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Survivors in Mexico

Survivors in Mexico

Rebecca West
Edited and introduced by Bernard Schweizer
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Survivors in Mexico
    Book Description:

    The publication of RebeccaWest's Survivors in Mexicomarks an important literary event: the rescue from oblivion of a daring and provocative work by a major twentieth-century writer. This book is West's exhilarating exploration of Mexican history, religion, and culture-a work the author clearly conceived as a companion and sequel to her masterpiece about the Balkans,Black Lamb and Grey Falcon(1941). Although West never brought Survivors to completion, she left behind a series of extensive drafts and revisions that Bernard Schweizer has meticulously assembled and edited. The result is a welcome addition to the Rebecca West canon-a compelling travel memoir/history comparable to her best work, and one certain to gain readers and critical acclaim.West's narrative takes on all of Mexican history-the conquest by Spain, the Mexican Revolution, and the muralist movement-and explores the inner lives of such figures as Cortés, Montezuma, the Reclus brothers, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Dr. Atl, and Leon Trotsky. Highlighting contradictions and paradoxes in the personal and public spheres, she offers brilliant insights into Mexican art and culture as well as human culture and destiny.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15938-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxx)

    Survivors in Mexicosums up Rebecca West’s mature views on politics, philosophy, religion, psychology, and culture. For a work of such epic aspiration, it had a surprisingly modest beginning. In 1966, West accepted a commission from theNew Yorkerto write an article on Leon Trotsky’s grandson, Seva, who was then still living in his grandfather’s house in Mexico City. West, who had always wanted to visit Mexico, had recently finished reading Isaac Deutscher’s enormous three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky and was fascinated by the prospect of talking to Trotsky’s nearest surviving relative. A brief encounter with Seva did take...

  5. Survivors in Mexico

    • Mexico City I
      (pp. 3-7)

      Thirty years ago, in the Macedonian province of Yugoslavia, I knew one of the last pashas who were stranded there after the Turkish Empire had been driven out of the Balkans. Such Turks were in sad straits. Five hundred years before, their ancestors had been settled there by the sultans to colonise the territories their armies had conquered, and now the Christians had turned on them, and they were amazed, as exploiters always are when the exploited turn and bite the hand which has not fed them. There was nowhere for these obsolete pro-consuls to retreat from this revenge, for...

    • Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
      (pp. 8-19)

      Nobody ever worked harder than Diego Rivera to give the Mexican people a seed bed for their pride by reconstituting the Indian past, and he succeeded because his patriotism was a real passion. All his life he collected works of art produced by the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, and he set a large part of his personal fortune aside to found a museum in which these could be exhibited after his death. To this museum we were taken by our driver one Sunday morning, and it was for him a religious experience. “Did you ever hear,” he asked me, “that...

    • Leon Trotsky
      (pp. 20-39)

      I was glad that Frida Kahlo had been so kind to Trotsky, leading him to this haven in the tenth year of his exile. Anybody who had been kind to Trotsky is surely agreeable, though he belonged to a class which is surely not often attractive. The men who excite adoration, who are what is called natural leaders (which means really that people feel an unnatural readiness to follow them) are usually empty. Human beings need hollow containers in which they can place their fantasies and admire them, just as they need flower vases if they are to decorate their...

    • Mexico City II
      (pp. 40-42)

      A boulevard called the Paseo de la Reforma runs through Mexico City for three and a half miles, which brings nostalgic tears to the elderly, for along those three and a half miles there survive fragments of what the Avenue of the Champs Elysées was before the rag shops and the chromium cafés leaked down its sides. In between the skyscrapers and the clumsily romantic Edwardian shops and houses are those white villas with louvre shutters, square but elegantly proportioned, which all the characters in the stories of Paul Bourget and Maupassant and Marcel Prevost called their own. One expects...

    • Race Relations I
      (pp. 43-51)

      No doubt the Mexicans will solve this problem, since they have solved another, which everywhere else I have been had seemed insoluble. It is a triumph which I would have witnessed had I gone anywhere in Latin America, but it was here in Mexico I saw it. The proof of the triumph was in the traffic which every night clogged the city below the glass windows where my husband and I were drinking our coffee and chocolate. It was an eight to one chance that the passengers in any bus or taxi or automobile in the traffic block would be...

    • Chapultepec I
      (pp. 52-53)

      But to see how unconquered the Aztecs are one must go to one of the chief glories of Mexico City, Chapultepec, or Grasshopper Hill. That is where He-who-gets-angry-like-a-Lord had his summer palace. Then it was an island rising from the salt lake of Texcoco, which was to Tenochtitlán what the lagoons are to Venice, and which Cortés drained. Then the place must have been an earthly paradise, a pious offering to pleasure, like the Palace Domain at Peking. It is now a uniquely delicious park, splendidly various, like an amalgam of all the parks in Paris, with Hyde Park and...

    • Anthropological Museum I
      (pp. 54-57)

      There are many museums which are beautiful like the Louvre or the Museum of Oriental Art in Zurich, because the premises were once palaces or the residences of the rich. But this must be by far the most beautiful museum built as a museum. Its substance is exquisite. The walls are made from stone bricks of subtle colours, pale grey, storm grey, violet-grey, violet, grey-blue, blue, rose-grey, rose, and they shimmer as if alive and breathing. Its proportions handle space as if it were a delicious drink and the architect was pouring it out for a world of guests. To...

    • Aztec Society
      (pp. 58-74)

      The society which the Spaniards destroyed is best described in Jacques Soustelle’s obsessed little volumeThe Daily Life of the Aztecs. There was a league of three Indian states: Mexico, where the Aztecs lived, Texcoco, and the little kingdom of Tlacopan, clustering round the lake which is now the dust bowl where Mexico lies. The league was dominated by the city Tenochtitlán, which lay on the water like Venice, and was, in the opinion of those Spanish captains who had seen Rome and Constantinople, not less magnificent than those cities. From this capital there was dispensed a peculiar economy. There...

    • Anthropological Museum II
      (pp. 75-77)

      The halls of this museum on Grasshopper Hill are lit with craft, so that the light within them is a pervasive bloom on space, but the works of art which are exhibited have their own sort of darkness about them, because of the gravity of their forms. However rigid a class structure may be, the woe of one class seeps through the whole. Several cultures had produced these objects, and all had appeared in different parts of the isthmus at different times, and all had disappeared, for causes unknown save in the case of the last, the Aztec Empire, which...

    • Chapultepec II
      (pp. 78-84)

      And down one goes the wide marble steps into the park of Grass-hopper Hill, and there are the dead Indian forces alive again and in control. They animate most of the fountains. Some are as we know them in Europe and the United States, light-minded and involved with marble girls, and others light-minded in an abstract way, whirling jets about so that they change like song or laughter, and more so here than elsewhere. I once heard Walt Disney explaining his cartoon technique to the last issue of a noble house that had fallen into genetic decline. “But of course,”...

    • Juan de Zummáraga
      (pp. 85-91)

      The basilica was founded in December 1531, ten years after the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortés. An Indian named Juan Diego, a Christian convert, was walking by the village of Tepeyac, meaning Hilltop, which was hereabouts, probably on the rocky little hill where the chapel stands today, when the Mother of God appeared before him, radiant, and what was better still, distinctly brown. She told him to go to the Bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zummáraga, the same bishop who opened the school for the higher education of the Aztec nobles’ sons, and tell him that she desired a...

    • Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain
      (pp. 92-98)

      In 1494 Pope Alexander VI issued a bull conferring on the monarchies of Castile and Portugal temporal dominion over the territories in the New World just discovered by Columbus, on condition that the natives were converted to Christianity. This was not the best of introductions to the Christian faith. Alexander Borgia was one of the popes whose election can be reasonably supposed to have surprised Christ. He was one of the greatest scoundrels who ever succeeded in dying in bed, and that a bed which had served too many other purposes. Today we despise the mitred bishops and the crowned...

    • Minerals and Mines
      (pp. 99-111)

      But not only did they rifle the Indians’ food supply and deface the land, they inflicted on many of them a martyrdom which inflicted torture by being totally incomprehensible to the martyrs: service in the mines. The Indians must have thought it one of their most hideous gods who put gold and silver in their land and then let it be invaded by foreigners frenzied with esurience for these very things, and esurient for reasons which they themselves could never understand. For many centuries, the Indians had worked in the gold mines, which were all placer mines: that is, deposits...

    • Hernán Cortés
      (pp. 112-115)

      Mexico was deep in bad dreams; and that was why Cortés had a value for it. We know very well what sort of man he was, for there are many contemporary accounts of him, of which the most notable were written by his chaplain and secretary, Gómara, a self-conscious literate, and one of his captains, a Spanish Harry Hotspur, Bernal Díaz, who, such is the injustice of this earth, was by far the better writer of the two. These make easy reading today, and they and the supporting testimony were magnificently used a quarter of a century ago by a...

    • Doña Marina
      (pp. 116-128)

      The quality of his vision can be judged from an occasion when he looked at a certain woman. He had looked at many women before and was to look at many afterwards. All observers reported that he delighted in their company, and his chaplain says in a curious phrase that he “always gave himself to them.” It would be wrong to call him a Don Juan, for that figure left discontent behind him. No lady ever seems to have waved him goodbye with the calm of repletion, and it may be guessed he was impotent. But Cortés was a polygamist...

    • Religion and Sorcery
      (pp. 129-141)

      The Aztec civilisation was permeated with a sense of the supernatural. This might seem surprising, for the Mesoamerican civilisation was strong on its scientific and technological and administrative sides. It excelled in architecture, in medicine, in astronomy, in agriculture, in many processes serving art and industry, and in the organisation of the military and civil services. They had a lucky start on the rational way, for two of the greater Indian peoples, the Aztecs and the Mayans (who were their superiors) had numeral systems which are quick and easy and even amusing to master today, and they had mounted from...

    • Quetzalcoatl
      (pp. 142-145)

      So it was that Montezuma, after receiving the reports of his intelligence corps on Cortés, “could neither eat nor sleep, nor put his mind to anything, but was very wretched and sighed continually and took no pleasure in any pastime and kept on saying, ‘What is to become of us?’ His heart hurt him, and he prayed to the gods, ‘Where do I go? How do I escape?’” He had known that doom was at hand as soon as he had heard that curious wooden towers had been seen balancing on the waves of the sea and that white men...

    • Montezuma
      (pp. 146-153)

      The dilemma of Montezuma was uniquely acute. If Cortés and his men were mortals, then it was his duty to send his armies against them, and this he could do with not too heavy a heart. Even if the seers were right, and the pale invaders were fated to conquer the isthmus and destroy his empire, the doom might take a long time to fall, according to the pattern of war the Aztecs knew. Each conflict began with prolonged negotiations setting out the issues between the two parties, went to a period of violent war lasting until one party or...

    • Tenochtitlán
      (pp. 154-165)

      In a daze the Spaniards mounted their horses and rode out into the highway, which was crowded with sightseers, and presently they turned the flank of a little hill and for the first time looked on Tenochtitlán. Bernal Díaz has commemorated that moment: “When we beheld the many cities and towns settled on the water, and on the mainland, and saw the broad causeway running so straight and level across the lake to Tenochtitlán we could liken it only to the enchanted scenes we had read of in the romance Amadís de Gaula, because of the great towers and the...

    • Race Relations II
      (pp. 166-168)

      So we believed what we heard from our friend Armando when we lunched with him in a restaurant on the Paseo de la Reforma. “We are very strange about the Indians,” he said. “We babble about them perpetually, we put their gods up on our buildings as national symbols, but there is a colour bar. Oh, an Indian has full legal rights, and, except in backward and corrupt pockets of the country, he exercises them. But all the same, people don’t have Indians to their houses, they don’t let their children make friends with them, they don’t ask them to...

    • Cuauhtémoc
      (pp. 169-171)

      It is astonishing, this obsession with the Aztec past that governs modern Mexico. This French boulevard which runs through Mexico City, the Paseo de la Reforma, broadens out three times into wide circuses round huge enthusiastic monuments, which look as if about to do things stone cannot, such as burst into flower or explode or raise a cheer. All the two hundred and fifty feet of one monument celebrate the revolution, the winged and torch-bearing victory on another commemorates the heroes who died for national independence, but the one which exercises supreme authority is the monument to Cuauhtémoc, Swooping Eagle,...

    • Dr. Atl I
      (pp. 172-174)

      I might have understood this paradox better if only I had come here some years sooner, early enough to fulfil my purpose in coming to this country, or rather one of my purposes. For I came here not as a tourist but with a triple strand of intention. I wanted to see Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, Smoking Mountain and the White Woman, and any other Mexican volcanoes which were conveniently situated. I wanted to visit the Opera House, which had been the centre of entertainment in Mexico City in the late nineteenth century. I wanted to meet a person named Dr....

    • Elie and Elisée Reclus
      (pp. 175-184)

      The great theorists of the anarchist movement, who tried to solve these technical problems, were two Frenchmen: the brothers Elisée and Elie Reclus. The inspiration of the movement came from the huge demented Russian bear, Bakunin, but he had not much to contribute to technique except bacchic exhortations to terrorism. And later Russia kindly exported another leader, but of a saintly type, in the person of Prince Kropotkin. But the Reclus brothers got on with the work in hand, and with the cooperation of a picked group worked out such possibilities of industrial action as the development of the strike....

    • Dr. Atl II
      (pp. 185-193)

      So I know where Dr. Atl got his passion for volcanoes, but I am not so sure where he got his other dominating passion, which was for the indoctrination of the illiterate Mexican proletarian with socialist ideas through propagandist mural paintings. This was in part a natural development of a long-standing trend in French art. As frescoes had in the past celebrated the pagan gods, the Christian mysteries, the cardinal virtues, and the monarchies, so in the nineteenth century very large paintings advertised left-wing causes. The exemplar of the socially conscious artist was, of course, Courbet, who has left a...

    • Revolution
      (pp. 194-198)

      Here in Mexico I often feel as if I were among Slavs. There is an intelligent population, which uses words as if it were highly literate, even when it is illiterate, and is readier than the Westerner to switch from the concrete to the abstract, and is sincere, while not averse from attitudinising. Even the attitudes adopted are the same. Both love to pretend they boil in despair. In the lovely, almost too lovely, town of Cuernavaca there is an Aztec pyramid which is not looking its best, being involved with a railway station, and, when we visited it, a...

    • Dr. Atl III
      (pp. 199-202)

      It is hard to imagine what loyalty inspired Dr. Atl to continue his political activities in Paris after Madero’s fall, but he had plenty of other irons in the fire. He haunted the Paris studios to see what was cooking, and the menu was satisfying, for it included cubism, surrealism, and the first response to African sculpture. The atmosphere was intoxicating, though perhaps Dr. Atl should have resisted the intoxication, since it was his mission to bring art to the common man, and it was then that art was taking a new direction which carried it outside of the common...

    • Benito Mussolini
      (pp. 203-206)

      Yet, here too, he was not altogether culpable. We know more about the primary character of Mussolini than is commonly known regarding unfledged eminence, which is apt to get into the shelter of a uniform or a system very young. But we have X-ray photographs of Mussolini’s youth because, in the 1890s, there came out of Russia a young girl called Angelica Balabanov, who had persuaded her brother to exchange her share in her patrimony for an annuity, so that she could become a student at the Université Nouvelle in Brussels, which had been created to give professorial chairs to...

    • Dr. Atl IV
      (pp. 207-208)

      No doubt Dr. Atl hardly noted that Mussolini’s anti-clericalism was so much less intellectual and historical and sophisticated than his own, for he was probably very happy to be with a congenial soul in Italy, which was, like his own Mexico, a southern land and had its own volcanoes. These were still dear to his heart, and he sandwiched in among his other activities a further course in volcanology at the University of Naples. When Dr. Atl came back in 1913, all his native genius and his sound anarchist training failed to show him a clear line. Four leaders were...

  6. Appendix: Three Book Reviews by Rebecca West
    (pp. 209-218)
  7. Notes
    (pp. 219-254)
  8. Index
    (pp. 255-264)