Moctezuma meets Cortez

When Cortez first met Moctezuma, the emperor of the Aztecs advanced towards him half-carried by a couple of his relatives, as if he were some fragile invalid. This affectation was one that Moctezuma could allow himself, lord as he was of the conquerors of Central America that, to its inhabitants, was the navel of the Earth and the greater and best part of the world. No doubt this kind of posturing was copied by lesser lords who aspired to the power and sophistication of their masters.

Wealthy Chinese grew their finger nails to such lengths that they had to protect them with jewelled sheaths. Such elevated personages were thus rendered incapable of even dressing themselves. This of course was the point – for it showed that they were above the need to use their hands for anything practical. Indeed, in China, it was long a tradition that men of august rank should become increasingly effeminate as a consequence and sign of their refinement. Even Mao, a son of peasants, cultivated this tradition.

There are countless other examples of elites becoming ever more mannered – imagine the courts of France, with their bouffant white powdered wigs, their extravagant lace cuffs, their beribboned shoes, their rouged cheeks and beauty spots. What I find interesting is that these affectations are only sustainable as long as the society that contains them is a dominant one. The moment that it ceases to be so, the once admired and copied manners become if anything an object of contempt and even mockery. The warrior who is feared can be a lover of men – the Spartans, the samurai – but once he is defeated, such habits become despised. If the Japanese had won the Second World War, perhaps their men would be less likely to wear Western suits. If China begins to dominate the 21st century, it seems to me likely that it will be their manners that the rest of the world will emulate, not those of the Americans. So it is that we have perhaps not come as far from aping the alpha male as we might like to think we have.

8 thoughts on “manners

      1. Or maybe us Goths also have a specific aesthetic tendency that we enjoy, damned be what the elite does or doesn’t do. *grin*

        This is the problem of lumping people together under a category, someone always ends up feeling misrepresented…

        1. agreed – it is always dangerous to lump people into any given category… my focus is, I suppose, one related to ‘fashion’ and to ‘celebrity’ – or at least a variation on those… What specifically interests me here is how the most extreme, baroque behaviour, if sanctified by some elite (or celebrity = the elite individual), can become nothing more than the everyday, the norm – and that then this become the axes and origin from which everything else is given co-ordinates – so that what we consider normal would be, from the point of view of 18th century China, extreme and bizarre… and that, besides, this system can, by the very nature of the ‘human virtual reality’, change from one locus to another almost overnight… (Take for example Commodore Perry’s shelling of Tokyo Harbour that precipitated the collapse of the Shogunate and the Westernization of Japan)

          1. As usual, you make a very foucauldian point indeed. 😛

            Yes, those behaviors, inasmuch as they symbolize a given identity vis-a-vis which someone can relate to or demonize, flow very quickly. The reverse is that any practice that falls outside what is sanctified by the elite will probably be frowned upon, discriminated against, and so on…

          2. what is it with me and Foucault?! As you know, I’ve hardly read anything by him…

            as for the rest, for all our pretensions, we are so hilariously ape! :O)

  1. Do we have any record of how the Aztecs interpreted this sort of behaviour? It does make a rather extreme contrast to how we normally think of them as fierce and bloodthirsty!!! I assume you were thinking of this sort of thing when you had the elite caste in your books dress up in the rather extreme way they did, or is it the other way round – you are now interested in examples of this sort of thing in the real world because you first met it in your imagination?

    1. The notion that any culture could be ‘just’ “fierce and blood thirsty” seems to me rather implausible – you could as easily say that about Europeans during the Middle Ages (the Crusades come to mind) and that would hardly constitute a sufficient description of Christendom… As for the Aztecs, there is quite a lot of evidence of how refined they were. There is what the Spanish conquistadors witnessed, there is what the Aztecs themselves said when questioned by Spanish investigators (Spanish chuchmen among others), what some of their nobles wrote who intermarried with Spanish families, their art and their poetry in Nahuatl…
      As for which came first, the Stone Dance or history – I think definitely history *cheeky grin*… Seriously: the Aztecs among many other peoples and periods have long been of fascination to me… The Stone Dance grew from the mulch of such study…

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