Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins
originally published 1860

   Nothing says "budget literary classic" like a Dover Thrift Edition of a 19th century British Novel.  The funniest aspect of the entire "classic literature" concept is the way in which a piece of literature can be published and ignored and derided by critics of the time, only to emerge as a classic of it's particular genre decades later.  It's not like this phenomenon happens a whole lot, but when it does, the work in question is almost always something that is tremendously popular with the public, but not with critics.   The opposite phenmeneon: A work hailed by the critics but ignored by the public; happens a WHOLE lot less then critics of ANY age would care to admit.   And that's because critics like to pretend they are important in guiding popular taste, but in any age, the popular audience literally doesn't give a shit about the critics.

      A viable strategy  for modern critics is to look for popular works of art that are critically disfavored: Adam Sandler movies, and Dance Pop Singles are two modern examples, but you can go back in time and make an endless list:  comic books, science-fiction, early rock and roll 45s.  This experience is best exemplified by the 18th century Rise of the Novel.

    Wilkie Collins The Woman in White is an example of a popular novel that has both risen and declined in popular and critical acclaim since being published in 1860.  When it was published, it was a sensation- a huge success in serialized form.  By the turn of the 20th century it was being hailed as an important fore-runner to the detective novel (both Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote AFTER The Woman in White came out.)  At the beginning of the 21st century, it is what you would call a "minor classic" in that you can get yourself a Dover Giant Thrift Edition for a penny, but no one has ever adopted it into a major motion picture.

      However, for me the most interesting part of The Woman In White is Collins' well-known friendship with Charles Dickens.  Their relationship is the subject of swaths of Peter Ackroyd's magisterial biographical treatment of Charles Dickens.  According to Ackroyd, "Dickens turned to [Collins] for companionship in what he would describe as voluptuous or sybaritic jaunts."  Collins was a generation younger then Dickens and functioned as a kind of Dickensian alter-ego during their relationship.  Dickens obviously advised Collins on the writing of The Woman in White, while I was reading it I kept thinking to myself that Collins and Dickens must have been buddies.  Indeed, Colllins was Dickens protege.

  What does that mean in terms of my enjoyment of this novel?  Well, I'll tell you- there is no major novelist MORE out of touch with todays literary tastes then Dickens.  Dickens is verbose, his books are hundreds of pages long, boast dozens of characters and delight in the particularistic description of locations. In short, there couldn't be a LESS RELEVANT novelistic style for today.  If you want to put DICKENS at one end of the mid 19th century spectrum, and Flaubert at the other, I would be waaaaaaay over on Flaubert's side, just because I appreciate brevity and recognize that NOBODY has the patience for an 800 page novel unless it's about a fucking child wizard.

  So yeah, The Woman in White is cool if you are into detective novels, Edgar Allen Poe, Sherlock Holmes, etc. but unless you are a fan of the Dickens style 19th century sprawling character/plot/everything approach, you are NOT going to dig The Woman in White. Me?  I didn't really dig it either.  I can imagine a place & time when people got literary magazines in the (twice daily) mail and then would sit around at a coffee house and talk about the latest happenings, but I don't have the time.  I'll read any "classic" but I don't have to enjoy the experience.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Mexican Inquisition of The Sixteenth Century


The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century
by Richard E. Greenleaf
University of New Mexico
p. 1969

   When you are talking about the present, it's appropriate to reference the past.  One of the main flaws of the discipline of history has been the habit of omitting "bad facts" as lawyers call them: Facts that are true, but lead to unpleasant conclusions about the present.  In this regard, the organized persecution of minorities is a mother-load of unpleasant facts.  We are talking about facts that are often obtained under torture, facts that led to mass-murder but facts, none the less, and often facts where no other written record exists, so therefore, useful facts despite their unpleasantness.

   The use of Inquisition trial transcripts as a legitimate source for the study of history in the US only dates till the mid 1960s- specifically, this book by Richard Greenleaf.  Although Greenleaf points to the existence of two books about New Mexico.  The idea of using Inquisition transcripts as a source for "micro-history" or as some would call it "writing about some guy from the past" was either developed or popularized by an Italian professor, Carlo Ginzburg- an Italian who wrote his big hits in the 60s and 70s but continues to be a force in historical study to today.

   Thus, when it comes to looking at various Inquisitions, there are multiple potential sources: Papal, Spanish, Mexican, with records kept in different places.  Due to the overwhelming tendency to ignore these records in the first part of the 20th century, history has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to simply cataloging all the interesting historical information in these records, and Greenleaf's The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century is a call to arms in that regard.

    Greenleaf is not writing micro-history, rather he's writing exactly what he says he's writing in the title, simply using previously ignored materials in a new way.  Greenleaf's book is useful in a way that micro-historical books are not in that it purports to summarize the phenomenon discussed.  When you buy a book called The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century, you want to find out when it was, who were the main players, where it happened, how big it was, etc.

    To understand the history of the Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century requires understanding the intercine political struggles of various mendicant orders in Spain during their Age of Empire.  I won't bore you with the details but the main players were the Dominicans and the Franciscans, with the Augustinian's playing a diminished/secondary  role.  The Mexican Inquisition was mainly concerned with heresy among the European settlers and their descendants.   After a brief period going after Natives (discussed previously) after the 1540s the Inquisition settled down and focused on the important people: Conversos and ship wrecked English pirates.

   As an aside, this a phenomenon that persisted in countries settled by Spain well into the 19th century.  Specifically, the book on whaling I read talks about Protestant sailors being imprisoned and even burned at the stake because of their Protestantism.   That's...pretty embarrassing for those (South American) countries.

   The funniest, and I do mean funniest, part of this book is the idea that the Spaniards, faced with their own, 16th century version of the "Wild West" thought it was a swell idea to send over Priests to prosecute wealthy land-owners out in the provinces for taking the lord's name in vain.  I don't care what economic persuasion you follow, harassing the moving and shakers of your colonial economy for petty religious crimes is NO WAY to develop a colony. That's not a moral judgment, just a practical judgment.

   And I'll just say up front that I think there is a direct link behind this sort of behavior during the 16th century and the kind of place that Mexico has become in the 21st century.  Specifically, Mexico, like many other ex-colonies, have a weak civil society BY DESIGN.  Like, the governments of the afflicted nations have Governments and Elites that conspired AGAINST civil society for generations and across political lines.  Personally, I think the way to "solve" the problems different countries face is not to fund the government but to fund the opposite of the government, the voluntary associations that Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about on his tour of America.

    Within our country, the debate between limited government types and the rest shares a common ground in the idea that in a functioning democracy the federal government draws the lines but doesn't color in the picture.  It's embodied repeatedly in the legal principles of our constitution- that states can do more but not less then what the feds require, and that the people are the reservoir of residual, non-enumerated rights.  Mexico was missing that back in the 16th century, and they are missing it today.


A map of Spanish Mexico at its greatest extent, more or less.


Bonfires of Culture:
Franciscans, Indigenous Leaders, and Inquisition in Early Mexico, 1524-1540
by Patricia Lopes Don
p. 2010
University of California Press

    Just so you know, I buy most of the books I read according to price. Price is a main reason I read so many 18th and 19th century classics- they are ALWAYS for sale cheap on Amazon.  So, when I spend 30 usd on a 250 page book, it had better deliver, and I'm pleased to say that Bonfires of Culture does just that.

   I didn't know there actually was a "Mexican Inquisition" until a year or two ago, when I learned of it by accident.  The very fact of it's existence wasn't well explored into the mid 1960s, when Richard E. Greenleaf wrote The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century.  That book has the flaw of treating the Inquisition directed towards native beliefs (as supposed to heretical believes among Spanish immigrants.) as an unimportant minority of cases.

   Lopes, writing last year, fifty years after Greenleaf, has the advantage of the development of new source materials, i.e. the trial transcripts of the natives prosecuted by the Mexican Inquisition.  She also has the benefit of new viewpoints on the institution of the Inquisition and new historical techniques like the use of "microhistory."  The resulting work is a significant little package, helping any general reader to a clearly understanding of the early history of post-conquest Mexico.

   The approach of Bonfires of Culture is to look at individual trials and then link them to existing suppositions about Nahuatl/Spanish interaction.  A beneficial spin-off of this approach is an absolutely killer bibliography on all the subjects surrounding the Inquisition, 16th century Spanish history and the history of the Conquest.  Although Lopes repeatedly talks about "microhistory" and "close analysis" in the manner of academic buzz words, I think she sells her own work of synthesis in a complex field short.  Having personally read about 5-10 books on the subject of Aztec history, I can say that her so-called "Microhistory" is waaaayyyy more coherent then "classic" texts on some of these subjects.

    The whole idea of basing historical analysis on documents extracted under pain of torture raises a host of histiographical questions, but if they are all ya got, then they all ya got.  Certainly they represent the best source for documenting the persecution of native beliefs by the Spainards.   It's important to credit the Inquisition as an institution of centralized "modern" government.  The Inquisition was a tool the monarch granted to the local elites in communities of the Spanish Empire in order to make an alliance with social forces at the grassroots level.

    Because of that dynamic between King and local elites, there was always a concern with DOCUMENTING THE PROCEEDINGS.  Though the rules of these proceedings may distress the modern reader, the procedures for documenting the trials was sophisticated and 'state of the art.'  This concern was no less present in the Mexican Inquisition, even against the back drop of whole-sale extirpation of Native religious practices.

    The Mexican Inquisition only targeted Native leaders in a brief period- the highlight being the trial and burning at the stake of Don Carlos of Texcoco- the grandson of Nezhualcoyotl.  As Lopez explains, the Inquisitor in Mexico was getting into the middle of an ongoing debate among various mendicant orders about whether the Indians could be and should be Christians (in the sense that the answer to that question for Jews of Spain was "yup" and the answer for Muslims had been first "no" and then "yup.")  The Franciscians, who ran the Inquisition, took the position that mass conversion to Christianity was good enough, and worth while.  Thus, the post-Conquest landscape in the valley of Mexico was broad and shallow: The official apparatus of state religion- temples, human sacrifice, was extinguished, but the non official tradition of traveling spiritual advisers persisted alongside the continued practice of native religion in secret, outside (or underneath) major cities.

    This was an embarrassment for the Franciscans.  They had rivals for the attention of the Spanish Monarch, plus there was a hearty pragmatic reason to leave the Natives alone- they outnumbered the Spanish conquerors by many hundreds for each Spaniard. Additionally, Cortes had allied with some of the local city-states (Altepemeh as they are known in Nahuatl.) and they had to be treated with a certain deference.

   Regardless of the risks, the Inquisitor of Mexico, a Basque by the name of Zumarraga, was out to prove a point.  He managed to get his way for a few years, up to and including the burning of Don Carlos, but after that high-point cooler heads prevailed.   It was simply illogical to hold the Native Americans to the same standards as Jews and Muslims inside of Spain.  Ultimately, the tools of the Inquisition were ill suited to the task of achieving deeper conversions of the Meso-Americans.

   Thus, the sequence of events as it relates to prosecutions of Native practitioners of religion is short and too the point.  First, Lopes describes the trial of Martin Ocelotl.   Ocelotl was a Nahualli- roughly a travelling priest/wizard who took advantage of the rupture in state-sponsored religion to "fill the gap" as it were, at the same time acting as a go-between with Spaniards and Natives (and accumulating a small fortune in the process.)  Here, we are on familiar ground for Zumarraga- traveling holy man, promises of miracles, healthy estate to confiscate-- easy to classify.   Ocelotl was chased down with the help of local leaders (Tlahtoani) and sent to Spain for trial.

   Next, there were lower level free-floating millenarian types- the trial of Andres Mixcoatl is used as an example in Bonfires of Culture.  These holy men capitalized on a specific ritual that had been part of the state centered religion in the valley of Mexico.  This ritual involved choosing an individual to impersonate a specific God for an entire year and then sacrificing that person at the end of the year.  The individual chosen would receive training to behave like the specific God and would then travel a circuit of locations where that God was important.  Thus, the people of post-Conquest Mexico would readily accept a person claiming to ACTUALLY be a God because they had historically accepted people who were ACTING like a God.

   Again though, Zumarraga is on familiar ground for the Inquisition.  Wandering holy man, preaching against Christianity, yadda, yadda burn him at the stake.  It wasn't until Zumarraga expanded his reach to the local non-religious leaders of local communities that he got into trouble, and it was this move that effectively ended the Mexican Inquisition as far as local practices went.  While Zumarraga was prosecuting the wandering holy men, he became aware of the purported existence of Huitzilopochtlis- basically packets of what we would call "Holy Relics" that were kept for each God that was important to the Native leadership.

   As it turns out, Montezuma had the foresight to send these bundles out of the city right before they were overrun, keeping alive the idea of a return to power for the King or a successor.   Zumarraga became a leeeetle bit obsessed with these Huitzilopochtlis and sent out the message to the farther reaches of the Valley of Mexico.

  Although his attempts to locate these relics turned out to be fruitless, they did have the side effect of uncovering a native informant who testified that Don Carlos, the Tlahatoani of Texcoco was committing heresy.  Don Carlos did burn at the stake, the prosecution ended up raising the ire of the Monarch.  A strategic decision was made by the Crown to move away from high profile prosecutions of Native leaders because they were counter productive.

   One of the themes that becomes clear from Bonfires of Culture is that the initial response of the elites of the Mexico Valley to the Spanish Conquest was to treat the Spanish as a new Altepemeh- a people worthy of respect, but who would be integrating into the existing Mentalite/Weltanschauung/World View.  They saw Jesus Christ as "another God."  The pre-Contact Aztec Empire had really been a triple alliance of city-states, Texcoco and Tlaque being in alliance with Montezuma's Tentochitlan (Mexico City.)  While Montezuma had been directly conquered, Texcoco actually came under the control of a member of the royal house- out of favor in Texcoco during the period prior to Cortes landing, who allied with Cortes.

    Over time, it would be incumbent on the Spanish to affirmatively go out and convert Natives in Mexico, not expect them to just give up their existing believes.   The Inquisition was a detour on this route, and it is to the credit of Spain that this was recognized within a decade- even as the Inquisition stayed in full force for centuries on the Spanish mainland.

Blog Archive