Cities and civilization

I've just finished reading Inga Clendinnen (1991), Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press. The book is only 387 pages long, including bibliography, but it took me many days to get through it. This is not because Clendinnen (possibly Australia's best-known historian) is a difficult writer. On the contrary, she writes clearly, simply and beautifully about matters that are murky, complex and terrifying. Her chapter on "Victims" -- those ceremoniously slaughtered on the killing stone after exhaustive and exhausting performances -- is so vivid it may make you wake up in the night screaming. No; what took me so long to get through it was not any trouble deciphering her prose, but rather that these strange and yet culturally coherent practices kept making me stop to think. About what? Why and how people could behave in these ways? What those actions meant to those involved? Yes, all that, and also in what ways -- just precisely how, and if the distance was as great as they imagined -- their culture differed from that of their conquerors, the little band of conquistadores (as they styled themselves after they had won) led by that clever liar, Hernán Cortés. But that's not what I want to talk to you about today (it will be in our book). The other thing that greatly impressed me was how centrally Aztec, or Mexica (as they called themselves), civilization and power were bound up with their great city, Tenochtitlan.

It was a great city, which "sustained a population of more than two hundred thousand people," whereas "Seville, the largest city in Spain, and the last European town most of the Spaniards had seen, numbered about sixty to seventy thousand people in 1500, and by 1588 only one hundred and fifty thousand." (p. 18) Yet it functioned in ways so different from cities in Europe that some urbanologists are reluctant to call it a "city." It was not a fortress, and didn't even contain a citadel, nor was it primarily a place for exchange of goods -- although it did have very active markets. It was a newer thing than Seville, having been constructed only over the previous century, as a celebration of Mexica power over the varied peoples of the Valley of Mexico. (Seville, which had been in the hands of the Moors and then "reconquered" by Christian Spaniards, had been settling into place for centuries, its mansions and mosques-converted-to-churches imbued with the deepest memories). Tenochtitlan was Mexica power, in somewhat the way that in a much earlier epoch Roma, the city, was the font and symbol of Roman Power, or Constantinople (which had grown on top of a village once called Byzantion) was the font and symbol of the entire Eastern Roman Empire, what later historians (in deference to the centrality of its city) now call "Byzantine."

The relation of a great city and its subcities and hinterlands can vary widely, though. I don't think Englishmen from Cornwall or the North Country ever all thought of themselves as belonging to London, the way a Roman citizen who had never left North Africa might think of himself as belonging to Rome. And this despite the fact that London at one time ruled the world, or seemed to. Here in the US, most Americans seem to regard our greatest city as something alien. New York is where cosmopolitanism rules, where people or all sorts mix, where new ideas (some of them loopy, some of them brilliant) burst into flower and gather enthusiasts to make them grow. For much of America, it is exciting, dangerous, and suspiciously not quite American. And when it is in trouble, as it is right now, the instinct in our state legislature in Albany (especially the Governor's mansion) and in the towns that depend on us to make their citizens rich is not to give us anything, but to extract. They haven't yet managed to cripple the great energy of New York, but it is a wounded city, and if they do kill its energy, there may be glee in Mudtown for a night or two, but they will have killed a great source of energy for America. And beyond.