Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Nahua Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy: Book 6 of Sahagun’s Florentine Codex

Book 6 Florentine Codex
Fray Bernardino de Sahagún was a Franciscan friar that dedicated thirty years of his life to a project of Nahua cultural translation and appropriation.  He oversaw ethnographic research and translation work with the goal of creating an encyclopedic text about Nahua culture.  The Florentine Codex is an illustrated bilingual manuscript that tells us about pre-Hispanic culture in the 16th century.  It includes twelve books organized into categories of native life.  Book 6 of the Florentine Codex “Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy” (1547) records the oral discourse or huehuetlahtolli of the nobles including ceremonial practices, ritual performances, political speeches, proverbs, riddles, metaphors and prayers to the Nahua gods and other practices that were considered idolatrous.  Colonial authorities feared that Sahagún’s work could be used to revive native religiosity.  Book 6 is of special interest here as a space of contact between pre-Hispanic and European philosophies.  Book 6 can be divided into five thematic units: prayers on behalf of the community’s welfare, prayers to guide the installment of a new ruler, admonitions by nobles to their children, speeches related to marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and naming children and riddles and metaphors.
Book 6 Florentine Codex
Sahagún’s methodology involved bringing a set of questions to a group of Nahua elders who spent two years discussing their culture with him and giving him pictorial records.  Sahagún had four aids that were the children of Nahua nobles and who had been educated and trained by the Franciscans at the Colegio de Santa Cruz Tlatelolco.  They helped Sahagún to transcribe and translate the information obtained from the elders.  In “Translating Nahua Rhetoric: Sahagún’s Nahua Subjects in Colonial Mexico” Cristián Roa de la Carrera argues that the native assistants played an active editorial role in Book 6 by evaluating the speeches and adding their own ethnographic commentary.  These assistants were situated as Christian mediators between the Nahua elders and the nonnative reader.  They perceive the Nahua culture from outside and yet their role as translators positions them, at least in part, as cultural insiders: “The demon, the devil, deceived in this manner: many times he manifested himself; he appeared before one who had become a mociuaquetzqui he addressed, he encountered the one who had been her husband; he sought, he demanded her skirt, the shift, all the equipment of women (Chapter 29).  Nahua assistants used the project to establish themselves as translators of Nahua rhetoric.  The native assistants become more important because of their bilingual and bicultural knowledge.  In Book 6 they function as mediators of knowledge and also facilitate the transfer of power from the native informant to the book.

It is interesting to consider that Sahagún began his ethnographic project a full ten years before he was officially asked to do so by Spanish authorities.  What were his personal intentions and goals?  Did he think that the information would facilitate the conversion process as Roa de la Carrera argues or was there some other more personal reason?
Loose ends: Roa de la Carrera argues that the appropriation of the speeches of the elders displaces the body of the elders from its relationship with the community.  The elders are no longer essential because the speeches are preserved in the manuscript even though the elder is retained as a point of origin for the information in Sahagún’s General History.  

WJT Mitchell — Notes on Picture Theory

In analyzing the “pictorial turn” in his book Picture Theory, Mitchell begins by raising important questions about how images reference t...