Friday, 18 April 2014

Dr. Eleanor Wake

Dr. Wake at Tepexi, Puebla.

Back in 2003, the Royal Academy of Arts in London played host to Aztecs, an expansive and close-to-definitive-as-dammit exhibition of art, craft and sculpture from Precolombian Mexico. I'd been more or less obsessed with this particular culture and its history for nearly a decade, reading all I could get my hands on and visiting Mexico on three occasions, and so it seemed like a dream come true, particularly as I was living in London at the time. The exhibition was on for about half a year, and so excited was I to attend that I somehow failed to read the programme in which were given dates for a series of attendant lectures by Gordon Brotherston, Warwick Bray and other giants of the field. By the time I realised my mistake, there was only one lecture remaining, and so I consoled myself with the thought that work would most likely have prevented my getting to see the others anyway, and went along.

This final lecture was delivered by Dr. Eleanor Wake on the evening of Friday the 4th of April and was entitled Native Religious Painting and Sculpture in Sixteenth Century Mexico. Her name was unfamiliar to me, and her principal interests seemed to focus upon the early Colonial era. This seemed a bit after my time, in a manner of speaking, but I assumed it would nevertheless be of some interest.

Dr. Wake's presentation examined indigenous symbols and images in the early Christian art of Mexico, taking the position of this being not so much Christianised indigenous culture, but Mexicanised Christianity. The talk and presentation was riveting, and a revelation, and perhaps unsurprisingly inspired a great many questions. In my diary of the time, I wrote:

It was wonderful, and I'm somewhat gutted to have missed the other lectures. I approached the Wakester after the show and gushed like a teenage girl backstage at a Westlife concert. It felt good to have a conversation which required no explanatory notes detailing the bleeding obvious such as where Tepoztlan might be situated, or what is described by the Xolotl maps, or the fact of the Incas living not in Mexico, but many thousands of miles away in Peru.

This was probably the first time I'd ever had a conversation with someone who really knew the subject, and when I wrote to her a week or so later, attempting to express my questions in more coherent form, I made a point of apologising for seeming as though I might have been about to explode with excitement. I also took pains to explain that although I was but a simple postman, I took my interest in the subject of Mesoamerican culture quite seriously, but definitely not in any cranky autodidactic way involving either flying saucers or the lost city of Atlantis. It was difficult to say whether such a statement could be genuinely reassuring or would only serve to hint at a deeper, more troubling degree of lunacy.

I asked Dr. Wake about certain statements she had made concerning floral imagery in Mexican art, and about the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the nativity of the God Huitzilopochtli as a possible retroactive echo of its Christian parallel, and about the details of her understanding of Tlalocan - the Mexican afterlife - which I had found particularly confusing. I recommended some music CDs I thought she might appreciate in light of her comment about authentically indigenous Mexican music being difficult to find, and I asked if she had any particular recommendations for further reading.

Contrary to my expectations which were based on how I imagined my letter might seem to a normal person, she replied:

First of all, let me say that it is always good to know of Nahua enthusiasts or, indeed, enthusiasts of Native American cultures in general. I suspect there are a lot more of you out there somewhere, although not, it appears, in the immediate vicinity of East Dulwich sorting office. Your all-consuming fascination for the subject is quite understandable, and I congratulate you on your efforts to not only learn more, but also to make yourself proficient in Spanish and Nahuatl (in my case, the latter is limited to basic vocabulary).

With regard to your questions, I'm afraid I probably don't have the expertise to reply to them very fully. In fact I suspect that your knowledge of Deities and the calendar is far superior to my own, my main area of research being the post-conquest era, and specifically the changes which native art forms and related ideas underwent as a result of the European artistic and religious intrusion. Still, here goes...

This served as preface to a detailed five page response addressing every single point I'd raised along with sources, recommendations, and an extensive quote from Codex Magliabecchiano. I was astonished and impressed that she had gone to such trouble, and found myself briefly overcome with a peculiar and unfamiliar sensation which I later identified as the feeling of being taken seriously.

I wrote again, although not immediately as she had addressed all of my initial questions and I had no wish to come across like some weird stalker of archaeological academics; but I was travelling to Mexico City again in September, and it didn't seem like it could hurt to seek further advice from someone else who had been there. For starters, I'd made repeated unsuccessful attempts to visit the Cuicuilco pyramid in the south of the city, but had somehow always ended up at a shopping mall with no clue as to how to locate the archaeological site, and it was beginning to get on my nerves. I was also curious about the wisdom of sampling pulque, the distinctively Mexican alcoholic drink of pre-Hispanic origin still served in places that tourists such as myself were usually told to avoid.

Again she was happy to advise me:

Finally, where to drink pulque. I certainly couldn't and wouldn't recommend anywhere in Mexico City. Apart from your "standing out", I've heard that it gets mixed with all sorts of additives, alcoholic and otherwise, so it would probably make you violently ill. Villages in fiesta are probably the best bet, if you get there before the fiesta proper gets into swing (mayordomos with arms full of homemade fireworks and tummies full of pulque are not the safest combination). Most villages with a big fiesta (usually held on Sunday) will boast stalls selling sticky buns, soft drinks, and other such delicacies. Just keep your eyes open for large plastic containers.

Unfortunately this letter was waiting for me as I returned from Mexico City, meaning I was unable to follow up on any of the geographically specific advice, although I did, as suggested, secure copies of the books recommended, amongst which Alfredo López-Austin's Tamoanchan, Tlalocan: Places of Mist proved particularly illuminating; and in the long term, the fact that someone with academic credentials had taken me seriously did wonders for my confidence in what I was doing.

Some years later, I resumed contact. It was 2007 and I had engaged myself with an ill-advised and possible overambitious attempt at translating Mendieta's Historia Eclesiástica Indiana which, so far as I was able to tell, existed only in the original sixteenth century Spanish. I had encountered problems identifying the name of an insect which I suspected might turn out to be the pinauiztli beetle referred to as a creature of unfortunate omen in Sahagún's Codex Florentino, and looking for potential references online, I found an article by Dr. Eleanor Wake. The article didn't quite answer my question, and so I wrote once more, hoping this wouldn't seem too rude, and that she might recall our previous correspondence.

Yes, of course, I remember our exchange some years back! the reply began, before going into paragraphs of thoughts, suggestions, and general thinking aloud, concluding with sorry about Cuicuilco - I've never managed to find it either!

It's not so much that we lost touch after this as that we weren't exactly in touch in the first place, at least not beyond my being the fortunate recipient of wisdom shared by someone motivated entirely by an infectious enthusiasm for her subject. So we didn't drift apart, but I had no immediate further reason to keep on pestering a relative stranger with a full-time job. It was enough to have been recognised as a kindred spirit, and that she was out there doing her thing.

A decade later, I am living in Texas. This detail isn't directly related to my interest in Mexican history, but it's significant that my eye was already trained on this side of the Atlantic. Amongst my present preoccupations are the transcription of my Mexican diaries, five large sketchbooks packed with notes, observations, and toilet humour for the sake of texture, all recorded during five visits to Mexico City undertaken between 1999 and 2005. Coming to the 2003 diary, I realise that once again I can't quite remember whether Eleanor Wake is formally a doctor or a professor, so I look online and find that regrettably she is no longer either. The first link that comes up is for an obituary written by her friend and colleague Valerie Fraser for The Guardian newspaper's site. It is dated to Sunday the 25th of August, 2013 and opens:

My friend and colleague Eleanor Wake, who has died of cancer aged sixty-four, was one of the world's leading scholars of early colonial Mexico. Ele was forty when she embarked on a PhD on this topic, which formed the basis of her book Framing the Sacred: The Indian Churches of Early Colonial Mexico in 2010.

I am genuinely astonished. This is horrible news. Despite the fact of this having been someone I met for all of ten minutes, it seems terribly wrong and unfair. I write to the author of the article, driven by some poorly defined need to reach out, to express something to someone to whom it will make sense. I try to keep the letter as short as possible, reigning in the cranky autodidact as much as I can. She responds with complete understanding:

Your experience is in many ways typical - she was so generous, so passionate about her field and always delighted to find others who shared her passion. What is sad is that she only discovered this field, this passion, relatively late in life and then didn't live long enough to follow through on half the wonderful research she was doing.

With hindsight I realise that maybe I never seemed quite the nutcase I feared I might, the south-east London postman writing to the university lecturer with his theories on what such and such a pictogram may really mean. I guess she recognised my enthusiasm, and perhaps even the same pattern of arriving somewhere late in life, something which now seems to be widely regarded as anomalous in a world wherein entire career paths are mapped out many years before school is finished.

Furthermore, to briefly digress, I tend to write these short essays four or five weeks before submitting them to my blog for consumption by whatever public may be out there. The piece I posted this morning, and which was written back in February, briefly refers to the ominous pinauiztli beetle, and in turn to my correspondence with Dr. Wake regarding the same. It's a coincidence, but it seems nevertheless significant with regard to the impression she made. As Professor Valerie Fraser observed in her letter, it is indeed a great shame that Eleanor Wake had so short a time in which to do the work by which she secured her reputation, and that she did not live to pursue all of her research to conclusion, but nevertheless, she made a big difference to me and as such will remain significant in my thoughts for years to come.

Special thanks to Professor Valerie Fraser and Joan Holloway.

Framing the Sacred can be purchased from Amazon here.

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