Friday, January 25, 2013

Winter Reading

For many academics, our breaks--winter break, spring break, summer break--are sacred reading times. We finally get to remove ourselves from grading, course reading, and committee work (sometimes) and read for pleasure or research, which for me is frequently the same thing.

This winter break, I first picked up William Germano's From Dissertation to Book, which I loved. I flew through it, finishing it in about a day, mostly because I recognized myself in its pages, which was heartening. Germano's book motivated me to set up a revision schedule, but it also got me thinking about my manuscript in really productive ways.

With the new project on my mind, I then picked up The Popul Vuh (Dennis Tedlock's revised and updated edition, 1996) and a book I'd been wanting/needing to read for a while, Pat Mora's House of Houses (1997). I suspect that sometimes the universe and our antepasados speak to us through books; the combination of these two books confirms my suspicions.

I have to admit that I found House of Houses a bit slow at first. I tried really hard to relate to the details of Mora's family history, but I found myself wanting more from my precious winter break reading. After I picked up (and couldn't put down) The Popul Vuh, I realized an important connection between the two texts: both trace spiritual and familial lineages. By writing her family's history as she does--weaving together, over the course of a solar year, the different lineages and events that form each generation and especially by privileging saints' days--Mora continues a centuries-old indigenous Mexican written tradition. In precolonial and colonial Mixtec, Mayan, and Aztec-Mexica amoxtli (books, codices), deeds and lineages were written to celebrate powerful families and important historical and spiritual events. Continuing this indigenous American literary tradition, Mora thus elevates her ancianos y antepasados to the level of the sacred.

Fascinating. I'm grateful that The Popul Vuh could light my way to a better understanding of and interest in Mora's work.

Part of my own project is in tracing these kinds of continuities between early indigenous Mexican writing traditions and contemporary Native and Chican@ writing. But that focus is coupled with an emphasis on the representations of sound and listening in literature, both ancient and contemporary. Thus, I was really drawn to Mora's incorporation (in the sense of bringing into the text as well as in the sense of embodiment) of sound and listening in House of Houses. For Mora, memories of songs sung, whistled, and hummed by her tias y abuelos combine with her own efforts to listen intently to her ancestors. She writes, for instance:
Voices weave through bare branches. I write what I hear, my inheritance a luxury, the generation with time to record the musings of turtles, the poetics of cactus, the stoicism of stones, the voices from the interior of this family house, la casa de casas (45).
For Mora, listening is creative in the most literal sense of that word. Listening enables her to reconstitute the lives of her ancestors, some generations removed from her life and memory. Listening in this sense is thus not necessarily material, though sometimes it is motivated by material artifacts like songs and letters, missals and flowers. Rather, listening is spiritual here. In listening to/for her ancestors, she re-embodies them in the text. She gives them a new literary life; they are born again in her words.

This may be another connection between House of Houses and the Popul Vuh, though it's one not yet fully fledged in my thinking.

In the Popul Vuh, I was disappointed to find few references to sound or listening. Most of the metaphors are visual, relating sight to knowledge and wisdom. Thus, the creators and the first humans are said to be able to see "everything under the sky perfectly." When the humans are made, then, the Book says, "They understood everything perfectly, they sighted the four sides, the four corners in the sky, on the earth" (147). This becomes a problem because the humans cannot, like their creators, have perfect knowledge, which is what these sight metaphors mean. Eventually the creators dim their vision so that humans can only see near rather than "near and far."

However, there is one reference to the ear that I find fascinating, though, again, what follows is merely speculative. At one point, Tohil, the god of the first Quiche men--Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, and Dark Jaguar--tells them:
"It remains for you to give thanks, since you have yet to take care of your bleeding ears, yet to take stitches in your elbows. You must worship. This is your way of giving thanks before your god."
Dennis Tedlock clarifies that this reference to ears and elbows is punning on the words xikin (ear) and tz'ikin (bird, but also slang for penis) as well as ch'uk (elbow) and  ch'uq (breechcloth). In other words, penitence and praising would come in the form of bleeding one's penis. What I wonder, though, is about this pun on ear and penis. I have a hypothesis that it may suggest a relationship between listening and masculinity that comes to bear on an important and dynamic philosophy at the heart of the Popul Vuh: the sowing and the dawning.

I won't pretend that I fully understand the metaphor of the sowing and the dawning; instead, I'll let Dennis Tedlock explain how it links cosmic creation and the daily creation of the sun with human development and birth as well as the planting and flowering of crops. Tedlock has this to say in his introduction:
These two groups [gods of the primordial sea and gods of the primordial sky] engage in a dialogue, and in the course of it they conceive the emergence of the earth from the water and the growth of plants and people on its surface. They wish to set in motion a process they call the "sowing" and "dawning," by which they mean several different things at once. There is the sowing of seeds in the earth, whose sprouting will be their dawning, and there is the sowing of the sun, moon, and stars, whose difficult passage beneath the earth will be followed by their own dawning. Then there is the matter of human beings, whose sowing in the womb will be followed by their emergence into the light at birth, and whose sowing in the earth at death will be followed by dawning when their souls become sparks of light in the darkness.
 Given the role of the male sex organ in the sowing of human life in the womb and the linguistic relationship--pun--between ear and penis, I wonder if there is, in Quiche Mayan understandings, a relationship between listening as a kind of sowing that then dawns in thought, which, for the Quiche, is inherently productive/creative/generative.

Again, this hypothesis is entirely speculative, but it works in a deconstructive, intertextual kind of way, particularly in light of (pun intended) the use to which Pat Mora puts listening in House of Houses. Listening for the ancestors as a means of bringing them to the light of the text.

I'm not sure yet whether either of these two readings will make it into the manuscript, but both have been really influential on my thinking and approach to the diss revisions I'm now undertaking. I'm using this spring semester to slog through the dissertation revisions so that I can then begin the exciting work of writing new material in the summer. So keep on the lookout for the spring break and summer reading installments!

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