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William Bronk and Mayan Civilization

From "William Bronk and the Geography of America" by Edward Foster

Bronk's philosophic positions are the excuse, perhaps the origin, for his poetry, not the poetry itself. They serve the function of, for example, Dante's medieval theology and Yeats' occultism — as systematic constants, that is, against which and with which the poet can measure the complexities and ambiguities of human behavior. However, just as it is important to know something of Aquinas to read Dante, it is essential to have some understanding of Bronk's philosophic positions as a unit when reading his poetry. The poems deal individually with those positions but imply at times a collective understanding of them. (In this regard, it could be argued that the poems are all interrelated, parts of one grand work rather than separate, individual achievements.)

Bronk has written two introductions to his philosophic system, The New World and A Partial Glossary. The first is more comprehensive and easier to read. The second may be too condensed for anyone who does not know the poetry already. The essays in The New World are as elegantly constructed as Bronk's best poems. Based on visits to Inca and Mayan sites — Machu Picchu, Tikal, Palenque, and Copan — they are meditations on history and geography, time and space.

The New World begins with a discussion of Machu Picchu. Although there is no evidence that the world of the Incas was influenced by European civilization, there are startling similarities between their world and ours — that is, we can understand their world not only archeologically (by adding up the ruins of their world and seeing if we can find in them signs of political and social orders like ours) but intuitively as well This civilization left no written record, no recorded history, but it can easily be seen that it was a civilization with an aesthetic sense like ours. We see it in their stonework, in the patterns of the environment that they built for themselves. Man is apparently the product of far more than his historical situation, and this, for Bronk as it must be for everyone, is astonishing evidence: "as though we were to find an algebra among cats. The evidence is enough to allow one to investigate these ancient American civilizations, Inca and Mayan, not as an archeologist but as a poet, drawing conclusions as much from intuitions as from known facts.

At Tikal, perhaps the oldest of the great Mayan cities, Bronk wonders about the source of "time" — the fact that every civilization invents its own units of time (hours, weeks, months), its own way, then, of envisioning and, therefore, inventing future and past. But here, as at Machu Picchu there is the awareness of a link between civilizations, a link that is fundamentally human, and it is the awareness that whether we are dealing with Tikal or our world, we are confronted with the sense of "a continuing present," something which does not depend on units of time, or measurement of any sort, to be realized. That "continuing present' is not like the past, invented; it exists outside the individual civilization and is essential to the human condition.

At Palenque, which is famous for the great variety of its Mayan architecture, Bronk is concerned with the perception of space, the ways in which it is organized to give us an awareness of place, direction, geography But he also finds that once a civilization has established a geography it is abandoned, Man creates a place for himself in the universe, imposes a map on the land, only to abandon that geography as if the point lay not in the geography, the sense of place itself, but in its creation.

Copan is Bronk's final example. This was the Mayan center of learning, the "library" of the culture. Bronk indicates that Mayan history, after all was only an invention (like the sense of time on which it depends) and it does not outlive its culture; it is not real in an absolute sense. "Whatever we are," he insists, "we are not historical." Nonetheless, if time and history evaporate with the cultures of which they are essential components man himself persists; there is somehow a constant, something that does not vanish with civilizations.

Bronk suggests that whatever we create has behind it some constant force which lends to all civilizations their similarities (that all civilizations, for example, have a geography, however radically distinct from each other they may be), but that force is beyond our control: "I think we are totally unable to affect it."What began for Bronk as an amazed awareness that there is something basically the same in all men and all civilizations ends with the possibility that this sameness is beyond our control and drives us to build civilizations which are inherently imperfect, constructions of imagined time and space-constructions which invariably destroy themselves. We are shaped by forces beyond our control or our doing. All we ultimately know is this. Beyond, all is impenetrable silence.


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