knots books savages you me

Pass this on

First things first this weekend. We have to congratulate North on that Mars landing. Excellent! A triumph for cosmonauts and psychonauts.

LI was rather proud, this week, of our application of the tunnel, Victor Turner’s symbol of the middle passage - the cunicula through which the acolyte passes – to reading. Alas, we seemed to awaken no responding echo! But never one to hesitate before the obscure connections of weird history, we’ve been thinking about books. There’s a great and obscure pattern connecting the adventure, the greater porousness of social hierarchies, and the quantitative increase in reading in the 17th century. These are the subsurface portents of the obscure pattern in which capitalism and the culture of happiness emerge in one another’s arms in the eighteenth century.

The question of the book was the question dividing the savage from the civilized. In Enrique Florescano’s National Narratives of Mexico, he shows how the histories of the Indian nations of Meso-America were interpreted by the Spanish, who alternated between claiming that the Indians lacked a writing system – and thus, a history – and describing Indian “books”. In the debate between las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda in 1550 over the justice of the conquest, Sepulveda made a point of the fact that the Indians did not know how to read or write. On the other hand, one of the first conquerors, Bernal Diaz, who wrote the most famous history of Cortez’s expedition, wrote that “We found houses of idols and sacrifices.. and many books in their paper, gathered in folds, like lengths of duffel.” Florescano quotes a Franciscan friar of the time who wrote that the Indians [on the coast of Veracruz] had five kinds of books: “The first speaks of years and times. The second of the days and festivals they had throughout the year. The third of the dreams... and omens they believed in. The fourth for baptisms and the names they gave their children. The fifth for rituals and ceremonies.” [71]

Two hundred years later, more or less, in 1747, Francoise de Grafigny published a European wide bestseller, Letters of a Peruvian lady. Some of the letters in Grafigny’s fiction-based-on-fact were, she claimed, composed in quipu – Inca knots. In 1751, the claim that the quipu formed a writing system was defended by one of those esoteric Enlightenment Italians, Naples’ Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, Grand Master of the Masons, and, according to rumor, a man who did fearful things in the course of his scientific researches – such as cutting up the living. Sansevero may have known of quipus sent to Naples by Garcilaso Inca, who wrote in his Commentaries on the Kingdom of Peru that quipus only represented numbers. However, some suspected Garcilaso of lying intentionally about the matter. Being a Mason, of course, Sansevero was sensible to the power of signs and intersignes. In his Apologetic letter on the matter, he compared the form of writing of the quipu to the mark of Cain – which is perhaps, indeed, the first writing, and God’s writing, too. The mark of Cain implies the ability to read signs – something that, until that point, had not appeared in the history of the world. In Sabine Hyland‘s life of Blas Valera, a Jesuit who took an interest in the writing system of the Incas, she writes:

Among the more unusual passages in the book is the description of a secret writing system once used, Sansevero claimed, by the ancient Peruvian bards (amauta”) in the Inca Empire. According to the prince, this writing system was depicted in a seventeenth century manuscript that he had purchased from a Jesuit priest, Fatehr Pedro de Illanes. In fact, a record of this purchase, dated to 1744, still exists in the Naples city archives (Domenici and Domenici 1996, 54). Unlike the common Inca quipus, Sansevero’s “royal” quipus consisted of woven images representing the syllables of Quechua. Therefore, the “royal” quipus formed a writing system capable of denoting any utterance in spoken Quechua. According to the text, the entire system was based on a Quechua syllabary represented by forty symbols. The prince emphasized that the existence of these “royal” quipus had been a closely guarded secret of the amauta, the most learned historians of the Inca Empire.” [135]

This is a fascinating argument. Especially as the particular rite de passage of learning to read had become the dividing line between those societies with rites de passages and those societies with ‘education’. Now, of course, reading itself had changed in the period I am talking about, especially as it was taught, still, as primarily a read out loud en masse experience. One has to remember that silent reading was such a novelty in the classical times that it called for special comment from Augustine when he saw Ambrose doing it. It was as peculiar to him as it would be for us to see a man sit at a piano, put his hands on the keys, and proceed to read the score in front of him without playing it. But the book in particular reinforced one kind of reading, and brought about the dominance of the cunicular reading type. Of course, in the comparison between the civilized and the savage, this is passed over, annulled. The attack on this front, this firm belief in reading as opposed to societies without history, is always noteworthy. By the eighteenth century, certain parts of the first encounter – the numerousness of the Indians, for instance, and their cultivation of the earth – were already being overwritten, becoming dreamlike, changed – retrospectively they re-assembled in the European mind, becoming, at best, handfuls of hunters and gatherers. The Aztecs and the Incas evidently formed a stumbling block to the great forgetting.

LI should end this with a few notes about Sansevero, who disputed with various irascible French scientists for, among other things, the honor of having invented an improved encaustic. In one experiment, he burned human skulls, and discovered that they were so slow to burn that he believed they might provide everlasting light. What he had discovered, really, in the ‘vapour’ he had captured, was phosphorus.

And, to round this off on a nice Poe-esque note: in 1765, a French traveler, J.J. de la Lande, wrote a book about what there was to see in Italy. In Naples, he visited the Sansevero chapel, with the statues of the Sansevero ancestors. He was struck by the statue of the Prince’s mother:

“One of the most singular statues is that of “Modesty”, as an attribute placed on the mausoleum of the mother of the last prince; she is represented enveloped in a veil from the head to the feet – one sees the figure as though through the veil, which does well in expressing the full nude: the grave of the physiognomy and the softness of the traits appear there as if one saw them naked. This work is the more singular in neither the Greeks nor the Romans ever undertook to veil the entire visage of their statues, and that the sculptor’s talent has rendered the effects with a verisimilitude that it is hard to suppose without having seen it.”


Anonymous said…
LI, these recent posts of yours are nothing short of amazing. I wish I could respond in a way that doesn't just seem emptily laudatory. To do so I would have to read your posts and the texts involved a lot more carefully than I can at present, but I can't help but say something however inadequate. (And I hope that I won't have to ask you to delete an ill-formed comment re Baudelaire, though your posts do have me have thinking to that 'poet').

The great Chuang Tzu text reminded me of Tarkovsky's Sacrifice. That sequence where the the little kid, the boy, walks over to water a tree, while his home is burning and his father - who has supposedly set it on fire - is being taken by the authorities to a funny farm. This happens 'after' a nuclear holocaust.

It is pretty telling that the tree in Chuang Tzu's text can speak and be heard, in a dream, and does so to question its "use value".

So following the Marxolot "discussion" from a while ago I was rereading Mauss' Essai sur le Don. I'd completely forgotten that at the very end of the essay, a table and a carpenter make an appearance. It is not quite the turning and dancing table in Capital, and yet.

"The Bretons, and the Chronicles of Arthur tell how King Arthur, with the help of a Cornish carpenter, invented the wonder of his court, the miraculous Round Table, seated round which the knights no longer fought. Formerly, 'out of sordid envy', in stupid struggles, duels and murders stained the finest banquets. The carpenter said to Arthur: 'I will make you a very beautiful table, around which sixteen hundred and more can sit, and move around and from which noone will be excluded...No knight will be able to engage in fighting, for there the highest placed will be on the same level as the lowliest."

Alas, that is not the end of the story, its happy ending. Even if the table remains, the community gathered around it is destroyed. As they fight over the possession of a "commodity fetish" called the holy grail. And the possession of a woman who has no seat at the round table. She has many names.