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“Experimenting with human design”

Anne Dalke's picture

I’m grateful to have friends who listen to my musings, and muse back again….quite striking to me yesterday was the juxtaposition of Ann’s comment about the “parochial nature of life”—> that is, the necessity (given the limits of space and time) to attend to what is deeply personal to us, and Shaye’s interest in hearing me “speak from my heart,” along her concomitant disinterest in quotations from others....

And yet. And yet.

Though I’m very much enjoying the experiment, I haven’t quite figured out how best to use this blog. I do think it’s got to be something “more” than a personal journal, something that reaches beyond the private and idiosyncratic to something larger. Par exemplar:

Last night I dreamt that I was one of many Mayan women, lined up to have our bags of corn weighed by the conquistadores. Because I wanted to know how much my baby weighed, I hid her in my bag, thinking that the difference between the amount of corn I’d harvested and the amount showing on the scale would tell me if my baby was growing properly.

That dream is surely about something personal and psychological (though I’m not quite sure what!). But it also surely references something larger and far more interesting, something I’d picked up earlier that evening: the great irony of how the Mayans used the alphabetic writing taught them by the missionaries. They transcribed Christian prayers and sermons, as instructed; they also preserved and masked their own ancient texts (as, in my dream, I “masked” my own search for information in the weighing being conducted by the masters).

The city where I’m living for these three weeks is “old,” or Antigua, Guatemala, originally the capital of the country, abandoned to ruin after a late 18th century earthquake, now somewhat erratically preserved. Walking around the city this first week, I’ve stumbled repeatedly upon a palimpsest of multiple eras of human experiences, in architecture as well as in an astonishing mixture of food, clothing and activity. At first I found it disconcerting to see a Burger King housed in an ancient building, or to watch a woman, dressed in rich layers of traditional clothing, balancing precariously on high heels, making her away across cobblestone streets to climb onto a chicken bus. It was confusing to me to hear a Simon & Garfunkel recording of “The Sounds of Silence” playing in one of the old churches, or to listen to one of the marching bands in the Independence Day parade play The Marine Hymn. But I’m slowly beginning to appreciate this living, ever-revisable account of experimentation and evolution. And I’ve just discovered that, in this part of the world, such a recognition has very ancient roots.

I'm making the shift now from reading accounts of Guatemala written by gringo visitors like Huxley and Bowles to reading indigenous stories. I decided to begin in the beginning, with Popul Vuh, The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings, which existed originally in the form of hieroglyphics. According to the "definitive edition" which I'm using (first translated by Dennis Tedlock in 1985), the lords of a kingdom called Quiché, in the highlands of Guatemala, used this book as a "seeing instrument" or "place to see"; it was for them a means for overcoming their own nearsightedness, the limits of space and time. (It occurs to me that I've always used books this way: to expand my own experiences, my own vision of things; as above, I’m finding my way to using the internet in similar ways.)

What struck me immediately about this "Council Book" (and I do think this is profound) is that the "makers" and "modelers" in this creation story are quite explicitly conducting "an experiment with the human design":

They made a body, but it didn't look good to them....So then they dismantled....'There is yet to find, yet to discover how we are to...construct a person again’ they fell, just an experiment and just a cutout for humankind...Again there came...demolition....The people were...destroyed and used to be said that the monkeys in the forest today...were left as a sign...of a previous human... design--mere manikins, mere woodcarvings.... Here's a creation story that anticipates, by at least a thousand years, the Darwinian description of evolution as an experiment in repeatedly trying out new designs, getting them, each time, somewhat less wrong, if never quite “right." Popol Vuh seems to me a prescient offering, a bridge between contemporary religious and scientific ways of understanding the world, perhaps too between personal, idiosyncratic and larger, more general angles of vision?


Anonymous's picture

I shall be most amused if the system thinks I am spam again. *waves cheerily to administrator checking legitimacy of post* Can't find a way to "join" the site as a user, though, so shall remain anonymous poster for now. Marian is closest to being right, you know. The mind does have to change, but even past that, the mind has to be let go of. Words and thinking will never get to truth. Expansion of mind and expansion of consciousness are not the same thing. In related news, I can't repost a previous musing because I'm not there any more. Very neat dream. Perhaps it is a memory. love, Shaye