Mayan Literature and Poetics
Michael D. Carrasco and Kerry M. Hull
In the introduction to his book on the Cannibal Hymn Christopher Eyre outlines the pitfalls of an overly literal and technical approach to translating ancient Egyptian texts (Eyre 2002:1). He laments that much of
[T]he inaccessibility of Egyptian literature is not simply a matter of incompetent translation, nor gaps in our knowledge of the meaning of words, the tense of verb-forms or the semantics of different constructions. However literal and accurate a translation may be in principle, the meaning of the Egyptian text is usually far from transparent. The real barriers to understanding are largely cultural: partly ideological and partly connected with genre. A literalist approach to foreign literature, without cultural context, can only reinforce the impression of how strange, even illogical or incoherent the mind of the author or his audience might be. When applied to religious literature, the necessary result is an assessment of underlying theology and ritual as largely incoherent, self-contradictory mumbo-jumbo.
The same hurdle of cultural understanding also confronts the student of Mayan literature where texts speak of rituals, mythology, and historical figures that have little resonance in the modern, western mind. Nor does the narrative style by which these stories and histories are told seem familiar. For a variety of reasons, however, these issues of cultural understanding and style are hardly ever addressed in the study of Mayan literature. In fact, Mayanists have only rarely attempted to translate entire texts with the central goal of presenting them as the main object of investigation. More frequently, the interest has been in extracting historical data from the narrative with the admirable objective of understanding the history of particular cities and regional politics. This essay of does not directly address these political issues; rather, it looks to the inscriptions of Palenque as fragments of a Classic Mayan literature now largely lost. By focusing on the meaning and style of selective narratives we hope to encourage the appreciation of glyphic texts for their literary qualities and the way they tell their stories. In the following pages, we approach these narratives from a variety of methodological perspectives, always though with the intention of making the meaning of the text transparent both in terms of its semantic content as well as its position as an artifact within a particular historic, architectural, performative, and social context.
Before turning directly to the texts and their translations, there are a variety of literary issues that we wish to address. First, some might initially question the reasons for our use of the term “literature” (see Hull 2003: 225-231). How are we to know what constitutes a Maya literature? And if a Mayan literature does indeed exist, what are its genres and by what criteria might these be defined? Moreover, lacking an indigenous meta-discourse on the subject, how do we go about reconstructing criteria for making these judgments? We feel that a loss or lack of a critical indigenous discourse on poetics should not be taken as either a corresponding lack of aesthetic interest in written works or a lack of well defined genres anciently, nor do we hold that modern discussions of Classic Mayan literature lack heuristic rigor due to the scarcity of the named native criteria that we find in modern Mayan languages. Secondly, if we acknowledge that we are dealing with a well developed literature and poetic tradition how do we analyze narrative structure when we lack native criteria? We will begin with the first set of questions concerning genre and the criteria of what constitutes a Mayan literature.
Speech genres tell the listener or reader what to expect. That is, the form of the narrative and its specific prosodic devices answers the question, “Is what I’m reading a novel or a biography, a legal brief or a dissertation? Is what I’m hearing a greeting or an apology, a poem or a curse?” Within every culture different genres have developed and are given pride of place within the literary production of a given society. Understanding Mayan literature therefore first involves identifying what genres existed and have survived, and among these which did the ancient Maya most value. Clearly for the ancient Maya all the genres of everyday speech have been lost. They simply weren’t recorded, and it would be dangerous to assume that they were the same as those of today. The language of ancient court life like that of other societies was certainly highly rarified and was probably a different language from the local vernacular. Judging from the known history of Mayan literature there was most likely never a Mayan novel, essay, or lyrical poem based in meter, but there seems to be a great deal of poetically crafted historical narratives and mythological texts. We will look at examples of these momentarily. Before doing so, however, we should have a better idea of what genre means in the discussion of literature at a general level.
Mikhail M. Bakhtin, one of the most influential theorists of speech genres, has demonstrated that speech and literary genres serve as important framing and structuring devices in discourse. They condition both the production and reception of utterances which Bakhtin takes as the basic unit of analysis (Bakhtin 1986; Bauman 1986; Hanks 2000). He makes a distinction between primary (simple) and secondary (complex) genres where complex ones are built from simple ones. And indeed we find that the more complex forms in Classic period narratives are divisible into simpler forms that are found as isolated utterances elsewhere.
William Hanks has emphasized how speech genres condition the production of utterances in more detail. His work, synthesizing the “sociological poetics” of Bakhtin with Perrie Bourdieu’s theory of practice (1977), treats genres as “elements of linguistic habitus, consisting of stylistic, thematic, and indexical schemata on which actors improvise in the course of linguistic production” (Hanks 2000:133). Thus, again his research stresses that while speakers have a large if not infinite range of verbal combinations from which to choose, their choice nevertheless is limited to a far narrower range of predetermined genres, which may be improvised upon during their actual use.