Saturday, May 27, 2006

Historians are sort of like dogs in that they are most interested in other historians.

You go to a real history book by a real historian and right off you're in the middle of an argument between historians about whatever it is. Even if they talk about historians they basically agree with, they sniff around the other historian's work in great detail. They reference other historians' work. They have a much more distant and uninvolved relationship with the events that happened back there.

You just want to know what happened. Historians know it's naive to want to know that, but there is hope of taking that paper written by who's-it about the events in question and showing what's wrong with the paper.

"In the Language of Kings" edited by Miguel Leon-Portilla and Earl Shorris with Sylvia Shorris is an anthology of literature written in the languages of the Incas and the Aztec and the Maya from somewhat before when the Europeans came to now.

When I took an introductory ancient Mayan history course in college I was disappointed that it was about broken pottery and fallen down rocks. That's what you got in archeology, and then you guess from there. But it all starts with these bits and history.

What this teacher I noticed was totally not into was any continuity between the Maya around him who worked for him when he went on digs and the ancient Mayan, although the factual contiunity is obvious. He was snotty and had to be better than everyone, getting joy out of showing a class of 20 year olds that he knew more about his specialty than they did. Somehow that meant he had to pretend he couldn't learn anything from the Maya people around him every other summer.

I mean, he couldn't learn anything from them because he was incapable of learning from them but that's because of self-imposed or self-continued flaws in his wiring. There was much there to learn is what my bias says. The continuity is there in the body, the mind, the culture.

"In the Language of Kings," an anthology of centuries, shows the continuity that is there, you can read the continuity in the literature of the people who have been here longer by far than any other people.

It's about doing that people stuff, trying to figure out what it all means, trying to figure out how to get the divine to lighten up, falling in love with a person or a place, all done in ways particular to these people and these places and way human. Easier for me to get into than shard decipering and less amenable to barely concealed racism.

The people who put the anthology together did all this work, which often involved translation from the original to Spanish to English, out of love of truth, the truth of the deep and continuous history of these people. Continuous history, continuous making of art, continuous writing of literature.

Archeologists in the US are famous in Europe for being untrained in and unwilling to look at documents. They are trained in and only want to look at stuff, even though documents about the same period as the stuff might help a lot. The copies of the documents from the same period as the stuff are often copies from much later, so who knows how they've changed. Guessing how they've changed is another form of smart, just as guessing about the rocks and shards is a form of smart.

My Mayan history professor, Mayan ancient history professor, had this idea than humans originated in Central America, not Africa. His idea was that the lush growth of Central America covered bones older than the bones revealed in arid Africa. Human history started in the area he studied, in other words. The more time passes, the wronger than looks. I think it was an extremely unusual opinion at the time--I wonder if he had the guts to say it outside of a classroom full of youth.

If there had been some huge leading clue to proving him true and the local Maya near his sites knew about it, he never would have heard, would have truly input, any clues they gave him about that. If they said something about ancient stories say the start of it all was at blah blah place, he wouldn't have heard the words, but would have kept staring at his shards.

Beauty is a big feature in "In the Language of Kings," a king from way back wondering like the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius if it all means anything, wondering if he with all his privilege felt like it was pointless, what was, indeed, the point. Wondering about that beautifully, and a not privileged poet from now seeing the point in every leaf an stone, centuries apart, bound by a general place and cousinly culture, wondering beautifully, and for an English speaker, invisibly until all this work was put together in "In the Language of Kings."