Climate change has broken time. Geological processes that normally unfold over millennia are now a matter of urgency, and the rhythms that structure our lives have fallen out of sync. Some changes, like biosphere collapse and the thawing of ice caps, are happening much too quickly; others, like popular uprisings and economic shifts, are happening much too slowly. Add to this the other crises we now face, and our temporal landscape grows even odder. The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented health crisis, but I did not experience it as a crisis—not as a rush of emergency, that is, but as a uniform loop of lockdown days. Time is moving too slowly and too fast.
If you, too, feel bewildered by the crumpling of timelines, then Edgar Garcia’s Emergency: Reading the Popol Vuh in a Time of Crisis is the book for you. It is urgent and patient, grand and concise, delicate and dazzling. In nine short essays, Garcia presents readings of selected passages from the Popol Vuh—the best-known version of the K’iche’ Mayan creation story—and draws compelling, off-beat parallels to present crises, including environmental degradation and the horrors faced by migrants in the US.
Garcia’s book helps us rethink our crises in two ways. The first is to find in the Popol Vuh a new understanding of what crises are. In this account, crises and creation are deeply interlinked: emergencies always imply emergences. Every act of creation is also a moment of doubt and dispersion; every disaster is also an occasion for something new to appear. Rather than times of despair, emergencies appear in the Popol Vuh as richly layered moments, where the past and the future intermingle in complex ways.
The gods of the Popol Vuh do not create the world in a single act of cosmogenic certainty, but through a protracted period of trial and error. They begin by asking, “How should the sowing be? How should the dawning be? Who will be the provider? Who will be the nurturer?” They debate creation among themselves and consult diviners for advice—diviners who are thus older than the universe itself. Creation is born not out of omniscience, but out of doubt, dissent, and debate.
The gods make three failed attempts to create humanity. They first create animals but are unsatisfied with their language of chirps and roars. The gods do not feel worshiped by these self-contained sounds; they want the playful dynamism of human language. The second creatures are made from mud, and while they can speak, their words are empty of knowledge. The third creatures are made of wood and function well, almost robotically well, but they have no feelings and so cannot please the gods either. Both are wiped out, though the latter live on as spider monkeys. With each attempt, the gods reflect and try again; in the Popol Vuh, creation is always preceded by crisis and followed by revision.
At the center of the story are two descents to the Underworld. The first, by the gods One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu, is a failure: they are trapped and killed by the shadowy aristocracy of the Underworld. The second, by their descendants Hunahpu and Xbalenque, is a hard-won success. The young gods trick the Underworld lords, learning from their ancestors’ mistakes and emerging victorious with the gift of maize—the stuff of which humans will finally be made, and on which they will live.
The parallel between the descents illustrates the looping, recursive kind of time we find throughout the story. Actions are repeated and revised, doubled and redeemed, and so every failure holds within it the promise of new possibilities. Crises are seen as openings, yielding a deeply dynamic view of the world.
But the Popol Vuh is not just a naïve lesson about finding hope in adversity. Nothing about this text is naïve. It was committed to writing around 1555, in a now lost manuscript that was copied by a Dominican friar in 1702 as part of a manual by missionaries to convert the K’iche’ people to Christianity. Amid this scene of slaughter, cruelty, and forced conversion, the Popol Vuh does something astonishingly brave: it folds the crises of its moment into a larger cycle of emergency and emergence. It lays out a cosmology complex enough to accomodate the shock of colonialism.
This brings me to the second way in which Garcia reframes the current crises: he interweaves scenes from the Popol Vuh with recent events, such as the January 6, 2021 storm on Congress. Just as the Popol Vuh gave its sixteenth-century audience a way to make sense of colonial disaster, so in the 1980s the author Luis de Lión used it to reflect on the Guatemalan Civil War, and so Garcia uses it to reapproach the present.
An emergency is a temporally isolated experience: it is a situation unlike others, an exceptional crisis. Garcia seeks to restore our sense of coherence even and especially in moments of emergency. For example, he draws a connection between the historical logic of the Popol Vuh and Marx’s analysis of nascent capitalism, according to which “the capitalist world tree is seeded by colonial gains.” Imperial exploitation provided a surplus of wealth that was reinvested to create more wealth, setting in motion the capitalist machine that is now running amuck and taking half the planet with it.
There is, then, a direct link between the colonial suffering experienced by the Mayan peoples in the 1500s and the capitalist devastation we are witnessing today. Emergencies are not as isolated as they appear. They are entwined in a broader historical fabric, and temporal thinking that is practiced in the Popol Vuh can help us appreciate those connections.
Garcia leans rather too heavily into the contrast between “Western thinking” and Mayan culture, allowing for too little variety within either. That is unfortunate, given that the book’s most beautiful pages are devoted to the Popol Vuh’s undoing of binaries, showing how it folds contrasts into wholes and discovers differences within apparent sameness. In Garcia’s analysis, “Western thinking” acts as a foil to the Popol Vuh’s more dynamic dualities, but that is itself a rather staid dichotomy. But this flaw is more than offset by the book’s many moments of brilliance.
Emergency: Reading the Popol Vuh in a Time of Crisis
by Edgar Garcia
University of Chicago Press
Published April, 2022