Book of the Fourth World

by Gordon Brotherston
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1637

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.

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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 time operates in a circle and exists in many different dimensions. Translating the cyclic, rhythmic reasoning of iconic languages (which are often read as chants and incorporate sounds for meanings) into linear phonetic codes victimizes truth. There is a mismatch.

Brotherston’s intellect, knowledge of the subject matter, and control of the English language thus truthfully describe the rich iconography of the ancient inscriptions and screenfold books which set the schemes of the Fourth World cultures. The genius of Brotherston is that he employs phonic English words as icons and weaves these into his descriptions of the intricate stories of cataclysms, metamorphoses, and epic quests of the cosmogonies of the Fourth World. Also, he does not temporalize, thus trivialize, in the Western sense. He describes the time schemes of MesoAmerica as they are and not as “quaint” in comparison to Christian-era time schemes. In general, Western civilization imposes diachronic time on all of its interpretations of all texts from all cultures. To impose such a linear structure on, for example, the texts of the Nahuatl, Mixtec, or other MesoAmerican languages destroys the ingenious visually integrated structure of the literature. There is bivalence to the European system, multivalence to the MesoAmerican structures. Bivalence is profane. We do not know the facts and we do not understand the logic. To his credit, Brotherston is not profane with his accurate descriptions, sonorous though they may be.

Nonphonetic languages register sound concepts, but they also (in Brotherston’s words) “conform by turns to a chronicled narrative, an icon or map, or a mathematical table. Indeed, integrating into one holistic statement what for us are separate concepts of letter, picture, and arithmetic, these languages flout received Western notions of writing. Round fruits on a tree count out units of time; the sign for a place also denotes a date in the Era; a bird serves to characterize and date the space through which it flies.” Phonetic languages do not translate this kind of coherency. Phonetic language codes and grammatical ciphers are logical truths. Credit must be given to Brotherston for retaining accuracy. He declares the native text to be an entity unto itself. He describes, but does not question, the structure of the embedded sequence of episodes common to languages coded by an iconic cipher.

Coherency in MesoAmerica is also based on the life-nexus logic of body paradigms. Whole vocabularies use gesture or sign language, time is measured in cycles and multiples of cycles, ritual logic provides grammatical ciphers, people’s names are represented by pictures depicting the metamorphosis from soul to mask, and landscapes are linked to architecture. The creators of this literature used it to structure history, settle accounts, theorize, and picture geography all in one holistic reflexive design with the force of natural law behind it.

Brotherston’s recurring theme is that westerners must not impose their cultural assumptions on the literature of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. He underlines this theme by comparing a Zuni story with a European fairy tale. “Turkey Girl” is to “Cinderella” as the Popol Vuh is to its Spanish translation.

Cinderella is banished to cleaning the hearth because it is a dirty job which her stepsisters will not do. In Native America, women who, with cedar boughs, sweep the ashes of the hearth are rekindling and renewing new life. Among the Aztecs, rekindling fires at the ends of eras was a profound ceremony undertaken with much circumstance at stake.

As in Cinderella, the action of Turkey Girl centers around a major ceremonial dance. Unlike Cinderella, Turkey Girl is drawn to a place, not a person.

Turkey Girl inhabits “Wind Place,” one of the first towns inhabited by Zuni after emerging into thisworld. Turkey Girl lives in a spiritually charged landscape, dealing with birds which function sacrificially, ornamentally, and as domesticated animals. Wild turkeys are known for their ferociousness, stealth, and extraordinary patience, which makes them difficult to hunt. Turkey Girl, who communicates with and domesticates this very difficult creature, is considered sacred and is held apart. She yearns to rejoin her people.

The whole action centers on the dance. The dance becomes the funnel through which the solitary Turkey Girl, living on the other side, comes to belong to the Zuni People. The dance being performed is the Yaaya (Sacred Bird Dance). Turkey Girl, in going to the dance, returns to her People and brings with her an ancient spiritual contract with the “other side” in the songs she sings. She finds her own center at the “Place in the Middle.” When Turkey Girl does not return to the other side, the turkeys leave their domesticated life and continue their own epic emergence journey up the Zuni River to the top of the sacred mountain. They sing their own song and chant the place names of the landscape and make their prints on the rocks. Told orally and cued from icons, the story of Turkey Girl ends here. No glass slipper, “no happily ever after.” Through this story, which is chanted and danced, the Zuni are reminded of their own emergence myth and of their sacred contract with those that provide food, clothing, amusement, and tests for the People. And the children learn that there is no greater interactivity than to sing and dance a story in a ritual space.

Gordon Brotherston is faithful to the texts of the Fourth World. He imposes no alien system or structure, he seeks no right and wrong, he is not self-righteously romantic about the sophistication of the noble savage, he does not react pompously to the savagery of the pagans on the frontier, nor is he looking for a new “publish or perish” spin to an old top.

He is trickster, doing his job, bringing order out of chaos, naming, administering, and designating terrestrial space signs or icons which symbolize the cosmogonical occurrences of such spaces; which consecrate and thus make each territory the center of the world, in order to advise our culture during periods of change.

Sources for Further Study

LXVII, December, 1993, p.900.

The Guardian. July 27, 1993, p.11.

New Statesman and Society. VI, August 13, 1993, p.40.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 16, 1993, p.12.

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