i’ve been trying to read Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s What if Latin America Ruled the World, for a book review. My notes are full of page numbers marked “Bad Prose” or just “BP” since there are so many. The clunky academic prose reflects the lazy thought and unexamined generalisations and airy waftings.
If i hadn’t requested a review copy i would just drop it now but i feel obliged to finish it and do a review. On the one hand i resent having to waste so many hours on bad prose; on the other, most of the books i request are good so i shouldn’t get too worked up about it, since they’re free.
OG-R writes of the “geometrical earthworks and canals” visible from the air above Brazil; they date back to about 5000 BC:
Seen from above, the geometry and organisation of the canals, causeways, reservoirs and circular mounds of the Grand Sinú region immediately strike the observer as identical to the straight lines and circles used in Sinú gold art and jewellery, and to the abstract geometry of other similar constructions on a comparable scale along the Caribbean coast and in western Brazil and Bolivia.
These lines and circles and other abstract geometrical forms are deeply meaningful. When seen from the air they seem to leap out of the landscape towards you. They are things of spectacular beauty. When looking at them, it is impossible not to feel closer to the peoples who created them thousands of years ago. What you feel is not mere sympathy, the idea that you can imagine yourself in the place of others and ‘feel her pain’, but an affective connection that is also real and extraordinarily meaningful. For these lines, zigzags, spirals and dots are symbolic. They were a code.
In a way, these symbols both create and are the expression of a common space that is deeply affective, but also cognitive and real. The zigzags, spirals, lines and dots visible in the gold objects found in the museum of Cartagena de Indias express the collective effort required to build large-scale engineering projects such as those visible from above in the area of the Grand Sinú around Cartagena, but also create the common space that made possible both these collective efforts and the science behind them. Not only do they represent the social bond; they are the social bond. This is why, when you look at these objects and constructions in the museum or from the aeroplane above, you feel you share a common space with the allegedly extinct cultures that made them. You feel that you are there with them, rather than instead of them. You, the observer, project your own sensibilities on to these objects of contemplation, appreciate and enjoy their beauty, and also enter into a relation with the being of others through these objects, and come to know how they think and feel. The existence of these common objects, spaces and actual sites and constructions are the condition for this vicarious form of communication, while at the same time embodying it.
The plethora of boldly vague declarations, contradictions, and outright New Age effusion is depressing. However, i think i can understand something of what he feels, or claims to feel – that the explicit order suggests a wider, mastering order:
For over half a millenia, since at least the 1500s, peoples of the world have been led to believe that human beings are flawed creatures thrown into a fallen world. Redemption would have to wait for the next one. In the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, at various turns in the cyclical history of the relations between the west and the rest, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke depicated human life and the human soul as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, or as a blank slate presented by society to realise our natural predisposition to accumulate, acquire and transform the planet’s vast wasteland into privatised productive property.
Their nightmarish vision, which was also a reaction to and against the dreams and powerful meanings that circulated among the natives encountered by Arawaks of Beni and Grand Sinú, has come to be accepted in our time, especially in the most basic assumptions of sciences like economics, as the most accurate representation of the our very being and ultimate mission in a fallen world. And yet, in the midst of crisis and despair, precisely when everything around us seems to confirm such nightmarish visions of a fallen world, our most basic instinct tells us that it does not have to be this way. We feel it when looking at the earth from above. On such occasions we ask ourselves: is it possible that we are not inherently envious, materialistic and self-interested, but, rather, as the archaic peoples of Grand Sinú and Beni and their contemporary descendants show, are of a very different nature?
i don’t really care for this book so far, or for the author’s persona, as i perceive it. i was, however, interested in this passage, at least in the general drift. i think cultures express their sense of the deepest order through various artworks; for example, Cathedrals, tombs – or Futharks. It would explain why men felt moved to carve Futharks onto rock, an act which seems as pointless as spray painting the alphabet (but much harder, with a chisel).
These artefacts express a deep order. It is pointless to ask after their “function”; this is a brainless Darwinian reflex. Who knows what went through the minds of their carvers. But they articulate an order; they maintain an order. One could say that all art is a Futhark of sorts – it tells you how the world is; and so we react so violently to certain art, because it seems to negate our own understanding, not merely our surface understanding of e.g. how to get a job, but our profoundest understanding of how the world is – our spiritual position. One could sketch out a man’s spiritual position & orientation from the books he most violently hates (in my case, the entire corpus of CS Lewis).
The most enduring artefacts are those which eschew explanation, context, easy clarity. Wallace Stevens: poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully. This is one reason i loathe CS Lewis – he takes matters of spiritual value, and falsifies them into a Christianity for Dummies kindergarten theology. He was a don, through and through. The really valid and lasting works of art go deep; thus the epic of Gilgamesh could be lost for a few thousand years, re-emerge, and no harm done. Likewise very few today would read Homer or Milton as intended; but this is precisely their worth. CS Lewis, by contrast, is a propagandist, the Noam Chomsky of Christianity.
i once told a friend that i only want to write if my books will still be found good in a thousand years. i no longer feel so; it is enough to write for one’s time, to combat degeneration and decay and stupidity. Nonetheless, if you write true you write beyond your time. Thus the pleasure of some Medieval lyrics, scribbled on the margins of manuscripts and forgotten. i would like my works to be forgotten for a while – a few centuries – and to re-emerge without a name, without provenance, eroded and half-illegible. Mice, Tantalus, a tyrant’s tomb, the last tower, maps, a burning canvas, a wild child, wolves, baths, walking, and so on.