert enough to an issue worth exploiting politically – it was easier to face this than Joe McCarthy) to threaten government censorship of comics. In response, William Gaines, publisher of Educational Comics, and his business manager, Lyle Stuart, created the Comics Magazines Association of America, a self-regulatory agency set up to administer a code – a stamp of approval guaranteeing ‘wholesome, entertaining and educational” contents. Any title that didn’t comply would face distribution hurdles. This move was meant to stave off harsher regulations by the government.
Gaines’s company published Tales from the Crypt, Weird Fantasy, The Vault of Horror, and a relatively new title (from October 1952) written and edited by a man named Harvey Kurtzman: Tales Calculated to Drive you MAD: Humor in a Jugular Vein.
“Of course, we had the big problem: could we ever live under the censorship of the Comics Code?” Kurtzman said. “We decided, absolutely no. We could not go on as a comic book.” Thus, Mad was born. Technically, by shifting from hand lettering to set type, the publication became a magazine instead of a comic book. It was not bound by the strict new code.
Restrictions on magazine content were lighter (not to say ambiguous and paradoxical). “Boys were allowed to purchase men’s magazines that promoted wholesale violence against an entire gender, while Playboy-style girlie mags that revered women and their bodies were considered unfit material for underage readers,” Adam Parfrey wrote.
In many ways Mad represented a group of alternative New York intellectuals,” says critic David Abrams. “Many of Mad’s staff were Jewish, either native New Yorkers or emigres from Europe, a high proportion of them survivors of Nazi Germany. Like the New York intellectual milieu, many of them had come to political awareness during the Depression.”
Yiddish phrases stippled the magazine’s pages. By 1967, theologian Vernard Eller could say, “Beneath the pile of garbage that is Mad, there beats, I suspect, the heart of of rabbi.” Abrams contends that “Mad’s critique of America was far more effective and devastating than its better-known counterparts… such as Commentary, Dissent, Partisan Review, and The New Leader. This was so, he says, because the intellectual journals were constrained by their sponsoring organizations (in Commentary’s case, the powerful American Jewish Committee) or editors’ ideologies. “We like to say that Mad has no politics and that we take no point of view,” Gaines once said, but ‘the magazine is more liberal than not liberal.”
Abrams may overstate Mad’s intellectual rigor, but he is right to call attention to its growing influence during the 1950s and 1960s. Its highly visible political satire, scored to Borscht Belt rhythms eased the way for Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce,and Joseph Heller, or helped then gain greater acceptance. Politics and punning, smarts and snappy play – the High and the Low – had embraced.
Mad carried no advertising (ironic, given the location of its offices on Madison Avenue). Among its favorite targets for satire were ad agencies – “the essence of Mad’s success is its nim,ble spoofing of promotions of all kinds,” Time noted in 1958. The Disney Corporation came under fire (Mickey Mouse as a rat-faced thug). Joseph McCarthy didn’t escape: “Is Your Bathroom Breeding Bolsheviks?” asked one of the magazine’s fake ads.
Predictably, Mad spawned a backlash from the intellectual set. In The New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald wrote, “Mad expresses…teenagers cynicism about the world of mass media that their elders have created – so full of hypocrisy and pretense governed by formulas. But Mad itself has a formula. It speaks the same language, aesthetically and morally, as the media it satirizes; it is as tasteless as they are, and more violent”. Mad’s critiques took the form of their targets. Indecipherability, relativism, what critics would soon call “postmodernism” had crept into mass culture. What could Superman – or Lionel Trilling – do about that?
The truth is, the mixture of High and Low had already made enough mud to cause a landslide. In 1955, William Gaddis published an immense novel called The Recognitions, all about plagiarism, forgeries, and counterfeiting, themes that made it “the novel of the fifties”, in Frederick Karl’s estimation. As in the national discourse, disseminated through popular media, “layers of untruth” comprised the novel; beneath the lies, “somewhere lay the real.” “Cold war, pinkos, left-winger, Red China, McCarthyism, Hiss, Rosenbergs, liberal intellectual, egghead…labels became a kind of totem; we demeaned every experience and every response by means of a reductive vocabulary which transmitted only the artificial.” In capturing this glutted, mediated atmosphere, The Recognitions became “our archetypal experience for the fifties, a model…for the way in which we saw and will continue to see ourselves.”
Meanwhile, in 1952, Bobbs- Merrill brought out George Mandel’s Flee The Angry Strangers in hardcover, followed the next year by a Bantam mass-market paperback edition featuring a Harry Schaare cover, like that of a comic book: a woman shooting heroin). In time, critics saw Flee The Angry Stranger as a proto-Beat novel, capturing, before Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, and others, what Thomas Newhouse called the cultural “transition between the wail of hopelessness after the war” and a freedom to choose dissolution” rather than middle-class life.
Mandel’s protagonist, eighteen-year-old Diane Lattimer, a drug-hazed habitué of the jazz clubs on Bleecker and MacDougal streets, hustles by day and, despite her self-destructiveness, a rare feminist heroine in the fiction of the time. Mandel’s comic-book training showed in the larger-than-life appetites of his characters, in their heroic embrace of instantaneous pleasure ( a kind of personalized justice for all) and their rejection of society’s straight-and-narrow paths. These qualities would characterize all of Beat writing; The Beats’ link to the comic-book ethos of the time – through figures like George Mandel – is not accidental.
Flee The Angry Strangers uncovered many crosscurrents swirling through American popular writing in the early 1950s – for just as Mickey Spillane smuggled comic-book action into the hard-boiled detective genre, the values of proletarian fiction stiffened comic heroes spines. Mandel’s characters encompassed each of these strains; they were amalgams of the Human Torch, Mike Hammer, and Nelson Algren’s Frankie Machine. Mandel’s people spoke ‘jive’: jazz talk. They didn’t provide their partners with sexual delight; they sent them. They didn’t smoke marijuana; they indulged in pod, a term that degrade into pot after many “engorged mispronunciations by its consumers,” Mandel sad. The novel’s language was so strange, his publishers ask him to include a lexicon in the back of the book. Later, he regretted he didn’t accede to this request, because soon, “Madison Avenue” began to “spoil the “flavor” of jive’s “perceptive music.”
The ethos and combination of Mandel’s characters sowed the path for the Beats and underground hip soon became a rich source for mainstream advertising.
Just One Catch; A Biography of Joseph Heller by Tracy Daugherty’; St. Martin’s Press, 2011
Saturday, August 20, 2011
One of my earliest memories is waking to the clucking of poultry and female Arabic voices raised in altercation. They were on the other side of a mud brick wall which divided our living quarters from those of someone called, I think, Abd el Hady. These walls were of endless fascination to me and my brother, for they incorporated not only the Biblical straw fragments, but also tiny shells which could be dug out with one’s fingernail (it was fifteen years before I learned the geological explanation of this phenomena).
I was two and a half years old, and we had come to live at Sakkara, near the Step Pyramid, and in the former quarters of the great French archeologist Mariette. Today the building has vanished; it has been replaced by a rest house for tourists convenient for visiting the Serapeum and various Old Kingdom tombs. We lived there until I was four, bathing in a portable tine tub and playing in the world’s biggest sandbox.
We had an English nanny as well as various Egyptian servants. Among these, Fathy, who appears from old photographs to have been about fourteen, accompanied us when Nanny took us out to play. He was in charge of our transportation, a donkey with specially made basketry paniers in which we rode. He had a long stick with the top of a large tin can fastened to one end which rattled and reflected the sun, and when we got off the donkey to play he stood by with his stick, which I have always assumed was meant to frighten off the scorpions and snakes. But the desert was a wonderful playground. Instead of a conventional hobby horse we had a miniature stone lion (Roman) to ride – we called it ‘the sphincus”- and all sorts of treasures might turn up in the sand; coins, pottery fragments and sometimes a tiny clay jar, whole and unbroken. Above all we loved the bones. There were plenty of them (human, although we didn’t know it) and it was fun to search for good long ones that could be planted upright in the sand to make fences, or featured in a favorite game called Mr. Firth’s Wine Bottles.
In the heat of the day we played in the sheltered entrances to the tombs of Ti and Ptahhotep. Our nanny sat in the shade and sewed, always in full uniform including the traditional veil. There is no doubt that we were considered ‘cute” by the visiting tourists, as my father has described in his Recollections of an Egyptologist, and when I revisited those tombs nearly fifty years later the dim interiors with their picturebook walls were strangely familiar. But more vivid, perhaps, is the memory of Nanny losing her scissors in the sand and the praise I received for finding them.
Not only scorpions but also sandstorms were hazards to be feared. I remember the anxious excitement when one of our servants was bitten, and how we were strictly confined to the house during high winds, where we watched the sinister line of sand drifting in and piling up before the crack in the front door.
We must have been very spoiled by the many visitors who came to Mariette’s House during those years. Among them were aunts, uncles, grandmothers and archeologists like Ambrose Lansings, who brought their little boy to play with us (he later married my as-yet unborn sister). I have an old photograph, taken in front of the house, showing my two-year-old brother, our parents, an aunt and uncle and two unnamed visitors. Forty years later a dear friend of mine found its duplicate among the effects of her deceased father, the distinguished English architect A.J. Davis, who had taken the original picture while on his honeymoon in Egypt in 1924, and had evidently sent my parents a copy. My friend identified one of the two “visitors” as her mother. No doubt these and other travellers made much of us with our tiny pith helmets and English accents.
In the spring of 1925 when I was four we acquired a new nurse, Nanny Ethel. I remember her first night with us at Sakkara and how shocked she was that we had not yet been taught the Lord’s Prayer. Shortly after this we moved to Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. My sister’s arrival was imminent and my father was leaving his work at the Step Pyramid to return to the Harvard Camp at Giza.
Our new house was very different from Mariette’s. It had stairs, a garden and water tanks where you pulled a chain instead of the familiar earth (or rather, sand) closet of Sakkara. On the third floor was a porch, open to the sky, where the whole family sometimes slept out on hot nights under mosquito nets. One early dawn I was awakened by the blast of a shotgun. It was my father frightening away thieves who had broken through the hedge to steal apricots from the garden. Between the house and the street was a ditch spanned by a little bridge which you had to cross to reach the garden and front door. The house had high ceilings, shuttered windows and a tiled roof – in fact, it was a sort of Italian Villa. In 1972 we took a taxi out to Maadi to see if we could find it again, but alas, what had seemed unique to me as a child was only one of dozens, and Maadi itself had grown into such a maze of suburban streets that we had to give up our quest.
In Maadi there were other children to play with and even an English school and church. Each day we went to the Sporting Club where there was a sandbox and swimming pool. We were taught to swim suspended on a rope. There were trees and flowers, purply-blue jacarandas, bamboos, eucalyptus and oleander; the smell of these last two will always evoke Maadi for me, along with the taste of fresh figs and apricots.
During our two years in Maadi the outstanding events, at least through the eyes and ears of a child, were essentially domestic. There was the arrival of a baby sister, going to school for the first time (where I was frequently sent out of the room for misbehaving), the thrill of learning how to swim, and to read, joining the Brownies, provoking a typhoid scare when I drank some water in which a neighbor’s donkey had just been washed (the whole family got “shots”: and only I, the guilty one, failed to have a reaction) and, greatest of all,. Nanny Ethel’s wedding to a gloriously kilted Scottish soldier stationed in Egypt, at which I played bridesmaid in a crepe de chine dress, carrying a basket of artificial flowers.
But what of archeology, the justification and purpose of this volume? We did not see our father as an archeologist, but as a kind and gentle man who rarely punished us and was full of jokes and stories. Every day he went off in his Model T Ford to work with “Poppa George” whom I remember only as my brother’s godfather and the possessor of a large gold watch. I believe my mother must often have accompanied him, for years later, while doing research for an undergraduate thesis on Egyptian pottery, I came across her handwriting in the Objects Registers of the Harvard excavations at Giza. We were taken to visit the Harvard Camp as a great treat, and I remember holding my father’s hand as we stood on the edge of what seemed like an enormous precipice while hundreds of men in long white nightgowns and turbans, carrying baskets of dirt on their heads, sang what I now know to be the characteristically African “call and response.” “They are making up verses especially for you,” said my father. Of course I went down the tomb of Hetepheres in a basket, a terrifyingly endless but thrilling descent. There was a hot, stuffy little room, with nothing of interest in it, at the bottom.
In 1927 the day finally came when we were told we would be leaving Egypt to go a live in America. Except for a few weeks during the previous summer I had not seen Americas since babyhood, and both my brother and sister had been born abroad. We wondered what the new school would be like, and knew that we would sorely miss our friends, Mohammad and Abd el Aziz, although Nanny and her husband, Alec, were to come and keep house for us. We had been brought up by an English mother, aunt, grandmother and nannies, but we had met many American relatives and visitors, and we realized our greatest problem was going to be our accents. A few days before leaving, my brother and I wandered into the garden with its tall hedges and apricot trees. Firmly holding our noses, we practiced what we fondly thought to be American speech.
Only four years of my childhood were spent in Egypt, but they were formative ones. Of course we lived as ‘colonial” children – wearing our little pithy helmets in the noonday sun, playing only with other Europeans, surrounded with and protected by legions of servants. We slept under mosquito nets and rank boiled milk. Yet the smells and colors linger on, together with a faint aura of past glamor. After all, it’s not everyone who has the opportunity to grow up under the Sphinx and Pyramids as part of a familiar childhood landscape.
Studies in Ancient Egypt, The Aegean, and the Sudan; Essays in Honor of Dows Dunham on the Occasion of his 90th Birthday, June 1, 1980; Edited by William Kelly Simpson and Whitney Davis; Dept. of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 1981
Friday, August 19, 2011
The driving power behind the Aztec dominion over Mexico was the belief in their god, Blue Hummingbird, one of the aspects of the great demiurge, Tezcatlipoca. He was the power of magic, the mysterious Smoking Mirror in which visions were seen. To him the Aztecs attributed the glories of their conquests, and for him the great temple in Tenochtitlan towered into the sky. Blood was constantly offered in his temple at the top of the pyramid. In the dark interior priests poured bowls of human hearts in front of his image glowering in the gloom. No Aztec would have denied that this god had led the tribe from poverty to power, yet they all knew very well that this great ‘shadow’ was also a being of unrelenting cruelty.
The last Great Speaker of the Aztecs, Montezuma, knew better than most that the god of the Aztecs was unreliable. In the early years of his reign the Aztecs had suffered terrible disasters. An army of 16,000 warriors had been destroyed in western Mexico when they had been caught up in a violent mountain storm and hurricane winds. Some were crushed, most were drowned, and few survivors returned to Tenochtitlan. Nevertheless, other wars were started, and they brought in streams of prisoners to be fattened and sacrificed, so that the tribe could become rich, and its terrible patron appeased.
In the midst of the great city, Montezuma was splendid in his isolation. He had at last, by 1508, brought about the fulfillment of the ancient promise that the god had made to his people. The Aztecs ruled all of Anahuac, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In his day, the city was splendidly colorful, its markets constantly busy, its people were well dressed, and its warriors were feared throughout the land. Because of his earlier training as an astrologer- priest Montezuma was well aware of the mutability of fate. Everyday at sunset, midnight and dawn, he observed the sky from his palace roof to divine the course of events. To him, the signs in the sky marked the marching of fate, and his policies were dictated by the positions of the starry symbols of the gods in the night sky, their relation to the planets, the appearance of comets and meteors, all of which gave information to help him amplify the indications in the Tonalpouhalli, the sacred book of fate.
There was, however, a central dichotomy in the spiritual world of Montezuma. He was properly elected to the leadership of the Aztec people, and was therefore dedicated to their patron god, Huitzilopochtli. Their fate and welfare, he realized, depended upon the devotion the nation showed through him to this mighty power. But Montezuma himself was born on a day sacred to the Morning Star, Quetzalcoatl. He was thus directly involved in the strange conflict between these two deities.
From our modern standpoint Tezcatlipoca can be seen as a projection of the ‘shadow’- dark instinctive- side of human nature; a god of war identified with suffering and sacrifice. Quetzalcoatl can be seen as a projection of the fully conscious intelligence of mankind who in all matters of beauty and art was thought to breathe life and inspiration. In Mexican mythology these two gods were part of a great complexity of divinities but the inevitability of their conflict is as clear from the legends in the painted books as it might well be to a psycho-analyst today. Montezuma was well aware of the conflict and strain and must have also believed, possibly because of his own descent from the Quetzalcoatls of the Toltecs, that one day the power of Quetzalcoatl would be restored. The possibility of this return was divined to occur in a year called Ce Acatl (one, arrow-reed), which was the name of Quetzalcoatl as Morning Star, and on the day Chiconaui Ehecatl (nine, wind) which was the birthdate of the first Quetzalcoatal. This combination occurred every 52 years and it was expected only once in the lifetime of Montezuma, in the spring of the year 1519.
In the year 1508 there had been a solar phenomena which the Great Speaker must have seen. A tiny black speck moved slowly and steadily across the face of the sun. It was not the usual sun spot, which might have been confused with it, and Montezuma was well aware that it was the planet Venus in transit. This was a rare event and the jade figure of Quetzalcoatl wearing the sun as his neck ornament, which is now in the collection of the British Museum, was probably a memorial to it. Such a rare event, occurring only once in 300 years, must have been seen as a first warning of the events to come.
Stories came to Mexico a few years later of a strange phenomena. From the eastern coasts, in the Maya country, and soon after from the coasts of the Totonac lands ruled by Montezuma, came tales of strange, giant canoes with wings. From them had come men clad in stone who killed by pointing sticks at people. In many places these strange, black-bearded creatures landed and bartered with the people. Then they sailed away northwards. Montezuma felt that this was the second appearance of the deformed people whom Quetzalcoatl had taken away with him on his retreat from Mexico generations previously. This was, in fact, the trading voyage of the Spanish adventurers Solis and Pinzon. Their map was published in Spain, though the sailing directions had been falsified. It is probable that gossip had spread back to Cuba where young Hernando Cortes was running a small plantation, worked by Carib slaves.
At this period Cortes did not know his fate, but he was hoping one day to make his fortune in some profitable foray among the islands. He was a gentleman of high birth but low fortune. Physically, he was short, and well-groomed, though a fall rom a lady’s window had broken his leg and left him permanently lamed. His complexion was a soft brown, and his black hair and neat beards sett off luminous, dominating eyes. That he would one day be regarded as the symbol of a deity returning to Mexico can never have entered his dreams, though he was fated to live that part.
The third figure in the approaching drama was the the Princess Malinalli of Painalla. She had been born on the day Ce Malinalli (one, grass of sorrow), under special symbols in the sky which indicated that she would, throughout her life, be opposed to the terrible war god of her Aztec people. To protect the child her mother showed a false daughter to the priests, a baby girl that had been born dead to one of her saves, and sent her own child to the Maya people in Yucatan. Later on she was to be known to the Spaniards, who could not pronounce her name, as Marina, and because she was of noble birth they called her Dona Marina. Through her translations and knowledge of Aztec culture, Hernando Cortes was able to capture Montezuma, and conquer the Aztec people.
It had long been known that just as Quetzalcoatl had been overthrown in the past, so in the come time he would return and overthrow his adversaries, and bring a reign of greater peace and justice. This messianic hope was to be realized in a sad and cruel way when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico (spring, 1519) and proceeded to overthrow the Aztec empire. The new Quetzalcoatl appeared as a most ruthless warrior, who not only opposed the god of the Aztecs themselves, but caused the overthrow of all other rival deities throughout Mexico. The debacle was complete and terrifying.
Among the common people, once the terrors of conquest and the accompanying plagues were over, the teachings of the missionaries were accepted. Those black-robed priests, who wore garments very similar to those which had clothed the ancient god, were messengers of Christian peace, and their god had offered himself as the once and only sacrifice for the benefit of all mankind. It seemed to the Mexicans that prophesy was fulfilled, and that the new Quetzalcoatl was a god of peace and justice. They flocked in their tens of thousands to be baptized, to receive the blessing of this new aspect of the Morning Star. Although thy had ample reason to distrust the Christians, who had been enjoined to teach them religion, they held to the new faith. In many ways they translated it into their own ways of thought, so that Easter festivals were though of as celebrations of the return of the god, and of the sweeping away of old evils. In this manner the ancient cult of Quetzalcoatl survived as an aspect of Christianity, but the name of the old god and the temple rituals disappeared, along with the images and cults of many other deities.
In modern Mexico the figure of Quetzalcoatl often replaces the more familiar Santa Claus at New Year parties or in department store windows. The bearer of gifts wears a plume of feathers, and a mask representing the old god, as the bringer of life, of gifts and of happiness to people. In this he has assumed a place that was not really his in the old days, because he was not a god of the regular calendar at all, nor of the changing of the year. Nevertheless, the idea of the gifts of good things are matters in which both the ancient Aztec religion and Christian imagery could well come together. The cult of the god and the poetry associated with him, however, remains as a province of artists and archeologists, rather than the mass of Mexican people. The god appears with tremendous vigor on some of the new frescoes, particularly those by Jose Clemente Orozco, which represent Quetzalcoatl as a great power, like a wind destroying the old dead past and bringing a new era of hope for mankind, and for Mexico in particular.
Feathered Serpent and Smoking Mirror by C.A. Burland and Werner Forman; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1975
Thursday, August 4, 2011
With age, you see how much of it is invented. Not only what is invisible but what is everywhere visible.
I’m not sure I understand.
Well, you’re still quite young.
Thank you, I wish I felt young.
I’m not talking about one’s self-image. Or the way life can be too much of the same thing day in and day out. I’m not talking about mere unhappiness.
Am I merely unhappy?
I’m in no position to judge. But let’s say melancholy seems to suit the lady.
Oh dear – that it’s that obvious.
But, in any case, whatever our state of mind life seems for most of our lives an intense occupation – keeping busy, competing intellectually, physically, nationally, seeking justice, demanding love, perfecting our institutions. All the fashions of survival. Everything we do to make history, the archive of our inventiveness. As if there were no context.
But there is?
Yes. Some vast – what to call it? Indifference that slowly creeps up on you with age, that becomes more insistent with age. That’s what I am trying to explain. I’m afraid I’m not doing a very good job.
No, really, this is interesting.
I get very voluble on even one glass of sherry.
Thank you. But I am trying to explain the estrangement that comes over one after some years. For some earlier, for others later, but always inevitably.
And to you, now?
Yes, It’s a kind of wearing out, I suppose, As if life had become threadbare, with light peeking through. The estrangement begins in moments, in little sharp judgments that you instantly put out of your mind. You draw back, though you’re fascinated. Because it’s the truest feeling a person can have, and so it comes again and again, drifting through your defenses, and finally settles over you like some cold, very cold light. Maybe I should stop talking about this. It is almost to deny it, talking about it.
No, I appreciate your candor. Does this have something to do with why you’ve come back here – to see where you used to live?
This estrangement is maybe your word for depression.
I understand why you would say that. You see me as the image of some colossal failure – living on the road in a beat-up car, an obscure poet, a third-rate academic. And maybe I am all those things, but I’m not depressed. This isn’t a clinical issue I speak of. It’s a clear recognition of reality. Let me explain it this way: it’s much like I suppose what a chronic invalid feels, or someone on the verge of dying, where the estrangement is protective, a way of abating the sense of loss, the regret, and the desire to live is no longer important. But subtract those circumstances and there I am, healthy, self-sufficient, maybe not the most impressive fellow in the world but one who’s managed to take care of himself quite well and live in freedom doing what he wants to do and without any major regrets. Yet the estrangement is there, the truth has settled upon him, and he feels actually liberated because he’s outside now, in the context, where you can’t believe in life anymore.