. . . William Bronk

. . .

Happy New Year
At Copan, the line of history broke a short generation after the dating of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and Altar Q. No monument discovered has a date later than the year we number 800 A. D. They may have continued the reckoning of time after this without recording it in monuments. Perhaps they deserted the city; perhaps they stayed nearby. Life can continue without a reckoning of time. It has a kind of latitude, and time is one way to speak of that latitude. But when time comes to a stop as it seems to have come to a stop around Copan, the latitude remains. Perhaps the people went away. More probably they stayed and not too far from there. They stopped making monuments and may have no longer reckoned the calendar or thought consciously of the temples and sacred precincts, but remained as much or as little as they were before. The whole set of our minds is splinted so in time and history, our thinking structure fails to stand without them, and we are reluctant and uneasy, thinking of timeless man, of man without history. When we come back now to Copan, we feel at home there because, however remote or alien its terminology, we sense through all our ignorance that time and history have been here once. It seems entirely natural, too, the only human reaction, to feel regret and melancholy and bewildered protest that all these structures are empty and fallen, that something stopped here a thousand years ago. We assume of time and history that they are continuous and progressive and always were. The insistent questions that confront us here and characterize us are, "Where did these people come from?" and "Where did they go to?" We are brought to face the discontinuity of time and history, the continuance nevertheless of man, and the equivalence as answers to these questions of nowhere and here. We assume that we, too, came from somewhere, go someplace; but of ourselves also we would have to answer nowhere and here, and know that one answer said the same as the other. And, together, the answers say, insofar as we can be characterized, we are they and they are we, timeless and unhistorical. It is true that we have on either occasion invented times and histories for ourselves and, by an act of will, imposed them as long as strength lasted. We invented these the way we invented speech and buildings and costumes and the changes of modes in these; but, whatever we are, we are without them and apart from the changes in them. These things in themselves can be said to have times and histories; but they have little or nothing to do with us. We lean on inventions, though, to give us standing. We dress ourselves in inventions and house ourselves there. We give ourselves mythic identity, find something we ought to do and project rewards. We are never what our pretensions claim though at times we seem to be when our pretensions succeed for awhile, when will and self-denial and force mold us into some image we impose upon ourselves and on those around us, so that common consent gives us the role we claim for ourselves. To say we make something of ourselves is a form of praise for a person or a culture.

There is a large mask on a stairway in the East Court, a wide-eyed human face with symbols beside it that show it to mean the planet Venus. It is something to say of Venus, and what else should we say? But without the label, we should never have found it out. The Mayan culture and this whole site as exemplar are mask and metaphor. So are we.

One of the strongest impressions that we have is that under the mask and metaphor something is there though it is not perhaps man that is there. There is something which is. Nothing else matters. Copan is a liberation. It is all gone, emptied away. To see it is to see ourselves gone, to see us freed from the weight of our own world and its limitations. One aspect of the roles we assume is taken as something more than whimsical self-indulgence. It is the assumption of the responsibility for our own natures and environment. It is to say that both can be bettered and that we know the direction of betterment and can work that way, and that given time enough and good will and energy, we can evolve a world subject to our reason and wisdom which are sufficient for that, and that this then will be the world, the world that is. One supposes that whoever may have lived at Copan may have thought this way and that the development of this city may have been directed toward that end; one supposes that whoever may have lived here is we. That the idea is historically absurd is only in part our own absurdity: it is the absurdity of our historicity. Whatever we are, we are not historical. The world we make and ourselves, so far as we make ourselves, ourselves in the particularities of time and place, as cultural man -- all this can be destroyed and make no matter. We are happy at Copan to witness our own destruction and how we survive it. If something may be said to happen, what happens to us is not what happens. The evident destruction of Copan is witness to this as we, in our own lives, are witness to the same things. We are delivered from our continuous failures and frustrations. Perhaps more importantly, we are delivered from our self-limited successes, the awful banalities of the good life.

Joy and desire surround us without our doing, without our understanding.

The world or what we term the world, that medium in which we find ourselves, and indeed whatever of it we set apart and term selves, is not related to what we make of it and not dependent on what we make of the world or make of ourselves. It is not in the least altered, nor is our basic nature altered, by any cosmology or culture or individual character we may devise, or by the failure or destruction of any of these, as all of them fail. If they seem for a time to succeed, they blind us as though they were real; and it is by our most drastic failures that we may perhaps catch glimpses of something real, of something which is. It merits our whole mind. The good society and the good life are more than we could imagine. To devise them or to assert and defend their devising is not the point.

from "Copan: Historicity Gone" by William Bronk


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