1491: Poetry and Truth in Tenochtitlan

In Nahuatl rhetoric, things were frequently represented by the unusual device of naming two of their elements—a kind of doubled Homeric epithet. Instead of directly mentioning his body, a poet might refer to “my hand, my foot” (noma nocxi), which the savvy listener would know was a synecdoche, in the same way that readers of English know that writers who mention “the crown” are actually talking about the entire monarch, and not just the headgear. Similarly, the poet’s speech would be “his word, his breath” (itlatol ihiyo). A double-barreled term for “truth” is neltilitztli tzintliztli, which means something like “fundamental truth, true basic principle.” In Nahuatl, the words almost shimmer with connotation: what was true was well grounded, stable and immutable, enduring above all.

Because we human beings are transitory, our lives as ephemeral as dreams, the tlamatinime [philosophers] suggested that immutable truth is by its nature beyond human experience. On the ever-changing earth, wrote León-Portilla, the Mexican historian, “nothing is ‘true’ in the Nahuatl sense of the word.” Time and again, the tlamatinime wrestled with this dilemma. How can beings of the moment grasp the perduring? It would be like asking a stone to understand mortality.

According to León-Portilla, one exit from this philosophical blind alley was seen by the fifteenth-century poet Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, who described it metaphorically, as poets will, by invoking the coyolli bird, known for its bell-like song:

He goes his way singing, offering flowers.
And his words rain down
Like jade and quetzal plumes.
Is this what pleases the Giver of Life?
Is that the only truth on earth?

Ayocuan’s remarks cannot be fully understood out of the Nahuatl context, León-Portilla argued. “Flowers and song” was a standard double epithet for poetry, the highest art; “jade and quetzal feathers” was a synecdoche for great value, in the way that Europeans might refer to “gold and silver.” The song of the bird, spontaneously produced, stands for aesthetic inspiration. Ayocuan was suggesting, León-Portilla said, that there is a time when humankind can touch the enduring truths that underlie our fleeting lives. That time is at the moment of artistic creation. “From whence come the flowers [the artistic creations] that enrapture man?” asks the poet. “The songs that intoxicate, the lovely songs?” And he answers: “Only from His [that is, Ometeotl’s] home do they come, from the innermost part of heaven.” Through art alone, the Mexica said, can human beings approach the real.

Cut short by Cortés, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. The musings of the tlamatinime occurred in intellectual neighborhoods frequented by philosophers from Brussels to Beijing, but the mix was entirely the Mexica’s own. Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence—and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the distintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole.

Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!

—Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Addendum:

I just received my copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry (!!) and ran across this:

When for the thorns with which I long, too long,
With many a piercing wound,
My Savior’s head have crowned,
I seek with garlands* to redress that wrong;
Through every garden, every mead,
I gather flowers (my fruits are only flowers)…
—Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), The Coronet

The note for “garlands” reads: “Wreaths; also, since garlands were a symbol of poetic achievement, poems of praise.” So here we have to completely isolated cultures using flowers to represent poetry! I wonder if there are others?

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4 comments on “1491: Poetry and Truth in Tenochtitlan

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    Hi Sylvia – As I had mentioned a read this book within the past year. I recall the passage that you quote here and I found it to be one of the more interesting parts of this work.. I love thinking about and discussing human philosophy and thought and I am always looking for new concepts. The ideas summarized here seem so interesting. What a shame that so much was lost with the destruction of the New World cultures.

    • Sylvia says:

      Hi Brian! This section also made me think about the universality of poetry, among other arts. I wonder how far back it goes? Were there poems and songs to go along with the paleolithic cave paintings? We’ll never know! So much has been lost, which is a good reason to follow Cuetzpaltzin and keep creating.

  2. Your post reminds me of something I’ve read in a book about the indigenous religions of the Native American Indians. Sometimes, the author of the book says, we think of them as backward. But the truth is: they are a creative people who have a much more holistic approach to life .For instance, among the Navajo Indians there is no word for art. For them, their entire life is art!

    It is, indeed, not surprising that:

    “Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment.”

    ~ Matt

    • Sylvia says:

      I have heard the same thing about Bali, that they don’t have a word for “art,” they just try to do everything as beautifully as possible. 🙂

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