Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Book Review: Breaking the Maya Code

Coe, Michael D. Breaking the Maya Code (1992)

Coe begins with a survey of the history of writing systems, with a glance at linguistics. His main story tells of the rediscovery of the pitifully few codices salvaged by a few of the Spanish friars, and the slow and steady recording of the inscriptions found on stone and pottery. Early students of these Mayan remains suggested that like all writing systems they were phonetic. A Spanish bishop, Landa, even recorded what he understood of the Mayan alphabet, which provided the key to the eventual deciphering of the script. Like all ideographic scripts, it's a mix of logograms (signs that represent words or morphemes), and phonetic signs that indicate the pronunciation of the logograms. The phonetic signs are also used to spell out words (for example, foreign names, which are meaningless in the native language). Thus a character could be a logogram or combination; or a logogram with one or more phonetic signs; or a combination of phonetic signs. Like the Egyptian scribes, Mayans used all three methods interchangeably, sometimes for aesthetic reasons, sometimes perhaps for word play or merely personal preference.

Coe is very good at sketching the character and life of each of his protagonists, and at summarising their research and its results. He tells s story of clashing personalities, professional envy, ego-involved clinging to obvious errors, and even interference by ideological politicians. The deciphering of the code was the work of many hands and minds (one a teenager), took longer that it needed to, and shows that academic infighting is as nasty and mean-spirited as any. In the end, we recognise an immense intellectual achievement, which will enable the (partial) recovery of Mayan history and culture.

That culture was bloody and cruel. I've been bemused by people who profess to see beauty in the Mayan characters and sculptures. I've always thought they expressed some of the most evil impulses of the human spirit, and had no desire (as I did when I looked a Egyptian art) of being transported back in time to live a few days or weeks in that society. Eric Thompson, one the most assiduous Mayanists, believed that the Maya were a society ruled by priest-kings, mystics who cultivated science and spiritual wisdom. I can't understand how anyone looking at the art could believe this. The most common expression on the faces is a sneer. The Mayan elite clearly believed themselves to be superior to the peasants who fed them, and gloried in humiliating their adversaries. The images of the gods show monsters. Mayan mythology seems to be death-obsessed - the majority of the gods were gods of the underworld.

Thompson believed too that the Mayan script was ideographic, "representing ideas directly". He should have known better – no other script anywhere in the world does this; all are phonetic. "Picture writing" exists only in the form of comic strip-like drawings, and both intuition and records of how they were used show that such drawings were used as mnemonic devices: they were not scripts. But scripts are not comic strips. What's oddest about Thompson and his like (and there were many scholars with similar attitudes) is that they thought they could decipher the inscriptions without knowledge of the Mayan languages, and with minimal knowledge of their culture. But that knowledge was available: despite their generally arrogant assumptions about their cultural superiority, and the truth of their religion, the Spanish invaders did leave reasonably accurate accounts of what they observed of the indigenous peoples' lifestyles. To make little or no use of these resources, to make no attempt to learn the language, to ignore the results of comparative philology and anthropology, all these indicate a man obsessed with a vision of some idealised world, and locked into a belief that he had found an actual example. No other interpretations could be admitted as valid or true. Yet oddly, Thompson did from time to time acknowledge that such facts and results were likely true. He just didn't incorporate them into his view of the Maya.

Not that Thompson was alone, nor is his use of anthropological studies unique. Think of the not so distant characterisation of the !Kung as a pacific, innocent tribal people, untouched and uncorrupted by the evils of civilisation. Yet statistical analysis shows that their murder rate is much higher than that of any civilized society. The desire to believe in an innocent stage of human society is strong; the myth of Eden expresses its essence.

One of the perennial questions about archaeology is its value. What good is it to know about long-vanished cultures? What practical value is there to knowing that the Mayan kings not only tortured and killed their adversaries, but also subjected themselves to horrifically painful rituals, some of which must have left permanent scars and impairments? The answer is, none. Except perhaps to help us understand what humans are capable of. The Maya were cruel and bloodthirsty, as were the Aztecs, the Sumerians, the Stalinists, in fact all totalitarian states (and all states tend towards totalitarianism.) But they were also accomplished mathematicians and astronomers, and had a far more subtle and accurate method of counting the days than we have.

In any case, we are blessed and cursed with an ability to produce far more surplus wealth than we can reasonably consume. Our preferred method for consuming that surplus is to destroy it in wars. Far better to use it for adventures of the human spirit. Space exploration is cheap compared to war. Archaeology is cheaper still. Each of these, and many other impractical endeavours, satisfies curiosity and intellectual and spiritual yearnings. That's more than enough justification, I think. I know that perhaps only a few thousand people will care that the Mayan script is now partially readable, and that our intuitions about their way of life will be more or less confirmed as their history is unravelled. That's OK. All interests are minority interests.

Book Review: Black Cat, January 1904

Black Cat, January 1904
42pp text + 24pp advertising.

I could find no information about The Shortstory Publishing Company of Boston, Massachusetts. This issue of Black Cat is Vol. IX, No. 4, Whole No., 100, so it was around for some time. Searching on the magazine's name yielded more; it was begun in 1895, and lasted well into the 1920s. This copy cost 5 cents. By 1919, when Henry Miller wrote for it, it cost 15 cents.
The stories are typical high end pulp fiction: the style is quite "literary", a word I put in quotes because the writers use what they and their readers presumably think is good writing. The stories all have twists, a couple are shaggy dog stories. As entertainment, they are pleasant and innocuous enough. As evidence of the intended audience the stories are wonderful, and the ads provide an even better insight. The demographic appears to be middle class, people who want to better their position, by taking correspondence courses for example. Several ads offer instruction leading to a career as an advertising writer or manager, others offer editing and revision services to would-be authors, and of course there's the usual quota of nostrums and health foods.
Several ads offer sets of leather-bound volumes at half price, the ostensible reason being a "binding error", or "scuff marks." All these offers originate at the same address, but have different names attached. "Only 30 sets" are on hand, apparently. These ads appeal to the same attitudes that show up in ads of the 1950s-80s for whiskey or recorded music showing a well dressed man or couple in a book-lined room. Several ads are for railroads, which implies better than average income: travel was expensive around 1900. A fascinating magazine.

My Oriental Visitor (Harry Stilwell Edwards) A visitor to the narrator (how he gets into the study isn't clear) tells a fantastic story about the provenance of a small ivory carving of a cat. Turns out he is the narrator's son Style is high flown "oriental". **
The Death Pearl (Frank Lillie Pollock) Two friends fish for pearls, one find a gorgeous pink one. His older friend tries to steal it, which causes a rift. Some time later both attend a reception at which the hostess wears the pearl. The older friend grabs and tosses it, it explodes: it was part of a nefarious plot to kill the man's enemy, containing a mysterious explosive that would blow up only after a period of gentle heat (provided by the hostess's deep decolletage.) An over-plotted tale, as this summary shows. *
With McGann in the Equation (Richard Barker Shelton) A thief arrives at a sleepy town in the swamps, and tells the denizens that he's a detective waiting for a thief, and deputises a bunch of them. When the real detective (McGann) shows up, he is of course detained, and the thief escapes. *-½
The Passing of the Gooba (Mrs. Willis Lord Moore) A satirical account of how a con man sets up a major scam, using "eastern philosophy", etc. The satire attacks not only the gullibility of "practical men", but also social climbing, and materialistic greed. The writing isn't as sharp or subtle as in Stephen Leacock's version of the same plot, but it hits its target. **-½
A Pair of Paper Aunts (F. Wendt) An 18 year old girl must return to America without her aunt. The lack of a chaperon disturbs her, so she invents all sorts of reasons why the aunt, whose name still appears on the passenger list, cannot leave the cabin. A young man makes her acquaintance, and eventually gives her a letter from his aunt to hers. The girl of course reads the letter, which changes her attitude to the young man, but when they each reveal their trickery, they part on bad terms. Only a mixup in their trunk keys, luckily discovered in the customs hall, saves their relationship. A nicely done little love story. **-½