A Parable of Self-Destruction
“Two souls, alas, reside within my breast,
And each from the other would be parted.
The one in sturdy lust for love
With clutching organs clinging to the world,
The other strongly rises from the gloom
To lofty fields of ancient heritage”. — Goethe, Faust.
I once read a book about the conquest of Mexico. The book, entitled The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, was a first-hand account of the conquest written by one of the conquistadores named Bernal Diaz del Castillo (c. 1492 – 1584) . I have not retained much of it, but Bernal Diaz’s account of the fate of one of the conquistadores remains especially vivid as even a parable about the current predicament of Late Modernity and its self-destructive tendencies.
The event described by Diaz was the looting of the Aztec capital after taking the Mexican king Moctezuma hostage for ransom. As seems typical of men impulsively blinded by greed and avarice, they hadn’t thought of an adequate escape route from the city. Fleeing the city on foot, pursued by an army of angry Aztec warriors, and burdened with gold, loot, and their armour, they found themselves cut off from escape by some of the many canals that snaked their way through the Aztec capital.
Being now a case of “your money or your life”, the more quick-witted amongst them jettisoned their loot and their armour, dived into the canals, and swam to safety. Some few, however, caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, dived right into the canal — armour, loot, and man together — and drowned. They went right to the bottom weighed down by their armour, the loot, and especially by their avarice. Avarice is heavy, man. And most especially grave when you need to be light, and bouyant, and fluid.
The incident always brings to mind that verse from Goethe’s Faust, about “clutching organs clinging to the world” — the “spirit of gravity” as Nietzsche once referred to it. Perhaps they were dreaming of future honours, glory, wealth and a life of ease even as they sank to the muddy bottom of the canal that was to be their grave — a case of the pursuit of the self-interest become indistinguishable from the pursuit of self-destruction.
Armour and gold don’t have to be physical things either. More often than not they take other forms, for which armour and gold serve simply as symbols. It’s an interesting confusion of values. Perhaps their wits were befuddled by fear and panic, but the very things they held and believed would preserve them in life ironically became the very things that destroyed their lives. An example, perhaps, of how our beliefs become fates for us.
Armour and gold didn’t destroy them, of course, but their own lusts and avarice. Perhaps they even fooled themselves in thinking that they didn’t do this for themselves, but for “God, King, and Country” thereby magically converting what was merely motivated by base self-interest into some fabrication and self-deception about heroic self-sacrifice for a noble cause. Language is so often abused to conceal rather than reveal.
I think whole societies can become as evidently insane as those benighted and self-destructive conquistadores, especially where possessions become of more value and more to be defended than life itself. “Having” in other words becomes more important, and more to be defended, than “Being”. That’s insanity.
But… that is the same kind of insanity that seems to be driving us towards the brink of oblivion. And I’m sure you can think of parallels and parabolic events that mirror those hapless conquistadores who drowned in the canals of Mexico City rather than relinquish their fetishes of property and possessions, or to jettison those compulsive beliefs and obsessive habits of mind that lead only to self-destruction.
In the last analysis, though, the problem is not so much owning things as much as it is the fetishisation of property and possession. And there are a great many contemporary parallels to those witless conquistadores who drowned rather than relinquish their armour and loot.