According to Dr. John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and Master of Saint Catherine’s College in 17th-century England, today marks the 6,013th anniversary of the creation of the universe. Specifically, “Heaven and earth, center and circumference were created all together and in the same instant, clouds full of water. This took place, and Man was created by the Trinity on the 23rd October, 4004 B.C. at 9:00 in the morning”—his calculation based on the Annales Veteris et Novi Tentamenti of James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh.
That bit of information comes just 15 pages into Evan S. Connell’s The Aztec Treasure House: New and Selected Essays—which is, appropriately, a literary microcosm of the abovementioned marvels of the world. Connell is probably best known for his novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, but he’s also a historian of breathtaking scope. This collection of essays tells the story of mankind’s hunger for knowledge and dominion over the world—the explorers, the alchemists, the crusaders and grave-robbers, all get their moments of glory. Subjects are grouped either geographically: Etruria, the Antarctic, Colorado’s Mesa Verde; or by subject: the roots of language, ancient models of the universe, the quest for El Dorado—and from there Connell takes off in an almost stream-of-consciousness gallop. He dazzles us with names and dates and gleaming artifacts, each one piggybacking on the other. But they’re comprehensible and lively, every story told with a benevolently sardonic smile. It’s an ink-and-paper wunderkammer, presented for our edification with a flourish and lightened with a wink.
Something happened to me in the course of Connell’s book, an interesting dividend of his PBS-with-ADD jump-cutting through time and space. About two-thirds of the way through, just when I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the endless panorama of little men (and a few women) on foot, in boats and on horseback, beating against the currents of ignorance and treachery and very, very bad weather, I suddenly got the picture. That was the world he wanted us see, too big and disconnected to describe in a few pages, or even a few essays—where the search for Prester John, mythical Christian ruler of Asia (or maybe Africa) went on for 300 years, and at the same time ships were sailing from Portugal in several directions looking for passage to the east, and Vikings were pressing ever more southward in search of hospitable climates, and armies of children carrying crosses were literally being sold up the river. The world was a bigger place than is easily imaginable, and man’s ambition was only starting to dent it. But what a lonely enterprise, and how intrepid and inspired each one of them had to be.
“False alchemists seek only to make gold,” wrote [17th-century physician Johann Joachim] Becher, “whereas true philosophers desire knowledge. The former produce mere tinctures, sophistries, ineptitudes; the latter enquire after the principles of things.”
The Aztec Treasure House is certainly sprawling, and not always tightly edited, but in 460 pages Connell manages to distill something wonderful, a certain consciousness of how enormous and wide-open the universe once was. It takes a little work to get there, a bit of trekking and patience with all the base elements he tosses around. But the journey is a marvelous one, and in the end he really does give us gold.
Happy 6,013th birthday, world and all its wonders!
(There is a discussion of The Aztec Treasure House going on right now at BookBalloon.)