Friday, September 12, 2008

The Great Coatlicue

One of the benefits of having being in a large university is the easy online access to magazines and journals. I now have free access to all essays in New York Review of Books. I check the site all the time, returning again and again to the two writers whose interpretations of world history leave me breathless, and wanting more. These are writers you’ve seen often quoted in this space: VS Naipaul and Octavio Paz.

It’s the latter’s essay, The Power of Ancient Mexican Art, that I’ll excerpting in this post. I read it first about two years ago, and it still holds me in thrall.

Paz begins the essay with a fortuitous discovery that took place in 1790, when municipal authorities were digging up the Central Square in Mexico City. They stumbled upon a colossal statue, two meters tall and two tons in weight. It was of the goddess Coatlicue, the “Lady of the Serpent Skirt”. The Viceroy ordered that the statue be taken to the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, as a “monument of America’s ancient past.” There was discomfort, however. “The Aztec idol might have rekindled ancient beliefs in the memories of the Indians and, above all, its presence in the cloisters was seen as an insult to the very idea of beauty.”

The idol was buried again, re-interred for a brief period in the early 19th century, and back it went to the earth, its presence too awe-inspiring to be bearable. It was dug up again, years after the Mexican independence movement. It changed locations a couple of times before occupying a prominent place at the famous National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Having told Coatlicue’s story, Paz then analyzes, brilliantly, how differently the statue has been perceived over the centuries:
The changing fortunes of the Coatlicue—from goddess to demon, from demon to monster, and from monster to masterpiece—illustrate the changes in our sensibility over the last four hundred years. These changes reflect the increasing secularization that characterizes the modern age. The opposition between the Aztec priest, who worshiped her as a goddess, and the Spanish friar, for whom she was a demoniacal manifestation, is not as total as it seems at first sight. For both of them the Coatlicue represented a supernatural presence, a mysterium tremendum. The difference between the eighteenth-century attitude and that of the twentieth century also betrays a similarity: the condemnation of the former and the enthusiasm of the latter both respond to a primarily intellectual and aesthetic criterion. From the end of the eighteenth century the Coatlicue abandons the magnetic realm of the supernatural in order to enter the corridors of aesthetic and anthropological speculation. She ceases to embody a crystallization of the powers of the beyond in order to become an episode in the history of mankind's beliefs. As she leaves the temple and enters the museum, there is a change in her nature if not in her appearance.
Such change in perception! And yet the magic of Coatlicue, the effect it has on those who view it, is in some sense immutable. I wonder which of the great masterpieces of our time – our buildings perhaps, or the movies or the gadgets we adore – will survive the test of time. And how will someone far in the future think of them, when he looks upon them with curiosity, and tries to understand us?

To finish, here's one more excellent paragraph, Paz's meditation on the art of ancient societies :
Art survives the societies in which it is created. It is the visible tip of the submerged iceberg that represents every civilization. The recovery of the art of ancient Mexico has taken place in the twentieth century. First, there was archaeological and historical research: later, aesthetic comprehension. It is often said that this understanding is an illusion: what we feel, when confronted by a relief from Palenque, is not what the Maya experienced. This is true. But it is also true that our feelings and thoughts about the work are quite real. Our understanding is not an illusion: it is ambiguous. This ambiguity is present in all our views of works from other civilizations and even in our ideas about works from our own past. We are not Greeks, Chinese, or Arabs; neither can we say that we fully comprehend Romanesque or Byzantine sculpture. Our only recourse is to translate, and each of these translations, whether it be of Gothic or Egyptian art, is a metaphor, a transmutation of the original.


Krishnan said...

Wonderful piece Hari. Thanks for sharing it. I guess changing fortunes of cultural forms are bane of old civilizations like us in India. Buddhism thrived in ancient Tamil Nadu and suddenly declined (almost disappeared) after revival of Hinduism.

Hari said...

Yes, Krishnan. Change, I guess, is the only constant. How we view history, the art of another time and place, depends on our sensibilities, and how quickly that changes. I was trying to get at the same point in my post about Ota Benga.

And Octavio Paz is wonderful. He's one of the best interpreters of history I've read. It's difficult to grasp the "big-picture" ideas of history. Octavio Paz certainly gets it. Paz knows Indian history well too; he was an ambassador to India for six years.

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