Saturday, November 15, 2008

Week 15, Florentine Codex, Cantares, Popol Vuh

Notes on The Florentine Codex

The mother is represented in these poems as a kind of warrior and goddess; her pain and self-sacrifice are equated with valor on the battlefield. Even though mothers are given credit for embodying the principle of generation, they are warned by the poet not to take personal pride in their sacrifice or their status. The collectivity is honored, not the individual.

Notes on Cantares Mexicanos

The songs seem to be inspired by earth and by the gods directly. They appear to be composed in an exuberant state, and their effect on the hearer is described in terms of intoxication. The poems are like psychedelic flowers growing from sky, soil, and water; they put the hearers in touch with the divine, with life’s highest purposes. Moreover, the songs should lead naturally to action.

The power of transformation is very direct and strong in them—the hesitant warrior is addressed with transfiguring metaphors; the point of these metaphors is sacred. It isn’t just to explain the unfamiliar by means of the familiar; it is to engraft the hearer into the entire religious system. That’s different from explaining and comforting. It means that the action to take place differs from whatever the hearer may be hesitating to do. And in the fourth song, the power of words is sensuous, physical—identified with the intoxicating scent of flowers. The singer describes nature as a life-world that has the power to take us beyond our ordinary ourselves, and he ascribes the same power to his words. That reminds me a bit of the Symbolists with their incantatory, sacred-word theories about poetry.

Notes on The Popol Vuh

The Mayan Quiché kingdom is post-classical in that the Classical Period runs from 300-900 AD. It seems that the Popol Vuh or Council Book is much older that that, at least in its earliest form. The Norton editors say that the book was said to have been derived from a pilgrimage to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and that it was used as a visionary instrument in governing the kingdom. The current authors are post-1520’s conquest-era, after Pedro de Alvarado’s invasion in 1524. So the Council Book must be brought to light anew. What we have is a hybrid text, therefore: the stories seem to be partly an act of defiance by an author or authors confronted with the claims of Christian Spaniards to superiority. It is partly a protest work, and partly performance art—with the Ancient Word as the thing to be performed. Christian iconography and narrative have entered the picture. There are plenty of echoes of Genesis—the creation story with its emphasis on the ex nihilo aspect of creation, the idea that men were created to praise God, Eve plucking the forbidden fruit, the idea that the creation must be as full as possible etc. But the outcome isn’t the same, and the gods (the Sun God being supreme lord) don’t hold the same attitude towards earth and humanity. Not only that, there is more than one attempt at creation. Yahweh doesn’t “worry” about creating anything, but these gods do; they worry about how the cosmos will be perpetuated, how order may be maintained and light perpetuated.

In the account of the time before humanity, evil anarch-gods or celestial jokers hold sway, but these darkness-loving, deceitful, vain gods are rightly defeated by divine heroes who, with their craftiness and ingenuity, are more than a match for the jokers’ excessive bloodlust and arrogance. The underdogs combat the underworld lords by means of asymmetrical warfare, so that order, light, and respect may emerge. The human order that later comes into being seems to share some of the anarchs’ tendencies.

The gods worry that their creatures will rival them in “distance vision,” so they make humans become narrow, limited, and literally short-sighted. The Quiché account states this anxiety very bluntly, and with no moral justification to back it up. Yahweh’s concern in the Bible is similar, but he makes his case majestically and with reference to the moral transgression of Adam and Eve. As for the creation itself, humanity is close to the earth, close to and even created from the earthly things that sustain it: corn or maize would have been the Quiché people’s staple crop.