Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Denuding of Tenochtitlan

I have for a year had in my possession a dear friend's global history of Mexico in manuscript form. The idea of Mexican literature and history as world literature and history is not a new one. This history, however, supposes a universalism in Mexican history. From without, the history is the face of history. From within, a portrait of Mexico.

A lengthy quote from the history:

On the invisible lake of Texcoco the waving reproducible image of a brown eagle descends on the featherless serpent, lands on the nopal, and decimates the history of a city. It had sighted all that could be seen on that land, in one fell swoop: the founding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan by the Mexica, the wandering tribe of Huitzilopochtli; the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, brought to fruition by Itzcoatl and the ingenious Nezahualcotoyl; the imperial achievements made by Ahuitzotl in the expansion of the empire; the melancholy surmises of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, in conversation with his priests; the three year war for Tenochtitlan, and the Conquest to last 300 years hence; the Victory of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the coming of the Angel of Independence; the entrance of a Hapsburg into the city gates; three years after, the restoration of the Republic upon the entrance of a Zapotec into the City of Mexico; the assassination of Maximilian I; the countless reforms by Juares, and the re-establishment of the Republic; the thirty-year Porfiriato that would return Mexico to the French Intervention it had just overthrown, and regress the national achievements of the Zapotec liberator; the Revolution that would destroy everything that existed before it and build up a storm that would last decades after the first wave; the establishment of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, and the 70 years of a perfected dictatorship under the umbrella of a revolutionary cause that continues to thrive in the hears of partisans; & the positivist urbanizing spirit of the times that would bring skyscrapers, the 1968 Olympics, the Tlatelolco Massacre, the 1970 World Cup, and NAFTA to the neo-classical post-modern streets of Mexico - extending blood and expanding borders and exploding the free market, at the helm of a mystic nation - from a moment's perch on the cactus - in the solitary eye of the eagle...

For Moctezuma, Jose-Luis Moctezuma, Joseph, my dear friend, author, the yet unheard song of the federal district was already sung when the tribe of Tenoch saw the eagle eating the snake--to be found is to be founded--and Mexico, historical locus, will never escape the fact and the fate of its founding myth. But myth, it must be remembered, is metaphor. And metaphor is limited by language and that which language cannot represent.

Language can only ever expand because of the fact that it cannot claim total comprehensibility between itself and the universe. Language is both total and not total: We have words for everything we need to say; until we realize that we do not have the words to say something which suddenly needs to be said. The non-total aspect of language then allows us to discover or create that which need be said. These are the moments that the impenetrable crudity of life reveals its presence and its invisibility.

The invisible crudity, as the limit upon which language determines its usefulness, is the fact of the universe. It precedes our vocabularies. It is the territory of life itself. Though life itself is lived through language. There are, as I have just said, monumental moments when these two drives sensibly intersect in the mind. Such, I would argue, was the moment of Moctuzuma's (Xocoyotzin) meeting with Cortez.

A moment which is not mentioned in my dear friend's history but which seems monumental in the collapse of Xocoyitzin's Tenochtitlan is described in William Carlos Williams' 'Destruction of Tenochitlan:'

Here in this large building whose great hall was to serve the Spaniards for barracks from that time until the end, Montezuma (sic) and Cortez found themselves seated at last face to face. Montezuma spoke: "They have told you that I possess houses with walls of gold and many other such things and that I am a god or make myself one. The houses you see are of stone and lime and earth." -Then opening his robe: "You see that I am composed of flesh and bone like yourselves and that I am mortal and palpable to the touch..."

Upon which Cortez demands the Aztec ruler declare himself subject to the king of Spain. It is a stupid and obfuscating falsity that the Aztecs ever believed the Europeans to have been gods. They knew they weren't gods--but men of flesh like their own. Their initial graciousness was premised--and more admirably so--upon this.

Moctezuma Xocoyitzin, sensing the crudity of his universe necessitating new metaphor, new linguistic alignment with the strange, inexplicable European, bared his bareness in an attempt to bare the European. The metaphor of his myth could not sustain itself and, rather than project, he assumed vacuity, flesh, bone and stone. The European then imposed metaphor, myth and sovereignty. But this is inessential to Moctezuma's gesture--which was a moment when the impenetrable crudity of life revealed its presence and its invisibility or incomprehensibility.

Before the incomprehensible, then, he went nude--the nude serpent in the marshy vale. Mr. Moctezuma's (Jose-Luis') argument surfaces again. BUT, with his self-denuding, that man, Moctezuma, breathed for the first time in a universe with no claim upon myth except that myth could not claim him. He became the ineffable crudity--a different kind of king.

As a bit of an aside, my central issue with Hegelian dialectic is such, and I will cite another of my dear friend's passions (Tarkovsky) to illustrate my issue: In 'The Mirror,' Arseny Tarkovsky, Andrei's father, recites from his own poetry:

"A soul is sinful without a body,
Like a body without clothes"

The spiritual (thesis) needs the inert material (antithesis) to realize its comprehensive grace (synthesis) in the same way that a body needs clothes to cover it to contain its grace. But the act of covering is a kind of obscuring. If the soul were verily realized in grace by its presence in material, there would be no need to further cover that grace. Thus dialectic becomes a sort of piling on--despite its suggestion of totalizing. Moctezuma Xocoyitzin attained true sovereignty when he went into the inert material--into flesh, bone and stone--not because of a fusion he attained in so doing, but because of a displacement he sensed and gestured. By displacements, we expand. Such is the nature of the simultaneous totality and expansiveness of language.

In this way, in expanding, we are not static, are not myth.

We are more metaphor. I do not agree with Joseph Moctezuma on many points, but I am certain that we agree on this: The psychic life of humans is most profound on the surface, like Tenochtitlan on the landfill. The deeper you dig, the more you'll find you're in a ditch. We are both, in distinct ways, material universalists, with a faith in the flesh. But he is, in his way, a kind of sun-worshiper--loves cycles and monarchs, and the irreversibility of blood history.

I sometimes consider him a Tory (his adoration Dr. Johnson speaks of this)--but probably only do this to whet the blade of republicanism in my own mind. I know that his thoughts are actually too twisty for Toryism. He is divided within himself. Sometimes he conflicts, sometimes lies. I have loved and hated him with equal intensity. He has been a brother, a buffoon, a best friend and a brilliant counter to my movements. He is a very dear friend. This post is dedicated to him. He keeps an excellent blog on film:


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