An hidalgo of Cuba, named Hernandez de Cordova, sailed with three vessels on an expedition to one of the neighboring Bahama Islands, in quest of Indian slaves. (February 8, 1517.) He encountered a succession of heavy gales which drove him far out of his course, and at the end of three weeks he found himself on a strange and unknown coast. On landing and asking the name of the country, he was answered by the natives “Tectetan,” meaning “I do not understand you,”—but which the Spaniards, misinterpreting into the name of the place, easily corrupted into Yucatan.
My best friend wikipedia mostly agrees with this origin of the modern appellation. When I first read this remarkable passage I was struck by the silly idea that all nations should be named in this fashion, since it is an established fact that people who consider themselves to be different (often because of language) are usually unable to understand each other. We would have Idonno instead of America and Mulayo for Korea, Nosé for Spain, etc., etc.
It can be ridiculous to see the barriers people erect in front of themselves, the biases that prevent them from seeing the plain truth before them. In this book alone, the excellent William H. Prescott constantly indulges himself as the mirror of his times in declaring that the native Mexicans are, alternately, barbarians or savages, and devotes numerous pages to comparing their cultural achievements to the civilizations of the West. He is a brilliant writer, an exquisite stylist with a heavy and laborious Latinesque prose that squeezes every drop of beauty from his long, meandering, perfectly-constructed, comma-laced sentences; but he still filters, he still Orientalizes, he still objectifies, and in seeking to describe the fantastic world of pre-Columbian Mexico, often just describes the prejudices thriving inside his own perceptions.
His spectacular descriptions of nature in the beginning of the book are a perfect example of his seductive, imaginative, but ultimately subjective prose. Bear in mind as you read this excerpt that the author never visited Mexico in person and relied exclusively on secondhand accounts of the region.
[The traveler’s] road sweeps along the base of mighty mountains, once gleaming with volcanic fires, and still resplendent in their mantles of snow, which serve as beacons to the mariner, for many a league at sea. All around he beholds traces of their ancient combustion, as his road passes along vast tracts of lava, bristling in the innumerable fantastic forms into which the fiery torrent has been thrown by the obstacles in its career. Perhaps, at the same moment, as he casts his eye down some steep slope, or almost unfathomable ravine, on the margin of the road, he sees their depths glowing with the rich blooms and enamelled vegetation of the tropics.
It is so beautiful, and perhaps this described the Yucatan as it was in 1843, but I have the suspicion that this well-organized symmetrical portrait, this painting in a paragraph, only truly exists in the world of the text. I briefly visited the area many years ago and for the most part the rather flat landscape seemed to be occupied with endless forests of trees, dirt roads, and the occasional wood hovel.
My family and I did make it to Tulum, which was extraordinarily beautiful, with white step pyramids perched on the cliffs overlooking a coral-blue sea of warm bathwater, and old broken temples overrun with darting lizards, but it was nothing like what Prescott has described.
To return to people and and societies—the Conquistadores and their brilliant historian frequently comment on the state of advancement and refinement present in the capital city of Tenochtitlan—take the remarkable feather-paintings, for example, constructed with the vibrant silvery plumage of hummingbirds, a lost and forgotten art thanks to the Conquest—but every time they dwell on the achievements of the Aztecs or the Toltecs or any other non-European race, one cannot help but hear a certain condescension in their tone.
They do not understand how the natives of Anahuac, the old name for Mexico, have achieved so much, because in their biased minds only Europeans are capable of advancing the progress of humanity; their faces, their words, are plastered with I-Don’t-Knows, Nosés, and Tectecans; every unfamiliar land and person they look upon is drawn in through their eyes and filtered through a system of biases they absorbed in Europe.
Conversely, the Aztecs mistook the Europeans for gods, and believed Cortes to be Quetzalcoatl (which I spelled correctly on my first try, bitches), the bearded white-skinned feathered serpent who created their civilization and then left Anahuac for the mystical land of Tlapallan in the East, claiming that he would one day return. Cortes apparently took advantage of this myth, once he found out about it, but the idea that the fall of Aztec civilization was caused by this gullible belief is not wholly accepted by modern scholars and actually somewhat controversial. Since so many Aztec records were destroyed during and after the Conquest, we have little choice except to rely on the history of the victors, who, naturally, cannot be fully trusted. It is possible that this myth was exaggerated by the Spaniards, and that we are seeing yet another instance of obvious cultural bias altering historical truth.
Prescott’s History is alluring and fascinating to read, but it seems obvious to me that it is impossible to describe the past with any real certainty, a sentiment I’ve more or less picked up from Borges. My wife and I argued about this some months ago when I unwisely proclaimed that history is fiction, a claim that a comfortably white man like myself can make with relative ease; she then inquired if all the comfort women tortured and abused by the Japanese colonial occupiers of Korea were fictitious, and her anger blew up into fury when I said that we can’t know the truth of what happened, nor can we be sure of the extent to which Korea collaborated with its colonial occupier.
The case made by B.R. Meyers in his truly excellent book about North Korea, The Cleanest Race, is that Korea was largely complacent and even eager for Japanese domination, despite all the horrible outrages we’ve heard about those times, and that Koreans only changed their mind about Japan when the Empire of the Rising Sun began to lose the war against America.
But although I write about these ideas here in English I know that if I spoke of them to my wife or to her family I would seriously jeopardize their good opinion of me; if this is the truth about the past here, if Myers has found it, then I doubt (highly-nationalist) Korea is ready for it, and suspect that there are few Korean-language articles in existence that support it.
I speak of Korea as an example to segue into something I just read yesterday about Japan, but I’m not pretending that America is somehow exempt from these troubles; everybody knows the USA has an army of skeletons clattering together in a massive attic; some occasionally rise up like zombies and return to terrorize us from the historical graveyard, like the neo-confederate Tea Party; we habitually idealize and distort the past, although I think it is all far darker than any of us can imagine.
After I submitted the first part of my book yesterday (which was rejected this morning for unstated reasons—“It’s simply too beautiful!”—but probably, hopefully, technicalities) I was granted a few hours of free time. I whiled these away (somewhat exhausted from the massive literary efforts of the past few days) in the company of Prescott’s book as well as a fat volume about the life of Douglas MacArthur, which I briefly consulted as a result of his involvement in the Korean War. The question I posed to myself, in a moment of idleness, was this: How did Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong Il, come to power? Why was he so successful? And how did he establish the world’s strangest country on such firm and seemingly unshakable foundations?
Answering that question requires a real library and a fluent knowledge of Korean that I lack, but as I was browsing this really fun, excellent book about MacArthur (American Caesar, by William Manchester) I stumbled upon a ridiculously racist caricature from Japan:
[MacArthur] was not deceived by [Japan’s] 90 percent literacy, for he was aware that the sensei, the quaint teachers with yellow buckteeth and baggy pants, merely taught rote memorization of the language’s complicated kanji, characters derived from Chinese ideograms. The meaning behind the words eluded their pupils and, indeed, the sensei themselves. Every textbook in geography, history, martial sports, “ethics,” and even mathematics, was used to disseminate superstitions. The Japanese lived, quite simply, in a world of make-believe.
Beyond the blatant Mickey Rooney caricature we find here, it’s difficult to believe how people who are only pretending to read could have possibly conquered most of Asia in the space of a few years, or attacked Pearl Harbor, or built up such a powerful economy after the devastation of the war, etc., etc. The quotation marks around ethics are particularly painful; as if these warlike Japanese could ever be ethical! One suspects an imperfect knowledge of written Japanese as well, and, as the book continues into a kind of short travelogue through Tokyo, the author persists in exotifying and Orientalizing everything he describes.
Even though American Caesar was written a century after Prescott, and takes place in a different part of the world, and is still quite a fun read, written by an excellent writer, in reading it (and any other history) I only gain more questions, more doubts, and cannot help but conclude that modern history is incapable of truthfully describing the past.
The thought is ordinary and jejune, but hopefully the path that brought you to this end was a pleasant one.