Different or Similar?

Some books or artworks shock you out of your normal state of thinking by shedding light on a culture or a time period that has (or had) a completely different value to your own or a completely different approach to some aspect of human existence. Works like this expand your understanding of the potential for human variety, and it’s not always pretty. Other books or artworks awe you by revealing a part of humanity that is fundamental to people in all time periods and in all places. When I first read The Symposium, for example, I remember being absolutely delighted to learn that even two and a half millennia ago people shared my love of getting together with friends specifically for the purpose of downing wine and having a heated discussion. As we learn about other people and other cultures, it’s natural to the human mind, I believe, to categorize every new aspect of their lives in this dualistic fashion: does this demonstrate human variety or human affinity? Is this different to me or is it the same as me?
A while back I read a book called The True History of the Conquest of New Spain by a guy named Bernal Diaz del Castillo, and it’s a really good example of the first type. He was a soldier on Cortez´s expeditions into Central America in the 16th century, and the book is his first-hand account of how a few hundred Europeans, with horses and guns, swept through the heart of the Aztec Empire and brutally conquered an entire civilization. The story is told in a somewhat simplistic way; Diaz was a soldier by trade, not a writer. Despite the book’s stylistic clumsiness, however, it´s an amazing read. The constant action, along with the intrigues between the various tribal factions that the Spaniards fought against or formed alliances with, keeps you turning the pages in anticipation. At the same time, however, it’s deeply disturbing to anyone with a modern respect for the diversity of world cultures and for humanity in general.
A major impression from the book that has stayed with me is that there were facets of Aztec culture that are truly incomprehensible to post-Renaissance Westerners, and Diaz’s descriptions definitely focus more on the differences, rather than the similarities, between Aztec and European cultures. How could human sacrifice possibly be a common and acceptable practice, for example? How could they splatter the walls of their temples with blood and hang decapitated human heads around their cities? Diaz goes into grotesque detail about the things he witnessed. These people obviously thought about life in some very different ways than we do. (I’m sure they had drinking parties, though.)
I recently saw a highly entertaining example of the latter type of work, the kind that awes you by revealing something universal and fundamentally human. It’s a short documentary called Tag by a fellow named Chad Calease, who I had the opportunity to meet and hang out with this spring. The film pieces together interviews with individuals (literally from all over the world) talking about different forms of the game tag that they played when they were kids. As I listened to these people’s stories and heard their reflections on the game in its varying styles, I definitely felt a sense of wonder. The film makes you stop and consider a childhood game (one that we probably all played at some point) from an adult perspective, and in recognizing its deeper, psychological implications, you feel a serious connection with humanity. It’s pretty cool, and it’s definitely worth the time… you can stream it right here at Chad’s website: http://thinfilms.net/.

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