Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 05, 2011


Map of the Aztec Empire at its greatest extent.


The Flute of the Smoking Mirror
a portrait of Nezahualcoyotl- Poet-Kings of the Aztecs
by Frances Gilmor
University of Utah Press

    I was reading a different book about the Aztecs, and the book mentioned how one of their legends mentions that early in their history, they made some treaty with another city state, and arranged for a dynastic marriage.  The other city sent the kings daughter, and the Aztecs sacrificed her, flayed off her skin and then at the "marriage dinner" the high priest walked out in front of the other King dressed in his daughter's skin suit.  Yikes!

    So at the time, I discounted it, because I don't like to be in the habit of judging cultural/religious practices I find distasteful, even dancing around in skin suits like a f****** serial killer.    So anyway, I finally got around to reading this Flute of the Smoking Mirror, which is an assemblage of sources about this historic, pre-Contact King of the Aztec people.  It's been said of Nezahualcoyotl that he is the only "real person" in Aztec history and that's borne out by this narrative.

    Basically, Nezahualcoyotl lived in the early 15th century, and he was the son of the Aztec King.  His Dad lost a battle to a neighboring city state, and Nezhualcoyotl was young enough so that he escaped across the lake, and was able to grow up relatively unmolested, though occasionally harassed by the usurper.  Then he grows up puts together a coalition of forces with the help of other cities and they go and take back the Aztecs main city.  Emboldened by their success, the winning coalition (let by Aztecs though including other Nahuatl speaking city-states, expands their influence beyond the valley south and east.

    The "themes" of the Flute of the Smoking Mirror once Nezahualcoyotl is on top (though ruling together with Montezuma, the grand father of the leader that the Spanisn encountered) deal with the vagaries of being a King in the Valley of Mexico tradition.

   One problem he faced was the Aztec's tough laws against adultery.  It comes up three times: First, he kills one of his sons for adultery.  Then, he imprisons a second son for years until he's proved innocent.  Finally, he falls in love with the young wive of a trusted veteran soldier, and basically orders the soldier to sacrifice himself in the "War of Flowers" tradition so that he can marry the wive (avoiding adultery because the husband is dead, you see.)

   Also, and I feel I would simply be remiss if I didn't point this out, there is ANOTHER reference to a different occasion where the Aztecs would flay off the skin of a sacrificial victim and wear the skin as a suit.  Now, you PC types can call this an allegory or a metaphor or whatever, but the fact remains that the Aztecs had a god- Xipe Totec and he was depicted as:  wearing a flayed human skin, usually with the flayed skin of the hands falling loose from the wrists.  So I'm going to go ahead and say that this actually happened with the Aztecs, they actually wore flayed human skin as part of their religion.  That is some fucked up shit, that's all I'm going to say.  Fucked. Up. Shit.

   No wait- one more thing- this was only six hundred years ago- that is like an eye blink.  You can say whatever you want about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, but they did not flay off the skin of human sacrifice victims and then wear the skin as a suit.  Some might say, torturing people and burning them at the stake was pretty mean spirited and gross, too which I would say, 1) the Aztecs tortured people and burned them AS WELL and the Spaniards did not rip the hearts out of live people to make it rain and run around wearing skin suits for days on end.  Does saying that make me an imperialist?  More like an empiricist. 

  All I'm saying is that if you want to understand Mexico's present, and by "Mexico's present" I mean the never-ending drug war that is killing tens of thousands of Mexican's every year,  you have to understand Mexico's past and to understand Mexico's pre-Spanish past, you have to understand the role of ritualized violence in their religion. 

         Just as you can describe Europe in the Middle Ages as "Christian" in character, so you can describe the Aztecs.  The human sacrifice element was emphasized, even as it compared to their predecessor and coalition cultures- the Aztecs emphasized the human sacrifice and the skin suit.  They elevated it to hithero unimagined levels in the same way that the Nazis developed genocide.   Human Sacrifice probably varied in significance through the pre-Contact history of MesoAmerican but when the Spanish showed up it was at it's height, and it was at it's height because of the Aztecs specific version of the larger MesoAmerican religious system.

    You can think of the present policies of the Mexican government as a kind of updated version of the human sacrifice- they know people will die, but are dedicated to the belief system that leads them to make the sacrifices regardless.


Four Cultures of the West
by John O'Malley
p. 2004
Harvard University Belknap Press

  I am of the opinion that you can't understand the present without a thorough grounding in the history of Christianity.  It may be possible to be a thoroughly non-Christian western intellectual today, but that has only been true for about 20-30 years.  Before that, even the anti-Christian writers and thinkers KNEW about Christianity because it was IMPOSSIBLE not to know.  As a general rule, political liberals, intellectuals and hipsters spend more time mocking Christianity then understanding it- and that is a shame.

   It's one thing to say that the history of Christianity is important to know, it's quite another to find the right books to convey that knowledge.   Half a millennium of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants has introduced a ton of partisanship into the subject area.  Thus, when I find a good writer on the subject-  I stick with him.  John O'Malley is one of he good ones, Catholic though he may be.  Last year I read his excellent history of the Jesuit Order, The First Jesuits.  Four Cultures of the West takes as it's starting point the contrast between "ATHENS AND JERUSALEM" i.e. the respective influences of the Hellenic Philosophers vs. Hebrew Prophets on Western Civilization, itemizing that overlapping influence by describing Four Cultures and talking about their modern descendants.

   Culture One is the culture of "Prophecy and Reform"- here he is talking about the culture that gave rise to "JERUSALEM": Hebrew prophets, Christian Saints & Luther and his disciples.  This is a culture resistant to compromise and moderation.

    Culture Two is the culture of "The Academy and the Professions."  This is the culture which arose out of Athens, developed into medieval scholasticism, then into the University.  It's hard to ignore the impact of the University on our modern world but less easy to understand the relationship between the University and medieval  Scholasticism.

   Culture Three is the culture of "Poetry, Rhetoric & The Common Good."  This is the culture of what we would call today "The Gentleman"- educated but not scholarly- a culture that includes the Humanists of the Renaissance, the rhetorical orators of Rome and their spiritual descendants. Culture Three developed a strong critique of the Scholasticism of the medieval University that succeeded in transforming that institution into it's modern version.

   Culture Four is the culture of "Art and Performance"- this one is pretty self explanatory and probably the most familiar to readers of this blog since it includes popular music/popular culture, novels, etc.  Unfortunately, O'Malley's discussion of Culture Four is largely comprised of a recounting of the Iconoclast/Iconophile debate that took place in Southern Europe during the early middle ages, so it actually turns out to be the weakest chapter of the whole book.

   Developed out of a lecture series, Four Cultures of the West is very readable- no specialized knowledge required.  O'Malley's main point is not to describe each culture as independent from one another, but rather to note how they have influenced one another and how each has influenced the Modern World.  Each of the four cultures has maintained relevance from Ancient times to Modern times.  O'Malley is not trying to be totally inclusive- he acknowledges that he is omitting other significant cultures, such as the culture of the Germanic tribes on Rome's northern border, and the commercial/business culture that started in the early modern period.  Ultimately, O'Malley has a strong thesis, and this book is a good introduction to the subject of Four Cultures of the West.


Monday, August 01, 2011

Biography of A Bank: The Story of Bank of America by Marquis James and Bessie R. James

Biography of a Bank: The Story of Bank of America
by Marquis James and Bessie R. James
p. 1954

   One of the aspects of grad school level humanities culture that I find most amusing is studied ignorance about all things economic.  Occasional Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics style magazine articles aside, people who work in non-business related professions and non-business related academic disciplines- not to mention you average college graduate hipster, display a level of knowledge about economics equivalent to what can be placed as a caption on a Che Guevara bearing t-shirt.

  That's a pity, because the average Fortune 500 corporation is wayyyyy more important to our daily lives then the average book on 18th century British literature.  It's not really fashionable or cool to shine a bright beam of light at the history of our 20th century American Corporate Titans, but this book is one example- I literally found it in the back room of a crazy-ass cool book store in Yucca Valley, CA.

  Far from being a leftist expose of said Bank of America, Biography of a Bank is a bought and paid for hagiography of Bank of America's founder,  A.P Giannani, who is presented in this puff piece as a kind of Horatio Alger-meets-Homeric hero.  However, because it's so duecedly difficult to find ANY similar kind of narrative, interesting nuggets can't but help slip through the cracks.

    Giannani's vision of a single national bank ministering to every single US citizen has taken a starkly dystopian cast in recent calendar years.  Much of the underlying mortgage crisis and concurrent Recession/Depression, as well as the weakness of the recovery, can in some way be attributed to changes in our Banking system that would have no doubt pleased Giannani, but would also appear to this Titan of 20th century Business as a distressing development.  For example, Bank of America itself is now a national and international bank (good) headquartered in Charlotte North Carolina (bad.)

   Basically, the picture I got from Biography of A Bank is that banking is a pretty good gig but you have the Feds and State government up your butt every single minute.  In retrospect, Giannani had a lot of positive contributions to our Economy- especially in California- he was a pioneer in extending consumer credit, in funding single home mortgages, in bankrolling California based industries like Motion Pictures AND Bank of America was instrumental in financing the World War II manufacturing effort, which, more then anything, is responsible for the California we see around us today.

   Bank of America, with it's emphasis on accumulating the deposits of "the little guy" was a bank for it's time and place- California in the 20th century.  Undoubtably, decisions were made in more recent times that have damaged  BAC as it's now known on the stock exchange.  Biography of a Bank is a well written first chapter of a two chapter story.  I'm actually inclined to buy the stock at 9 dollars- seems cheap for all that tradition, even if it's tarnished.


   I like Fresh & Only's for the following reasons:

  1.  Pre-existing personal/ex friendship with the lead singer from fondly remembered salad days.
  2.  Fresh & Only's are an indie band with true D.I.Y. values- not a lazy bunch of college kids who want to get rich and famous over night.
  3.  Prolific in terms of both recorded output and touring, means there is a greater chance they will be around for longer then six months and one record.

   This band is playing at the Casbah tonight as part of Tim Pyles well-known San Diego weekly, The Anti-Monday League.  The Anti-Monday Leagues was formed in Basel, Switzerland, in the mid 18th century, when a group of university students, under the tutelage of Renaissance Historian Jacob Burkhardt, decided to create a protest against the strict "No Live Music Rules" of the surrounding town.  Their so-called "Anti Monday" League has persisted down into the present, embodied by the reoccurring show at the Casbah each Monday.  It is, to be sure, an August heritage, and a tradition well worth preserving.

   Joining Fresh & Only's are support-act Terry Malts and local openers PLATEAUS.  This event ALSO includes the musical styling of disk jockey Martino Ordonobergweiss- fresh off his residency at Hollywood's famed Troubadour venue.  You can purchase advance tickets, here.

  ALSO this week in the North County, San Diego region, local Heroes Transfer will be headlining at the Belly Up Tavern.  Hopefully by now you've read the excellent San Diego City Beat cover story of June 8th, 2011 about their incipient super-stardom.  It also names the manager who is plotting their current path- turns out it is Jeremy Bates of Teen Age Riot Music.  It looks like he has them on the right route for sure.  Next stop: The stars.

   You can purchase tickets to their August 4th, 2011 show at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach right HERE.  It might be your last chance to see them before they blast out of the stratosphere: Don't miss it!

   And OH speaking of Plateaus- you won't want to miss the Upcoming 2011 West Coast Art Fag Recordings Tour featuring Heavy Hawaii, PLATEAUS & BLEACHED (ex-Mika Miko, Cold Cave, present Cold Showers.)

   Here is a full list of those shows:

2011 Art Fag Recordings Summer West Coast Tour Dates

08/09 Pomona, CA.  Aladdin Jr. II !
08/10 Sacramento, CA. Luigi's Slice and Fun Garden !
08/12 Seattle WA. The Comet Tavern #
08/13 Portland, ORE.  Mississippi Studios @
08/13 Seattle, WA.  The Comet Tavern #
08/16 San Francisco CA. Hemlock Tavern !
08/18 Santa Cruz CA. The Crepe Place !
08/19 Los Angeles CA.  The Smell !
08/20 San Diego, CA.  Soda Bar !

@ w/ Ganglians, Cuckoo Chaos
#  w/ Pharmacy 

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