Beyond Montezuma

I talk a lot about the Aztecs* as a civilization, which belies the fact that Aztec culture was full of fascinating and distinctive characters (it would make a fantastic historical drama a la Vikings or Rome). Here are a few:

Human sacrifice in an Aztec temple.

Fasting Coyote (Nezahualcoyotl) was a philosopher king and legal reformer of the city of Texcoco famed for his poetry and his more metaphorical take on the gods (there’s a story–perhaps true, perhaps not–that he argued that all the gods were just aspects of the supreme deity Tloque Nahuaque–“Lord of Near and Nigh”). He was part Shakespeare, part Hammurabi.

His contemporary, Tlacaelel, was a Machiavellian advisor (his official title, confusingly, was “Serpent Woman,” which was sort of a secretary of the interior). He’s been called a “creative psychopath,” since he elevated the war god Left-Handed Hummingbird (Huitzilopochtli) to the most important in the pantheon, and emphasized an interpretation of his faith that said that those warriors who died on the sacrificial stone went to paradise–providing an ideological drive for Aztec conquest. He lived for decades, watching his dream of a Mexico dominated by Tenochtitlan come to pass, dying peacefully at 90.

Malintzin, also called Malinche or Dona Marina, was a Nahua slave who had been sold to the Maya. She learned several Mayan dialects, and ultimately became Cortes’s mistress and interpreter after being given to him by a Mayan lord. She didn’t speak Spanish, and so all her translations from Nahuatl had to be run through a Mayan-speaking Spaniard named Geronimo de Aguilar. Anytime somebody tells you any sort of shit about the Aztecs thinking Cortes was a god, remember that this was a game of trilingual telephone, and the Spaniards ended up telling the story. Poor Malintzin has been slandered pretty badly by history because of her association with Cortes (some legends say that she became La Llorona, the weeping ghost-woman of Mexican folklore), but I highly doubt she had much choice in the matter.

 

Aztec warriors ranked from the basic recruit to the tlacatecatl (“Man Slasher”) general.

Cuauhtemoc (“Descending Eagle”) was the last Great Speaker (Emperor) of Tenochtitlan. He fought Cortes until his city was starving and bodies dead from smallpox lay in the street. Many Spanish soldiers considered the Aztecs the fiercest and most frightening enemies they had ever faced, and Cuauhtemoc (today Mexico’s national hero), sums up the indomitable and unyielding spirit of Aztec warrior culture. He supposedly ordered a great deal of treasure hidden before he surrendered, but would not give its location up to the Spaniards even under torture.

 

Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire, depicted symbolically. The eagle on the cactus still appears on Mexico’s flag.

Ever wonder what an Aztec serial killer might look like? I know I have. But worry not, fellow would-be Mexicriminologist because we have one on record–a female, no less. A noblewoman in the 1400s (I’ve forgotten her name), took a series of lovers (generally male slaves), then had her servants kill them and commissioned statues in their likenesses. To anyone who asked, she replied that they were her “gods.” She was caught (I think by Fasting Coyote’s son) and ultimately executed–Precolumbian Mexico’s answer to Erzebet Bathory.

 

Diego Rivera’s mural at Mexico’s National Palace depicts a crowd in Tenochtitlan, with the Great Speaker (Emperor) center (detail here).

There were merchant-adventurer-spies (the Pochteca) who walked the length and breadth of Mesoamerica, trading for exotic goods like jade, quetzal feathers, and jaguar hides. There were sorcerers who used the severed forearms of women who died in childbirth to cast hypnotic spells. There were courtesans who wore their hair loose and snapped chewing gum as an advertisement of their services. There were skilled artisans of feathers and gold. There were beautiful courtesans In a historical first, free public school was provided to both boys and girls (though they were kept separate).

Aztec Mexico was a vital, flamboyant, intoxicating, beautiful, and terrifying world to live in–a world of larger-than-life characters and unbelievable pageantry. We neglect its stories and legacy at our own impoverishment.

*”Aztec” is kind of an imprecise term, but I use it to mean Central Mexican Nahuatl speakers rather than just the people of Tenochtitlan (better called the Mexica).

Do You Consent to Dragons?

About a year ago, I began running a once-monthly Dungeons & Dragons game at the request of some friends of mine. The details aren’t important, but suffice to say that it’s a dark fantasy improvisational theater game, and as the Dungeon Master (storyteller/referee–also called the Game Master), I’ve come up with a plot that’s ranged over most of my favorite genre tropes, story devices, and general interests: necromancy, ancient Mexico, Lovecraftian horror, Vikings, human sacrifice and cannibalism, organized crime, and so forth. My players all seemed to be having a good time; it never even occurred to me that any of those sessions might have breached their consent, and that any given roll of the twenty-sided die might have constituted a polyhedral violation.

This is evidently a thing now, since the appearance last year from Monte Cook Games of Consent in Gaming, a free ebook by Sean K. Reynolds and Shanna Germain that promises to help you “Tackle Mature Content with Confidence!” I’ve been generally out of the roleplaying loop since the mid-2000s, and as a very casual player I tend not to pay attention to the discussions that go on in the gaming community. D&D is now what it’s always been for me: a fun way to spend a few hours with friends once or twice a month. I play with people who’ve known me for awhile and are very smart and imaginatively adventurous. They know my style and interests, and we’re all in our thirties, which means our mommies and daddies let us watch R-rated movies. In other words, they can handle dark and mature subject matter. So where exactly does “consent” come in to this?

To answer that, Reynolds and Germain have provided a helpful table/survey/worksheet (see below) at the end of their book to illustrate the concept–which has far-reaching (and troubling) implications not just for gaming, but for the wider art of fiction and storytelling generally.

This is an exceptionally weird document on several levels. The choice of potentially triggering subject matter is bizarre, for one. Are there people out there who are upset by  blood but not gore? Bugs but not spiders? Why are rats included but not snakes, sharks, feral dogs, crocodiles, or any of the many, many other animals that can envenom, maul, or otherwise fuck you up in terrifying ways? While I’m sure heatstroke is pretty awful, is it really more trauma-inducing than war, slavery, prostitution, and other topics common in medieval fantasy but lacking from this list?

But there’s a deeper issue here that isn’t just silly and illogical: the linking of stories that make us uncomfortable with violation of our consent–terminology explicitly and most frequently used concerning sexual violence.

Defining what does and does not constitute sexual consent and educating both men and women about it is extremely important. With the rise of #MeToo it’s one of the most necessary conversations of our time. Intentionally re-traumatizing someone is just a flat-out evil thing to do, and there’s nothing objectionable about discussing these topics to make sure everybody is comfortable, if people feel the need to do so. But equating disturbing or upsetting art–even if in poor taste–with sexual violence is troubling rhetoric.

A lot of arguments against “trigger-warning culture” are made in bad faith, usually from the standpoint that only liberals become howling, self-absorbed, snowflakes over dumb shit (if you hew to this belief, please tell me how freaking out over what genitals the person in the bathroom stall next to yours may have isn’t snowflake-y). But the notion that we must “consent” to fiction carries the idea, by implication, that stories that disturb us or make us uncomfortable are a kind of mental assault and that the reader, viewer, or player has thus been victimized. If this sounds like an extreme reading of everything presented above, I ask you to name me any other topic on which we use this kind of vocabulary.

I have every certainty that Reynolds and Germain come from the best place, and that Consent in Gaming is intended only to help people enjoy games more. Great. But the the victim of sexual violence can’t walk away, turn it off, or close it and put it back on the shelf. The consumer of fiction has agency to do all of the above, and to pretend otherwise is not protecting us from trauma, but robbing us of adulthood and by extension, the capacity to critically engage with art. Depiction becomes condoning (just look at the flap over HBO’s unreleased Confederate series, a Southern victory alternate history denounced sight-unseen as “slavery fan-fiction”). Storytelling then goes from being a medium where we can safely explore and better understand things that frighten, anger, or disturb us to a danger in and of itself, with the storyteller as victimizer.

You can roll your eyes and call me a slippery-slope alarmist, but history has shown what happens when we consent to that.

1917: A Review

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For years, I thought of World War I as “the prequel.” I wasn’t alone in this; post-World War II, that was the societal default–at least in America. Simple proximity in time was part of it. There were still a decent number of World War II veterans around while I was growing up. But I think a larger part of it is that World War II was much more clear-cut. All wars are complex, but World War II comes about as close as any historical event I can think of to a real struggle of good vs. evil.* World War I was much murkier, much more complicated. There weren’t cleanly-defined heroes and villains.

But I also think that even now, past the centennial of the Armistice, the Great War casts a shadow so utterly nightmarish that we don’t want to remember it. You could liken it to the Holocaust; genocides have been occurring for as long as tribes of people have hated other tribes of people. More people died in the Belgian Congo and under Mao and Stalin. But never in history had humanity seen an act of such cold-blooded, premeditated, industrialized murder.

Likewise, wars have always been terrible, but the combination of 19th century military thinking–Napoleonic charges and officers’ suicidal gallantry–and the 20th century’s machine guns, chlorine gas, and tanks makes World War I unique among historical horrors. In spite–or perhaps because of–this uniqueness, directors have largely ignored it. Off the top of your head you could probably name a bunch of Civil War, WWII, or Vietnam films, but how many movies can you name set during WWI? In Tom Mendes’s 1917, the Great War finally has its Saving Private Ryan.

George MacKay in 1917 (2019)
Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay)

The plot isn’t dissimilar. British soldiers Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) must trek across No Man’s Land to warn another battalion that a seeming German withdrawal is actually a trap. Blake’s brother is a lieutenant in the battalion, making the mission that much more critical.

 

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman in 1917 (2019)
Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Blake (left) and George McKay as Lance Corporal Schofield (right).

It’s a simple plot, which is alright, because what 1917 is really about is putting the viewer on the battlefield. Filmed in one continuous shot, 1917 gives us the cratered mudscapes, the destroyed buildings, the soggy trenches, the barbed wire, and the rats feasting on decaying, waterlogged bodies. Violence is swift, merciless, and indiscriminate, and the longer the film goes, the more you feel like the protagonists are living on borrowed time, and the absolute terror McKay and Chapman feel is evident every time we see their faces. It’s spectacular, nerve-wracking, and harrowing.

I only really learned anything about World War I recently, from Dan Carlin’s incredible Hardcore History miniseries, Blueprint for ArmageddonLike Carlin’s sweeping overview, 1917 made me wonder, fundamentally, how anybody survived. Between daily shellings, gas attacks, and suicidal charges over trench tops to gain half a mile of ground, I wonder how soldiers lived with the minute-to-minute possibility of death. It’s no wonder that those who made it out, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Adolf Hitler, were profoundly changed by the experience. If there’s one image that sums up the war for me, it’s the photo below.

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A British soldier in the trenches of the Western Front, 1916.

This one of the most haunting photos I’ve ever seen. There are bloodier images, but for me, this photo defines First World War in a way that even corpses and battlefield aftermaths don’t. I don’t know who this man was or whether he survived; while I hope he did, no mind ever fully recovers from the kind of heartbreaking terror you see in his eyes.

And no movie can convey a sliver of what he must have felt, though 1917 probably comes as close as any movie can.

*Granted, Stalin was on the “good guy” side. Complexities reign.

Cats: My Review

I went there, dear reader, so you don’t have to.

When I was about ten, my eight year-old sister fell in love with the Broadway musical upon which the movie Cats is based, which before Hamilton, The Lion King, and Rent was the cool musical that all the suburban East Coast wanted to see, often shelling out hundreds of dollars for the privilege.*  While I was never a fan, to this day, I can recognize and sing an obscene amount of it (my rendition of “Memories” makes up for what it lacks in talent with, well, nothing). I bring this up because I want you to understand that everything that follows is tinged with childhood recollection, making it a bit like going back to a boring neighborhood you grew up in and finding out it’s been taken over by especially zealous Scientologists.

Cats (2019)

If you don’t know the plot or cast of Cats yet, fucking IMDB it, because like the come-down from any strong deleriant, I’m still trying to piece together what I just saw and what it all meant. Something like Cats has probably always existed in the fevered visions of hashish-eating mystics and ayahuasca-spun shamans; De Quincy doubtless had intimations of it as he shivered on his couch in the throws of opium addiction, and it likely haunted William Burroughs’s heroin-laced nightmares. Cats takes you on the psychic equivalent of a bus ride where you wonder if the guy babbling next to you is going to tell funny stories about waking up in untoward places or knife you for spare change because Jesus gave him the okay.

It’s not Lovecraftian, as several reviewers have described it. Lovecraft was all about trying and failing to understand the unknown and terrifying through logic and science. Cats dulls Occam’s Razor. There is no logic once the lights go down. We are as Paleolithic hunters gathered around a fire, our fears stoked by each shadow and twig-snap.

Judi Dench in Cats (2019)
This woman is a Dame. She’s basically a knight. Let that sink in.

The ten people in the theater with my friends and I spent the film’s 1:49 running time alternating between hysterical laughter and squirmingly uncomfortable silence. I doubt highly anyone was sober–we sure as fuck weren’t. But I also truly don’t believe that mattered much, because even now I can’t pinpoint, as Esquire magazine claims to, what part of this film was the weirdest.

This is not a drill.

Was it Rebel Wilson licking her thigh in imitation of a cat cleaning itself? Was it the oft-mentioned scene, shades of David Lynch, in which her character Jennyanydots takes off her skin to eat humanoid cockroaches? Was it Dame Judi Dench, done up with the ears and facial fluff of a matriarchal Persian cat, deploying her messianic powers of “Jellicle** Choice” to select one “Jellicle cat” to ascend to heaven? Was it Ian McKellan as Gus the Theater Cat, channeling Gandalf and Doctor Moreau? Was it Steven McCrae, looking like nothing so much as a reject from the Village People, tap-dancing along as Skimbleshanks the railroad cat? Or was it Jason DeRulo, already emblematic for me of the sad decline of hip hop, trying to sex up the choosy Rum Tum Tugger?  How about the film’s whole uncomfortably sexual atmosphere, best typified by Taylor Swift’s torch-singer turn doling out catnip and singing lustily about the criminal prowess of Idris Elba’s Macavity? Pulling a single moment of insanity out of this Boschian parade is the hardest Jellicle Choice of all.

Taylor Swift in Cats (2019)
Yes, that is Taylor fucking Swift.

Much criticism of Cats has centered on the poor quality of its CGI–so shoddy that the director (Tom Hooper, not that you’ll ever see his name on anything aside from Whopper commercials again) is releasing a new cut with touched-up graphics. Now don’t get me wrong; the CGI lies in the lowest gulch in the uncanny valley. But that’s not where the deeply unsettling nature of this movie has its source. Universal could hire Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic to labor over each frame of Cats for the next decade and it would be no less upsetting, because even without any CGI at all, you would still see an A-list Hollywood cast sniffing and nuzzling and licking and rubbing passionately against each other in imitation of actual cats.

And that’s Jason fucking DeRulo.

I love cats. I have an amiable, slightly bro-y, black domestic shorthair named Jameson and an elegant and lovably psycho savannah named Hadiya. They provide as much loyal companionship as any dog, and they’ve seen me through some dark times. After seeing Cats, I want to sit them down and give them the interspecies equivalent of that parental talk where you gently but firmly warn your kids that there are adults who will try to touch them in their no-no spots, and not all human beings will give them tuna and ear-scritchies. Of the many shitty things we’ve done to cats over the centuries, I would hardly say this film is the worst, but I still felt a need to apologize on behalf of us skin monkeys as I walked through the door. If it’s any consolation, kitties, your father has reaped what his callous species has sewn as he sits here in the day’s waning glow, trying to process what the fuck he just experienced.

By our own paws, Bastet has had her vengeance.

*I think the characterization of coastal America as a land of effete pseudo-intellectuals and rural America as racist hicks is unfair and overly simplistic, but real talk, guys: the hicks have a point on this one.

**”Jellicle” is evidently a Cockneyesque portmanteau of “Dear Little” invented by T.S. Elliott, who wrote the book of nonsense verse, Old Possums Book of Practical Cats, upon which Cats is based. Yes, the same T.S. Elliott who wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Wasteland,” and other jovial Modernist works about the meaninglessness of life in the early twentieth century.

The Children of Echidna

A humanoid with a bird-like head was among the eight therianthrope figures depicted in a cave painting on the island of Sulawesi.
A birdlike humanoid painted on a cave in Sulawesi (photo by Ratno Sardi).

44,000 years ago, a group of human beings painted the first known monsters in a cave on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Nearly 39 and a half millennia before the ancient Egyptians built the Pyramids of Giza, these ancient people painted beings part human and part animal in red paint made from natural pigments found in the area.

We have no idea who these people were, what they called themselves, what language they spoke, or what they looked like. All we have are these strange creatures: a beaked man and another being with a tail who seem to be hunting local animals. The only survivors of this long-vanished world are its monsters. I’ve always loved monsters because I’ve always loved animals, and monsters are just animals engineered by our imaginations. Such engineers were clearly walking the Earth on the better end of 50,000 years ago.

Were these creatures gods? Spirits? Demons? We don’t know and we never will. But as I sit here working through the first draft of a novel full of monsters and animal gods, I feel an incredible sense of kinship with that distant man or woman, tracing a reddened finger over a rough cave wall, summoning a creature that had never drawn breath outside his or her imagination.