Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1835
At the outset, grand notions of national character and civilization are not foremost in the author’s mind; indeed, he consciously puts aside such musings in order to set down more immediate impressions of his surroundings. Sunshine and the smell of carnations, the sound of cocks crowing, and the scent of leaves, wood resin, and coffee suggest whatever is most typical about a bright, clear morning in a small Mexican town. A pleasant day, warm enough for writing outdoors, sets in motion some gentle and unpretentious thoughts centering on Corasmin, a white, curly-haired little dog that cannot fathom the mimicry of two parrots which can “bark” in much the same way that he does. The dog’s discomfiture moves the writer to speculate about the natural scheme of things.
Theories of evolution were not to Lawrence’s liking, because they presume too much of an orderly sequence that reduces living creatures to causal links in an inflexible chain of events. Half seriously, he would cogitate upon Aztec cosmology, which he thought was more amenable to notions of volition and individuality. According to early Mexican beliefs, periodic outbursts of cosmic convulsions during epochs of chaos and creation have ushered in new ages in the development of life on the planet. In Mornings in Mexico, such reflections, which are followed by lighthearted asides, set the tone for the sketches. This effect of varying depth, in a work that never quite renounces its air of nonchalance, propels the reader quickly through encounters with people and places of the New World. One essay discusses a walk into a neighboring village, where Lawrence could not obtain fresh fruit; resignation, or peacefulness, set in toward the end of the day. Rosalino, Lawrence’s native household attendant, supplies some opportunities for observations about the Indians of Mexico. The author is alternately attracted and repelled by individuals who seem to embody the stolid virtues and the starkly alien values of Aztec lore. Once Rosalino resisted recruitment by a revolutionary army and was beaten so badly that his back was seriously injured. In his sympathy, Lawrence expresses a horror for mass movements that he feels the Mexican servant shares with him.
The chapter “Market Day” describes the last Saturday before Christmas, 1924, as one year hastens toward its end and the next promises momentous prospects. Red and yellow flowers seem to swell in anticipation; yucca plants in bloom and majestic clumps of cactus impart a luxuriant appearance to a landscape that otherwise might appear arid and forbidding. Cloud banks and distant mountaintops, with white barred hawks wheeling in the foreground, suggest the graceful sweep of natural spirals that converge at a hidden vortex. Villagers and merchants gather in processions that draw peasants and Indians from outlying highlands; they are joined by townspeople who descend in dusty columns on roads that bustle with lines of oxen and donkeys which in turn are flanked by running men and barefoot women. Purveyors of local produce assemble near a canopy which is bedecked in colors of its own. Gregarious and mercantile impulses seem oddly intertwined among all who take part in this provincial yet distinctly variegated exchange of goods. One is expected to haggle over every centavo; sellers take such gestures as a sign of positive interest.
In this essay, Lawrence says it is rather unpleasant to bargain with leather merchants, but not because they are too grasping. He complains that shoes are treated with so much dung that they smell. The merchants, however, who are accustomed to local methods, regard it as laughable that he would raise such objections. He concludes that there is no arguing with native ways. What the Mexicans accept as a traditional means of manufacture is hardly a matter on which they might defer to the olfactory judgments of outsiders. The tide of families, coming and going with products old and new in tow, ebbs by nightfall; people return home as the vast curve of humanity expands outward in its centripetal phase.
That Indians of the New World are different from Europeans is easily established; to Lawrence’s mind, however, the peculiar mystique of native peoples can be accounted for in many ways. Indians, he says, seem to have entered one branch of human consciousness which at an early stage bifurcated from the state of mind known to the white man. Neither can really understand the other, and it is vain to pretend otherwise. Even such a commonplace matter as entertainment reveals how profound the gulf actually is. Stage events that for Europeans might be riveting, that are fraught with deep cultural significance, would be regarded with uncomprehending indifference by the Indians. Abstraction and vicarious sensations seem alien to them, so much so that any effort to posit an underlying basis for literary and social values is bound to founder on the lack of any common conception of art as representation. Greek drama from past millennia can still strike evocative emotional chords among modern European readers, but no shared ground appears to exist where Indians are concerned.
Indian dances and ceremonies form the subject of several essays, and it is important to Lawrence that broad themes be treated in what he regards as their essential light. Indian processions strike him as characterized by an unswerving unanimity which subsumes any hints of individuality that under other circumstances might arise. Efforts to uncover more exalted or baser meanings, Lawrence contends, have betrayed the prejudice which affects previous accounts of Indian beliefs and practices; others have fallen into exaggeration because of the tendency to substitute sentimentality or dislike for sober judgment. The problem lies with those who think that cultural misunderstanding can be overcome where the means to do so do not exist.
In its most common form, says Lawrence, the Indians’ song is a performance that can be observed without regard for any verbal content; there also is no melody recognizable to a Western listener. Representations of wild animals such as deer, wolves, bears, buffalo, or coyotes enter more directly into the mysteries of the Indians’ universe. For that matter, pantomime, buffoonery, and amusements of many sorts are staged; the drama that is central to Western presentations, however, has no real counterpart in Indian productions. Although wonderment can be expressed at the world of creation, there is no God or Great Mind at the center of the Indians’ conception of their natural surroundings. The mystery pageants are unmoved by any suggestion of a divine purpose. To be sure, there are certain moral imperatives which can be inferred from Indian ceremonies; lying and cowardice, for example, are to be abjured. Moreover, Indians seem to accept the Mary and Jesus Christ of Western Christianity without concern for any conflict such professions of faith might have with earlier and more deeply rooted beliefs. Each system apparently exists on separate doctrinal foundations.
Mornings in Mexico includes some fine descriptions of Indian rites that recapture some of the frenzy and the grandeur of the solemn events. Perhaps the most noteworthy is Lawrence’s depiction of the dance of the sprouting corn, a procession that is held in celebration of spring planting and which takes place on the three days that follow Easter Sunday. The dark agility of the men complements the rounded, impassive features of the stolid Indian women. Rapt in an intense rhythmic absorption which produces brisk, modulating waves of movement, the dancers commemorate the change of seasons in costumes that seem at times to blend with the swaying bodies. Kilts of red, green, and black fabric are set above lovely fur and buckskin boots; necklaces of white shell cores from the Pacific coast leap and vibrate in unison with the performers. The men move in broad, graceful circles that abruptly sweep backward to form a long, straight line. For accompaniment, the solitary drummer supplies a steady rhythm of bass notes; at climactic moments, he strikes a series of high notes. An evocation of the germination of seeds in the earth, the Indian ceremonies suggest resurrection according to beliefs that antedate any received faith.
Although he had little formal expertise in this area, Lawrence’s views have been thought worthy of notice among those who study Indian traditions. Intuitive but sometimes persuasive judgments are found in his essay on the Hopi snake dance, an event which he witnessed in Arizona. As a prelude, men and boys stamp about in an antelope dance. They are followed by snake-priests, men who have spent days catching reptiles and who have fasted in preparation for this ritual. Some crude, swaying movements are accompanied by deep, heavy chants, evidently directed at the snakes themselves. For a minute of two, the priests, absorbed in their calling, remain silent and transfixed in some form of primordial communion. This mystical concentration apparently is enough to appease the reptiles, for they remain quiescent throughout. Skeptics aver that the same snakes are used from one year to the next. At the first performance, Lawrence sees the spectators becoming restless and impatient after a short while; many in the audience seem disappointed that they did not actually see poisonous snakes on display. Perhaps in response to public demand, on the next afternoon, after three rounds of ritual dancing and chanting, a young priest appears bearing a long, yellowish rattlesnake with its neck between his teeth. To the crowd’s astonishment, another snake bearer comes forth, and then another; in a few moments, possibly six snake-priests are on hand with their quivering animals. The older Indians seemingly can exert unseen powers over the creatures. Unblinking fascination, rather than fright or horror, spreads among the onlookers, who remain passive, as though mesmerized. Large and peculiarly attractive rattlesnakes, as well as some handsome bull-snakes and lithe, twisting whipsnakes, become docile and immobile under the eyes of the spectators. As the exhibition draws to a close, Lawrence meditates on the widely different ways by which white men and Indians have achieved mastery over nature: One vanquishes the elements by damming the Nile and laying claim to the frontiers of America, and the other conquers inner space. In this contest of mutual negation, the white man, because of his mechanical virtuosity, already has begun to win over some of the younger Indians. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that either way is innately better. Where the one holds out the hope of material progress, the other resolves his conflicts with nature in a slow, unceasing battle that has varied little since the beginning.
The last essay, which is no more than a brief afterthought, provides some reflections from Spotorno, Italy. Lawrence recalls images of America, where he had left behind the lights of Taos and his ranch in New Mexico. Even the ancient sites of the Old World are positively youthful in comparison with the ways of the Indians, which are derived from a much more distant past. Weightier concerns seem as irresolvable as ever, so Lawrence turns instead to an evaluation of American moonshine, which he has tasted, and Italian vermouth, which he has before him.
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