Monday, May 30, 2011

Merian C. Cooper, return to Persia

Cooper felt that the great adventure of his life had been when, in 1924, he and his two companions accompanied Haidar Khan and his 50,000 Bakhtiari tribesmen and their numberless animals on their long, difficult, heroic and dangerous annual migration  --  on foot over frozen mountain passes and across a swollen river on goatskin floats  --  over the Zargos Mountains in search of winter pasture.  In the 1920s, when Americans lived in a world with radios and airplanes and automobiles, there were still people in the world who lived seemingly as they always had, following their herds on foot across vast open spaces, living in tents and carrying their possessions with them.
    Cooper’s film of that trek, “Grass”, released in 1925, had been made under difficult conditions  and he had barely had enough film stock to reach the end, and the finished product had been edited for an American audience that might not know what to make of a documentary film of so strange a people and way of life. 
    A quarter of a century later, the war behind him and with the resources of a modern Hollywood film crew, Cooper wanted to go back and do it right.  And so in 1947, he sent a film crew back to Persia, now called Iran, to make a proper record of the migration before this ancient and heroic way of life was washed away by the modern world.
    When the crew got there they found there was now a railroad and that the Bakhtiari now used trucks and cars in the migration and the wild, flooded Karun River that tribesmen and their stock had made their way across on inflated goatskins was now spanned by a bridge.  The crew came back with nothing to show for their trip.  The world that Cooper had seen just a quarter-century earlier had ceased to exist.   “For Cooper, the expedition’s failure represented a door that had closed, forever, on one of the great dreams of his life.”  Mark Cotta Vaz, Living Dangerously, 339-40.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Merian C. Cooper, his excellent life and his very large monkey

The golden age of travel and adventure, when the going was good and it was still acceptable for white men to shoot their way out of trouble, was the 1920’s and ‘30’s, and from that happy time Turner Classic Movies presented a film biography of Merian C. Cooper, who led a most excellent life. Just to hit the high points: Cooper is kicked out of Annapolis; joins Pershing’s expedition in pursuit of Pancho Villa; flies in WWI and is shot down in flames; ends the war as a German prisoner; stays in Europe after the war and organizes a squadron of American fliers fighting the Red Army who are invading Poland; shot down, captured, pretends to be a peasant and survives in a Russian prison labor gang; escapes; a hero to the Poles, he is offered land and money, which he refuses; returns, penniless, to the US; he goes with an expedition to the East Indies looking for a tribe of short-tailed monkeys thought to be the missing link; he takes up film-making and in the 1920’s travels through Turkey and Persia to make a spectacular film about a tribe of nomads on an arduous migration;  on the basis of that film he is brought to Hollywood where he draws on his experience with the East Indies expedition to make “King Kong”; he introduces Technicolor; when war breaks out he goes to China with the Flying Tigers and so distinguishes himself that he is invited to be on the Missouri when the Japanese surrender; back in Hollywood, he makes classic John Wayne movies with director John Ford; he introduces Cinerama; he wins an Oscar; somewhere in here he becomes an Air Force general, all the while having a long and happy marriage and family.  The Turner Classic Movies  film about him is called “I’m King Kong.”  Cooper, like his monkey, was bigger than life.

One of the troublesome problems for biography is that a person may do the act that justifies his fame early on, and then live uneventfully for another half-century.  One does not have that problem with Merian C. Cooper.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

bursts of Association & Digression

A well-known author of interesting books on many subjects visited Oaxaca about the same time I did and published his Journal of his time there, which was favorably reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement: “Mexico past and present emerges from these bursts of association and digression with only a few pages of hard history needed.  Luís, an Oaxacan who has joined the party, explains that the legacy of colonialism is to blame for the extremes of wealth and poverty which unsettle all but the most blinkered visitor to the country.  The hopeless squalor which so many Mexicans appear to accept as their lot has resulted from a loss of self-respect, a condition perpetuated by today’s corrupt officials who have assumed the role of the conquistadors.”
    How fortunate that Luís happened by to supply some of that helpful hard history.  This is probably the point at which I ought quote from Evelyn Waugh’s introduction to his book on Mexico, Robbery Under Law, recently re-issued under the less-inflammatory title Mexico: An Object Lesson:
    “Let me, then, warn the reader that I was a Conservative when I went to Mexico and that everything I saw there strengthened my opinions.”
    Waugh’s observation was that Mexico’s backwardness was a post-Independence phenomenon.  Before Independence, Mexico was culturally and economically a leading nation of the hemisphere and, since that time, it had experimented always with the most modern political arrangements, though always of the continental-left variety, and it is these political experiments  --  not some natural, indigenous backwardness or historical bad luck  --   which had brought Mexico down to its present low estate.  Hence, the Mexican “object lesson”.

But whether Waugh is right or not about Mexico, why does the United States never get to plead its legacy of colonialism, particularly as one of its most intractable problems is clearly traceable to colonialism: the importation of African slaves and the settling of a slave economy on a number of the original colonies, such that their union after Independence required the toleration of the institution even by those who found it abhorrent?

On a happier matter, in an installment of “Nova,” archæologists excavate cliff tombs in Chiapas and find evidence of infant sacrifice to Tlaloc, the rain god.  The practice was known from historical records.  The priest would buy a child to sacrifice from his parents, and if the child cried it was a good sign.  We are reminded that we have to understand the Indians’ practices as they saw them, and cut them more slack than we would Thomas Jefferson.

And while we are still on Chiapas, a bit of Progressive Tourism that I caught on CBC.  The Usual Suspects, young and earnest and politically correct, visit the Zapatistas in the forest of Chiapas. As they waited for permission to meet with the comandantes they were permitted to visit the Zapatista gift shop.  When I was in Chiapas a few years before them, even the shops in town were selling Subcomandante Marcos dolls with their little black ski masks and rifles, as well as Marcos key chains and postcards of rifle-wielding Indians in ski masks. I can only imagine what a line of merchandise is now available.
    The Indians were playing their usual mind games, though their young visitors were so innocent and earnest it seemed almost unfair.  The young people anguished over everything; they feared that the Indians might be offended and refuse the money they had collected back home in Canada, but at length the Indians set them at ease on this point and gave them receipts in triplicate.   A young woman in the group of possibly Maoist leanings recommended that they engage in constant self-criticism of their own motives.

I don't think Mexico is any more failed now than it has ever been, though there have been times when that wasn’t saying much.  When I was in Oaxaca in the late ‘Nineties there was a demonstration every day at noon in the square in front of the city offices.  Such stability as the country had seemed to come either from corruption so extensive and institutionalized that almost everyone got  --  or thought they were getting  --  something, or the profound, conservative inertia of the Indians who thought any day you weren't murdered was a good day.  Even when the Indians are bestirred to get guns things don't go very far, as the revolt in Chiapas has been simmering for as long as anyone can remember and a knowledgeable fellow in Oaxaca told me this was simply the latest manifestation of the Cristeros uprising of the 1920s. The Caste War, the Indian revolt in the Yucatán, kept going from 1847 to 1901.  Maybe this time it is worse, but I have been warned about applying gringo logic to these things.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

An Art Lesson

The Spanish laid out their colonial towns according to the most advanced principles of the day.  While in the English colonies a street might follow a cow path or Indian trail, the towns of New Spain were laid out in a regular grid of right-angled streets centered on the main square, the zocalo, around which were sited the establishments of public order.  On one side of the square was the church and across from it the municipal offices.  One a third side were shops and on the fourth side a ramada, a shelter where travelers could leave their animals and gear safe from harm and available to inspection by the authorities.

    Nowadays the ramadas are gone, replaced by another block of shops and hotels, and on a balcony of one of these, overlooking the Zocalo in Oaxaca, I was introduced to Carlito and his friends.  Carlito and his friends were artists.  They also dealt in ancient artifacts, a pairing of professions which I was to learn was not accidental.

    Thinking me a rich Yankee buyer, I at first had the impression of being circled by sharks, but, once I made clear that I wasn’t buying anything except more rounds of beer, Carlito and his friends relaxed and started telling me stories of their chosen calling.

    There are some good pieces out there, I was told.  Farmers dig stuff up all the time in their fields.  The actual area of Monte Alban extends maybe fifteen or twenty kilometers further out than the archæologists have surveyed.   It is illegal to dig for artifacts but all around the countryside you find that farmers have dug large holes in their fields, which they say are for swimming pools.  Given the difficulty of getting mortgages it is not unusual for building projects like these to take years to complete, and farmers often re-locate their “swimming pools” to different parts of their property, trying to find just the right location.

    But the things that farmers find are usually small, broken pieces, and the few nice items are sent to Mexico City where you can get better prices, so the stuff on the local market  --  the sort of things that the fragmenteros offer to tourists up on Monte Alban  --  are not that good.  And this is where Carlito and his friends come in.  They are artists.  They make old things. 

    Growing up amidst ancient pottery it was only natural to copy what they saw, at first for their own amusement and then later for sale to tourists.  Initially, they sold their work as reproductions but soon realized that tourists couldn’t tell the difference and would pay a great deal more for what they thought to be authentic ancient pieces than they would for equally well-made reproductions.  Well, what do you expect a young man to do?  Carlito and his friends now work full time producing ancient Indian pottery, and were proud of their work.

    Franco, my expert on all things Oaxacaeño, had told me earlier that an artist copying the work of another era is a tricky matter, for the copyist will be unconsciously tempted to put his own modern touch on the work, and this can be spotted by a trained eye.  The abstract coils of a headdress are a good place to make an error and there is nothing quite so disconcerting as an ancient figure with a modern hairdo.

    And as it happens, the artist need not work from scratch.  A common feature of ancient Zapotec and Mixtec pottery is the molded clay mask used as an appliqué to a pottery vessel.  These were originally made from molds and some of these molds have survived to be reused.  But even without such a happy accident, latex molds can be taken from existing pieces to produce masks perfect in every detail and which are sold by the fragmenteros on Monte Alban.  Franco pointed out that since the authentic masks had been applied to a vessel that a real piece would have a part of the vessel adhering to it, and not just some vague lump of clay.  Franco considered Carlito and his friends amateurs.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

an evening in the Zocalo

One evening I was invited by the resident gringos to go downtown for a movie and a bite to eat.  I was aware that I had not been very sociable and, as this seemed an easy enough way to make amends, I tagged along.
    The feature film was American, dubbed in Spanish with a robust, if limited, vocabulary that I hadn’t heard since I attended the eighth grade in New Mexico.  There were two previews: an American film featuring elaborate and violent special effects and a Mexican film featuring adolescent breasts and buttocks.  If either film had a plot they did not belabor it in the preview.
    Afterward, we walked a few blocks over to the Zocalo for supper and it dawned on me that, though I had been to the square often, that this was the first time I had been there at night.
    The Zocalo was crowded with people  --  Indian and Mexican and tourist  --  moving in and out of pools of light from the scattered street lamps and spilling out from the shops and restaurants.  We took a table inside the arcade where stark, artificial light made everyone look sickly and unpleasant and the loud noise contained by the hard walls made conversation difficult.
    Our fellow diners were scruffy-looking young Europeans and grim-looking Mexicans.  There was a dwarf sitting at the next table.  There were aged and crippled beggars who moved between the tables and a blind musician being led by a little boy.  There was an old man so bent that he could not raise his head above his waist, walking with two broomhandle canes that made a loud click on the tile floor as he shuffled from one table to another, begging.  A shy, bedraggled little girl sold small packets of Chiclets.  She said she was five years old.  A little boy, ten or eleven, standing by the table singing in a voice so soft I could hardly hear, and then asking to be paid.
    I assume the food was good.  I may not have noticed. 
If I found myself downtown in the early evening I would sit a while on one of the cast iron benches in the Zocalo and watch families out for a stroll in the first coolness of the day and lights come on in the arcade and restaurants set up for the evening trade, but otherwise I did not go out again in the evening, but was happier to sit at home with my journal and write about what I had done or thought about that day, or planned to do the next, and watch the shadows creep across the garden below my balcony and wonder if the cat was staying out of trouble.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Oaxaca, 23rd of March, 1998.

Looking for something else in my journal of my time in Oaxaca, I found this account of the 23rd of March, 1998:

The evening before there had been dark clouds coming up the Valley from the southwest, the merest suggestion that rain was being considered.  The French lady told me that Poosey Gato, the cat, had never seen rain, and I suspected he would not approve.
    But it did not rain and Poosey Gato sits on my lap, dry and content.

As the sun gets up earlier each morning, so do I.  The Morning Star seems to have moved south on the horizon (which, not actually being a star, I suppose it is allowed to do) and is no longer visible from my pillow.
    Today is a library day, as I pursue my Lost Tomb of the Zapotec kings at Mitla (and wonder how many others have gone down this same trail.  But you don’t stumble across your predecessor’s skeleton in a library).

And what a fine day in the books.  Instituto Welty was the personal library of an old gringo scholar, now set up in a series of rooms in an old building beside Santo Domingo.  Gundrun, the German lady, runs it and Mimi, who lives here at the Rancho, works there as a volunteer.
    It’s a wonderful jumble of old books, journals and field notes, which Gundrun keeps track of on an ancient Macintosh.  Mimi is currently unpacking maps and papers from old wooden crates, all of which she says are in deplorable condition.
    The place would be an excellent staging area for an adventure.  From the shelves I found La Relación de Tlacolula y Mitla and Caso’s account of the excavations of 1934-35 and Vazquez de Spinoza’s 17th Century report on his tour of New Spain.
    I photocopied everything needful and when Gundrun closed for lunch I went over to the library at the Grafico and browsed their facsimile of Burgoa’s Geográfica (1674).  There I also found INAM’s 1990 report on their survey and restoration of Mitla, with more fine maps, all of which I photocopied.

All in all, a productive day.  I stopped off at the Zócalo for chicken mole in the Oaxacan style (I am still unconvinced that chocolate and chili peppers go together), saved a bee from drowning in my Sidral and took the bus home where I fed the cat, took a cold shower and went to bed early.  What a fine day.
Other days I did other, often less constructive things, but that’s what I did on the 23rd of March, 1998.  I understand that the Welty isn’t like that any more and realize that some of my references are not self-explanatory, but I was writing for myself and I knew what I was talking about.  What a happy time down there.  As Ambrose Bierce may have said: “To be a gringo in Mexico, that is euthanasia”.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Gringo logic

I had just arrived back in Oaxaca and my hostess had just demonstrated how amazingly one could improve even the blandest beer with a dash of mescal when she began telling me all that had happened since my last visit.
    A prominent portrait artist had been kidnapped, but was later released without ransom, and it was not what you might think.  He had been taken blindfolded to a large house and put into a room and treated quite courteously.  He was shown a door in the room with an old-fashioned latch and told to look through the keyhole where he saw in the adjoining room a beautiful woman, undressed and facing away from him.  He was told that the lady was the wife of a prominent individual and had for some time wanted him to paint her picture, but this had not been possible, and so she had arranged for him to be brought there to paint her portrait secretly, though only from the back and only by seeing her through the keyhole.  He was supplied with paints and carried out this most unusual commission, whereupon he was paid his fee and returned blindfolded to his home.
    I told her that the story sounded like a piece of Edwardian gentleman’s literature, but she insisted that it was so; that it had happened in Oaxaca and while this was not the official story everyone knew it was the case.  And that I should not apply gringo logic to things that happen in Mexico.  And to drive home this point, she began another story.

Everyone knew, she said, that a certain prominent politician was responsible for the murder of one of his opponents, but the body was never found.  Then recently the police, acting on the advice of a bruja  --  a witch  --  had dug up the garden of the politician’s brother where they found a body, but it was not the body of the murdered political opponent, but of the bruja’s missing husband.
    At this point someone came to the door and we were called off on other business and my hostess never had the opportunity to finish her story, other than to repeat that I should not try to apply gringo logic to things I found in Mexico.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

in the church at San Juan Chamula

It was slightly unpleasant in San Cristobal.  The Zapatista uprising had quieted down but there was palpable bad feeling between the Indians and the ladinos, among whom we seemed to be lumped.  A cab driver appeared to have tried to run us down and my companion had engaged in a full and frank exchange in colloquial Spanish and perhaps Mayan, as she was a longtime resident of Mexico and could be fluently rude in several languages.  When she suggested that we get out of town I thought that was a fine idea, so we rented a car and drove out to see San Juan Chamula.

This was to be, I assumed, a bit of sight-seeing.  I had heard of it as a place where tourists went and had seen photos of its famous church with its extravagantly decorated facade and colorful, if reputedly surly, Indians.

From San Cristobal de las Casas it was ten or fifteen kilometers through hilly forest to San Juan Chamula.  A couple of years before our visit the town had been seized by rebels, and the whole area was said to be a hotbed of Zapatista sentiment, but at the moment the Army seemed to be everywhere and we were assured that all was safe, and that even the famously touchy Indians would no longer chase foreigners out of town for taking photographs in the village, though photos of the inside of the church were strictly forbidden.   This ordinance was enforced by Indian constables: short, serious-looking men with a billy club hanging from their belt.

Once in the village I noticed that their distinctive clothing was the same as some of the ill-tempered Indians we had encountered in San Cristobal, though here we were on their own turf and seemed consequently more relaxed.  I paid a small fee for permission to photograph anything in the town, though I was once more warned that under no circumstance could I photograph inside the church.  Once inside the church, it was obvious to me why this was.

No description of the outside of the church can do it justice.  There is no resident priest and the Indians paint it however they please and there are plenty of photographs of the exterior.  The interesting part is inside.

From the bright outside sunlight we passed through a small door into the shadowy nave of the 18th Century building.  It was a long, high-ceilinged room, its sole illumination three windows far up on one wall, the shafts of sunlight descending through clouds of smoky incense from innumerable small burners placed around the room before images of saints in glass cases or tended by small family groups seated on the floor, itself strewn with long pine needles.  The floor of the church shimmered with rows of candles set before offerings of poultry and eggs and bottles of clear cane liquor around which small groups of Indians sat or knelt and chanted or prayed or stared off into space in quiet adoration of some beautiful, unseen thing.  Some men were sharing a small glass of liquor and holding hands, and on their face an expression of profound peace.
    There were images of Jesus and Mary, though they seemed to receive no special attention compared to the saints in their glass cases set around the walls of the broad, open room.  There were no pews or any seats, and everyone sat on the floor or stood or knelt.  In the air there was the pleasant, resinous smell of burning copal and fresh-cut pine, and there was a low background hum from the chants and prayers of the small groups, each lost in their own observances.  There were no fidgeting children, nor did anyone’s attention seem to be wandering, but all were quietly focused on what they were about.

We noticed that the glass case that held the San Antonio was empty and we were told that the statue was broken from old age and had been sent to a man who lived in the hills to be repaired.  He was not a priest but had, all his life, abstained from sex and was very pure and it was he who was restoring the San Antonio.

It was not long after the Conquest and forced conversion of the Indians  --  and the forceable suppression of the old religion  --  that a Spaniard would complain that in the old days the Indians worshiped a hundred gods and now they worshiped a hundred and one.   From their conquerors the Indians acquired not just one or even three gods, but a whole calendar of saints, and the Indians from their old religion were quite comfortable with the notion that one god might appear in the guise of another, so they embraced the sprawling family of Catholic saints with enthusiasm and a convenient vagueness as to exactly whom they were praying when they offer their chickens and eggs and bottles of cane liquor and burn their candles and incense before a Christian image.

It was perfectly clear to me that the church of San Juan Chamula was not a Christian church but a fully functioning temple to the gods who had always been worshiped here.  Not one of the great temples where the pulsing heart would be ripped from living sacrificial victims while thousands looked on from the plaza below, but a small temple in an out-of-the-way town where the people were less concerned with the high priestly business of feeding hungry and implacable gods to sustain the cosmos and more driven by a desire to be in blissful communion with the fundamental, sustaining things of the world, with the sun and rain and the mysterious forces that brought corn from seed and children to mothers.
    This would be perfectly clear to anyone who saw it and was, I suspect, a major reason that they did not care to have pictures taken inside the church at San Juan Chamula.  Lest these should find their way to Rome and onto the desk of Cardinal Ratzinger.

In the next valley over was the village of Zinacantán.  The first thing I noticed was how prosperous everything seemed.  There were huge plastic-covered greenhouses: the village was a major grower of flowers.  Everything seemed neat and clean  --  it was only then that it struck me that Chamula had not been  --  and grass grew, well-tended, around the school and public buildings and the people were friendly and weren’t trying to sell us anything. 
    The church at Zinacantán was larger than the one at Chamula, and looked newer, though it may only have been that it was all pure white, as was its interior: tall and cool and quiet, with almost severe gray and black details.  Before the main altar and the side altars were small, clay censers, either tripods or in the shape of an animal.  And unlike Chamula, the floor was clean-swept and the church was full of light from tall windows on every outer wall and a group of Indians were at the front of the nave, praying in a recognizably Christian manner.  Unlike San Juan Chamula, this was a Catholic church.
    As I rested in the back of the church, taking in the details, I noticed that there seemed to be little explicitly Christian symbolism in it spare decoration.
    One motif in particular caught my attention, as I could not tell if it were supposed to be a floral pattern or animal or purely geometric, or some combination, so I drew it in my notebook and saw emerging the curved ends of the jaguar’s mouth with other details coming together to form Caso’s Glyph C, that peculiar and enigmatic design that appears in the headpiece of Cosijo, the Zapotec rain god.  It may just have been a coincidence, or my overactive imagination, though looking at my drawing all these years later I still see the jaguar’s mouth and I doubt that it was accidental.

Monday, May 9, 2011

wherein I find a Lost Tomb

It did not help that I was already irritated with our guide.  I do not know where my companion had found him, or what his supposed qualifications, but I had done my homework on the area and he apparently had not, as one marvelous implausibility was piled upon another in his running account of the place.  Compounding these implausibilities was his excitement when we stumbled upon the Lost Tomb.
    The place is littered with tombs.  An old archæologist had told me that the area had been surveyed out only for five kilometers from the temple complex, but the area of tombs surely extended another ten.  He had in fact cautioned me to watch my step when I was out in the bush, that I not fall into one.
    The tomb looked exactly as the photos I had seen in my books: a squarish hole in the ground and at the bottom a low stone lintel over the entrance to a side passage leading to a chamber.  These were not royal tombs, but modest crypts where a moderately prosperous family would inter their kin.  They were almost invariably looted long ago, first for their few pieces of gold and later for pots and curios to sell to tourists.  The dead are not much good at holding on to their property when surrounded by poor neighbors who are yet alive.  When I shown my flashlight into the darkness I was not surprised by the absence of treasure.
    The sides of the hole that we had descended into had partially collapsed and a dirt and gravel scree blocked the bottom of the tomb entrance and spread across the floor of the empty chamber, itself much weathered and plainly long exposed to the elements.  It was the sort of scene that would encourage a tomb-raider to consider accounting or commercial real estate.
    Our guide was of course beside himself at the wonder his poor efforts had enabled us to discover.  It seemed ungracious to remark on the absence of any actual treasure.  Or actually anything at all: save for the dirt and gravel littering the floor, the chamber was completely bare.
    But, irritated as I might have been, I realized he was just working for his tip, and anyway there might be some broken fragment of something under the debris, so I poked the gravel with my stick and discovered only more gravel.  Our guide, however, was luckier, and with an amazing economy of effort he discovered in some recently deposited debris a small statuette.  As this was our expedition he of course insisted that it was rightfully ours.  (That all such finds were legally the property of the State never seemed to enter his mind, or perhaps he assumed that as rich foreigners we would take care of the necessary bribes.)
    The piece was a small figure with an elaborate headdress.  They are fairly common and had been mass produced, both in antiquity and today, and can be bought cheaply.  They were produced from molds even in ancient times, and it is very hard to tell an old one from one made yesterday for the tourist trade.  Being tomb offerings, they would need show no tell-tale wear or weathering.
    The discovery was, I had no doubt, a piece of theater.
    I suspected that he had the piece  --  whether authentic or not  --  in his pocket and pretended to find it in the deserted tomb to give us an exciting experience and insure that we would tip him handsomely for our adventure.  For one thing, after having found that one piece he didn't bother to look for any more.  Not only had I come to doubt his expertise in our short time together, but it didn’t help that I had heard of the trick, which apparently even children will play on tourists if given a chance.
    When we later got home I did tip him well, though perhaps not as much as might have been expected from someone who had just found a treasure in a lost tomb.
    The curious part of it to me was that my companion, who lived there and knew the locals and their ways, was quite enthralled by our “discovery”.  I insisted that she keep it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people

John Stephens, on encountering the Maya:

“Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished… Architecture, sculpture, and painting, all the arts which embellish life, had flourished in this overgrown forest; orators, warriors, and statesmen, beauty, ambition, and glory had lived and passed away… We went up to their desolate temples and fallen altars; and wherever we moved we saw the evidence of their taste, their skill in arts… We called back into life the strange people who gazed in sadness from the wall; pictured them, in fanciful costumes and adorned with plumes of feather…”.  John Lloyd Stephens,  Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, (1841).

Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, the English explorer, took his 9-year-old daughter with him in the 1920s on an expedition into the jungles of Central America, sending her home only when hostilities broke out.  Did Mitchell-Hedges ever find himself crawling into a Mayan tomb when his daughter started whining about being hungry, or asking if they were there yet?  Being a good storyteller (Wikipedia says “The veracity of much of his autobiographical writings is in question.”), I am sure he would have edited that out and substituted a snarling jaguar.  I, having no talent as a parent, would have brought a jaguar with me in the first place.

The jaguar reminded me of Na-Bolom, the Jaguar House in Chiapas, the home and library of an old scholar from the age of Indiana Jones, with banks of shelves full of dusty old books and fragments of pre-Columbian sculpture.  The stone face of an Eagle Warrior peered ominously out of the open beak of his mask from a dark corner of a bookcase.  A place out of my dreams.  A few years ago I looked for it on line and found practically nothing. 

Last year I found the website for Na-Bolom.  It is bright and efficient, as the Jaguar House itself now appears.  I must have been there shortly after his widow died and turned their home over to a foundation that had not yet then set about its work.  Now all is painted and polished, pictures are hung and furniture straightened, lights have been installed and windows cleaned, the bookcases have been dusted and I am sure the Eagle Warrior no longer peers ominously out of his dark corner but has been cleaned off and given a prominent, well-lit perch befitting his dignity.  Beauty and order are nice, but they ought not be at the expense of romance. When I was there it was full of unkempt young foreigners prattling about social justice and saving the rainforest, which I suppose I should have taken as a sign of things to come.

The old scholar whose home I had visited was Frans Blom (Bolom   --  “jaguar” in Mayan  --  was a play on his name).  A few months ago, in the twenty-five cent bin in a used book store in Vermont, I found a 1936 history of the conquest of the Yucatán.  I bought it for the illustrations and only noticed after I got home that the author was Frans Blom.

My Mexico is a place in time, perhaps seventy years ago.  The Mexico of B. Traven and D.H. Lawrence, of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley.  No gringos on the list, I notice.  And all from the '30s & '40s I also notice, when the going was good, even if it was harder.  In the Land of the Feathered Serpent the blood has scarce dried on the altars and the Conquistadores only just left, and Juarez is in the hills and Zapata is coming, but now is extravagant fiesta with bright colors and wonderful food and cold beer with lime and salt and happy, tinny music.
    I am, alas, a time traveler, trying always to visit someplace that hasn't been there for a long time, in love with the world of the old travelers and trying to go there myself.  Not just to go Elsewhere, but to Elsewhen as well.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Library of Heaven

“The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust.  There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and ivory and iron, tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams.”  The Old Curiosity Shop. Ch. 1.

Just as I hope that Heaven will be a Library of a particular sort, its adjunct will not be some library gift shop with prints and postcards and coffee table books, but a Shop such as that, differing also from ordinary library stores in that nothing ever leaves the shop, but remains there for our eternal appreciation; and when some right thing presents itself it is added to their stock, placed in some unlikely corner or in the back of a dusty vitrine.
    Such new acquisitions are not sorted and arranged by any rule, as its existing stock has not been, but objects which arrive together are placed together, as if they came out of a sailor’s sea chest or from a dirty box found under the eave of a house being torn down.  The great advantage of this system is that the browser (and as nothing is ever sold, all who give their custom are browsers) is compelled to look at everything on every visit, for it is in the nature of such things that he will not have known what he wanted as he will have likely not even known it existed until he set eyes on it.  Shoppers who feel they have no time for this sort of thing would be happier if they went elsewhere, and perhaps have no business in Heaven in the first place.

I could be wrong about this, as it has been over fifty years now, but I do not recall that Dickens, for all his normally fulsome description, gives very much detail on the Shop and its contents  If I were writing a story that allowed me to describe such a place, I would wax lovingly over its dusty shelves and dark cabinets and things seen to move out of the corner of the eye in the dim half-light, and Grandfather's problem wouldn't have been the lost money (or whatever it was) but the odd things that have been happening since he bought that curious artifact from the old sailor, and the strange Eastern gentleman who has been inquiring about it.   But then my tastes run to melodrama and pulp fiction.

The Library of Heaven

Heaven would be a library with tall shelves and deep leather chairs and good reading lamps with green glass shades and a large orange cat.   There is so much I have never read.   Were I a pharaoh I would have myself entombed in a library, accompanied by priests who would read to me for all eternity.   Actually, I think I might prefer priestesses, nubile maidens with soothing voices, reading to me forever.   Odd, how the mind seems to wander when thinking on eternal things.

The seminar was held at the Redwood Athenæum in Newport, a beautiful mid-18th Century structure built with wealth from the China trade.  Tall shelves with marble busts and leather-bound volumes, and early American portraits  --  the originals of the ones that once illustrated history books  -- hung floor to ceiling.  A gem of beauty and order, what I hope the library will be like in Heaven.  Curiously, the younger women in the group complained the library was oppressive and they couldn’t work in it.  Has there been some breakdown in the transmission of culture?
    The Athenæum seemed to me a sort of 18th-Century Enlightenment heaven.  A place of awe and secular holiness, sacred to those faces of God which he has shown to us in Reason, Order & Beauty.  Had the young ladies some sort of Pavlovian response to portraits of dead white males?


A description of a home in Addis Ababa, from L. M. Nesbitt, Desert and Forest (1934):

    “The walls of Molina’s dining-room were almost covered with maps.  The desire to travel widely had seized upon his mind.  He constantly spoke of journeys he would like to make, both by land and sea.  He delighted to follow with his finger, or with the billiard cue which stood ready in the corner, the rivers and the great mountain chains, and to ask me information about them.
    “The drawing-room came next.  It was very much like a museum.  It was half filled with prepared skins, heaps of carpets, stuffed birds and animals in all sorts of positions.  There were snake-skins and lion-skins hung up or strewn on the floor; there were photographs of Spanish people and scenes mixed up with Abyssinian strings of beads, filigree work, plumes, lances, leather shields, knives, scimitars and osterich eggs.  The osterich eggs were hung in front of gilt-framed mirrors, some of which were cracked.  But the cracks were supposed to be concealed by sprigs of blossom painted on the glass.  The room also contained a number of chairs and couches, heavily lacquered and gilded.  The servants quarters were crowded with black men and women and their children, and these were treated better than most of the servants in Addis Ababa, for Don Alibio’s profession was a profitable one.”  Don Alibio ran a roulette wheel.


In what I expected to be the self-serving autobiography of a German who became a rich Middle Eastern antiquities dealer I found this description of his arrival by ship at Alexandria, in 1925:

    “Legions of crippled beggars lined the quay . . . sweating, coal-black Nubians carried heavy bales of cotton . . . From the hundreds of small boats surrounding our ship, colorfully dressed Egyptian and Sudanese merchants held up their trinkets and screamed for the attention of the passengers.  Gesticulating, naked Arab boys stood poised on the gunwales to dive for coins . . . I found Egypt had no dignity at all, but shared the all-pervasive cheapness of the modern world.”

The writer later remarks that he was only 21 at the time, very young and naïve, and had not realized that he had arrived in paradise.


In a world full of wonders, fantasy is unnecessary, but also unavoidable.