Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Landa's Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan, Edited by Alfred M. Tozzer

The Maya of the Yucatan

Landa's Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan,
 Edited by Alfred M. Tozzer
Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
Published by the Museum, 1941
Reprint by Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1966

     Diego de Landa (1524-1579) was a priest who often plays the heavy in simple minded Spanish vs. Maya narrative about the conquest of the Yucatan Maya. He is often held responsible for burning vast amounts of Mayan literature, and was largely the man-on-the-ground for the attempt of the Church to suppress indigenous believes in the area, particularly human sacrifice and idol worship.  He also wrote the best history we have of the period before and after the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan.  Even so, it's a pretty terse document, which is why having access to the incredible annotated Peabody monograph translation is so critical.  This book sells for 150 bucks on Amazon, and it is well worth it for the definitive (for 1941) answers given to the questions raised by Landa's sometimes confused descriptions.   The Peabody annotation has over 1,000 detailed footnotes (which often occupy almost the entire page of text) and a detailed index.

    The combination of Landa's translated text and the detailed annotations give the reader a clear picture of the history of the Yucatan Maya in the period prior to and just after the Spanish conquest.  The major detail that emerges from the notes is the role of the Mani area Maya in collaboration with the Spanish, and the opposition of the other Conquest era Maya powers- the Itzas (who would eventually retreat south) and the towns of the Cancun/Quintana Roo Pacific coast.

   Mani, a town which exists today, is the closest major settlement to the ruins of Uxmal, and the local Mayan elite played an outsized role in integrating Spanish and Mayan cultures. The general idea of the period before the Conquest is that there was an indigenous Mayan population who were "conquered" by elite groups and their followers from outside the area- either Mexican influenced Mayans from the South and East, or Mexican groups themselves.  These groups, in either guise, brought distinctly Mexican cultural practices to the area, most notably the art of the human sacrifice and intense idol worship (vs. the worship of natural geographic features like mountains and cenotes.)

   My sense is that the Mani area Maya don't get enough credit for their early acquiescence to Spanish rule.  After all, Mani is still there and, occasional 16th century inquisition inside, hasn't seen a lot of drama.  I'm not sure you could even say they were colonized, because it doesn't seem like much development has taken place in the area.

Thank You, Jeeves (1934) by P.G. Wodehouse

Jeeves, from the failed "Ask Jeeves" website (now

Book Review
Thank You, Jeeves (1934)
 by P.G. Wodehouse

  If you are my age, you associate the name "Jeeves" with the failed internet search engine "Ask Jeeves" (now "")  If you are twenty years older you might think of Jeeves as the generic term for a butler.  Both references are derived from the same place, the Jeeves series of novels by P.G. Wodehouse.  Thank You, Jeeves is the first in the series of novels, and it features all the characteristics of a Jeeves novel.  Bertram Wooster, an amiable upper class twit from England, gets into a marriage related scrape and worms out of trouble with the help of Jeeves, his condescending, well educated butler.

  The plot of Thank You, Jeeves is as emblematic of the series as any, according to the descriptive essay included in the 2006 edition of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die.  And although the characters and plotting couldn't be more dated: A major plot point in Thank You, Jeeves involves so-called "Nigger" (I shit you not) jazz musicians and Bertram disguising himself in black face and evoking literally murderous reactions from various servants, afraid that he is a "black devil."  Perhaps the only saving grace, in terms of the racist language is that Wodehouse doesn't actually have any black characters, and therefore he can't dig himself deeper then the casual, repeated use of the offensive "nigger"can take him.  I mean this book was published in the 1930s.

 One way that Wodehouse  maintains relevance is his light, airy style which presages the internet style of bloggers and websites.  It is not a far leap, stylistically, from Wodehouse to slang heavy language of the net, and his obsessions with light subjects similarly echoes the cats and kardashians net world.  

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Museum Review: Gran Museo de Mundo Maya @ Merida, Mexico

The distinctive "stadium" design of the Gran Museo Del Mundo Maya De Merida is somewhat deceptive, the museum is in the low slung rectangular building pictured with the lettering on it.

Museum Review:
Gran Museo de Mundo May
Merida, Mexico
visited January 2015

 I very much doubt I would have agreed to visit Merida Mexico were it not for the Mayan sites. Ultimately, I went to only one ruin site during my week long stay, but I made sure to catch the newish Gran Museo de Mundo Maya (Or Grand Museum of the Mayan World for english speakers.)  The opening of the Gran Museo de Mundo Maya had the effect of gutting the older Museum of Anthropology, which is harmed in a converted mansion closer into town.  The Gran Museo de Mundo Maya is located at the northern periphery of Merida, and a visitor is best advised to either arrange for round trip or simply drive- walking there from the center of town is simply impossible for a variety of good reasons ranging from heat to the traffic lay out.

   The Gran Museo de Mundo Maya is an effective, if basic, look at the entire Mayan World with a bias towards someone looking for the most basic information about them. The long run-way design of the permanent collection starts in the present day and works backwards.  The contemporary Mayan stuff is Museum 101- basically lots of exposition and few artifacts, but as the Museum moves back in time the level of detail improves.  The artifacts are drawn from the Yucatan area- this is a regional museum, and you shouldn't expect to see any of the show stopping classic era Mayan artifacts that you would see in Guatemala or other provinces of Mexico.  There are several detailed films that are only in Spanish, so bear that in mind.  The wall plaques are tri lingual- Spanish, English and Mayan.

   Another note of caution for potential visitors- the only on site food and drink is literally the movie theater snack bar located on the mezzanine of the bird's nest building.  Good luck with that! Do not expect to eat there at a cute museum cafe!

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Book Review: A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins by C. Bruce Hunter

Full color reproductions of the Mayan murals at Bonampak, an obscure site unlikely to actually be visited by anyone who isn't hard core, are a good example of the value of A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins by C. Bruce Hunter.

Book Review:
 A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins
 by C. Bruce Hunter
Second edition, published 1986

   Personally, I think the classic and post-classic (pre-Spanish) Maya are a hot topic in world prehistory/archaeology.   Mostly because of the way that their "rise and fall" coincided with variations in climate and rainfall.  Also though there are interesting questions about the relationships between the different cultures in Mexico- the Maya interaction with the Olmecs, Toltecs and Aztecs.   Finally, there are the issues surrounding the local elites and their interactions with the "commoners."  You can't understand any of these subjects simply by looking at large stone ruins, but the ruins do give a certain amount of perspective of all three major issues of interest.

   The physical description of Mayan ruins has lagged beyond the wider trends in historiography that guide the questions outlined above.  I found this particular book in the San Diego Central Library, where I just looked up the pre-Columbian civilizations subject in the History section.  First published in the mid 1970s, the 2nd edition was published in 1986, and the San Diego Library didn't buy it until the mid 1990s. I suppose that would make it the pre eminent work in the area, but I would like to read something that integrates more recent advances in Maya studies.
The Mayan ruins at Tikal, deep in the Guatemalan jungle, are probably the most spectacular physical remains of the Maya fluorescence.

  That said, the ability of the author to give a coherent viewpoint and discuss all the major sites with the goal of "servicing" a prospective visitor to the area is not to be missed. A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins is probably a classic because of the ability to give a touristy gloss to not-overly academic source materials.  The tips I would pass along from my reading- this is after actually going to Uxmal on a recent trip but passing on other sites; the tip is that you should just hit the most accessible ruin you can and then read about the others.  There's nothing so glorious in the mix that you would simply plan a trip around it, except possibly Ticul/Tical in the Guatemalan rain forest.

Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce

James Joyce, author of Ulysses.

Book Review
Ulysses (1922)
by James Joyce

  Even writing about Ulysses is intimidating. Almost universally acknowledged as THE masterpiece of high modernism in literature (Virginia Woolf called it a disaster.) Reading Ulysses without a guidebook handy is almost impossible- the paper copy I bought is something like 800 pages.  I decided to listen to an audiobook version on the theory that I would get more out of the text listening to it. The 18 sections of Ulysses added up to 30 hours of audio.  I listened to it entirely while I was either driving between San Diego and Los Angeles, San Diego and El Centro or running.  Mostly running.   While listening I kind of read along, although as I write this after finishing the audio version I'm only three hundred pages into the print version.

  Ulysses is a kind of litmus test for whether a person is serious about literature.  It is one of those works that is more often referred to than read. but I would imagine intimate familiarity with Ulysses is essentially a prerequisite for graduate study of Literature in English speaking countries.  It is hard to imagine anyone actually getting through Ulysses in print or audio and not appreciating it.  The well publicized obscenity prosecutions which prevented wide spread dissemination of the text for decades only add to the allure.

  James Joyce self consciously wrote Ulysses as a text that would occupy scholars and become immortal due to its complexity, which includes intentional errors and a panoply of specialized areas from medicine, to linguistics, to the study of literature, to religion, geometry, Irish nationalism, etc, etc etc.  The combination of intentional obscurity, innovative narrative techniques, specialized knowledge and earthy sexuality is a heady mix, and again, it is easy to feel the direct influence that Ulysses has had on literature which has followed.

 At the same time, Ulysses is an incredibly frustrating, dense, exasperating ordeal to consume, and it is hard to see where someone not obsessed with 20th century literary modernism would ever find the time, let alone the will power to undertake the quest outside of the framework of schooling.  Perhaps though the analogy can once again be drawn between undertaking the comprehension of Ulysses and the experience of binge watching an entire television show with multiple seasons.   One could read Ulysses in the same amount of time it takes to watch a show like the Walking Dead and the reward is an understanding of the keystone of modernist prose.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Museum Review: Uxmal Archaeological Zone, Yucatan Mexico

The Ruins at Uxmal: The so-called "Governor's Palace" is one of the finest examples of large-scale Puuc Hills Mayan architecture.

Museum Review:
Uxmal Archaeological Zone, Yucatan Mexico

        I am a huge fan of ancient civilizations- not in a crazy, ufo, alien kind of way, but just in the things we can learn from their rise and fall.  The more the merrier is what I say and if I have a legitimate shot to go and see those places I'm going to take it. Uxmal is probably the number two Mayan site, behind Chichen Itza. Both sites benefit from being accessible by modern transportation and fairly near standard tourist destinations (Cancun, Tulum and Merida.)  The so called Classic Maya period happened further south, mostly in Guatemala  and Belize and those sites are less served by the modern travel-industrial complex.
The "Temple of the Magician/Soothsayer" is the second of the well known structures in the Uxmal archaeological zone.  You can't climb this one.

           Chichen Itza is generally regarded to be more sophisticated, though with an obvious central Mexican influence.  Uxmal represents an extension of the purer Mayan "Puuc" style, and seemingly represents a continuance of the Classic period groups into the 10th century. Uxmal is very much a developed, modern tourist attraction, with a hefty-ish admission fee, and bus loads of tourists being brought to the entrance.  After a hellish, unshaded wait in a line that took us the better part of an hour and can obviously take longer at busier times, the actual park was relatively uncrowded.
The Nunnery/Quadrangle is the third of the major attractions at the Uxmal archaeological zone.

          The major sites at Uxmal are "The Nunnery"/Quadrangle, the pyramid of the soothsayer/magician, the governor's palace, a secondary temple, and a ball court.  They are in a well preserved, shaded landscape.  Compared to the rough undergrowth that permeates the countryside for a hundred miles in all directions, the Uxmal park is a comparative garden of Eden.  It is also waaaaayyyy out in the middle of nowhere. Uxmal is about an hour and a half from the cruise-ship port of Progreso and an hour from Merida.  Merida is the standard point of departure for a visit to Uxmal, it is about an hour south of the city on decently maintained but largely empty roads.  We visited from our hotel- the Hacienda Santa Rosa, a Starwood Luxury Collection resort that is midway between Merida and Campeche.

       If you are going, I would very much recommend driving yourself vs taking one of the hellish looking giant tour buses. The crowd there over New Years was very much a mix of Mexican and American/Europeans- almost no "Asian" tourists- whether Chinese, Japanese or Korean.  Americans seemed to predominate among the non-Mexican tourists.  You have to buy not one but two tickets for entrance- one from the local state and one from the feds- the ticket booths are next to one another- one person working each booth.  It almost boggles the mind that the government would only have one ticket taker working, but it does manage the flow into the park quite nicely so that there is no rush of people in or out.

  The story of Mayan architecture is the gradual usurpation of native Mayan techniques with a fusion architecture that integrated later Central Mexican influences picked up as the Mayans migrated north after the Classic period disruption.  Thus, Uxmal is a late example of the "Classic" style, and the standard cluster of ruins doesn't feature any Toltec influence.  Despite the lines and tour buses, Uxmal is a must for anyone visiting Merida or Campeche.

Book Review: Radio Benjamin by Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin was a famous Marxist scholar AND did a radio show for children in Germany between World War I and the rise of the Nazis.

Book Review:
Radio Benjamin
by Walter Benjamin
Verso Press
Published October 28th, 2014

  Walter Benjamin was a founding member of the "Frankfurt School" a group of left-leaning intellectuals who are best known for their development of "cultural marxism" a brand of socialist sought that took into account recent developments in mass media.  Although their body of thought has had a huge influence on the field of "cultural studies" and inspired several generations of critics, their acceptance has been hampered by an almost comical pessimism about the negative influence of popular culture.  The irony that the group of intellectuals who have done the  most for defining and investigating "popular culture" themselves largely HATED popular culture has not been lost on those who would seek to dismiss the Frankfurt School into the dustbin of history.

  Alone (I think) amongst the major Frankfurt School scholars(Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer are the other two of the the "big three.") Walter Benjamin had a lot of positive things to say popular culture.  He is best known for his unfinished "Arcades Project" which (I think)  largely celebrates the joys of the culture of the (small) market.   Radio Benjamin is an important contribution to Benjamin's legacy, even though he famously thought that his radio work was beneath notice.

 Perhaps because of Benjamins objection to the material, the radio talks he gave mostly on a program for Children, which is the bulk of Radio Benjamin, have not been translated into English until the issuance of this book.  The essays are about a variety of subjects, but they touch on reoccurring themes in his work, most notably when he delves into the old-timey culture of Germany.  The benefit of these essays being radio broadcasts intended for children is apparent, with a level of complexity that opens up Benjamin to a non-specialist who may have only heard of Benjamin (that was me, even though I've read other members of the Frankfurt School and secondary material about Benjamin.

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