Serendipity: “A Contract of Mutual Deceit”

Finding Truth in a Mystery Novel

Toward the end of James Lee Burke’s excellent A Stained White Radiance, written in 1992, I suddenly came upon this passage, in which Detective Dave Robicheaux of the New Iberia, Louisiana, police force ponders the existence of ex-KKK, ex-Nazi politico Bobby Earl. I suddenly found myself thinking about Donald Trump.

I had been determined to prove that Bobby Earl was fronting points for Joey Gouza [a New Orleans mobster], or that he was connected with arms and dope trafficking in the tropics. I was guilty of that age-old presumption that the origins of social evil can be traced to villainous individuals, that we just need to identify them, lock them in cages, or even march them to the executioner’s wall, and this time, yes, this time, we’ll catch a fresh breeze in our sails and set ourselves on a true course.

But Bobby Earl is out there by consent. He has his thumb on a dark pulse, and like all confidence men, he knows that his audience wishes to be conned. He learned long ago to listen, and he knows that if he listens carefully they’ll tell him what they need to hear. It’s a contract of mutual deceit by which they open up their flak vests and take it right through the breastbone.

If it were not he, it would be someone like him—misanthropic, beguiling, educated, someone who, as an ex-president’s wife once said, allows the rest of us to feel comfortable with our prejudices.

I think the end for Bobby Earl will come in the same fashion as it does for all his kind. Unlike the members of The Pool [Burke’s term for the mob] and that great army of villainous buffoons trying to sneak through life on side streets, Bobby Earl’s ilk want power so badly that at some point in their lives they make a conscious choice to embrace evil. It’s not a gradual seduction. They do it without reservation, and that’s when they leave the rest of us. You know when it happens, too. No amount of cosmetic surgery can mask the psychological deformity in their eyes.

 

Maximón

Votive Figure of Maximón in Santiago Atitlán

I laugh when ignorant people wonder what happened to the Maya. They are still around, and still occupying the parts of Mexico (Chiapas and Yucatán), Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras that constituted the original Maya homeland at its height. There are millions of Maya around. They speak some thirty different major dialects of the Mayan language, most of which are not understandable to Maya speaking other dialects.

When Cortés arrived in 1519, he made short work of the Aztecs. Moctezuma and his people were conquered within a few years. (Their language, Nahuatl, still exists.) It took a considerable while longer for all the Maya polities to fall. The last one, Tayasal, located on the Lago de Petén near present-day Flores in Guatemala, fell in 1695.

But the Maya are still Maya. They managed to survive with their culture not quite intact, yet robust enough to survive under new circumstances, namely Spanish conquest. There are still isolated Maya villages where non-Maya are not welcome. In others, there are strange new Maya gods, such as Maximón (mah-shi-MOAN) whose image appears above.  When I visit Santiago Atitlán, I plan to visit him and offer a gift, typically a bottle of aguardiente, cigars, or a pack of cigarettes.

This Maximón is a sort of evil god, midway between the underworld (Xibalba) and the heavens. The Tzutujil-speaking Maya, who inhabit the area, pay homage to him, particularly during Holy Week. According to Peter Canby in his The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya:

In Santiago Atitlán, Maximón is the god of destructive nature, of floods, earthquakes, and storms. A traveler and walker, he is associated with snakebites, is the inflicter of madness, and is worshiped at the mouths of caves. [Anthropologist] Michael Coe associates Maam (Maximón) with the Yucatec god Pauhatun, also known as God N, one of the most powerful underworld gods. In fact, Pauhatun is the quadripartite god taking part in a hallucinogenic enema-ritual depicted on the funerary vase in Michael Coe’s Lords of the Underworld…. It was strange, therefore, to see atitecos [Maya residents of Santiago Atitlán] treating Maximón with such tender reverence, but I knew that this merely reflected the different concepts of evil held by ourselves and the Maya.

Figure of Pauhatun from the Ruins at Copán

To us, evil is something absolute, something to be resisted at all costs. To the Maya, evil is the principle of death and decay in nature and therefore an integral part of life. Gods like Maximón are terrifying, but they’re also part of the earth’s fertility. [Archeologist J Eric S] Thompson notes that “there is a widespread Maya belief that darkness and the underworld are evil, but as [the underworld] reaches up to immediately below the surface of the earth, it also produces crops.”

Among the attributes worshiped in Maximón are those of Judas Iscariot and Pedro de Alvarado, cruelest of conquistadores. I cannot help but think that there is something in the Maya conception of evil that has led them to survive as a culture—if not 100% intact, then at least substantially intact. Compare that with America’s vision of itself as “a city on a hill” acting as a beacon for all peoples, while we slaughter our own children with military automatic weapons.

 

“A Spark from the Original Soul”

Martin Buber

Martin Buber

Question: We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. How do I do this if my neighbor has wronged me?

Answer: You must understand these words rightly. Love your neighbor as something which you yourself are. For all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this soul is inherent in all souls, just as your soul is inherent in all the members of your body. It may come to pass that your hand will make a mistake and strike you. But would you take a stick and chastise your hand because it lacked understanding, and so increase your pain? It is the same if your neighbor, who is of one soul with you, wrongs you because of his lack of understanding. If you punish him, you only hurt yourself.

Question: But if I see a man who is wicked before God, how can I love him?

Answer: Don’t you know that the primordial soul came out of the essence of God, and that every human soul is a part of God? And will you have no mercy on man, when you see that one of his holy sparks has been lost in a maze and is almost stifled?—Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings