Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Death and the Idea of Mexico: Claudio Lomnitz (4)

Modern historians have a lot to thank Karl Marx for really. Not only did he provide them with not one, but two suggested explanations for the underlying course of history, but also — rather less obviously, because the impact has been felt across the political spectrum of academia — he popularised dialectical thinking, which suits the sort of commentator who likes to deal in coherent paradigms rather than potentially more disjointed facts and ideas.

So you might — as I did — come to Lomnitz's book expecting to find a comprehensive answer to the question 'what is it about these Mexicans and death?', but instead what you get is a response to two alternative and largely competing previous answers to that question.

Undergrad historians, typically one step removed from original research, learn this trick early on. So-and-so said this, but so-and-so said that, and so my own interpretation is either going to be a gutless hedge (aka "fence sitting") or an attempt to create some new and distinct synthetic third position using bits of both.

Faced with a dense literature on the Mexican death-obsession falling into two broad churches — that it descends from pre-Colombian roots in either ancient Mesoamerica or medieval Iberia — Lomnitz contends that it was in fact the cataclysmic meeting of these two cultures and the need to re-establish the hegemonic order after the holocaust which resulted in an apparently unique nationalisation of the death-cult in Mexico.

There is much that is compelling in Lomnitz's argument, but there are always going to be gaps when your answer to a specific question is essentially a response to earlier viewpoints. For instance, my friend Antonio in Brazil believes the candy skulls on sale at the start of November in Mexico must somehow descend from Aztec tzompantli (skull racks), for if there wasn't something very specific in the native culture squished by Cortés and co, why would Mexicans be any more death-obsessed than the rest of Latin America? Lomnitz's hegemonic whiplash argument can only provide the most indirect sort of parry to the thrust of Antonio's intuition.

And frankly, the greater issue for me is that I did not pick up this hefty volume in search of a sociological history of the Days of the Dead in Mexico. I really did want a comprehensive answer the question 'what is it about these Mexicans and death?' — one that delved a bit more into popular psychology and its localised peculiarities for this, at least as far as the topic of mortality is concerned, is my current topic of greatest interest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would add to your friend's observation that being edible, candy skulls, have something to do with Azted cannibalism. I know that skulls aren't edible but you get my drift.

What shocks me about the Mexican death-obsession is that it was not stamped out/subdued by the church or even cultural changes. No other culture, in the world perhaps, was as death obsessed as the Aztecs. Why would their cultural descendants not be so inclined? Ultimately, vanidad de vanidades, todo es vanidad.