On the eve of 2012: reading Maya Cosmogenesis by John Major Jenkins

Here in Mérida everyone is on tenterhooks waiting for the big day tomorrow… well, no, actually most people seem to greet the idea with a snort and treat it as a big excuse for a party, or just doing something else special. In the meantime, not wanting to be narrow minded, I’ve been reading a book by one of the big figures of the ‘New Age Mayanism’ school who is most quoted by people who see the ending of the Maya calendar cycle as a great cosmic event, John Major Jenkins, specifically his Maya Cosmogenesis 2012. It’s one of the books that have been most widely read on what’s supposed to happen, and often gets recommended as representing the ‘legit’ side of 2012ism, as opposed to the just plain silly or the puerile apocalypse-titillation stuff that dominates press coverage.

Have to say that when I saw the name John Major Jenkins I developed a theory he was the lost brother of the famously grey and mildly spoken former British prime minister, the man who ran away from the circus to join a bank. JMJ was obviously abducted from South London and deposited in California… Book rights are available… Ho ho, only kidding.

But… I have read a lot of books on the Maya by leading figures in Maya studies and archaeology of the last 40 years – Linda Schele, David Webster, Nikolai Grube, Mercedes de la Garza and many more. Some write very well, others much less so, some are heavy going. However no one there writes in any way like JMJ. This stood out so much it made me wonder whether these are maybe stylistic features of New Age writing, or just particular to JMJ. Just a few –

Egomania Sentence after sentence begins ‘I have discovered…’, ‘my researches have found…’, ‘I will show…’. The authorial presence gets overwhelming, and at times you could think he did every piece of Maya research all by himself, an all-seeing, protective genius. Isaac Newton famously wrote, referring to the scientists that had gone before him, that he could only see further by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. JMJ seems to sally forth to deal with the beasts of academic Mayanology as solitary as John Wayne in The Searchers.

• The cosmic leap in conclusions Archaeological studies and writings, perhaps particularly on the Maya, are notoriously tentative. A particular discovery is made in one place, a glyph inscription is partly deciphered there, and theories are very gradually put forward as to what this means for the whole, with constant reinterpretation and frequent disagreements. In JMJ’s writing the opposite happens: one point is stated (without any accompanying detail) and then taken as a pretext for an all-embracing argument – such as that the whole of the Maya Long Count calendar was designed towards its predicted end-date tomorrow – that whooshes off into the conceptual Milky Way.

• The Maya are only interesting for one thing In the past 40 years an extraordinary amount has been discovered about the texture of Maya society – trade, the writing system, diet, the sheer number of different communities, how they sustained themselves, political structures, warfare and more. None of this is of interest or scarcely even mentioned in JMJ. The Maya are only their cosmology, and this is the sole real element of Maya culture.

Ultimately this seems a matter of different tastes for different people. The expansion of knowledge of the Maya is one of the great intellectual achievements and adventures of the past 50 years, and surely fascinating enough in and of itself – albeit that it’s virtually ignored in all the ‘ooh, those Mayans say we’re all going to die’ media fluff. It has been done bit by bit, by a whole range of people working in archaeology, deciphering glyphs, soil analysis and so on. And what all this has revealed is complexity, of a kind never expected. Discoveries in one place are contradicted by those in another. In the early 2000s a survey in northwest Yucatán, between Mérida and Progreso and Celestún on the coast, revealed some 180 unexplored sights dating back to the Pre-Classic era before 250 BC, in an area that had been thought to have been thinly populated. This complexity is actually what is most fascinating about it. As Dan Griffin, a freelance archaeologist living in Mérida, said to me, ‘the interesting thing about the Maya is… that there are no answers’. Connections and interpretations are continually being pieced together, and people working in this kind of field take great care before drawing any big conclusions.

Hence the tentativeness of a lot of this kind of writing on the Maya. Readers may want to draw a big idea out of it, but the authors will be going ‘hold on’, ‘it’s not that simple’ time and again. Some people go with this and find this whole idea of discovery, and complexity, an attraction. Others though seem to find it infuriating, which when it gets extreme leads into vaguely paranoid ‘these academics with their pussyfooting around they’re obviously hiding something’ thinking. New Agers especially seem to want answers, and want them NOW. For such fans a writer like JMJ offers simple, categorial theories. It’s a matter of taste. Whether you like complexity or find it threatening.

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