News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A review of The Aztecs by Richard F. Townsend, Ph.D. Harvard University.

Dr. Townsend is the curator of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Art Institute of Chicago. The blurb on the back of his book boldly states: "Now established as the best introduction in its field, The Aztecs presents a masterly portrait of this complex and fascinating civilization. The text begins with a dramatic narrative of the Spanish conquest... Authoritative and engaging, this revision explores Aztec civilization with renewed vigor."

Best, masterly, dramatic, engaging, vigor? With all due respect, Nuts! Material that has great potential instead suffers dreadfully as Townsend has no particular point to make, no argument that he's anxious to ram into the noggin of the reader. The book is neutral, fair, impartial and thus lifeless. He apparently doesn't understand that humans need drama and suspense, that we demand stories and thrive on fresh word-pictures, that the brain not only did not evolve to assimilate meaningless data but that it evolved with brakes specifically to prevent this from happening. We're emotional beings, hyperactive and action-oriented, first and foremost, with the intellectual side coming a very distant second. Any excuse lifts us out of the study chair and into the pub, the video arcade, the sex shop. And there is no intellectual side without, for lack of a better word, passion. Whether that passion at base is fear in disguise (usually) or curiosity, without emotional involvement we're practically incapable of learning. The eyes glaze over, the attention span wanes, day-dreaming begins.

Again, this is hardly an accident: we're hard-wired to do this. Boredom is an end product of various subroutines running in our subconscious and its one of the feelings on a limited palatte vouchsafed by an unimaginative God to provoke us, torment us, and if necessary defeat conscious decision-making. It's part of His evolutionary strategy to keep us alive by ensuring that we were, relatively-speaking, highly productive by getting off our duffs and didn't waste our days straining our craniums and pulling our hair in an effort to think, figure Him and his game out, or otherwise engage in unproductive behavior.
Throughout prehistory and most of history (and for a conceivable part of the future to come) we have and will remain on autopilot. Think about all of the options we have for activities in our environment and then consider how extremely narrow and repetitive the activities we choose to engage in on a day-to-day basis. Consider how meek and enmeshed in tradition and habit we are. Consider how profoundly reassuring the smell of the human herd is. We are very, very conservative and narrow-minded. We are not naturally curious, except for a very narrow range of affairs on the very edge of the periphery of our very hidebound activities. It took a 100,000 years for the human race to produce freaks like Aristotle, with his indifference to the usual provinces of meaning and value and, what must appear to sensible human beings, an obsessive packrat gathering of information on most fields of human endeavor in his day. Such freaks are sometimes called polymaths. When's the last time you met one? When's the last time you even heard of one within a radius of 100 miles?

It is critical to understand how at least part of this autopilot functions, the stimuli that prick it and the type and nature of it's responses. Townsend, like V.S. Naipaul, makes the elementary mistake of presuming that what interests him either will or should interest us. This is a lazy and self-centered lunacy found right across the literary board from the self-involved artist, to the impartial reporter of urban legends, to the professor whose readers are chained to a school desk and whose grades reflect the degree of supine student arse-kissing. Either way, all three have ideologies explaining and advocating mediocrity and incompetence.

Townsend is sleep-walking through The Aztecs and likewise the reader soon finds his eyes impossibly heavy and mouth agape, ready to catch flies. The screens and filters of the subconscious rebel against Townsend's pedestrian verbiage, the indifferently presented facts, the absence of combat: i.e. controversy. The attendant signals add up. You've seen this before; a vision of a moth-eaten professor delivering lectures in 60's sun-glasses and an ageless monotone. You rub your eyes. You're enduring that passive resistance, hard-wired into us all, called boredom.

Perhaps you mistake boredom for a sign of immaturity. And you shouldn't blame the messenger right? But in this case the messenger crafted the message. Blame the bastard.

I can honestly say I learned only one useful or memorable thing from 200+ pages: the Aztecs ignored Professor Chomsky's buzz-phrase moral truism and irreverently wore people's skins (attention multiculturalists: this was done without the owners' permission) as part of their religious ceremony. Other than that, I draw a blank. No, I also draw an unpleasantness, something like a summer cold. The resistance to memory is real. It was a struggle the whole way through to retain anything and on numerous occasions I reread the page finding it had magically already vanished down the memory hole. Under the radar, the book was being frantically erased, just as fast as I took the words in, by that implacable fanatic who craves meaning at all times and places: the subconscious.

Absent authorial leadership, the book lazes, shuffles, wanders around a bit, and just generally gets nowhere in a hurry. The armory of tools employed by the wit, the polemicist, the pundit, the shock-jock, and the partisan, be they comedy, syllogism, scholarship, ribaldry, tradition and familiar references, are simply not there. Lacking a sincere desire to persuade the reader of anything and not possessing a lush experience with metaphor, demystification and the reducing of the complex to the intelligible, plus the ability to convince the reader not just that the message is logically sound but that the reader needs to know, that the message is important (i.e. it has significance, meaning) the book never approaches readable.

Moving into the first few pages of the book, I became increasingly suspicious that the problem is talent. The author is incapable of developing or juggling ideas deftly; ergo, he engages in the age-old dodge of retreating to the sanctuary of the Art Lover, the fine-wine swilling connoisseur of anthropology. There's a constant stress upon the beauty of Aztec architecture, the fullness of the written script, the impressively diverse and even modernity of this Stone Age culture. This is all good and fine, but he challenges no controversy, slays no heretics, makes no enemies, and thus fails to hold this reader's attention. Why should I care? I even want to care as I know this is a potentially a very interesting and significant civilization given that it covers cannibalism, religion, imperialism, a distinctive written script and architecture, cultural materialism, urban planning, law, sports, esthetics, globalization, civil war, the insurrection of Cortes against his own superiors, and so forth.
And it would not have hurt if the author had been more hard-nosed. There's no inherent contradiction between appreciation of the fine arts and a willingness to call a spade a spade. But I forget: intellectual courage requires the ability to defend oneself in real time and in writing. The former requires the gift of gab and the resilience to recover from ad hominem hard-knocks; the second requires precision, independence from peer pressure, and a considerable investment of time. And both require superior logic and rhetorical skills. It's not for everyone. Imagine being grilled and humiliated by the attack-bozos at Fox. As a fresh meat in the forum, you're sure to suffer a few bloody noses at first, before you catch your stride and start issuing a few of your own.
It's a pathetic admission, but most of the following observations I make about the Aztecs are based on memories of Victor Davis Hanson's infinitely superior work, Culture and Carnage.
The Aztecs mistaking Cortes for a returning mythological figure (if the story is true) demonstrates yet again the intrinsic weakness of early polities based upon primeval values, myths, superstitions, and conspiracy theories, as opposed to modern polities which interpret and utilize the world far more effectively via impersonal systems indifferent to traditional morals and concerned primarily with maximizing efficiency.

Aztec armies collapsed easily, despite their vast numerical superiority (probably 100 to 1) in the face of the Spanish phalanx and military tactics, which in turn were the result of more advanced (i.e. intelligent) application of weapons, training, discipline, and planning strategy, but also due to the chain of command being more flexible and the superior channels for feedback to correct errors occuring in the command structure: i.e. the Spanish were more egalitarian and democratic in spirit thus making for better communication between troops and commanders than one found in the autocratic Aztec military. Aztec soldiers fought as individuals, having not yet progressed to the martial attainment of the ancient Greeks who founded the phalanx and the trireme -- a sort of ocean-going version of the phalanx. The phalanx was a sort of rectangular united goose-stepping of soldiers with shields and sword and which has the aim of creating a disciplined wall of weaponry that advances like a tank and foils rabbles of undisciplined soldiery by crowding them up on top of each other and panicking them. The phalanx in a sense is just a body of concepts capably stuffed into skulls thick and thin and then marched into application. Plus the Spanish had superior weaponry. All of this was the product of a superior system of ideas for economics, political governance, jurisprudence, education, civil liberties, etc.
Multiculturalists please note that the importance of military strength to cultural preservation. If the Aztecs had won, the modern Spanish would be wearing our skins as fashion wear or religious gear. Because the Spanish won, the modern Aztecs are wearing Wal-Mart specials.
Along the same lines, the absence of representative democracy and its fallback mechanisms (if the president dies, the vice president takes over, etc...) led to collapse of Aztec morale and an inability to make decisions once their leader had been imprisoned by the Spanish. With his death, the city did not assemble a new council to arrange a new leader but instead engaged in debilitating street battles and civil war, thus weakening the polis as a whole and making Spanish conquest all the easier.

Cortes, the Spanish conquistador is quite fascinating. After his men got kicked out of what is now Mexico City, the former capital of the Aztecs, with quite a few of his men losing their lives, he limped back to the coast. There, he found a newly arrived Spanish commander who had come to arrest Cortes and take him back to Hispaniola. Cortes showed great initiative, yet again, by taking the commander prisoner. He devoted most of the next twelve months to outfitting a new crusading army, negotiating with local Indians to arrange for several tens of thousands of Indian troops and porters, designing and constructing three ships which had to be carried a hundred kilometers over hill and dale by Indian porters to be reconstructed on the brackish lake that then surrounded what is now Mexico City. After the victory, the men started squabbling about the divvying up of the booty and it all ended up in a nasty rash of law-suits filed in Spain against Cortes.
From my rough notes:
On page 58, the author suggests several possible origins for the Aztecs, but does not mention Salt Lake City, Utah. The author is conservative and no-nonsense, but has no sense of how to retain reader interest. Through having something like Salt Lake City, whether it is widely accepted or not, at least expands the realm of the subject matter. Also, given the fact that many the readers are likely American, this would surely stimulate interest. All he had to do was offer the theory and then discount it. By not even offering it, he not only perhaps renders a disservice to readers but again fails to make it real for them.

Interesting is that the Aztecs also maintained game preserves in what is now a semi-desert ecology.

There was a tradition within the Aztecs of forming unions with other tribes by marrying the chieftains daughter "spiritually". However, to the crazy Aztecs this meant sacrificing and skinning her, and having a priest wear her skin while performing an Aztec ceremony devoting to the renewal of life. This particular incident led to a war with the other tribe, needless to say.

The Aztecs required the collecting of human ears to prove human kills.

On page 71, the author describes the Aztecs ruler Tezozomoc (1371~1426) as follows: "a shrewd military strategist who... worthy of a Machiavelli... never confused with idealism, much less morality." Here Townsend joins the already full ranks of authors who refer to or critique books they haven't read. Machiavelli exhorted a real politick devoted to ensuring stability of the state on the premise that internal harmony benefits the entire population; a sort of early edition of What's good for GM is good for America. Given the frequent wars the city states of the day engaged in, a strong unified state that did not tolerate dissent was preferable to one weakened by internal rivalries and blood feuds, Thus he sanctioned the killing of the entire family of dissidents or rivalries to preempt the surviving children damaging the state through later plots of blood revenge. Agree or disagree with it as one likes, he is persuasive and appears to be sincere. Either way, he does not come across as an immoral or opportunistic person. Instead, he proposes an ethic which embraces, rather than dodges, the values of the real politick of the day and provides many historical examples as his evidence.

The quote above also demonstrates the idealistic side to the author. As with any other aspect of human affairs, idealism tends to corrupt a person's judgment and, perhaps much worse, gets in the way of forming judgments. Idealists tend to judge the morality of a proposition prior to testing its viability. If they don't agree with the morality, they don't bother testing the proposition. But surely what matters most is understanding how things work. This is of paramount importance if one is to deal with reality. Once you know how things work, you can then develop a moral or ethical system. In my view, the author has got things bass-ackwards.

On page 73, the author points out that warriors say to the population that if they are not successful in a given campaign that they willingly offer themselves up to be eaten. There is a constant stress on human sacrifice throughout this book. Warriors do not kill combatants on the battlefield but instead bring them back to be sacrificed.

Also interesting was the institution of Flower Wars. The Aztecs, the most powerful state in the area, would arrange for other states to send out their warriors to do battle with Aztecs warriors. A sanctuary indicated by flowers was left for the nobility to hide within. While the nobility cowered, their warriors were rounded up alive and transported back to what is now Mexico City for sacrifice and food.

The author claims that the Aztecs could muster an army of 200,000 men plus 100,000 porters. He also claims that cannibalism was a ritual and not the "primary way of satisfying hunger." This is a rather odd way of stating his opposition to Marvin Harris's notion that the Aztecs took people as their major source of animal protein. I expect no one on either side of the argument claims that cannibalism was the primary way of satisfying hunger. In most diets, carbohydrates are the primary foodstuff by volume and the primary way of satisfying hunger. One could eat human meat on a daily basis without it being the primary way of satisfying hunger.

On page 112 appears an example of Stone Age colonialism. As opposed to the creep of modern colonialism which endeavors to empower a people through the provision of democracy, free markets, modern jurisprudence, and so forth, in the good old days of the noble savage things worked with greater dispatch and ultimate effect: "Octoticpac, another Aztec conquest was partly surveyed and explored by Moedano on (sic) the 1940s. These towns and surrounding regions had been decimated by Ahuizotl in his campaign of 1488-89, when all adults were killed and some 40,000 children were taken and redistributed throughout the Empire. The towns were subsequently resettled by about 9000 married couples from Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, Tlacopan, and neighboring cities." The old familiar barbarity of ethnic cleansing and/or blood mingling. The Chinese empire practiced it too, with Jin Sanbao (aka Sinbad the Sailor aka Cheng Ho) having his nuts cut off as a child growing up in a Moslem village by a pacifying force of Chinese military representatives.

The book also mentions the fierce death masks of the Aztecs and I wonder whether these are part and parcel of primitive aggressive cultures. The Shang dynasty of the Chinese saw many imaginatively fierce death masks, with the designs becoming less aggressive during later more peaceful times. In the Ching Dynasty, Chinese soldiers were trained in the art of making scary faces at the enemy. Prior to the bullet and gunpowder, one could get up close to the enemy and apply the tactics of personal intimidation and humiliation.

All in all this was a dreadful book, though it showed mastery of the high academic art of reducing the fascinating and provocative into the mundane, trivial, politically correct, and soporific. Hopefully it was punishment enough to prevent me from wading through such stale hogwash again.
Biff Cappuccino

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