(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The problem of patterning order out of chaos is solved by many cultures by the introduction of heroes who translate or decode images from the source, which are then recorded as creation stories. In many creation stories, the creative cultural hero has a younger or a twin brother, the trickster/destroyer. The Creator/Destroyer twin motif brings order to the chaotic clash between benevolent and malevolent forces.

Book of the Fourth World: Reading the Native Americas Through Their Literature is about making order out of chaos. Gordon Brotherston is our trickster/author; his book is about strange lands, incomprehensible cultural symbols and archetypes, and an indecipherable language. Indeed, Brotherston does not simply write “about” making order; rather, he plunges the reader into unfamiliar territory, confusing at first. From this initial confusion, a strange but compelling order gradually emerges.

On the opening page, Brotherston asks “How many worlds define this planet?” “Where is the heart of each, and its frontier?” Among the issues he addresses in answering these questions are “script and how to define it,” “modes of embodying and mapping space,” “calendars as the reckoning of tribute in kind or labor,” “the pastoralism peculiar to the Andes,” and the “links of food production and the shape of the cosmogony,” which he describes in terms of “native coherence.” Let’s focus on the word “coherence,” beginning with a brief review of Western (Cartesian) reasoning.

Factual truths and logical truths are not the same. Statements within a system differ from statements about a system. Factual truths describe actual events. Factual truths are contingent upon something having happened or something happening—“it is raining.” Logical truth stems from formalized relationships between symbols. Logical truth necessitates. “Water is wet. Rain is water. Rain is wet.”

The factual/logical split has generated the “coherence” theory and the “correspondence” theory of truth. A story is coherent because it is internally consistent to collectively accepted paradigms. A story may have to be interpreted if the receiver of the story is not acquainted with the coherent structure.

The key issues Brotherston addresses are explained by simply making statements in the native coherence of the subject matter. His manner of proceeding is neither “factual” (the historical and mythological literature of the Americas cannot be judged by standards of factual verification) nor “logical” (since this literature was handed across time in iconic-based languages, which are far from being logical and mathematical.) Brotherston unsettles those of us who habitually employ the Cartesian dichotomies of splintered truth, and are not literate in pre- Columbian MesoAmerican content. The native coherence which Brotherston uses as explanation is best described as “truth as accurate description.” Thus, truth is a matter of degree, because some stories in MesoAmerican Indian traditions are mystifying to Western audiences, and would not be called stories in our linear terminology.

In MesoAmerica, home of woven screenfold books, play is characteristically made not just with the act of writing, as, for example, the image of a tongue pen used for a singing lesson; but with the very surface written upon—paper or skin. The Aztec poet identifies the threads of his song with the fibers of the screenfold paper page, and a Maya inscription at Copan contrives to weave its hieroglyphic thread into the grain in the stone. Text is a framed composition, an “authorized” example of discourse which has its own inner structure and capacity to reflect upon itself while forming part of the larger literary system. MesoAmerican iconic texts translated into phonetic Spanish or English lose their authorial motive and are profaned by our translations of them; profaned because in iconic languages space is modulated, rather than sound, and in iconic reckoning...

(The entire section is 1637 words.)