Invasions of Privacy … the Kind We Like

Mayan-72A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the allegedly late Timothy Leary’s disdain for privacy—“the evil of monotheism,” he called it. Personally, I’m as alarmed as anyone else about threats to personal privacy from both government and corporations. But some invasions of privacy seem downright benign—or at least they do to me.

For example, Pat and I just now discovered that Amazon.com keeps track of people’s highlights in Kindle copies. Pat and I were delighted to see what readers marked in our award-winning novel Mayan Interface. You can find these quotes at the bottom of its Kindle page. (It is also available in paperback.) Here are a few that we especially like:

Change is always dangerous. And to become a new person, first you must die. It’s an absolute requirement. Now getting resurrected—that’s the tricky part.

You may have heard that Eve was the first woman, but that’s not quite true. Eve was actually a small, dark-eyed, long-tailed monkey—well, not quite a monkey, more like a lemur. And she lived, oh, some fifty million years ago—back during the Epoch of Miracles, let’s say.

What’s required is the courage to risk change without knowing what it will bring about. What’s needed are adventurers willing to go into whatever is ahead without even knowing what they, themselves, will become—because no one transformation will suffice for all.

The Maya understand that their people were shaped by both history and myth. We think of history as “what really happened” and of a myth as a story made up to account for whatever people didn’t understand—and unnecessary once science and logic have explained everything. But if a myth has influenced anyone’s life, then in some sense it “happened”—and is therefore history.4 mystery gllyphs

Concerning Wisdom—Old and New

“There is no such thing as ancient wisdom; it is always new.”
Thus Spake Aforista

Count on the Postfuturist Sage Aforista to say something strident, hyperbolic, and even untrue. Of course there is such a thing as ancient wisdom, and of course we all need to be mindful of it in this speed-of-light age of rampant newness—what Douglas Rushkoff has dubbed Present Shock. As the authors of a recently published novel exploring Mayan culture of a millennium ago, Pat and I would seem to be active proponents of ancient wisdom.

And yet …

Mayan-72Is Mayan Interface really about ancient wisdom at all? There are certainly aspects of indigenous culture that Pat and I extol. In my post of February 13, I wrote about our fascination with Mayan storytelling techniques. A related excerpt written in authentic Mayan fashion may be found in the current issue of SOL: English Writing in Mexico.

But readers looking for a quick and easy fixes based Mayan ancient wisdom will surely be disappointed by our book. Pakabtun’s fictional king Bohol Caan has no more of a grasp on certainty ca. 900 CE than epigrapher Lydia Rosenstrom does in 2012 CE. In our novels, Pat and I just don’t do certainty.

Just yesterday, Pat asked me if any of our novels even had “endings” to speak of. Could I think of just one that culminated in some final resolution, realization, or insight? No, I couldn’t. While I hope that all of our stories have satisfactory and satisfying denouements, Pat and I always leave our protagonists on the brink of fresh discoveries, as if another turn of the page will lead into an entirely new adventure. “And that’s essential,” Pat remarked.

One of my favorite twentieth-century plays is Bernard Shaw’s little-known The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles. In this 1934 extravaganza, an angel arrives, announcing that the Day of Judgment has come. This is not to be the noisy apocalypse of the Book of Revelation, the angel explains:

The Day of Judgment is not the end of the world, but the end of its childhood and the beginning of its responsibility.

According to the angel, there will be no reward or punishment, no heaven or hell—only the quiet vaporization of almost all of humanity:

The lives which have no use, no meaning, no purpose, will fade out. You will have to justify your existence or perish.

The play’s characters are understandably unsettled by this proclamation. How can anyone ever “justify” one’s existence? Whose life can assuredly be said to have use, meaning, and purpose? None of the characters can answer these questions, and one by one they vanish—accompanied, presumably, by most if not all of the human race.

Finally, only two people remain onstage: the priestess Prola and her husband, the priest Pra. Fully aware that their lives have been engaged in folly and futility, Prola and Pra expect to evaporate at any moment. But that moment never comes.

Flawed, failed, and seemingly useless as they are, Prola and Pra share the redemptive belief in the doctrine, “Let Life Come.” And this doctrine is, after all, merely a denial of all doctrines, of all beliefs.

Prola and Pra prevail through the Judgment, for together they grasp that “the future is to those who prefer surprise and wonder to security.” As Prola puts it,

Remember: we are in the Unexpected Isles; and in the Unexpected Isles all plans fail. So much the better: plans are only jigsaw puzzles: one gets tired of them long before one can piece them together. There are still a million lives beyond all the Utopias and the Millenniums and the rest of the jigsaw puzzles.… We are not here to fulfill prophecies and fit ourselves into puzzles, but to wrestle with life as it comes. And it never comes as we expect it to come.

So I suppose Aforista may be onto something after all. There are no endings in the world of Story. There is only wisdom’s perpetually unfolding newness.

Happy New B’ak’tun!

It’s New B’ak’tun Day! And no, it doesn’t appear that the world is coming to an end, nor have their been any verifiable reports of extraterrestrials showing up. For further details about such rather widespread misapprehensions, check out our post of October 18. Things seem to be shaping up much as Lydia Rosenstrom anticipated in our novel Mayan Interface:

On December 21, 2012, ancient Mayan sites will be overrun by earnest pilgrims, all of them expecting something extraordinary to happen on that collusion of the wheels of the Mayan calendar. All over the world, people are waiting for a force outside themselves to make things right somehow—either by bringing our world to an end or by transforming the whole of humankind. Well, some folks might experience something. Others might miss their best chance while they’re waiting. Some wouldn’t notice transformation if it up and bites them, because it doesn’t fit the story they’re fixed on. Some just expect transformation to be a one-time thing, so they’ll be stuck wherever they arrive that day.

Let’s not get stuck, shall we? Instead, let’s do something productive, even proactive. As we celebrate the arrival of 13.0.0.0.0, let’s reflect on the last cycle of 144,000 days. I think we can agree that the 13th B’ak’tun was a pretty rough patch. Today let’s think up resolutions to make the next 394 years a whole lot better for everybody.

Dream big. Don’t be shy. You’ve got 144,000 days to play with here. And don’t cop out with lame excuses, such as, “I don’t expect to be around that long.” How do you know? Back in the days following what was then called the “Great War” of 1914-18 (before anyone knew that a still greater war was to follow), the brothers Conrad and Franklyn Barnabas predicted that humankind couldn’t survive without the maturity acquired during vastly increased lifespans. So they decided to do something about it. “Our program,” explained brother Franklyn, “is only that the term of human life shall be extended to three hundred years.”

Ever since the Brothers Barnabas put their program into effect, there have been rumors of long-lived humans walking amongst us. How can you be absolutely sure that you’re not one of them? So forget about making resolutions for 2013. It’s time to start thinking about what you’ll do with the next three or four centuries.

Pat and I are eager to hear your resolutions for the New B’ak’tun.  I’ll start with my own modest entry. As the prophet once suggested, I intend to do my part to beat our assault weapons into wind turbines and our handguns into solar panels. That only seems reasonable, given “world enough, and time …”

Bureaucratic Mummies

1491-coverI’m currently reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. If you haven’t read it, it’s absolutely breathtaking. It not only shatters the hoary belief in a sparsely populated pre-Columbian America, but also demonstrates that the “New World” stumbled upon by Columbus and subsequent Europeans was anything but “new.” State-of-the art research suggests, as Mann puts it, that “people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.” Indeed, the Peruvian ruins of Aspero, currently under excavation, may turn out to be the site of “the world’s oldest city—the place where human civilization began.” Think about that for a minute!

One passage from Mann’s book that especially fascinates me has to do with Inka mummies:

When the Inka [ruler] died his panaqa [royal lineage] mummified his body. Because the Inka was believed to be an immortal deity, his mummy was treated, logically enough, as if it were still living. Soon after arriving in Qosqo, Pizarro’s companion Miguel Estete saw a parade of defunct emperors. They were brought out on litters, “seated on their thrones and surrounded by pages and women with flywhisks in their hands, who ministered to them with as much respect as if they had been alive.”

“Logically enough,” indeed. And it seems that these mummified emperors were hardly “defunct”:

… [A]s Pedro Pizarro [cousin of conquistador Francisco Pizarro] realized, “the greater part of the people, treasure, expenses, and vices … were under the control of the dead.” The mummies spoke through female mediums who represented the panaqa’s surviving courtiers or their descendants. With almost a dozen immortal emperors jostling for position.… Inka society had a serious mummy problem.

In today’s parlance, it was government gridlock at its most exasperating. Worst of all, the mummies actually quarreled with one another, promoting different claimants to the Inka throne and provoking actual civil wars. What on earth was going on in such a culture? The possibilities seem stark:

  • The Inka’s bureaucracy of mummies represented nothing more than superstitious ancestor-worship gotten way out of hand.
  • “Talking mummies” were simply an elaborate con devised by an arrogant ruling class to lord it over a gullible populace.

Perhaps I’m just not cynical enough to accept these scenarios, which strike me as unworthy of what was then one of the most advanced cultures on the planet. And it doesn’t seem to me that Mann is settling for them either. A third possibility strikes me as more plausible:

  • The minds of the Inka were different from our own.

What I mean to suggest—“logically enough”—is that the mummies were heard to speak, and that they actually did wield civic authority; superstition, obfuscation, and gullibility had nothing to do with the issue.

I’m sure that the late psychologist Julian Jaynes, author of the extraordinary 1979 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, would have much of interest to say about Inka mummies. I suspect that he would have found in their authority vestiges of the bicameral mind—a mentality that, according to Jaynes, preceded modern consciousness. Because people of ancient civilizations lacked a centralized, self-reflective sense of identity, they relied on auditory hallucinations to direct their decisions. These hallucinations were the original “gods.”

This idea has always been controversial, to say the least—as have Jaynes’s other stunning hypotheses about language, hypnosis, schizophrenia, literature, human history, and cognition in general. But ongoing discoveries in archeology, anthropology, and neuroscience seem to support Jaynesian thinking more and more, as editor Marcel Kuijsten reveals in his invaluable 2006 anthology Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited.

When Pat and I discovered Jaynes’s Origin of Consciousness back in the 1980s, it thoroughly blew our minds. I suspect that every single novel we’ve written together has reflected Jaynes’s ideas in some way. This is especially true of our latest book, Mayan Interface, which is at least partly a rumination on the “collapse” of the Classic Maya, the end of an age of magnificent monuments to gods and father-mothers. Why did it happen? One astute Amazon.com reviewer stated one of our story’s overarching questions quite nicely: “When God or gods fail, is it the fault of the deity or the worshipers?”

The question pertains to the bureaucratic mummies of the Inka, the Mayan collapse, and the precarious state of our own civilization—and it is much more than a question of belief. Mayan Interface opens with a quote from Morris Berman’s book Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West:

Certain cognitive shifts can occur in a civilization that are so profound that there seems to be almost no mental continuity between one epoch and the next.… It is not merely a question of conflicting theories that is at issue here; rather, what is actually seen, felt, and experienced in the world is radically different.

What Pat and I seek to explore in Mayan Interface is the ever-evolving, ever-changing quality of being human. We put no stock in the current school of thought that holds human nature to be fixed and unchanging. Oscar Wilde expressed our viewpoint perfectly in his great 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

Oscar_Wilde_by_Napoleon_Sarony_(1821-1896)_Number_18_b.jpegThe only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development.