5. The Universal and the Particular


This is the one implicit aspect of the novel that I'd like to tease out. It's not openly stated, but I see the notion that the particular trumps the universal all through the book. Specifically, I'd like to think about the universal God that Casiopea has learned about but who is never a character in this book. This universal God is never encountered and never acts. Contrast that to all the other particular deities and supernatural entities in the book. Hun-Kamé himself relativizes and particularizes the European god who really doesn't have much power in the setting of the novel.

Dominant cultures very often universalize their experience, their myths, their gods, and the ultimate aspect of this is monotheism. My God happens to be the only God and is universally valid across cultures. This is a form of erasing the particularities of other cultures.

I think this novel subtly calls into question all the Western universals -- monotheism, objectivity, the West itself (meaning western Europe and White North America).

What did you think of this? Was it as light a touch as I'm imagining? Did it work?


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    Nothing is heavy handed here. If that was her point, she made it deftly without me noticing. I think you are right in retrospect.

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    I can see why you might have hit on this. I'm not entirely convinced it was intentional. She was certainly looking at the details which is maybe why 'the particular' seems like a theme. And maybe she just didn't want to deal with the question of God vs local gods. I don't think Neil Gaiman did either in American Gods - maybe that sort of thing just gets in the way of this kind of story.

    If she really wanted to deal with imperialism and the loss of the particular, she might have dwelt more on the advance of American culture and showed it to us as a detriment. But as it was, people were happily dancing the Charleston and Americanisms were just integrated into the setting. In fact, the modern world seemed much more appealing than the traditional world, didn't it? She quite happily drives off to Louisiana or Quebec in a car at the end. So much for rebuffing the West!

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    Re @Apocryphal 's point, conceivably she was lamenting that people do tend, for many reasons good and bad, to embrace the dominant culture and in so doing lose their historical culture-specific roots. It's a bit like the Borg arriving, and everyone saying "oh goody, let's join them cos they're so much more impressive". The decay and dwindling of Xibalba and the traditional gods is all part of this - the movement symbolised by Vucub-Kame to restore the old ways and the old bloody worship was doomed to failure, partly through the recapitulation of his own internal myth, and partly because of the celebration of individualism, symbolised here in dance and dress. If it hadn't been Casiopeia that had stopped him, it wold have been someone else.

    Seen in this way, the conflict is - as it is so often - between the primacy of the group as a whole, and the primacy of the individual. Western society tends to elevate the individual at the expense of the group (some would say it has gone too far in that direction), older societies tend to elevate the group at the expense of the individual. You could interpret the story as saying that once the genie of individuality is out of the bottle, it's very hard to squeeze it back in.

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    I think there were elements of "universal truths" in the book. For instance, Hun-Kamé was able to talk about the creation and fading of gods as a general, universal phenomenon. The magicians and spirits encountered all seemed to fit a general pattern, with general approaches to dealing with them.

    The book does point out that when a culture is imported into a new area, the old culture(s) remain even if they are overlaid or suppressed. I think the author is showing that Mexico has a deep and rich history, with many layers of culture, even if the simplistic views is one of a US-dominated satellite.

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    There's a lot in the book that's local. The Mayan gods and spirits only have power locally. The beliefs are only relevant locally. Casiopea's family is only powerful in one particular locale, and irrelevant outside of that (look at Martin in the wider world - he's completely lost). Maybe that's the same thing.

    But there are a couple of universals. One that comes to mind is the gods speaking all languages.

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