My purpose in these notes will not be to give an accurate account of Aztec aesthetics but rather to see what can be said about aesthetics as a whole by way of looking carefully at Aztec aesthetics. At the same time I am interested in what this exploration can contribute to the larger issues of philosophy and even those of the place of humans in the world. This is not quite the same as Comparative Aesthetics: the point at issue here is not to simply find similarities and differences between Western and Aztec aesthetics but to see what can come of a dialogue between us and the Aztecs by way of their most profound poetry.
We know Aztec aesthetics mainly through the codices and in particular the poetry that now counts as the basis for an understanding of Aztec philosophy. It is prominent that Aztec philosophy gives a much greater position to aesthetics than does Western philosophy.
In looking at Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel León-Portilla (1963), a major source for these comments, I first looked to the index under “aesthetics” and found no entries at all. I then looked under "art" and found a few pages devoted to the concept of art, a few of those same pages to the artist, and a few to objects of art. But this turns out to be the mere surface of Aztec aesthetics since there are multiple entries under the central concept of “Flower and Song” which itself refers to the arts very broadly speaking as well as to everything beautiful.
Very helpful in this regard is the discussion of Aztec aesthetics in a chapter of that name in Richard L. Anderson’s Calliope’s Sisters: A Comparative Study of Philosophies of Art. (1990) There, drawing mainly on later works by León-Portilla Anderson even describes a philosophical dialogue between several of the Aztec wise men, called thlamatinime (sing. thlamatini).
Here, I am going to quote some lines from the poetry produced by the thlamatinime and make some comments. The main tenor of my comments will be this; that their general position, or the upshot of it in my view, is that there is an underlying divine or spiritual aspect to reality; that we must focus on the “now” of experience to make life meaningful in a world that is otherwise ephemeral; that whatever eternity is possible for humans is to be found not in an afterlife but in “flower and song,” which is to say in this dual-natured thing that combines natural beauty and the beauty of art; and that this view of human existence, which is deeply and fundamentally aesthetic, is not very far from the view offered by Nietzsche in the culminating moments of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his greatest philosophical work, a work that, actually, goes beyond philosophy, and is, in an important sense, deeper than philosophy.
So, what I look for, or seem to find (the extent to which I project this instead of finding it, or perhaps that León-Portilla and/or Anderson do so first, and I just follow them in doing so, can never really be known by me) in Aztec philosophy is a deeply aesthetic philosophy that challenges not only Western aesthetics but also Western philosophy to the extent that it provides an aesthetic answer to the deepest skeptical questions we have. Here are the passages in quote marks.
“Hence, I weep,
for you are weary,
the quetzal feather tears apart.
Oh God, you mock us.
Perhaps we really do not exist.
Perchance we are nothing to you.”
This is followed in Anderson’s text by the idea that perhaps life :
“…is just a dream
And here no one speaks the truth.”
To this skepticism the answer is:
“Here man lives on earth!
Here there are lords, there is power
there is nobility….
There is ardor, there is life, there is struggle,
the search for a woman, the search for a man.” (Anderson pp 148-9)
That is, our world might just be a dream, or our lives dreams in the eyes of God, or an illusion on some level, and yet we have our lives on this earth (even if I dream, my dream-world is the world in which I live, i.e. as a live creature interacting with my environment), and we have the possibility of nobility and great accomplishment, and, probably more importantly, the chance of to love someone, a man or a woman, in the midst of all our struggle. The things of beauty, jade and quetzal feather, fall apart and fade with time, and yet “flower and song” (which Anderson understands as art broadly speaking, all that is symbolic, and all that has meaningful beauty) remain and have a certain eternity, as can be seen in these passages:
“’Finally, my heart understands it: I hear a song
I see a flower,
Behold, they will not wither!”
“They will not end, my flowers,
they will not cease, my songs…
Even when the flowers wither and grow yellow,
they will be carried thither,
to the interior of the house
of the bird with the golden plumes”
The house I take it is the house of Being, the essence of beauty, what Plato called Beauty itself.
And from the above-mentioned dialogue we get this clarification:
“From the interior of heaven come
the beautiful flower, the beautiful songs.
Our desire deforms them,
Our inventiveness mars them…
Must I depart like the flowers that perish?
Will nothing of my fame remain here on the earth?
At least my flowers, at least my songs.” (181)
(Actually, this is also very close to what Diotima is saying in the Symposium…see my post on that.)
We are inspired by the inner essence of things to express ourselves in flower and song, something that can be marred by merely human desire or inventiveness (e.g. by egoism), and yet if we create these works of art then something of our being, our essence, will remain, which is in the “as if” eternal nature of whatever about these works of art is truly deep.
It is this commitment to depth that we have somehow lost sight of, at least in professional philosophy: or perhaps it is just our secret story that many of us philosophers never tell others? But it is the same story that Nietzsche tells when he speaks of his love of life, at the end of TSZ, where he says that we must be willing to say “yes” to life and be able to will our entire past lives again and again for eternity, as a love of eternity, the eternity he finds not in an afterlife but in “being true to the earth.” Nietzsche’s new religion of the overman, then, correctly understood, is the same as the new religion of the thlamatinime, i.e. in response to the popular religion of the Aztecs.
Another telling quote that shows the dynamic relationship between the aesthetics of nature, the aesthetics of art, and “religious” experience is: [“religious is in quotes since, as an atheist, I reject theism, i.e. the belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God who created the universe: that’s a myth, and yet it is a myth that hides a meaning captured in part by Heidegger’s idea that we have stopped listening to Being….there is a dimension, to or aspect of, human existence/human experience which is essential and deep and which is only captured mythically by the concept of a God. This is my view anyway.]
“The Flowers sprout, they are fresh, they grow;
they open their blossoms, and from within emerge the
flowers of songs; among men
You scatter them,
You send them.
You are the singer!” (152)
Of course on a literal level, this tells a story more similar to the one Socrates tells in the Ion than the one I tell: the idea being that there is a God and He/She (the Aztecs believed in a sexual duality in God) speaks through us in our greatest art. But if Nature (I am suggesting a kind of Spinozistic position in which Nature has two aspects: material and spiritual) replaces God (as in Deism or in Transcendentalism) then we have something a bit more plausible, i.e. the “You” just being an anthropomorphic projection of Nature itself and our interactions with it. This can be consistently read into the poem, for example, “The Flowers sprout….and from within emerge the flowers of songs…” captures this nicely.
And, as Anderson also observes, this happens only for those who “converse with their hearts” i.e. for those who seek out their own innermost nature.
“The artist: discipline, abundant, multiple, restless.
The true artist, capable, practicing, skillful,
maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his
“The good painter is wise.
God is in his heart
He puts divinity into things;
he converses with his own heart.” (154)
We can only talk about “God” as a symbol of the capacity of the insightful artist to put divinity into the things he or she creates.
There is, of course, also danger everywhere in philosophy, and not less when we try to seek out Being: we have to always be aware of Heidegger’s self-seduction into Nazi ideology as well as the Aztec mass executions as evidenced by skulls in piles the Spanish found numbering in the 100,000s. The search for “flower and song” is meaningless without an ethics based on empathy to shore up a social world in which it can authentically take place.