History #3

Cortés and Montezuma

(CW: Coronavirus Warning)

‘Cortes and Montezuma’ is a surreal short story by Donald Bartheleme in which two leaders, one Spanish and one Aztec, have a homoeroticized relationship.

“Cortés and Montezuma are walking, down by the docks. Little green flies fill the air. Cortés and Montezuma are holding hands; from time to time one of them disengages a hand to brush away a fly.”

I pray they washed their hands. 

All sorts of comparisons have been made between COVID-19 and previous epidemics; with the SARS outbreak in China in 2003, with the Spanish Flu in 1918, and with the Algerian cholera outbreak in 1849, after which Albert Camus wrote ‘La Pest’. I will go even further back in my comparison, to the Aztecs, and the Cocoliztli epidemic of 1519, to talk about how our romantic relationships might change during isolation.

Just because coronavirus moved naturally from animals into humans, doesn’t mean that nobody’s to blame. It isn’t any one person’s fault, but collectively we could have done more to shut down wet-markets, and we could have done more to ensure equal healthcare provision. ‘What if?’ questions known as counterfactual histories are often frowned on by frumpy historians, but it’s important to think about what we could have done differently to mitigate for COVID-19.

For example, the World Health Organisation originally argued to keep international borders open, so that people didn’t spread the virus by entering countries illegally and so economies wouldn’t spiral. This seemed to make intuitive sense. However, when the analysis gets done through a historical lens we see that the coronavirus is no freak historical event like an ice-age inducing asteroid. Plagues happen. They happen a lot. And they vary. Given this, some clever folk claimed back in February that historical estimates tend to underestimate the rate pathogens spread, and that precautionary policy measures must constrain mobility in the early stages of a new pathogen by shutting international borders. If this had been our response we might come to think that we had overstated the pathogen, but we should bear in mind that overreacting might be necessary so that we don’t end up understating a far worse pathogen in the future.

When presenting a ‘What if?‘ about the past, it must have been thought possible at the time. It’s quite easy to imagine someone thinking in December that we should close international airports because of the reasoning stated above. It’s slightly harder to imagine Cortés and Montezuma getting hard for each other during the Spanish invasion however, no matter how hard we try.

“The ruler prepares dramas for the people,” Montezuma says.

Cortés, sitting in an armchair, nods.

“Because the cultivation of maize requires on the average only fifty days’ labor per person per year, the people’s energies may be invested in these dramas – for example the eternal struggle to win, to retain, the good will of Smoking Mirror, Blue Hummingbird, Quetzalcoatl…”

Cortés smiles and bows.

“Easing the psychological strain on the ruler who would otherwise be forced to face alone the prospect of world collapse, the prospect of the world folding in on itself…”

Cortés blinks.

“If the drama is not of my authorship, if events are not controllable by me – “

Cortés has no reply.

“Therefore it is incumbent upon you, dear brother, to disclose to me the ending or at least what you know of the drama’s probable course so that I may attempt to manipulate it in a favourable direction with the application of what magic is left to me.”

Cortés has no reply.

Montezuma is us; Cortés is the virus.

Like Montezuma, our western leaders are trying to keep their people from madness, and if this paper is anything to go by, then our governments will have to conjure up an good deal of drama to keep everyone sane while they try to manipulate the virus in a favourable direction.

Like Cortés, the coronavirus is not offering up much information about itself, and it is this uncertainty – the when-does-it-end uncertainty – that we want answers to. This uncertainty will end; things will eventually go back to the way they were. One day, the concept of ‘triage’ will once again be a military rather than a civilian concern, and discussions about the ‘repugnant conclusion’ will once again be confined to obscure philosophy departments.

It might be a long time before this happens though, and while everybody is focusing on the big ways in which our societies might change, personal things, like our romantic relationships, might change too.

Some couples have been separated by the coronavirus. For them, it might become apparent not only how much they want to Skype their partner, but also how much their partner wants to Skype them. Some couples cannot be separated because of the coronavirus. For them, it seems even more likely that they might come to re-assess their significant other. It depends entirely on the couple as to whether they come together during this time or whether they are driven apart by it. Nine months time comes the baby boom; nine weeks time comes the divorce deluge.

If you’re wondering which type of relationship you’re currently in, take some time now to think about your relationship from the perspective of a historian from the future, and ask yourself the question: What if, I’d have done differently?

There are different ways your current relationship could go from this point onwards. Maybe you have kids. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you get bored. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you get cheated on. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you die alone. Maybe you don’t. But you will die, and one day you’ll arrive at a very brief moment in time when you really are that historian from the future, because for you there is nothing that comes next. When this time comes the question you’ll likely ask, is: What if, I’d have done differently, back then?

But all it takes is for you to use your imagination and some of that ample free time you have, and throw the question back from the future to your present self: What if, I’d have done differently, now?

Relationships are a choice, after all. You can do differently. You don’t have to be in one. However, it’s hard to take an impartial birds-eye view of the relationship we’re in, and be objective like a historian about our romantic history and our potential romantic future, because the reasons we stay in or leave relationships are subjective and love-strewn.

To counterbalance this, why not try counterfactual history? Now, this doesn’t mean asking the ‘What if?’ question of any one big moment in your past, and nor does it mean asking it of any one big moment in your future. Rather, keep this question lingering in the back of your mind as you spend more time thinking about your relationship in isolation, and through this become more aware of the small things – the actions, the intentions, the quirks, the habits, the traits –  that constitute your relationship.

This might be the antidote to what Chris Macleod has called, ‘epiphany addiction’.

‘Epiphany addiction’ means one of two things: [A.] you latch too easily onto truisms (instagrammable love/breakup quotes set against nature backdrops) or [B.] you latch onto genuinely meaningful life events, and perceive them as more determined/determining than they really are. In both [A.] and [B.] you tend to forget the epiphany once the next epiphany presents itself to you, which can’t be seen as very stable grounds for a relationship, and doesn’t seem to be all that romantic either.

Consider this, then, your last epiphany: the ‘counterfactual epiphany’; that which is meant to revise all past and future epiphanies. Think about your relationship, but be slow to do it. Do not be a reactive journalist; be a stoic historian. History is a process of revision upon revision, but these revisions are done slowly, and as part of a larger collective effort.

Your relationship with your relationship might not seem all that collective because it’s personal to you, but bear this in mind: it’s highly likely that the similarities between what you want out of a relationship and what most people want out of a relationship, outweigh the differences between what you want out of a relationship and what most people want out of a relationship (our default setting is just to focus on the thrilling differences because that’s what we rightly see as making our romantic relationships special, but this is not to say that the banal and boring similarities are any less important).

This advice is harder to follow for abusive relationships, because abusive relationships make thinking about choices harder. We know that abusive relationships get even worse in isolation. If we really try to be optimistic here, we might imagine that some will escape abusive relationships as the reality of their situation presses home on them during lockdown, but, realistically, abusive relationships do not allow for this, and any fast-moving ‘epiphany’ can be easily replaced when the next ‘epiphany’ comes along.

In ‘Cortés and Montezuma’, Donald Barthleme mixes historical facts with things which, although absurd, could well have been true. Cortés and Montezuma could have expressed their undying love for one another… it’s not entirely outside the realms of possibility. Therefore, given its possibility, it really could have been true, and if Cortés and Montezuma had had cause to think of themselves from this perspective, maybe it would have been.

“In the gardens of Tenochtitlán, whisperers exchange strange new words: “guillotine, white pepper, sincerity, temperament.”

Just like how the Spanish introduced the Aztecs to ‘guillotine’ and ‘white pepper’, COVID-19 has introduced us to ‘social-distancing’ and ‘flatten the curve’, but we can use the pandemic to widen ourselves beyond our vocabulary. There are strange new worlds to ourselves that we are yet to learn, and some of them we haven’t even started writing yet.

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