This Tree Grows Out of Hell

My first book, This Tree Grows Out of Hell, was published in 1990 by Harper San Francisco, and was the result of a bizarrely fortuitous set of events. In the early winter of 1987 (about a year after my debut in that year’s January issue of Forum), I returned to my parents’ Northern Virginia house (a cow barn actually, that my father had turned into a living space for humans in the early sixties; see Paradise Fever) to regroup after a couple of months working on a research vessel run by an old friend of my father’s. The expedition had been mounted to discover whether it was possible to use psychics to locate wrecks on the floor of the ocean in the Bahamas, and had been moderately successful, producing — after many months, much searching, and numerous visits to the boat from various high-profile psychics – a genuine shipwreck of some antiquity.

As all had hoped, the ship had been loaded with valuable cargo when it sank – in the form of a certain kind of South American wood that was essential for the production of clothing dyes popular in Europe at the time. Even if the precious cargo had survived the centuries intact, it would still have been valueless, and a number of people left the expedition disappointed that some other, more durable and fungible substance – gold, for example – had not been discovered by the psychics instead.

Gold or no gold, however, the expedition was not a disappointment for me, for over the course of it I’d become determined to stop thinking about becoming a writer and actually try to produce something that would genuinely qualify as such — even by my fussy Sarah Lawrence friends’ standards.

What would this piece of writing be? That’s where the expedition had proved especially useful. Most of it had unfolded in the shallow Caribbean waters just south of the twin islands of North and South Bimini in the Bahamas, where a little over a decade beforehand my father had launched a search to uncover the remains of the lost continent of Atlantis.

I’d spent many of my off hours on the expedition reading Creative Mythology, the massive final volume of Joseph Campbell’s epic story of world mythology, The Masks of God. In the book, Campbell had a lot to say about the quest myth, arguing that it was perhaps the defining myth of Western culture. Reading the book, it occurred to me that I had been strangely fortunate to have been allowed to participate, first as a teenager and now as a twenty-something, in this double set of (to the average person at least) completely crazy Caribbean quest adventures. Campbell (following the Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade, another writer I was reading a great deal of at the time) suggested that all of human life and human culture could be seen as a quest to recover a lost but dimly remembered treasure: a treasure that people tend to see in concrete and worldly terms, but whose real nature is spiritual. Whether they were legitimate exercises in exploration or completely mad goose chases, both my father’s Atlantean quest, and his friend’s (in many ways more reasonable but still rather outlandish) quest for psychically located shipwrecks, were, to my mind, models of something: a larger search, for a larger, and much more important, if less definable, treasure.

Back at the Barn, I was up in the attic looking through some of my father’s books one afternoon when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a woman named Cynthia McAdams, a photographer who had taken a collection of photographs of Mayan ruins and who – the Harmonic Convergence of the summer just past still humming in many peoples’ heads – wanted to create a kind of new age coffee table book that would celebrate the mystical side of Mayan architecture.

My father’s 1978 book Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids had made him popular among people who held to the view that the Mexican pyramids were the crumbling leftovers of a once planetary super-culture: the kind that people often associate with legends of Atlantis. Ms. McAdams told me she was thinking my father might be just the man to write a text to accompany her photos.

When my father got home, I told him about the call and suggested that I might be of assistance with him on the book. He’d been out of the loop regarding things Mayan for almost a decade, and I could help him catch up on his research. “That sounds like a great idea,” my father said, and to get me started on my research handed me a book by José Argüelles called The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology.

I tell all this in greater detail in the introduction to the revised edition of This Tree Grows Out of Hell, but the bottom line is that Argüelles’ book only reinforced for me the idea that new age people of all stripes were enacting the same basic story – or, more correctly, myth: the myth of the loss, and recovery, of paradise. Argüelles, with all his quasi-mystical stuff about the Maya’s telepathic connections with super-celestial consciousness grids, and so forth, was really just projecting, upon a safely vanished ancient people, a timeless mythological impulse: the desire to recover a currently lost, but desperately longed-for, state of innocence and grace that had once been, and might one day again be acknowledged to be, the birthright of all humanity.

But though the psychological motivations of Argüelles and his Harmonic Convergence associates seemed pretty clear, that didn’t mean there wasn’t some real power at work in his vision of things. Argüelles might not have been entirely right about the Maya, but to me that didn’t mean that his ideas were a simple fantasy, end of story. It was more complicated than that. Silly and irresponsible as the new age view of things could be a lot of the time, there was something about it that I couldn’t help feel was right, and vital, and genuinely on the mark for the time we lived in. In fact, in a weird but inescapable way, I realized that I was sort of a new ager myself. That was why, though I often got irritated with the fine points of all the new age junk I’d seen going on around me for most of my life, that stuff also fed my imagination, and my sense of what kind of writer I wanted to become, in a significant way.

I decided that if I was going to write about the ancient Maya, I would write about them in the context of that same ancient longing for paradise that I saw disguised in so much of the preoccupations of the new age people I’d spent so much of my life around. For the ancient Maya, though most likely a very different people than Argüelles and his associates thought they were, did share one very important thing in common with them, and that was the belief that the world had, at one time, been an altogether different, and better, kind of place than it was now. The Maya may not have been the purely benign and benevolent spiritual culture that Arguelles thought they were, but they too both remembered, and longed to recover, the more-than-simply-human condition of paradise.

So, using the same nepotistic skills that my father had employed some decades before for securing his own first book (a collection of letters from George Bernard Shaw to my grandmother), I gradually horned my way into Ms. McAdams’ Mayan project to the point where my father was no longer involved in it at all, and I was to write the main text all by myself. Before too long, Ms. McAdams (rather understandably) retreated from the project altogether, securing a contemporary Mayan shaman to write the text she was looking for, and I was left to pursue my thoughts on the ancient Maya and what they’d thought about the world entirely on my own.

With a stack of books and the big beige IBM computer that my sister and brother-in-law had given me for Christmas the year before, I drove up to Massachusetts, moved into a house with some friends, and set to researching in earnest. Without Ms. McAdams’ feelings on the matter to worry about, I soon found myself focusing not just on the Maya but the Aztecs, the last of the major Mesoamerican civilizations and – according to popular opinion at least – the most violent, bloodthirsty, and spiritually unenlightened of them as well. The way most of the popular books had it, the Aztecs were really nothing but late-in-the-game imitators of the far more brilliant and sophisticated Mesoamerican civilizations who had preceded them: ugly-minded vulgarians more interested in power and conquest than in discovering the secret harmonies that underlay the universe.

But this reading of the Aztecs, so common in popular writings on Mesoamerica’s ancient peoples, wasn’t really correct. I used the then-recent discoveries of Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller to show how the Maya were really not the benign mystical stargazers their new age admirers thought they were, but a power-and-politics civilization every bit as devoted to good old-fashioned earthbound violence and mayhem as the Aztecs had been, if not more so.

With their fixation on ritualized violence, their combination of deep reverence for and profound suspicion of the universe and its workings, the Aztecs struck me as both a curiously modern and curiously understandable people. Mesoamerica’s whole millennia-long tradition of ritualized violence had, I decided, important things to tell us about our own culture’s preoccupations with the dark, horrific, and uncanny sides of the world. The Aztecs, unlike us, entertained no real doubts that the spiritual world existed. But they were unsure in the extreme about what the intentions of that world were toward them, and that was where the real parallels with modern humanity arose. It seemed to me that the Aztecs — marooned as they were in what they saw as an extremely hostile universe where the gods needed human beings for sacrificial food but for little else — were, in a strange way, very similar to us modern materialistic humans, stuck as we are in a cold, mechanistic, and purely biological universe that has no genuine interest in us either, save gobbling us up. (The original [1968] version of Night of the Living Dead is, to my mind, the mythic expression of this modern predicament par excellence, and its influence runs all through This Tree Grows Out of Hell. Far more than a monster movie, Night is a movie about us – prisoners in a four-walled world ruled, just beneath the surface and just beyond the windows, by cold mechanical appetite and nothing else.)

The “magical body” that I claimed the Aztecs were secretly in search of wasn’t really something I’d read about in any actual book on the Aztecs. The fact is, I just kind of felt they must have been looking for such a thing. The whole idea of a quest for some kind of lost spiritual body somehow just appealed to me, and had done so ever since a few years beforehand, when I’d read the final pages of Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death. Referencing the literary critic Geoffrey Hartman, Brown suggested that the whole human endeavor could be seen, at bottom, as a kind of journey on the part of consciousness, in search of a “body” appropriate to its as-of-yet largely unborn potentialities. A body that, as paradise myths from cultures the world over suggest, it had at some distant point truly possessed, and which it was destined, at some distant point, to recover.

In the summer of 1986, while working at Endicott Booksellers in New York (and toiling away at my Forum piece at night), I’d come across Aimé Césaire’s poetry collection Lost Body (translated by Clayton Eshleman), and the book’s title had resonated with me in a way I couldn’t quite explain but couldn’t quite forget. In This Tree Grows Out of Hell, I took my first stab at figuring out why it had, by suggesting that there really and truly was once another kind of world, and another kind of body: a paradisal body that we had lost, and of which our current body is but a very sad shadow.

This is a completely mythological idea, and if one talks about it that way and leaves it at that, no one lifts any eyebrows. But it seemed to me that just seeing this idea as some appealing psychological archetype that explained certain universal human intuitions but wasn’t based on any genuine reality, it didn’t really get one anywhere. What if this lost body, and the lost and one day perhaps recoverable paradisal world it inhabited, was more than just some insubstantial psychological dream? What if, in short, it represented something real? That, it seemed to me, was a question worth pursuing.

This Tree Grows Out of Hell came out in 1990 and – as far as I can tell – was read by very few mesoamericanists, and served only to irritate most of those who did read it. (My favorite of the book’s few reviews was from a journal of mesoamerican studies, the name of which I now forget. Reviewing my book along with a genuinely scholarly treatment of the Aztecs, the reviewer remarked that while I clearly didn’t know what I was talking about, it was a shame that the mesoamerican scholars who did couldn’t write as well as I did.)

The fact is, I didn’t know a thing about mesoamerican civilization before I put the book together, and the book is in many ways as much about what it felt like to be a twenty-something in the America of the 1980s as it was about the ancient Aztecs. The book is strewn with references to modern literature and pop culture, and its centerpiece is a poem called “The Half-Finished Heaven,” by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, which I’d first come upon in Robert Bly’s anthology Friends, You Drank Some Darkness. Bly’s work had led me to James Hillman (many of whose ideas were another strong influence on This Tree), and Hillman in turn led me – via his Eranos monograph “The Thought of the Heart” – to Henry Corbin, the French Islamicist who turns up in one place or another in almost all of my books (This Tree included), and whose writings on the world “above” this one, the mundus imaginalis, a realm where the physical is rendered spiritual without losing its earthly particularity, have been a decades-long obsession of mine. (The tone of the stretches of Proof of Heaven in which Eben travels beyond his body have a strong flavor of the assorted Persian and Islamic mystics whose writings I discovered through Corbin, especially in his Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth.) Bly also led me, via an early issue of the magazine Poetry East, to the work of Louis Jenkins, whose prose poem “Violence on Television,” though only half a page long, has quietly influenced just about everything I’ve ever written.