Monday, July 15, 2019

Nahuatl and Mental Health

My wife and daughter were texting to each other this morning. We have a running, group "family text" that seven of us use mostly to say things about the Cubs, or to advocate for vacation plans or purchases, and argue or kid around in a good-natured but competitive way, so I was privy to the back and forth between these two, as one of them was on a train and the other at home with little kids. The combination of auto-correct, casual language, and pressured, multi-tasked typing often produces pretty funny results...

Wife: Nahuatl so you k ow the cleaning. People are coming between 10 and 11?
Wife: Just so you know. My phone typed a weird non word

Daughter: Hahaha
Daughter: Are cleaning people coming between 10 and 11?

Wife: Yep.

Daughter: Oh wow. Okay.
Daughter: Good to know.

Wife: Yep. That's why I texted you.

Daughter: Cool! No prob. Well then you texted it was a weird word so I was confused.

(At this point, I interjected...)

Dad: Btw guys, Nahuatl is not "a weird word".
Dad: You offend Native Americans by saying that.

Wife: What does the word mean?

Daughter: Aztecs
Daughter: They are dead dad

Wife: I did not mean to offend anyone or use that word at all

Daughter: Lol
Daughter: We know that mom

Dad: It's a language for godssakes, and a whole remnant culture that partly survived despite the horrible racist depravities of Cortez and other Eurocentric ignoramuses like (daughter) who want to celebrate the arrogant illusion that we were able to kill them all centuries ago.
Dad: 😂😂😂

Daughter: Haha
Daughter: Now we are all educated.

This was highly entertaining to me, partly because my daughter is as educated as I am, especially in the humanities and pre-modern history, and I was surprised when she apparently didn't know the word Nahuatl. She's also quite a bit to the left of me politically, so this was a rare opportunity for me to accuse her of political incorrectness!

But later I started thinking about the historical fact that Nahuatl had actually survived the overwhelming onslaught at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, of European guns, germs and steel. The language of the Aztecs gave us "tomato", "avocado", "chocolate", "coyote" and many other common names for things the conquistadores were encountering for the first time as they tore down the native temples in Mexico with their full and holy Christian zeal. I've read a half dozen books about the Conquest, and I believe it was one of the most fascinating events in recorded history.

One of the reasons the Conquest fascinates me is, the more you read about it, the more it seems almost impossible in retrospect. The Aztec empire was fabulously rich, with spectacularly developed arts and technologies, and a capital city with a larger population in its day than London, Paris and Madrid combined. The real story of exactly how a few hundred white Castilians took down Montezuma's empire in a couple years is so unlikely that it would never be believed as fiction.

But what's more pertinent to the funny text conversation transcribed above, is the equally unlikely fact that a couple million people still speak Nahuatl as their native language in our 21st Century world of nuclear energy, space vacations, molecular machines, social media and pocketable terabytes! The Aztec empire was utterly obliterated in the 1520's. The religion of the Sun God was expunged from the world, and the people were forcibly converted to Christianity. The suppression of the native culture was overwhelming. Within a generation, the entire New World was ruled by the iron fist of Spain, exploited for its gold and slave labor.

So we have a truly inexplicable, violent and inhuman historical event (Cortez's Conquest), absolutely connected to the unlikely survival of a remnant language (Nahuatl), as an almost negligible totem of a civilization that was vanquished centuries ago and that virtually disappeared from the earth. The great temples of Tenochtitlan are not even visible in the modern landscape of Mexico City, but about the same number of people speak Montezuma's tongue as ever did. Who predicts such strange contradictions?

I wonder whether obliteration of the American Psychiatric Association, the empire of medicalized "mental health" and the DSM, might come as unexpectedly as the demise of the Aztecs. I also know many people, probably the majority of humanity, continue to speak native languages of spirituality more naturally than those of science. Hundreds of years from now, the psychiatric idea that an individual is a mechanism, pure and simple, explainable and controllable with no reference to any concept of soul, might be just as gone as Montezuma's Sun God.

History is almost always an obscure allegory for any purpose of prediction and planning. It's a parable with hidden meanings or many alternate meanings. But it sure does tell us that strange things do happen.

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