Thursday, May 05, 2005

My Bizarre Title

An Aztec God

The last week or two I have been touring the wilder islands of Scotland. I shall blog about this later - don't you worry. Until then, here's something else. When I was in Ullapool - in Scotland! - a friend of mine asked me why I chose such a bizarre, ungainly and arguably wanky title for my last novel: The Cheek Perforation Dance. I explained that the phrase comes from an Aztec ritual where two dancers are bound together, in bloody pain, with a spike through their cheeks. I thought this a good metaphor for the obsessional but painful love of a sado-masochistic relationship - the theme of the book.

My friend called me a pretentious nitwit - fair point maybe - and then asked why I was so obsessed with the Aztecs anyway.

So here, by way of answer, is a piece I wrote at the time of the great Royal Academy Aztecs exhibition, in London a few months ago.

Why Are We Fascinated By The Aztecs?

I vividly remember when I first became fascinated by the Aztecs of Mexico. I was about ten years old, and sprawled across the living room floor watching Blue Peter. On screen Valerie Singleton (or was it John Noakes) was describing the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in the 16th Century. It was quite interesting.

Then the programme came to the part where some captured soldiers were executed by the embattled Aztecs. The presenter lovingly described how, in full view of their surviving comrades, the Spanish prisoners were dragged, by their hair, up the sides of a pyramid, where an Aztec priest smashed into the Spaniards’ ribcages so as to rip out their still-beating hearts.

Wow. I sat up, alert. From that moment on I was hooked on Aztec history - and I have been ever since. Nor am I alone in this absorption. Just next week the Royal Academy is holding an enormous exhibition, Aztecs, which the Academy claims is ‘one of the most ambitious ever held at the RA’. The great display is expected to be a huge success, such is the interest in ancient Mexico.

Why? What is it about the pre-Columbian cultures, and particularly the Aztecs, that so fascinates us? After all, ancient Mexico was a long time ago, and a long way away - and, moreover, conquered by the Spanish, rather than the British. We do not have such an interest in, say, Carolingian France, or Georgian Ireland, or old Zimbabwe, all of which are nearer to us in their different ways. And there have been lots of savage societies, even cannibalistic ones - so it can’t be the simple barbarism of the premodern Mexicans that engages us.

For an answer I think we have to look at the history of ancient Mexico, the history that led to the Aztecs. It is a history which is longer and richer than many people suspect.

First, around the time of Christ, there was the mysterious culture that built Teotihuacan, the enormous citadel on the outskirts of Mexico City. The ‘people of Teotihuacan’ established the cultural norms of pre-Columbian Mexico. They built great pyramids, like their successors the Mayans and Aztecs. They were the first to worship the great Mexican Gods, such as Quetzalcoatl (the ‘feathered serpent’). They also ate dogs, wore jade, and drank fermented cactus juice - features we find in every other prehispanic Mexican culture.

All this we know about the people of Teotihuacan. Yet what we don’t know about them is their name, what they looked like, the language they spoke. The Aztecs themselves regarded their forebears as a divine enigma; this much further down the line the architects of Teotihuacan, of the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, are an out-and-out mystery. And of course, everybody likes a mystery, because everybody likes to see the scientists stumped.

The next reason why the Mexican cultures absorb us is not so obvious - but still apparent to anyone who studies the cultures a little closer, who takes time to visit the Mexican sites, as I have been lucky enough to do.

The premodern cultures of Mexico were deeply strange. For instance, they worshipped some of the most peculiar Gods ever to grace a firmament. Gods like Huehueheotl, with the brazier on his head, or the death god Cizin (literally ‘the flatulent one’), or the perpetually blooded and mutilated Coatlicue (‘she of the serpent skirt’). It is thought the Aztecs even had a special God of Haemorrhoids.

And it wasn’t just the gods that were weird. Ordinary life in ancient Mexico was vastly at odds with anything we have known in European history. From the first moment of the day, when the Aztec citizen touched his parasol to the earth in obeisance to the sun, to the longuers of the hot afternoon, when the Aztec man visited the ballgame to watch the winning captain being decapitated, to the very last minutes of the evening, when he ritually pierced his penis with cactus spines so as to bribe the gods with his own blood, the Aztec and his predecessors lived an existence wholly alien to ours in texture, spirituality, and purpose. And such alien-ness, such prickly weirdness, is, I think, ever more intriguing in a world being steadily homogenised and sterilised.

Another reason why these cultures fascinate us is because they had their own astringent beauty. Like all the Mexican cultures that went before them, the Aztecs liked to impose strict limits on their art and poetry, then create works of fugal power within those constraints. The poetry, for instance, is full of monotonous yet haunting metaphors: a battlefield is the ‘jaguar meadow’; the surface of undulating water is the ‘water lily serpent’, poetry itself is ‘flower song’.

Likewise, by constant variation on a few themes, the arts and crafts of the Aztecs achieve a kind of greatness. As the exhibits in the RA’s Aztecs demonstrate. Whether you look at the statuary, painting, or featherwork, the same few symbols and icons (jaguars, hummingbirds, human hearts, maize) are magnificently elaborated and intertwined.

Within the wealth of exhibits in Aztecs one or two stand out. Notably striking is the statue of the god Xipe Totec, with his strange tight-fitting suit, and the ‘mask of turquoise’, brought to the RA from the British Museum.

And then there’s the chac-mool. Chac-mool (it means ‘red jaguar paw’ in Mayan) was a word taken by a 19th century explorer, Augustus de Plongeon, and applied to the reclining, bowl-holding statues that decorate nearly all the pre-Columbian pyramids. There’s a good chac-mool in the exhibition: one glance and it’s easy to see how these statues inspired the recumbent figures of Henry Moore.

Why do these particular exhibits stand out? Because in the first case, Xipe Totec’s tight-fitting get-up is actually a representation of a suit of flayed human skin; in the second case, the turquoise mask is in truth moulded over a real human skull; in the case of the chac-mool, that innocent looking bowl was, we believe, a vital part of that quintessential Mexican ritual, human sacrifice. The bowl was used for the ripped-out hearts.

We’ve now come to the principal reason why I believe we are so fascinated by the Aztecs. It’s their nihilistic cruelty, their bloodthirsty pessimism. This is certainly the aspect which has drawn me to the Aztecs, as a writer (indeed I’ve named my new novel, which is about compulsive love, after a shamelessly cruel Aztec dance where the partners were inseperably bound together by a bloody spike through the cheeks).

The Aztecs’ rhapsodic pessimism informs their whole culture. For instance, they didn’t really believe in an afterlife - not unless you were a noble, or a warrior killed in battle. For most people the Aztecs thought the afterlife promised a few years in an eerie, frigid Limbo, before your soul was ultimately extinguished.

Despite this, though, they weren’t frightened of death - at least not in the same way we are. Indeed, they saw in death’s all-too-obvious mastery a reason to worship Death; they particularly revered the glamorous death of the sacrificial altar stone, when the heart would be ripped from the body of the living victim, before being ritually fed to the ravenous Gods (the real body was fed to jaguars in the imperial menagerie).

Setting aside any moral considerations, the trouble with the Aztec obsession with death and sacrifice was that it was ultimately self-destructive, even self-devouring. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Aztecs, having conquered most of Mexico, had run out of captured prisoners to sacrifice, and had started on the children of the Aztec poor. They were sacrificing their own offspring. And it’s not surprising they ran out of foreign victims: in one orgy of sacrifice that took place a few years before Cortes turned up, it is thought that the Aztecs managed to sacrifice twenty thousand victims in a weekend. Apparently the queues of victims stretched for miles.

Who does all this remind you of? It reminds me of another frighteningly different culture which nonetheless fascinates us. The Nazis. Like the Aztecs with their ‘Houses of Darkness’, the Nazis had their own factories of death: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau. Where the Aztecs made masks out of human skulls, the Nazis had lampshades made of human skin. And the Aztecs were very fond of the swastika.

Now, it was once said, by Carl Jung, that Hitler had such a powerful psychological impact because he was, in truth, the ‘unconscious of Germany’ - in other words he represented the shadowy forces of the human spirit, the forces usually chained up in the dungeons beneath civilisation. It’s my belief that the Aztecs have a similar psychic power. They tell us about the darker urges of humanity. When we look in the mirror of Aztec culture, we do not see what we might wish to see: our superior selves, the evidence of our own enlightenment. Instead, for a second, we are transfixed: as we stare at an image of our true if hidden selves, an image of the goddess Coatlicue - and her terrible necklace of severed human hearts.  Posted by Hello

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