Existential Othering and the Strange Case of the Bloody Excrement
We deplore prejudice and bigotry with respect to others, but overlook the roots of such destructive and alienated attitudes in an unavoidable aspect of experience that the Nahua (Aztecs) knew well: the troubled way that we respond to otherness. Here Kay Read, an historian of religion at DePaul University, reflects on her own troubled response to a Nahua image depicting the disgusting side of creation, fertility and death, dawn and sacrifice in a crimson stream of divine shit.
Archie Bunker: Why do they make dolls that do all the disgusting things people do?
Edith Bunker: That’s not disgusting, it’s natural.
A small segment of a pre-Colombian, Mesoamerican pictorial codex exists that raises a conundrum with respect to our relationships with nature. The little image resides within the Codex Borgia, a document hailing from a Nahua (Aztec) speaking area just over a mountain pass southeast of present-day Mexico City. This 15th-16th century divinatory almanac contains a full creation story presented entirely in
pictures. Originally, a ritual specialist probably would have rhythmically chanted this story to a captivated audience. Appearing inconspicuously on the left side of folio 45, the image depicts a black, mostly nude figure, a yellow stripe running down his nose and his curly hair brightly decorated. He is sitting in profile on a platform, centered within a cross-hatched arch which, in turn, is surrounded by nine heads. All of this appears to my eyes, anyway, quite fascinating, well executed and beautifully patterned. But the most astonishing thing is a quantity of red substance flowing out of what is clearly this guy’s anus; and even more weird, these red rivulets seem to be sprouting flowers. OK, in my book, this is definitely strange!
Why is this guy excreting red poop? Briefly, this is about the rising of Venus at dawn (believe it or not). The black figure is probably one of the numerous aspects of a Nahua god, Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) who is the embodiment of, among many things: cosmic creation, fertility, war, sacrifice and the planet Venus. Mesoamericanist Elizabeth Boone tells us that in this little image he is covered by a starry net, punctuated by nine star figures. His tangled (not styled) hair holds a Venus star and. . .he is excreting bloody diarrhea (2007: 207).
Two Kinds of Othering
What the heck is this about anyway? Boone may have helped me translate these graphic images, but she has only minimally helped my comprehension. For starters, I find this fairly yucky. My immediate reaction is one of disgust and horror, mixed with intense fascination. This culture is so strangely different from my own that I find myself automatically shoving it into a box marked “Other” because of my inability to fit it into my own normal, cultural sensibilities. Yet even as I am repulsed by and a little afraid of its strangeness, I am drawn to it as if to some horror flick; I close the box, but I keep opening its lid and peeking in. So, which do I do now; hide the box in the closet and slam the door, or take it out and examine its strange contents? By doing either, or both, I have just “othered” this image whether I wanted to or not.
I propose that there are at least two types (maybe more) of othering: (a) inevitable, existential othering is a response that differentiates, divides and separates us from unsettling forces in our world which we cannot comprehend fully, much less control adequately; and (b) potentially controllable, egregious othering done out of unfamiliarity, but also causing harm to the object of our fear. Most academic research to date has focused on this second kind of othering and has been directed almost exclusively at humans in studies concerned with, for example, social constructions rooted in colonialism that result in unfortunate phenomena like racism. However, we also other natural things like bloody poop or Hurricane Sandy. Othering is a broader phenomenon than just our simple disapproval of or power-filled aggression directed at humans.
Egregious othering has a long history in the West; and the academic work has focused mostly on western tendencies to differentiate those peoples we try to conquer. Anthropologist Adam Kuper’s work explores the invention of the mythically transformative idea of “primitive societies” during the nineteenth-century, arguing that such societies do not and never have existed. These imaginary peoples originated in the minds of European lawyers and were–and still are–intimately connected with Euro-American stories about western progress. Kuper is discussing an extraordinarily long-lived mythic narrative in which “savage” becomes the antithesis of “civilized,” and “primitive” simply means something in its original, undeveloped, natural state (2005: 3-36). Savage primitives thus lived naturally in the wilderness, while civilized peoples progressed to “modern,” urban habitation by domesticating nature. This suggests, as many have argued, that the story about “primitive” peoples is itself a consequence of colonialism and not an historical reality. What a convenient justification, observes philosopher Enrique Dussel, for allowing Fernando Cortés, as “Lord of the World,” to “sacrifice” those deserving, savagely primitive Aztecs (1995: 19-26)! Of course, nineteenth-century Euro-americans were not the first to other those with whom they fought in this way. Both Kuper and Historian of Religions Jonathan Z. Smith trace the word “barbarian” back to a Greek word meaning foreigners who spoke animal-like babbling. Smith has argued that difference itself lies at othering’s root; therefore we create rituals, for example, that can “make the strange familiar” in order to overcome troubling distinctions between ourselves and others (2004: 238; 1982: 20-23).
Anthropology was born out of the need to explain strangely exotic “primitives” whose seemingly untoward behavior often shocked members of rapidly expanding, post-Enlightenment societies. In the twentieth-century, anthropologist Mary Douglas suggested that everyone—primitive and westerner alike—others because of a universal, human need to structure order by owning the unknown. The impure, dangerous other was simply dirt out of place and the “primitive existentialists” she studied in the Belgian Congo ritually confronted and claimed the ambiguities disrupting their particular cultural closet, thereby creating order out of disorder; so too do we order that which appears disordered (1966: 1-6, 159-79). Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss suggested that the differences between primitive and civilized could be voiced better through broader categories of “raw and cooked.” The raw appeared naturally in the wilderness beyond human habitation, while the cooked was culturally domesticated wild stuff (1983: 1-32). Moreover, he claimed that forest and urban dwellers alike thought this way because we all share the same essentially rational mind.
And the Other Kind…
While I’m not willing to make universal claims I cannot support, some of Douglas’ and Levi-Strauss’ ideas are nevertheless intriguing. In a similar vein, “EP editor William Jordan III and his colleagues have explored our emotional responses to these experiences of otherness, limitation and the untoward aspects of life in terms of their relationship to the experience of values such as meaning and beauty (Jordan: 46-53) . All these authors nuance–as does Smith– the idea of othering by suggesting a somewhat more existentially structured type that, while it can produce the more egregiously harmful sort, does not always do so. Existential othering can simply occur because of our inevitable limitations; it does not necessarily result in racism or active abuse of nature. And recognizing that westerners as well as so-called primitives both rationally and emotionally experience existential othering just might help us remember what we share with other humans, and. . .to recognize what we share with others might help us move from the strange to something more familiar by reducing our shock over what otherwise might seem disgusting.
“Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.”
Milan Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Inevitable, existential othering means reaching our limits to file something within the bounded closet of our lived experiences. Perhaps I am fixating on the macabre; but we can “other” anything that insists on moving beyond our comprehension. Bloody poop suggests a painfully fatal disease we may or may not deserve, yet Mexico’s Mount Popocatepetl’s gorgeous snow-capped peaks also shine bright red with the dawning sun. Both scare me a little with their enormity and insistent defiance of my ability to articulate, much less explain, their effect on me. They remind me resoundingly of the limitations of my understanding: I, the mere human, can comprehend only so much and no more.
Literary critic and philosopher Timothy Morton recently used Tibetan Buddhist ideas to describe our experience of nature as constituted by intimately “intermeshed,” yet distinctive beings constantly connected through ever-changing relationships (2010: 28-36, 40-41, 46). Those yucky, bug-like micro-organisms in our guts and the scary hurricanes outside keep reminding us that any kind of stability ain’t ever gonna happen. Our existential realities are always pretty much raw dirt whether we like it or not; we can clean them up and cook them into domesticated dishes only once in an illusory while. For Morton, we are naturally and unavoidably embedded in an eternal othering-process reaching well beyond any limited talents we might possess, and he advises that we should just get used to it (2010: 60). No matter how modestly we wish to really effect the changing world, we can do so only by admitting what really is real and this includes acknowledging what we cannot do.
Recognizing that westerners as well as so-called primitives both rationally and emotionally experience existential othering just might help us remember what we share with other humans.
Quetzalcoatl’s strangely flowering, bloody excrement expressed just that for the pre-Cortés Nahua, who deeply understood both Morton’s interconnected “mesh” and Jordan’s existentially limited experiences. Netting such as that arching over Quetzalcoatl wove beings together. As though catching fish, the nightly sky-river netted the moon, planets, stars, and ancestors. Quetzalcoatl-Venus (Morning Star) rose at dawn from the wet, tangled underworld, heralding the coming of Tonatiuh (Sun) with a red glow growing brighter like sacrificial blood spreading in the dark sky’s water. Dead things rotted in the underworld in order to feed the living things growing on earth’s surface. Both Tonatiuh and rain were called golden excrement because human waste–along with compost dredged from wetland areas–fertilized the fields, thereby providing crucial nourishment for the food that nourished humans. Quetzalcoatl offered his own sacrificial excrement to fertilize the growth of flowers just at the moment before the sun would warm them.
This little image expresses a sacrificial aspect of fertility; reminding us that something always must be destroyed to create something else, no matter how emotionally unpleasant that quite rational thought might be. Since life is an organic recycling
process, nothing can grow without being fed dead things and, if you take from the living earth, you must give back to the earth for it, too, has to eat. For the Nahua, as with hunting, agriculture was a bloody battle because one waged war to capture nourishment. In this semi-arid landscape, moreover, deities sacrificed themselves to feed corn and water to humans, while humans fed their blood and digested corn–poop–to nourish the deities. Besides excreting fertilizer, Quetzalcoatl also bled his penis on corn meal captured from the underworld to create the first Nahua; in return, they fed and watered the deities who produced, fed and watered them.
In the Nahua world, nothing was ever really domesticated and all was repeatedly captured, killed, cooked, eaten, digested, excreted, and fed to something new in order to capture and eat again. The raw came cooked and humans were cooked raw. As Morton’s work suggests, such a symbolic cosmos was probably closer to what actually happens naturally than either a glorious, western Transcendentalist vision or our denial of how, for better or for worse, humans are intimately and inevitably intermeshed with nature’s functioning.
Yet, existential othering leaves us in a double-bind. We absolutely must order our closets, often just before their hidden, but nevertheless real contents demand our attention again. Without a few reality checks, the existential may easily become the egregious. It’s unwise to other nature to such an unrealistic degree that we romanticize dawn on Mount Popocatepetl while ignoring its volcanic smoke , nor is it helpful to bemoan Sandy’s destruction while neglecting our own responsibility for the damage; for denying Popocatepetl’s smoke or waiting until the hurricane hits before doing anything about it, produces even bigger disasters. If we cannot distinguish between that which is out of our existentially limited control from that which we damage egregiously because we are too busy ignoring it by locking it up in our closet, then everything is in danger. Shit happens, but that doesn’t mean we have any right to throw it at anyone else; besides shit provides us with evidence of and nourishment for that which sustains and gives us life.
We hold an irrevocable membership in a cosmos both breathtakingly beautiful and disgustingly horrible. If we ignore either, or even the simple facts that we ourselves are disgustingly, horribly natural (“Gut-bugs R Us”) and that we must sacrificially kill something in order to sustain our own lives (whoops, I just killed that carrot by peeling off its skin), then we risk not even comprehending, much less dealing well with those “others” lurking in our locked closets. In the grand scheme of things, we live a difficult and short existence. If the hard, existential realities of climate change and its results like hurricanes, droughts, decreasing resources, famines, and rising poverty tell us something about the need to change our egregious behavior for the health of the long-run, how do we open up and transform our closets in order to include responsibility for both the glorious and the macabre, despite our inevitably, pitifully limited capacities for full comprehension? Therein lies my conundrum raised by Quetzalcoatl’s bloody excrement: how to act productively in spite of my fascinated revulsion resulting from our shared entanglements in the natural world.
Boone, Elizabeth Hill. 2007. Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate. TX: University of Texas Press.
Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. UK: Routhledge & Kegan Paul.
Dussel, Enrique. 1995. The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of “the Other” and the Myth of Modernity. NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Jordan, William R. III. 2003. The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature. CA: University of California Press.
Kuper, Adam. 2005. The Reinvention of Primitive Society: Transformations of a Myth. UK: Routledge.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1983. The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Volume 1. IL: University of Chicago Press.
Morton, Timothy. 2010. The Ecological Thought. MA: Harvard University Press.
Read, Kay A. 1998. Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. IN: Indiana University Press.
Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. IL: University of Chicago Press.
————————. 2004. Relating Religion. IL: University of Chicago Press.
Kay Almere Read is a Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePaul University, Chicago whose interests cross several disciplinary boundaries. She holds degrees in Art Education (University of Illinois, 1969), Religious Studies (University of Colorado, 1982), and History of Religions (University of Chicago, 1983, 1991). Her research on pre-Conquest and contemporary Mesoamerica has focused on cosmology, imagery, history and ethical concerns related to the nature and significance of time, sacrifice and rulership. Her publications include Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos (Indiana University Press, 1998), winner of an “Exceptional Books of 1998” award from Bookman Book Review Syndicate; and Mesoamerican Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs of Mexico and Central America (Oxford University Press, 2000), co-authored with her son Jason J. González.