When reading these passages, I cannot help but think: how could the Mexica be reconciled to their social and natural worlds with such an arbitrary, even malignant conception of divine and political authority? How is a ruler or a deity who is simultaneously seen as an enemy inspire support and commitment?https://abandonedfootnotes.blogspot.com/2013/11/aztec-political-thought.html?m=1
This idea would have seemed a bit more alien before the rise and fall of Trump and concomitant narcissistic obsession with incomprehensibly degenerate but also incomprehensibly rich people.
As Clendinnen puts it, the puzzle is that “submission to a power which is caprice embodied is a taxing enterprise, yet it is that which the most devoted Mexica appear to have striven to achieve” (p. 76). Yet she hits on the right answer, I think, when she interprets these statements in the context of the rituals of Mexica society. In particular, she shows the Aztec state as an extraordinary example of what Clifford Geertz, referring to pre-colonial Bali, once called the “theatre state.”
Remember, rule number 1 for melonheads is “the show must go on”.
I mentioned earlier that human sacrifice was one of the central practices of Mexica society. But this does not quite capture what was going on. Human sacrifice was the most intense part of the pervasive ritual practices that structured Mexica society, but it was never merely sacrifice. Sacrifice was the culminating act of a set of amazing spectacles, enormously powerful intensifiers of emotion that made use of the entire register of Aztec symbols and pharmacopeia, and drew on the full resources of the empire. (Clendinnen’s descriptions of the Toxcatl, Izcalli, and Ochpanitzli festivals, running to many pages, cannot be properly summarized here – I am not competent enough – but they give a taste of the overwhelming intensity of the Mexica experience of ritual life, something that we can barely appreciate from looking at the stone relics available in museums). These spectacles were not closed or purely elite affairs, but involved the enthusiastic participation of ordinary people (as far as we can tell, but Clendinnen makes a good case).
It’s very easy to imagine society being organized around macabre spectacle-as-transcendance. And similarly easy to imagine melonheads providing such Carnivals as a combination of consumer product and apotheosis. It’s like the sapes’ Big Bongo Bongo Party except it’s on stage with much higher production value.
And they were not “games” (like the Roman gladiatorial contests) for the entertainment of spectators, or irregular and more or less infrequent affairs, like witch burning or hangings in Europe. Human sacrifice happened regularly and was central to Mexica self-understanding: “It is Mexica picturings which dwell on the slow tides of blood down the steps of the pyramids, on skull-faced deities chewing on human limbs, and human hearts pulped into stone mouths … The killings, whether large or small, were frequent: part of the pulse of living” (p. 88).
We might say that the theatre state at Tenochtitlan was primarily organized not to provide security, prosperity, or even glory, but for producing transcendental experiences. In this setting, Mexica priests were, in Clendinnen’s felicitous phrase, “impresarios of the sacred” (p. 242), practitioners of the only art that really mattered in the polity, and capable of setting in motion all of its resources for the sake of producing such collective experiences. Their “work” involved not just sacrifice, but a whole series of techniques, from fasting to powerful hallucinogenic drugs to chanting and dance, designed for maximum emotional effect. (There is a great deal of interesting “psychological engineering” in Mexica ritual, and I occasionally wondered idly about the genesis of such complicated practices). And the overall effect of their work was a “calculated assault on the senses,” that contrived
“by very different means, the kind of delirium that we associate not with high reverence but with Carnival. Through the chant when the priests spoke in the voice of the gods and the people replied; the swirling movement of processions and the slow turnings of the dancers in the flare of the pine torches; through the long preparation, the long isolation from the routine in the fasting period, the distancing formality of the painting and robing; through the patterns of dance and drum and song etched into the senses and graven into the muscles of throat and calf and thigh, came a shifting in awareness and of the boundaries of the self. And only then, as the self evaporated and the choreographed excitements multiplied and the sensations came flooding in, did the god draw near” (p. 258; I could quote Clendinnen all day).