Serendipity: The Lacandon Apocalypse

The Late Chan K’in Viejo, Lacandonian Chief and Elder, in 1933

I have just begun reading Christopher Shaw’s excellent Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, a book about the river waterways used by the ancient Mayans for trading. The Lacandonians are a very traditional Mayan group that live along the Usumacinta River that forms part of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. In 1992, I saw a Lacandonian selling bows and arrows in front of the Casa del Balam Hotel in Merida, Yucatán. The following passage in Shaw’s book caught my eye:

Kayum, one of Chan K’in’s sons, a painter of naïve but arresting jungle scenes with one-man shows from Barcelona to Seattle to his credit, looked up from his ax work and gently scolded Victor [Perera, author of The Last Lords of Palenque] that he must let go of the world. It is creaking and groaning like an old man, he said. Everything prefigured the imminence of xu’tan, he said, the Lacandon apocalypse. The proper attitude of a hach winik [Lacandonian, “real person”] was to welcome it and the new era of creation it anticipated. He spoke with the deep calm and conviction of a believer. Victor never forgot it, though he never accepted it either, Kayum’s willingness to watch and welcome while a thousand generations of accumulated beauty and uncatalogued nonhuman life got traded for the shortest of gains, or in many cases no gains at all.

The Usumacinta River Near Piedras Negras

 

Serendipity: The Name of God

Lithograph by Frederick Catherwood of the Mayan Ruins at Copán, Honduras

It is with the greatest pleasure that I am re-reading a book I first read in June 1975 in preparation for the first of my travels, to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The book was Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán by John Lloyd Stephens. The book was published in 1841 in two volumes with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood, who accompanied Stephens on his journeys. At one point, Stephens and Catherwood visit a school in Zacapa in Guatemala, where they set about making a usable dictionary of Mayan Indian words. As Stephens recounts:

We were rather at a loss what to do with ourselves, but in the afternoon our host called in an Indian for the purpose of enabling us to make a vocabulary of Indian words. The first question I asked him was the name of God, to which he answered, Santissima Trinidad. Through our host I explained to him that I did not wish the Spanish, but the Indian name, and he answered as before, Santissima Trinidad or Dios. I shaped my question in a variety of ways, but could get no other answer. He was a tribe called Chinaute, and the inference was, either that they had never known any Great Spirit who governed and directed the universe, or that they had undergone such an entire change in matters of religion, that they had lost their own appellation for the Deity.

The two volumes are still in print from Dover Publications.

 

 

Serendipity: Basil II and Trump

Byzantine Emperor Basil II, the Bulgar-Slayer

Today, I was reading Michael Psellus’ Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (aka The Chronographia), written at some point in the 11th Century A.D. We know that the current occupant of the White House has made a practice of erasing every one of his predecessor Barack Obama’s accomplishments. Apparently, this was not the first time this happened. Michael Psellus tells us how the Emperor Basil II decided to erase the work of his long-time advisor, the eunuch Basil Parakoimomenus.

He gave the subject much thought, and it was only after long vacillation that he finally made up his mind. Once the decision was taken, however, he dismissed the parakoimomenus and deposed him at one blow. What made it worse was the fact that this change in the latter’s fortunes was not softened by any sign of respect. In fact, the emperor’s action was incredibly cruel, for he shipped him off into exile.

Nor did this disgrace prove to be the end of Basil’s troubles. Rather was it the prelude to further misfortunes, for the emperor next proceeded to review the events of the reign since he acceded to the throne and the parakoimomenus began to govern the empire. He examined the various measures that had been taken during all that period. Whatever happened to contribute to his own (the emperor’s) welfare, or to the good of the state, was allowed to remain on the statutes. [Trump was not that discriminating.] All those decrees, on the other hand, which referred to the granting of favours or positions of dignity, were now rescinded. The former, the emperor contended, had been approved by himself; of the latter, he knew nothing. In everything he strove to bring about the eunuch’s downfall and disaster. For example, the parakoimomenus had built a magnificent monastery in honour of Basil the Great, a monastery that bore his own name too. It had been constructed on a massive scale, at great cost of labour, and it combined different styles of architecture with beauty. Moreover, the greater part of the material used in its building had been obtained from generous and voluntary contributions. The emperor now wished to raze this edifice to the ground.

 

Serendipity: Garbage Collection in the Afterlife

Well, What Is It Like Being a Spirit in the Afterlife?

There is a delightful story in Alfred Döblin’s Bright Magic: Stories (New York: New York Review Books, 2016) entitled “Traffic with the Beyond.” The story is about an attempt to solve a murder using a séance. The spirits, however, take a more active role than is expected of them:

With that, the session ended. Incidentally, van Steen’s rage at the beyond is more comprehensible when we realize the job that this man, who so loved life and had lived in such high style here, had on the other side: Garbage collection! That was the usual assignment for a certain kind of new arrival, whose heart still clung to earthly things and who led a wild life on the other (that is, this) side. Conceited bachelors were given that job as well, and famous luminaries such as scientists, painters, tenors, and generals. For there was garbage in the beyond, stemming from the titanic mass of rotten, shriveled, worthless ideas and preferences that everyone brought with them, gradually threw off, and as it were sweated out of their system—things that no longer had or could have any place in the strict, noble, and spiritual other side. This sad latrine duty was assigned to the merry van Steen. He, and others, had to sweep up this daily rubbish and cart it off to be burned. In his affliction he, like many others, simply scattered the stuff back down onto the earth.

 

 

Serendipity: How Rat’s Family Got Rich

How to Make the Best of a Bad Lot

This weekend, I read Haruki Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing. While it was not quite the level of his more recent work, it had some choice moments. The unnamed narrator has a friend called Rat, who comes from a wealthy family. It was amusing to find out how his family made its fortune:

Rumor had it that Rat’s father had been penniless before the war. On the eve of hostilities, though, he had managed, after much difficulty, to lay his hands on a small chemical factory, where he began producing insect repellent cream. There was considerable doubt as to its effectiveness, but, fortunately for him, the war spread to the South Pacific at that juncture, and the stuff flew off the shelves.

When the war ended, the Rat’s father moved his stock of ointment into warehouses and began marketing a sketchy health tonic; then, toward the end of the Korean War, in an abrupt move, he shifted to household cleaners. Rumor has it that the ingredients were identical in all cases. Not inconceivable.

In other words, the same ointment slathered on the heaped bodies of Japanese soldiers in the jungles of JNew Guinea twenty-five years ago can today be found, with the same trademark, gracing the toilets of the nation as a drain cleaner.

Thus did the Rat’s father join the ranks of the wealthy.

 

 

 

Serendipity: The Existence of Ghosts

My Belief Is: They Exist

The Original Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax is like a sort of souk for tourists and those L.A. natives who like to sit and reflect while drinking a cup of tea or eating a good lunch. I sat there this morning reading Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames, when I ran across this passage:

“Well, yes. Everyone is attended by ghosts,” Iggy said. What matters is whether we begin to attend to them.”

“How do you mean?”

“With some people, the ghosts are transparencies, barely visible as they hover around, sit at the table next to them and so on. They are particularly hard to see in bright sunlight. Sometimes, when memories are revisited, there is a flickering of light and shadow, image and text across them, and for a moment they flare up and then vanish.”

“So are you saying that ghosts are our memories?”

“Ghosts are the things, the shapes we make with our memories,” she said.

“Ah. So if some are light like…”

“Like well-worn lace drapes blowing in the wind.”

Black smiled.

“Yeah, like that. Then what are the other ghosts like? The ones we attend?”

“Like thick black lines drawn in a notebook. They are visible, brooding dark clouds that we drag around with us like reluctant sulky children. We feed them and they grow big and their haunting dominates our lives. We love them and we hate them and we are always measuring them for a coffin, yet we cannot let them die.”

“Why?”

”Madness, my friend. Madness.”

 

 

Serendipity: London Fog

Waugh’s Ambrose Silk Misses the Old Days

The following is taken from a monologue by one Ambrose Silk at London’s Café Royal. It can be found in Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful satire of England in the first days of the Second World War, Put Out More Flags.

“The decline of England, my dear Geoffrey,” he said, “dates from the day we abandoned coal fuel. No, I’m not talking about distressed areas, but about distressed souls, my dear. We used to live in a fog, the splendid, luminous, tawny fogs of our early childhood. The golden aura of the golden age. Think of it, Geoffrey, there are children now coming to manhood who never saw a London fog. We designed a city which was meant to be seen in a fog. We had a foggy habit of life and a rich, obscure, choking literature. The great catch in the throat of English lyric poetry is just fog, my dear, on the vocal cords. And out of the fog we could rule the world; we were a Voice, like the Voice on Sinai smiling through the clouds. Primitive peoples always chose a God who speaks from a cloud. Then, my dear Geoffrey,” said Ambrose, wagging an accusing finger and fixing Mr. Bentley with a black accusing eye, as though the poor publisher were personally responsible for the whole thing, “then, some busybody invents electricity or oil fuel or whatever it is they use nowadays. The fog lifts, the world sees us as we are, and worse still we see ourselves as we are. It was a carnival ball, my dear, which when the guests unmasked at midnight was found to be composed entirely of impostors. Such a rumpus, my dear.”

Ten years after Put Out More Flags was published, in 1952, a killer fog hit London that killed 4,000 Londoners and hospitalized 150,000.

On a much smaller scale, I remember the smog of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, when I developed a nasty case of asthma, which appears only at rare intervals now. I remember hearing the foghorn from Santa Monica Pier when I used to live on 11th Street early in the Seventies. I have not seen fog in Santa Monica for almost 30-40 years now.