Wednesday, March 23, 2016

"Through art alone, the Mexica said, can human beings approach the real.”

Turquoise-mosaic Disk AD 1300-1521, Mexico Turquoise and wood, 15 3/8 in. (diam.)

"Because we human beings are transitory, our lives as ephemeral as dreams, the tlamatinime suggested that immutable truth is by its nature beyond human experience. On the ever-changing earth, wrote León-Portilla, the Mexican historian, “nothing is ‘true’ in the Nahuatl sense of the word.” Time and again, the tlamatinime wrestled with this dilemma. How can beings of the moment grasp the perduring? It would be like asking a stone to understand mortality.

According to León-Portilla, one exit from this philosophical blind alley was seen by the fifteenth-century poet Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, who described it metaphorically, as poets will, by invoking the coyolli bird, known for its bell-like song:

           He goes his way singing, offering flowers.
           And his words rain down
           Like jade and quetzal plumes.
           Is this what pleases the Giver of Life?
           Is that the only truth on earth?”

“Ayocuan’s remarks cannot be fully understood out of the Nahuatl context, León-Portilla argued. “Flowers and song” was a standard double epithet for poetry, the highest art; “jade and quetzal feathers” was a synecdoche for great value, in the way that Europeans might refer to “gold and silver.” The song of the bird, spontaneously produced, stands for aesthetic inspiration. 

Ayocuan was suggesting, León-Portilla said, that there is a time when humankind can touch the enduring truths that underlie our fleeting lives. That time is at the moment of artistic creation. “From whence come the flowers [the artistic creations] that enrapture man?” asks the poet. “The songs that intoxicate, the lovely songs?” And he answers: “Only from His [that is, Ometeotl’s] home do they come, from the innermost part of heaven.” Through art alone, the Mexica said, can human beings approach the real.”

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