I am going to go off on a tangent again, one filled with the usual overgeneralizations:
I think we Americans have a very hard time (most people probably do, but we have a lot more ability to affect a lot of people in a hurry) conceiving that there might be other ways of looking at just about everything than the way we look at it. One of our particular traps is our notion of progress: that we are going down some kind of path inevitably leading to something better and that if other people don’t follow that path, they must be deficient. Perhaps we slip from the path occasionally, but then we come back to it. This came up recently in the question of why Mexicans haven’t come up with any technical inventions lately (lets say since the beginning of the 19th century) like cars. I’d like to say here that they may not have invented cars, but they sure can fix them better, more inventively and for a lot less money tha Americans. Surely THAT is a major achievement.
I’d also like to say here that hardly any of us, no matter our culture, could have invented cars, and those who did were building on a set of previous knowledge and cultural history and ways of thinking and that people with other kinds of previous knowledge and history and environments came up with different sorts of achievements, not necessarily following our “path of progress.”
AND I’d like to say that technical prowess in the sense of combustion- and electricity-powered machines isn’t always good for the world. People who invented cars also invented tanks and bombs and incredibly destructive weaponry and now are dependent on the continued production of such for their livelihoods. Technically proficient (in the western sense) cultures are responsible, through their technology, for the killing of millions of people, destroying the livelihoods of millions more, the rape of the natural world, etc. etc., especially when such prowess is embedded in a cult of free-market capitalism.
NOT that technology is in and of itself evil, nor is capitalism (as long as it’s with a small c.) Rather, I think the combination of technology and rampant free-market capitalism has reached its useful limits in many areas, and that western culture in which technology-as-we-know-it is embedded is now crippled by its own inventions and is going off the deep edge.
THAT SAID, I think it might be useful to look at some other worlds. Mexico, for instance, which has the oldest university in the western hemisphere.
Perhaps because the people who lived here in Mexico before the Spanish didn’t leave that much in the way of memoirs and biographies or individually signed works of art, or because there was no daily media report on their doings, it’s a little hard to have as much of a feel for them as it is for, say, Rush Limbaugh or Michael Jackson. It might have been easier to learn about people in those long-ago days if the Spanish hadn't so systematically destroyed the codices the Aztecs had written before they came. Remaining codices were written after the Conquest. Codices were books in which pictures were used as symbols to express information about history, geneology, the calendar, etc. Here is an illustration from the Codex Borbonicus, written around the time of the conquest:
And here is a link to a very nice site on Aztec codices and their symbology.
There were indeed great and creative leaders before the arrival of the Spanish. They sometimes had perspectives quite different from our own. One of these leaders was Netzahualcóyotl (or Nezahualcóyotl) who is one of my very favorite historical figures. He was the king of Texcoco in the 15th century, that is, before the arrival of the Spaniards.
A representation of Netzahualcóyotl in the Codex Mendoza:
It’s not perhaps that well known al otro lado – north of the Mexico-US border that in fact the Aztecs were not simply the Aztecs, but were part of The Triple Alliance, three different states in which the Aztecs, or Mexicas of Tenochtitlan (which is today Mexico City) were dominant. Netzahualcóyotl became the head of Texcoco, the next most influential member of the alliance. The weakest member was Tlacopan The triple alliance dominated the central section of Mexico pretty much from coast to coast during much of the 15th and early 16th centuries with the exception of what was the Kingdom of the Tlaxcalteca which is today Mexico’s smallest state, Tlaxcala. It was Tlaxcala that gave Cortés essential assistance in his conquest.
But there is a great deal more to Netzahualcóyotl than his political alliances. He was an engineer, a naturalist, a philosopher and a poet. Leaders like him in our own experience who come to mind are Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, though none of them were poets that I know of.
I have a charming little book called Poesías de Nezahualcóyotl con semblanza biográfica –(Poetry of Nezahualcóyotl with a few words on his life) The semblanza biográfica is by Abraham Camacho López as are the translations of the poems attributed to Netzahuacóyotl from Nahuatl to Spanish. (I will continue spelling it Netzahualcóyotl out of respect for our local bus company.) There is some scholarly questioning of whether the poems were actually written by Netzahualcóyotl. I think this doubt is not quite warranted. As Camacho López indicates at the end of this piece, there are reasons to think he did. In addition to Camacho's reasons, I would add that oral societies managed to transmit without alphabets as we know them a great deal of their learning, history (as they wanted it remembered) and culturally important beliefs, knowledge and mythology. To decide whether or not it is worthwhile to track down exact authorship of actual words is also a cultural judgment.
Some bits from Camacho López’s Semblanza (my translation):
Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472), the poet king, had am intense, complex, even ambivalent life. He was a valiant warrior who participated in memorable adventures, epic battles and exalted passions. As a youth he was exiled from his kingdom, but even in the face of harsh challenges, he returned to reconquer it. He was involved in palace intrigues and regularly confronted conspiracies against him. As leader, he reorganized public institutions, formulated and imposed strict laws and he punished crimes harshly. At times, he revealed a cruel and sly character, but he could also be benevolent and generous. He surrounded himself with priests and wise advisors, and he knew how to make alliances. Other leaders sought his lucid advice.
[Here I omit for now the history of his expulsion and return to Texcoco]
When he was 29, following all the rites and traditional ceremonies, of the Mexicas and Toltecs, he was made sovereign of Texcoco. And thus began an age of stability and prosperity for the Texcocanos.
Netazhualcóyotl commenced to demonstrate his notable political abilities and his own governing vision. Throughout the kingdom he established order, and he encouraged prosperity. He reorganized the political and administrative structure, dividing the capital in six sectors…, delegating local government to the people who lived in those areas, and distributing different artisan and craft guilds through different neighborhoods. In order to guarantee loyalty to the State and t its customs, he issued a series of about eighty civil laws and penalties, some of which were too strict since infractions were punished in most cases by death.
He was a strict and impartial judge since all the laws applied equally to everyone regardless of social status or anything else [including whether they were personal favorites of his.]….
In a division of powers, he formed Councils of Public Instruction, War, Finance, Justice and Music, the last encompassing the subjects of science, art, literature, poetry and history. He also formed a Supreme Council made up of the 14 most important kings [meaning here, I think, leaders of those areas encompassed by Texcoco’s reach.]
The government of Netzahualcootl didn’t only represent a model of government and administration, the king also undertook extraordinary architecture and construction projects in Texcoco and Tenochtitlán. He had a special interest in public works and beautification and because of this, he built damns, aquaducts, palaces, temples, monuments, paved roads and gardens.
Because of his aesthetic vision, he sought to harmonize the requirements of urban systems with the natural conditions of the environment….
Motivated by his ecological inclination, he preserved the waterfalls and trees, in his favorite places for relaxation, the woods of Tetzxutzinco and Chapultepec. He developed a system for directing water through the mountains and introduced irrigation. He sculpted ponds and swimming pools in rock formations, he planted flowers, propagated various animal species and ordered the construction of a zoological park and a botanical garden.
The famous gardens of Netzahaulcóyotl’s magnificent palace were compared in splendor to those of ancient Babylon. The impressive aquaduct he constructed ran from the forest of Chapultepec to bring fresh drinking water to the people of Tenochtitlán. At the request of his ally and equal, Moctezuma I [not the Moctezuma that Cortés defeated] he also conceived and brought to fruitiion a rock and wood dike to impede the floods which affected Tenochtitlan, and which furthermore served to impede the mixing of salt water into the fresh water of the big lake. [Tenochtitlán was constructed on the west side of Lake Texcoco, the biggest of the five connected lakes in the area.]
The splendor of the culture and the arts [of Texcoco]
During the reign of Nezahualcóyotl, Texcoco became a center of culture and a place in which flowered chroniclers, poets and creators. In order to institute the Council of Music….Netzahualcóyotl established an extraordinary archive where he brought together large collections of indigenous documents known as “painted books” [codices] which were composed of historical memories, chronologies, genealogies, laws, rituals, religious ceremonies, speeches, magic formulas, prophetic calendars and descriptions of territories and their attributes.
He also founded higher schools of learning for the study of history, astronomy, medicine, painting, philosophy, theology. He gave impetus to the development and perfection of poetry and the Nahuatl language.
Such was the intellectual and artistic progress of this ancient Mexican society before the Spanish conquest that its greatness, according to the historian Lorenzo Boturini, was equal to that of ancent Athens.
In the rooms of his palace, Netzahualcóyotl brought together wise men, astronomers, priests, judges and other kings. With them, he dedicated himself to the creation and to the pleasure of music and poetry, and the discussion and discernment of transcendental themes of philosophy.
His extensive education permitted him to accumulate and assimilate the rich cosmovision inherited from his Toltec ancestors. Knowledgeable about divine matters, the Texcocano king developed, as did Quetzalcoátl, mystical thinking based on the notion of the existence of only one god called Tloque Nahuaque.
In his numerous songs and poems he expressed well his artistic, humanistic and metaphysical restlessness where can be found fundamental themes addressing the fate of human beings such as the permanence and fleeting nature of earthly life, the human questioning in the face of “the giver of life” and the possibility of glimpsing “the maker of himself.”
The Dark Side of the Poet
[There is here a summary of wars and exploits and of how Netzahualcóyotl conducted himself in these successful efforts.]
…[P]erhaps the most controversial and transgressive episode in his life is that which has to do with his passionate love affair. While there is no precise and certain record of his intimate life, it is presumed that until he reached a mature age, he had not found a true love in spite of being surrounded by some thirty concubines and more than a hundred sons and daughters. This caused great sadness because he still had to choose a legitimate wife who would provide a descendent for the throne.
Aztec emperors interested in perpetuating their alliance with Texcoco sent Netzahualcóyotl noble and beautiful maidens, but he kept rejecting them. However, finally, one of them, a maiden from Coatlichan, succeeded in awakening his interest and capturing him with her charms. When he met her, she was still too young to marry. So he put her in the care of his older brother who was to look after her and instruct her with the idea he would marry her in the future. But adversity stepped in. When Netzahualcóyotl sent for her to marry her, he received the news that his own nephew, ignorant of Netzahualcóyotl’s wishes, had taken her for his wife.
The failed marriage plunged Netzahalcóyotl into despair and in order to overcome it, he took to travelling. On one occasion, he arrived at the pueblo of Tepexpan where he was received by King Cuacuahtzin. This king, in order to honor his distinguished visitor, had a banquet prepared and ordered that his fiancée, the lovely Aztec maiden Azcalxochitizin attend.
At seeing Azalcalxochitzin, Netzahualcóyotl fell head over heals in love with her and forgot all his sadness. The king of Texcoco succumbed to his desire for this woman who was promised to Cuacuahtzin. Blinded by this unseemly passion, he hatched a trap to elimate his rival: he appointed Cuacuahtzin a general and ordered him to a war in which he would surely die since, at his age, he no longer possessed the strength and agility required for violent combat.
Although the noble Cuacuahtzin was aware of his hidden and fatal destiny, he complied with this unjust command. The plan unfolded just as Netzahualcóyotl had foreseen. Once he was killed, in 1444, the Texcocano king married the beautiful Azalcxochitzin, descendent of the noble Aztecs. She became the mother of Nezahualpili, successor to the throne of Texcoco from 1573 to 1515, a time in which he continued the great works undertaken by his father.
The Poet Who Transcended His Time
Netzahualcóyotl died in 1472…, he was seventy years old and had been king of Texcoco for 41 years.
In his lifetime, he enjoyed fame and prestige as a political leader, but also he had achieved broad recognition as a poet. At this point, 36 of his creations have been preserved, among them poems and songs written originally in Nahautl and gathered, after his death, in the collections of manuscripts of prehispanic poems/songs.
He was accustomed to recite his creations at festivities and in meetings with other kings, wise men and poets. In his poetry, philosophical thought more than lyricism prevails, but not because of a lack of emotion and beauty. The results are eloquent and original.
His elevated aesthetic sensibilities and his great love for nature not only are reflected in his urban and architectural work, but also in his poetic creations in which he meditates on themes such as divinity, the fleetingness of life, the inevitability of death, destiny and his own poetry.
Thus, he exalted the significance of poetic invention, gave tribute to flowers and springtime, formulated profound spiritual questions, assumed an inquisitive attitude in the face of divinity, reflected over the anguish of existence and lamented his own ephemeral nature, He celebrated the pleasures of life and friendship, sang the praises of warriors and heroes, speculated on “the beyond” and “the region of the dead” and finally, he made dismal prophecies.
Although Netzahualcóyotl did not catalog his own works, nor were they dated when they were created, it is possible to reconstruct the circumstances and the period in which some of his songs/poems were written: for example, The Song of Flight can pe placed around 1427; that called Remembrance of Heroes is subsequent to 1443 and one can deduce that he composed a song dedicated to Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, the Great, when he was sick, around 1469.
On my path paved with good intentions is a the intention to put some translations of poems into English on the blog.
AND the image of Netzahualcóyotl from the Codex Mendoza is taken from a wonderful site from the Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas, Austin called Law in Mexico before the Conquest. Definitely worth looking at.