Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

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You've said that in later life, looking back you've realised that it was that depiction of conflict, that direct violence and those direct violent encounters that drew you. At the time what did you think about all of that? Can you remember?

How did I morally judge it?

How - were you aware that that was the part that really gripped you?

Oh yes, my first, the first essay I got published in Past and Present was called 'The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society'. It looked at the cost to civilians and to warriors of sustaining this kind of elaborated warrior cult. You know we're used to thinking of the Aztecs as the triumphant kings of the castle, but indeed the costs were burdensome, because I wanted to have a sense of what these - of how it was that these costs were rendered acceptable to those who bore them. And to do that I had to show how babies were cherished, you know, female babies as well as males, but cherished and then the little baby would be dedicated to death in the jaguar meadow in the Flowery Wars, that is death on the sacrificial stone or in battle, very soon after birth. The ways in which people were coaxed to acquiesce in seeing the glory and the necessity of this mode of living and of dying. So, yeah, I was compelled by that because it seemed so extravagantly unreasonable and counter-intuitive, counter-emotional and I was fascinated to see how it could have been sustained, what were the modes of persuasion, what made it seem worthwhile, and what was its emotional texture. One of the most interesting things I think about history is that it delivers actualities from quite different societies, societies who think differently from us, which is quickly said and awfully difficult to grasp. They think differently and they feel different mixes of emotion, or they desire to feel different mixes of emotio. And when I found, for example, that the death on the sacrificial stone of the young captured warrior was an occasion of grief to the family of the captor, I felt I was onto something very interesting, because, you know, history - you asked me why I liked looking at historical, the historical past because it's raw cuts from human conduct, that's why. It hasn't been ordered according to some disciplinary theory because we, we're eclectic in history, we try everything to see what will help us understand. If we need psychology, we'll go into it. If we need linguistic theory, we go into it. I like that catholicity of approach because I think it's what you need in human studies. You need the theories, you need the disciplines, but you don't want them to be priorities. They're tools, that's all.

Tools for what?


For human understanding.


You've said that we mustn't make the mistake of looking at these exotic cultures, at the people in them, as ourselves in fancy dress, I think that's your phrase, and yet we're studying them in order to understand, as it were, the human condition...

No, not the human condition. There are many human conditions and we need to understand the range. You know, the problems are existential, therefore they're common. How you bear babies, how you raise a child - you know, we, we have a very similar - how, how you encounter the prospect of death, whether voluntary death is tolerated within your society and if so how it's accommodated. All, these problems are existential but the solutions are human and therefore particular. They will be cast according to particular visions of the world and I think it's the great exploration, much better than oceanic explorations or anything else, is to explore those different ways of being in the world. I also think it's politically essential - once we could get away with being monocultural and squatting behind the barriers of our individual countries. That situation has long gone. Now it is crucial that we come to understand the plausibility of other ways of being in the world. I'm not a Muslim, I'm not a Jew, I'm not a Christian, but if I'm to understand what's going on in Jerusalem now, I have to have worked to comprehend how it is that sacred sites, which to me are just pieces of rock piled on top of each other, can be causes for mass murder. And it seems to me a crucial part.

And how do the Aztecs help you to understand that?

Well they have what is apparently an exotic way of being but with time, patience, a great deal of curiosity it's possible to decipher how their world is put together, how they articulate it, what brings them joy and so it's a form of systematic practise if you like. The great thing about the past is that it doesn't change. It's happened. And we're not compelled to respond or to do anything in particular about it. Whereas in immediate political circumstances we're having to do history on the run, as it were, we have to keep trying to comprehend, why did the Serbs feel like that about Kosovo? Is it something we can afford to neglect or is that historical passion for Kosovo something which will lead Serbs to go on acting in a certain way regardless of their apparent self-interest.

Why are you an historian and not an anthropologist?

Luck. For example, I think the classic career parabola of anthropologists is a bit sad. They go off into the field, which I'd be much too timid to do, the notion of fronting up to a whole lot of people who are occupied about their own affairs and hanging about, and expecting them to talk to me and take me seriously and answer my dumb questions, I would find acutely embarrassing. I really couldn't manage that. You know I'll be an armchair anthropologist thank you and look at what various people have, you know, information they've collected at different times. And then they have their couple of years in the field when they're very ignorant and they don't have a very good control of the language and there's all sorts of things that diminish their capacity to know what they're looking at - and there's a very nice small body of literature of anthropologists being honest about that which is lovely. Typically they write up their field notes in these magisterial terms and then they get caught up in teaching, making rush visits back to their people occasionally, but very little. You know the life of a senior anthropologist is writing and going to anthropology conferences and so on, I wouldn't want it. I like being an armchair historian/anthropologist and of course for the past that's all you can be. It is true that the project which was aborted when I got sick certainly involved me in going to highland Guatemala and that was because the people I wanted to look at in the 16th century were sensitive to every contour and fluctuation in their landscape and to every shifting phenomenon of clouds, movement of winds, and it would have been impossible for me to comprehend what the written records were telling me unless I could watch. In the same way in Mexico. It mattered that I should see butterflies in Mexico. I'd absolutely the wrong image of butterflies, derived from butterflies in southern Victoria, Queensland butterflies are more flamboyant but in Mexico butterflies are great flamboyant, swaggering creatures. So that the souls of warriors should come back as butterflies, they're still warriors wandering around in troops, you know, flashing their cloaks. It made sense. I had to see Mexican butterflies, in the same way I'd have to see a Guatemalan landscape. So I can't do it.

As an historian, you are looking at primary sources or evidence. What in relation to the Aztecs was, for both your books, what was your evidence? What were your sources?

Well for the Maya in Yucatan you have the writings of Diego de Landa himself, his great description of the world of the Maya which he wrote after he'd conducted that campaign and had been rusticated to Spain to keep him out of trouble. He later went back as bishop to Yucatan. There were the trial records, the Inquisition, even inquisitions of this illegal kind, were always remarkable in keeping close accounts of the torture sessions, and, you know, they, the Spaniards operated within a legal frame, however illegal their actions might have been. It caused a vast amount of controversy so it turned into a paper war with letters and appeals from Spanish settlers being directed to the authorities in Mexico desperately asking for their intervention. There were legal inquiries so that what would have been an undocumented period of time, is thick with paper because of the idolatry investigations. And the Spanish crown was very good at hanging onto bits of paper. They knew that their only hope of keeping control of these wild men out in these new territories was to keep them under bureaucratic control and make sure that all large decisions were taken back in Spain. So, you know, shiploads of paper went back, so there was plenty for that. And in Mexico proper, in the valley of Mexico were the Aztecs, the chief source was an absolutely remarkable massive compilation of descriptions, it was called 'A General History of the Things of New Spain', as they called the heartland of Mexico, and it was compiled under the aegis of a Franciscan missionary friar late in the century when he became persuaded that the notion of the first friars, that the Indians had been natural Christians and had converted apace to a simple but profoundly Christian understanding of Christianity, was false. That the old religion, the pulse of the old religion, continued to dominate everything and the only way to extricate it was to carry out a proper ethnographic investigation, God bless him, staffed by young, Indian trainees from the Franciscan colleges, administering questionnaires, but very open-ended questionnaires, and I'm sure instructed to let the old men they were questioning run on because Sahugún which was the name of the Franciscan controlling all this, wanted to get the inadvertent, the additional, the relaxed because he thought there he would get insights into what was really going on. The old men were now old. They, the questioning began in the '60s, Tenochtitlan had fallen in 1521. They'd been young men, now they were old men. They'd seen what the Spaniards had done and of course they were ready to talk about the old world which had been completely physically destroyed. So you have this preposterously rich documentation, lovingly dwelt on and things that, if you'd had a film of the past, your eye would have passed over, because you've got the written words, you see that they are obsessed with this very peculiar matter. Why should they care about that? But they're telling you they care about it because they describe it, they carry on about it, so you're alerted. It matters. So it's like going, you know, working with that source is like a detective puzzle, you're trying to understand what it is they're casually telling you, taking for granted.

When your two major books on this work came out, how successful were they? How were they regarded?

Well my first internationally published essay called 'Landscape and World View' won the colonial history branch of the American Historical Association prize for the best essay. My first book won the prize for the best book published that year. It also won the first of the - it was getting close to the Quincentennial of Columbus - a prize offered by the American universities and the Spanish Ministry for Culture, it won that. So they were pretty successful. 'Aztecs' was a Book Of The Month choice which made my publisher at Cambridge incredulously joyful. They were both selections of history book clubs, because - and it was nice that they were successful academically because they were eminently readable. They'd been written to be read because they'd been written essentially out of my experience as a teacher knowing what worked with a very sort of disparate audience of students. There was no point me carrying on about things which might fascinate the eight other experts in the field, but would bore any ordinary, normal reader. So they were written as well as I was able, as grippingly as I was able because I'd been gripped by this stuff. Why should - and I took people into my confidence. You know there was no attempt to be godlike or magisterial, I told them about going to Mexico and seeing the butterflies, and how suddenly something I'd not understood, was clear. That's why.

People commented at the time, the reviewers and so on, about what a naturally beautiful, how an unusually beautiful writer you were. Had you been aware that you were actually a gifted writer as well as an historian?

I knew I was fluent, but no. I still don't understand that really because I'd, I work on drafts but only to make them clearer and simpler. I write - my natural tendency is to be a bit gothic and I simplify as radically as I can. So to me it looks like very simple writing, very plain writing. But I care about making it exact. The words as precise as I can. In fact in that 'Landscape and World View' I had my first moment of joy, conscious joy taken in writing, I can remember where I was, and I realised that I wanted to say, to use the word 'ironic' as an adjective qualifying the word 'landscape'. Now that isn't the kind of thing you do in respectable academic writing. You don't have 'ironic landscapes', but it's exactly what I thought was going on in Yucatan, where you had the Christian message and the Christian narrative and Christian assumptions about beginnings and endings, being told and told again in a landscape which declared the cyclic nature of time, seasons, the gods, humankind, everything. And my last sentence was in the ironic context of the Yucatacan landscape, Christianity could not compel belief. And I thought, "Good, that's it". And I don't always get that feeling, I don't even often get that feeling, but sometimes I get that feeling that something is well said and I like it. But I frankly think it's probably - it's just that clear writing comes as something as a surprise in the academic world, or writing which is designed to keep people interested.

The other thing that was said about your willingness to confront the bloody details, the awful realities of the warrior encounters, your fascination with that, was that you must have hidden in that civilised exterior some kind of element of violence in yourself well suppressed and bursting forth in your writing. What do you - what did you feel about that?

Well it's a bit sinister that I do work on torture trials, Aztecs, Salem, the Holocaust. It's not sinister at all, I don't think. I think, I don't think I've got any violence in me, really. I dislike it intensely. I think it's because I don't, that I find the question of how people bring themselves to use violence, that I want to understand it, because it happens all the time. I mean in every society, not long ago I reviewed a book written by a friend of mine who's a woman who's moved into boxing and, you know, it's a marvellous book because it explains to you how the controlled use of aggression can for her be a self-realisation, and a way of self-exploration.

And could you identify with that?

Sure, she wrote well enough for me to follow what she was telling me and with my Aztec warriors, when I put together the vision they had of what they were doing, it was a noble vision. Stoical, magnificently controlled. You know there's violence and violence, and given that it's a human activity, we need to spend time in sorting it out, and it seems to me frankly completely bizarre to write a book about Aztec religion as if it's a high theological matter when, what it is to anyone who looked at it, is about blood. I mean there was blood everywhere. There were hearts everywhere. How can you possibly talk about the conceptualisation of the movement of the skies, you know, with no reference to any of that, and even pretending that most of the victims are voluntary when you have holocausts of people going, you know, weeping and trembling to their deaths. Humans did it. We'd better try to understand it. And, you know, whether this means something dark about my wicked soul, I'll have to wear that.

The descriptions, the early descriptions of the discovery, in inverted commas, of this, well the discovery by the Europeans of this civilisation have these wonderful, wonderful passages about the...


The beauty and so on, and yet you were drawn to the blood.

No, not all. It was the aesthetic, it was the tension between civil order, a - an exquisite aesthetic and the blood that interested me. It was the, it was the juxtaposition of things we would think were mutually exclusive. No, if you look at the book, there's a major chapter on aesthetics, poetry, feather work, you know, the shadows of the gods. The - I was deeply absorbed in how the real world of the gods and the sacred was only dimly manifested in this imperfect world but what those manifestations were and how it could be glimpsed, and what duties were then laid upon humankind. One of the things I found beguiling and endearing about Aztecs, as about Amerindians in general, is that humankind has no special dispensation. We're not lords of creation. The gods didn't labour for six days and then pop man in on top to run everything in his own image, you know. Mankind or humankind are animals too. They're one of a sequence of a peculiar creation and they have no privilege status whatsoever. In fact in my view for Aztecs, they stand below eagles and jaguars and butterflies and hummingbirds. Now that's a very refreshing view to have of the world.

Has your relationship, your personal relationship with the Aztecs, affected you, changed you as a person?

Yes, I think it probably has. I'm obviously impressed by warriors as people who can overcome fear. I'm particularly impressed by single combat warriors much more than by soldiers, though soldiers interest me a lot, and when I became ill and I was left to my own resources, what I would find in my increasingly muddled head, and I was thinking hard about how I was going to handle all this, when I thought through the labyrinth of possibilities and memory and so on, I found at the very heart of the labyrinth a little Aztec warrior as the vision of how one ought to be in conditions of challenge. Stoical, self-possessed, consenting if it comes to death, as the only way to sustain your autonomy and your dignity is to embrace the death, which was very much their vision as you can find in their poetry. Nothing flamboyant, finally. And it worried me when I got sufficiently well to worry about such matters because I thought, where did he come from that little fella? Has he been in me for a very long time so that when I looked at the Aztecs I projected him? Or did I find him there and take him into me? Now I believe in good faith that I found him there because I can remember my pleasure in the slow discovery of him, of what the moral being was, but it's a disquieting thought for an historian because there's always the problem of whether you might be projecting your own fantasies onto the past. I don't think I did.

And so you think it's possible for a whole idea of how one might be, to as it were migrate from one culture, an alien culture to you, into an individual?

Not the whole vision. I can't conceivably look at the skies and see what he saw, you know, I belong to a scientific universe but as a question of the individual facing mortal challenge, sure, that's possible. But that's not the culture. You know I can - I'm not an Aztec.

So when we study history and we are trying to draw from it what might help inform our understanding of the world around us now, what kinds of things do you think we can legitimately, sensibly, reasonably take for ourselves?

The best thing you can do is to be ready to spend the time to comprehend that past situation in its own complexity, not to read backwards, not to adopt, project backwards partisan positions, but to take it seriously as a moral, political, social crisis for the actors involved and to extend every ounce of intelligence and imagination you've got to understand their different positions, because what we most need I think in the world is an appreciation of the real complexity of every issue, which was the fascination of Salem. You know, it's a marvellous drama in a very small social field. So you've got a fair chance of tracing how different individuals read the evidence differently and then often changed their mind about their reading through time. But what you, what you have to have is a lot of curiosity and what you must not have is condescension. You have to take seriously their ways of understanding the world and how individuals read the world within that situation. So you're not, you're working hard before you take anything because what you're aiming to do is to generously comprehend these other different people as individual moral beings making decisions, taking chances, being blind on certain issues, painfully coming to see, but you pay them the honour of treating them as real people. And what you learn through doing that is how complex things are and how self-critical you have to be, how swiftly you will move in and blanket some response you don't want to take seriously. And I think that practise in analysis of complex situations and in self-scrutiny and mistrust of the self and one's easy judgements, is that which you can take usefully into the present.

You - your career after this work was done and this period of research was really taking off, I mean things were good for you at that time, weren't they? And in that period just before you became ill, could you just describe where you were at with your career and how things were going?

Oh yes, I had sabbatical leave coming up and I was going to go to Princeton again which was a great place to be, I loved it, and I was going to go to Guatemala and cut loose on the Quechua Maya and a big literary source which I'd done a lot of work on. And the kids were grown up and I was getting offers, you know, to apply for chairs in the United States, not that I would have dreamt of going, and yeah, I was riding high. And then I got ill which was a very slow motion business because you can't, you don't believe you've got something seriously wrong with you when you've got a great range of fairly minor symptoms although sometimes they'd cluster and I'd be, you know, I would have stomach cramps or I couldn't walk or something would happen, but then I'd be better, or sort of better. However, after messing around for about three or four months after I'd decided I got ill, I was finally diagnosed with an active auto-immune hepatitis, acute liver disease, with a very bad prognosis and a necessity to go immediately onto very heavy drugs, and 'Aztecs' still wasn't out. It nearly killed me to finish it actually. It was like two dogs locked with their teeth in each other's necks, you know, either I get the book finished or it would finish me, but I finished it, and then I was diagnosed as ill. [INTERRUPTION]

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