Monday, September 12, 2022

Breaking the Maya Code

William Carlsen: Jungle of Stone (2016)
William Carlsen. Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens & Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilisation of the Maya. 2016. William Morrow. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2017.

The other day I was in a Hospice shop where I ran across a copy of the book above, priced at the princely sum of $4. I promptly bought it, of course, mainly because the blurb proclaimed it to be in the 'tradition of Lost City of Z and In the Kingdom of Ice'.

The first of those two I'm only too familiar with, having both read the book and watched the weirdly entertaining movie, starring Charlie Hunnam as the intrepid (if somewhat misguided) Colonel Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon jungle in 1925 and has never been seen since.

James Gray, dir.: The Lost City of Z (2016)

I'd never heard of the second one, but it sounds very much like my kind of thing, and I'll certainly be on the lookout for a second-hand copy of it next time I'm out on the prowl:

The superior attractions of Jungle of Stone, however, come both from its setting and its subject matter.

I'm rather a fan of books about the mysterious Mayan civilisation, as anyone motivated enough to have looked through my 2019 collection Ghost Stories will attest. The story 'Leaves from a Diary of the End of the World' begins with the following - lightly fictionalised - account of a not dissimilar windfall almost exactly ten years ago now:

Michael Coe: Breaking the Maya Code (1992)

Tuesday, 21 February, 2012:

Today I found an old book in the library, in the de-accessioned pile. It cost me two dollars to buy it (Hardback Non-fiction – if it had been Fiction, it would only have been a dollar). The title was Breaking the Maya Code, by Michael Coe.
But why on earth were they throwing it out?
It’s true that this was a copy of the first, 1992, edition, and since then – I checked – Coe has gone on to publish a number of revisions of his book (just as he did with his 1966 text The Maya, now in its eighth edition). So perhaps they thought it was too out of date to be useful.
What I suspect, though, is that they read those words ‘the Maya Code’ as something analogous to the Da Vinci Code – as a reference to the (alleged) Mayan Prediction of the end of days in December 2012.
If so, they were sorely mistaken. Far from an Occultist text full of babble about the Apocalypse, Coe’s is a profoundly scholarly work, which tells the tale of one of the greatest decipherments of all time.
The name of Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, the Russian genius whose phonological and comparative methodology finally led to success in this two-hundred-year-old quest, should undoubtedly go down in history along with Jean-François Champollion, Michael Ventris, and other heroes of the intellect.
The fact that we can now actually read these texts from a far-off civilisation, mute for centuries, thanks solely to such feats of ingenuity is one of the few proofs I know that the cosmos is not entirely arbitrary.
Just as the patterns of Nature become clear over time when examined by the dispassionate intellect, so advances can be made in our knowledge, the stones can be made to speak.

David Lebrun, dir.: Breaking the Maya Code (2008)

In fact, I subsequently went to the extra trouble of ordering a copy of a two-hour documentary on the subject, which I greatly recommend to anyone curious about just how precisely one goes about decoding an unknown script in an archaic version of an admittedly still living (though very complex) language.

When it comes to Stephens and Catherwood, I did already know the rough outline of their story from early reading and rereading of the wonderfully exciting - to a nerdy teenager, at any rate - Gods, Graves and Scholars, by German journalist Kurt Wilhelm Marek (who published under the pseudonym 'C. W. Ceram').

John L. Stephens (1805–1852)

I've written elsewhere about my interest in 19th-century American Historians such as Washington Irving, Francis Parkman and William H. Prescott, who were among the very first authors from the Western hemisphere to attract a substantial Old World audience. John Lloyd Stephens certainly has to be counted among their number.

  1. John L. Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and The Holy Land. 1837. Ed. Victor Wolfgang von Hagen. Illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. 1970. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991.
  2. John L. Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, & Yucatán. Illustrated by F. Catherwood. 1841. Ed. Richard L. Prodmore. 2 vols. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1949.
  3. John L. Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. Illustrated by F. Catherwood. 2 vols. 1843. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963.

John L. Stephens: Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (1843 / 1963)

It's fair to say, though, that Stephens' two classic books about his rediscovery of the lost Mayan cities - both of which I own (and, more to the point, have read from cover to cover) - would never have known such immediate success it weren't for the work of his collaborator and illustrator, itinerant Englishman Frederick Catherwood.

It was Catherwood whose immensely detailed and accurate sketches of Mayan inscriptions, ruins, and sculptures established beyond dispute the artistic merits of this long-vanished civilisation. Even now it's hard to imagine how they could be surpassed:

Stephens was an exceptionally able journalist, who told a rattling good yarn. When he wasn't being threatened with instant death by murderous soldiers, he was being laid low by tropical diseases. Somehow he managed to keep going, though, despite the lawlessness of much of Central America at the time.

It's really Catherwood one sympathises with most, however. He was often left behind at some inaccessible site to complete his sketches of the ruins while Stephens went off on some more glamorous (albeit even more dangerous) errand. Working, at times, up his ankles in mud, with jungle undergrowth obscuring his view, Catherwood used his camera lucida apparatus to trace each inscription and statue as carefully as he could.

Despite not knowing the meanings of any of the symbols he recorded, he drew them so carefully that many of his drawings are still used by Mayan scholars in preference to the original walls and statues, now further perished by time.

William Robertson (1721-1793)

Stephens and Catherwood were by no means the first to see these immense ruins, but they were certainly the most assiduous in recording and disseminating the wonders they'd found.

Thanks to the influence of sceptical British historians such as William Robertson, whose History of America (1777) threw considerable doubt on the existence of the architectural and artistic marvels described by the original Conquistadors, most people at the time still assumed that there had never been a civilisation in the Americas to rival those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The dogmatic Scots clergyman stated it baldly:
The inhabitants of the New World were in a state of society so extremely rude as to be unacquainted with those arts which are the first essays of human ingenuity on its advance toward improvement.
Their temples, he went on to stress, could have been little more than 'a mound of earth' and their houses 'mere huts, built with turf, or mud, or the branches of trees, like those of the rudest Indians.' 'There is not', he concluded:
in all the extent of that vast empire, a single monument or vestige of any building more ancient than the conquest.
Robertson based this blanket dismissal of all the innumerable detailed chronicles of the Spanish conquest - by Cortés, Pizarro, and their many contemporaries - on the account of one informant who had (allegedly) 'travelled in every part of New Spain.'

Both Stephens and Catherwood had, however, travelled widely in the Middle East as well as the Americas, and it was apparent to them that the creators of cities such as Copán, Tikal, and Chichen Itza, were in no way inferior to Ancient Greeks and Romans when it came to urban planning. They had been, in fact, in many ways more culturally advanced than their classical contemporaries.

As Stephens himself put it, in the conclusion to Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, & Yucatán, 'The monuments and pyramids of Central America and Mexico are':
different from the works of any other known people, of a new order, and entirely and absolutely anomalous: they stand alone. ...
Unless I am wrong, we have a conclusion far more interesting and wonderful than that of connecting the builders of these cities with the Egyptians or any other people. It is the spectacle of a people skilled in architecture, sculpture and drawing, and, beyond doubt, other more perishable arts, and possessing the culture and refinement attendant upon these, not derived from the Old World, but originating and growing up here, without models or masters, having a distinct, separate, independent existence; like the plants and fruits of the soil, indigenous.
What a resounding declaration of American intellectual independence! No wonder the book was an instant success. Even the notoriously picky Edgar Allan Poe hailed it as 'magnificent ... perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published'.

A Book of the Book (2000)

Thanks to the work of contemporary scholars and translators such as Michael Coe, Sylvanus Morley, and Denis Tedlock, we can now read the creation epic of the Mayans, the Popol Vuh, in a variety of versions.

As well as the wonders of their advanced mathematical knowledge and wonderfully subtle script, Tedlock's essay 'Towards a Poetics of Polyphony and Translatability' - from the anthology pictured above, A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections about the Book & Writing (2000) - demonstrates the complex nature of Mayan poetics, in particular the habit of Mayan writers of constantly rephrasing and paraphrasing their meanings, rather than treating poems "as if they were Scripture, composed of precisely the right words and no others':
In a poetics that always stands ready, once something has been said, to find other ways to say it, there can be no fetishization of verbatim quotation, which lies at the very heart of the Western commodification of words. In the Mayan case not even writing, whether in the Mayan script or the Roman alphabet, carries with it a need for exact quotation. When Mayan authors cite previous texts, and even when they cite earlier passages in the same text, they unfailingly construct paraphrases. [266-67]
The implications of this tendency are extremely far-reaching, particularly when it comes to translation:
Translation caused anxiety long before the current critique of representations, especially the translation of poetry. Roman Jakobson pointed the way to a new construction of this problem, suggesting that the process of rewording might be called intralingual translation ...
Here we have entered a realm in which the popular notion of an enmity between poetry and translation does not apply. To quote Robert Frost's famous phrasing of this notion ... 'Poetry is what gets lost in translation.' ... [Octavio] Paz countered by saying 'Poetry is what is translated.' ... To take this statement a step further and paraphrase it for the purposes of the present discussion, poetry is translation. [267-68]
The conclusion of Tedlock's essay refuses to draw the conventional distinctions between the poetics and politics of the word, just as the Mayan poets he cites see no need to differentiate between quotation and paraphrase:
we could try to see the complexity of Mayan poetry as the result of a conflict between centripetal forces in language, which are supposed to produce formal and authoritative discourse, and centrifugal forces, which are supposed to open language to its changing contexts and foment new kinds of discourse. But this is a profoundly Western way of stating the problem. Available to speakers of any language are multiple systems for phrasing utterances, including syntax, semantics, intonation, and pausing. Available to writers (even within the limits of a keyboard) is a variety of signs, of which some are highly individual and particulate while others are iconic and may stand for whole words. There is nothing intrinsic to any one of these various spoken and written codes, not even the alphabet itself, that demands the reduction of all or any of the others to its own terms. Bringing multiple codes into agreement with one another is not a matter of poetics as such, but of centralized authority [my emphasis]. It is no accident that Mayans, who never formed a conquest state and have kept their distance from European versions of the state right down to the current morning news, do not bend their poetic energies to making systems stack. [276]

Dennis Tedlock (1939- )

Mayan Literature in Translation

  1. Coe, Michael D. The Maya. 1966. Eighth edition, fully revised and expanded. Ancient People and Places: Founding Editor Glyn Daniel. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2011.

  2. Coe, Michael D. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 1962. Fourth edition, fully revised and expanded. 1994. Ancient People and Places: Founding Editor Glyn Daniel. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1997.

  3. Recinos, Adrián, ed. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya. 1947. Trans. Delia Goetz & Sylvanus G. Morley. London: William Hodge & Company Limited, 1951.

  4. Saravia E., Albertina, ed. Popol Wuj: Antiguas Historias de los Indios Quiches de Guatemala. Illustradas con dibujos de los Codices Mayas. 1965. “Sepan Cuantos …”, 36. Ciudad de México: Editorial Porrúa, S. A., 1986.

  5. Sodi M., Demetrio. La literatura de los Mayas. 1964. El Legado de la América Indígena. México: Editorial Joaquín Mortiz, S. A., 1974.

  6. Tedlock, Dennis, trans. Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings. With Commentary Based on the Ancient Knowledge of the Modern Quiché Maya. 1985. Rev. ed. A Touchstone Book. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996.

  7. Tedlock, Dennis. 2000 Years of Mayan Literature: With New Translations and Interpretations by the Author. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010.

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