Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Carlos Fuentes, "Mexican Tempi: Adagio," from A New Time for Mexico, trans. Marina Gutman Castañeda and Carlos Fuentes

Mexico is now set between two forms of modernity. Exclusionary modernity, drawn from Western models, banishes all that it does not understand. Inclusive modernity understands, especially after the Chiapas rebellion, that there are many ways of being 'modern,' of being contemporaneous with one's own values. Exclusionary modernity refuses the magic and mystery of a country far more attractive because of what we do not know about it than because of what we do know. [...]

Many Mexicans conceive only of a Western model of development as the way to be 'modern.' But the genius of Mexico has consisted in preserving the values of progress without ceasing to affirm the right to mystery, the right to astonishment, the right to an unending shock of recognition. Order is the anteroom of horror. Mexico constantly perverts both -- order and horror -- with the temptation of chaos, the dream at the edge of a cliff, the ritual of a people bent less on telling us what we already know than on discovering what we ignore. 

In his beautiful volume of essays The Gods of Mexico, C.A. Burland was the first to see in the art of ancient Mexico the form of the mandala, a circular symbol representing the universe, manifesting itself formally in drawings based on a system of four rectangles around an empty circle. With these sometimes highly intricate drawings, we attempt complex and numerous approximations to the reality of time and nature. 

In ancient Mexico, the mandala of water signified the several origins of a fluid world. Tlaloc was the god of water, and his kingdom, Tlalocan, was suspended on the clouds, just a little distance above the earth. In contrast to Western gods, each described as a unified whole, the four sources of power in Tlaloc were both contradictory and complementary. From the East came the golden rain of morning. At noon the waters turned blue as they moved southward. At dusk the world was flooded by the red rainfall of the West. At night crops fell, mowed down by the black rain of the North. 

Yet this description is itself a simplification, since we must immediately add that in ancient Mexico each direction of the compass had its own four cardinal points, so that the South had its own east and west, north and south, the North its own north and south, east and west, and so on. If we keep multiplying the directions of each new direction, we find ourselves immersed in a maximum concretion of the infinite. Since the very idea of the infinite is terrifying, we must step back, returning to the simpler orientations of the mandala. A center unifies this immense variety of time and space. Yet if space can be as visible as it wants to be, time must continue to be a mystery. 

Not a passive mystery but more of an invitation to re-create time. Thus its radical modernity. Condemned by 'modern' exclusionists to the shadows of superstition, the old time of Mexico comes back to life with the absolute powers of an oblivion that suddenly becomes an announcement. Einstein says the same thing as the builders of the Zapotec center at Mitla, in Oaxaca do: geometry is not something inherent in nature but a product of the mind. All measure of time and space is relative, not fatally linear and logical. The position of an object in space is defined by its relation to another object. The temporal order of objects is not independent of the position of the observer of the event. And Heisenberg adds, as if he, too, were reading the patterns at Mitla: the presence of the observer introduces indeterminacy into the system. The observer cannot be separated from a point of view. He thus is part of the system. And so, finally, an ideal closed system is impossible. 

Mexican time, old and new, is rooted in this oldest of memories, in this radical and inclusive novelty. It is constituted by them as it constitutes them. 

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