COBÁ, Mexico — The view from the summit of Nohuch Mul, the tallest pyramid of the Yucatán peninsula, is evocative of Walker Percy’s prescient futuristic satire, written at the end of the 1960s but fictionally set in our time. In Percy’s Love in the Ruins, vines clog the former Interstate highways and parking lots of the lost era the narrator-protagonist called the Auto Age.
Here the tropical forest engulfs the hulking stone structures of what once had been one of the largest cities of a sophisticated Mayan world. At the height of its development between 500 and 900 A.D., Cobá covered an area 30 percent larger than Manhattan with an urban population of about 50,000 — 20 percent greater than that of Washington, D.C., in 1850 — and probably a much larger population in the rural exurbs.
What appear to be wooded hills on this naturally flat landscape are actually the weedy remains of ancient counterparts to the tuckpointed masonry of the White House, Supreme Court, National Science Foundation, National Cathedral, Planned Parenthood Federation, Brookings Institution, League of Women Voters, AFL-CIO, Chamber of Commerce, Federal Reserve, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Beneath the jungle canopy, acrobatic monkeys and bright-hued quetzal birds look down on avenues of sturdiest stone intersecting obliquely, much as Massachusetts consummates its rendezvous with Connecticut near the Council on Foreign Relations at Dupont Circle.
Cobá was too big to fail. Its leaders thought globally and acted locally. What happened?
Scholars still puzzle over why this and other city-states of the Mayan civilization rose, declined, and collapsed. The Spaniards arrived here five centuries ago to find the Mayan cities, unlike the still flourishing Aztec empire to the north, partially populated but in a deep state of social and political disintegration. Spanish intellectuals of the time indulged in their own version of today’s theorizing about “failed states.” And like their counterparts in the OECD Development Assistance Committee today, they found a ready remedy in seeking to impose their particular fashion of statism.
Cobá in its place and time was a “First World” metropolis. Mayan engineering was impressive, and Mayan astronomical science was at least as advanced as that of Europe. The jungle floor is littered with bountiful remnants of the prolific output of the Maya Corporation for Public Stone Tablet Engraving, but the glyph-readers cannot seem to find transcripts of a plain-speaking Mesoamerican Paul Harvey with the Rest of the Story. One thing that can be said is that the governing class in Cobá was obsessed with environmental issues. It was an activist government with a sense of urgency, self-confidence, and more than a little self-righteousness. Concerned with perceptions of climate change in an economy and political regime that depended on agriculture and fishing and trade, Mayan leaders adopted bold policies for the cause of saving the planet. The centerpiece of the program was appeasement of the gods of rain and earth and sun through the ritual killing, atop the gleaming pyramids, of sacrificial victims — many of them, in all likelihood, small business owners. Sacrificial methods were gory. Some victims were beheaded; others had their beating hearts removed — without anesthesia.
Crunching over the coconut husks and palm fronds and the unspeaking stones, one can imagine oneself in the rubble of a Mayan Senate Press Gallery and hear echoes of the Solons’ sanctimonies about “tough choices” and “pain that has to be borne now” for the sake of future generations. With feigned reasonableness, the clueless Mayan leaders assured the morituri that of course the national rescue plan was not perfect but it was certainly better than doing nothing at all.
If the Mayans had had a two-party system, the rationalizations for the bloodbath might have been cast in such disparate mystifications as “economic justice” to pander to the soak-the-rich mindset, or, for the knee-jerk patriotic segment of the Mayan public, “heroic conservatism” or even “national greatness conservatism.”
At the same time it is hard to believe that the marchers in the long processions up the temple stairs were much taken with exhortations to justice and greatness, nor with the thought that their sacrifice might be contributing to the realization of their politicians’ promises of Clean Water, Clean Air, Ending Hunger Now, Universal Health Care, or One Laptop (Stone Tablet version 2.0) for Every Kid — although they might have muttered aspirations for “an end to tyranny in our world” or wished that their commonwealth were saddled with a do-nothing Congress. In any case, with all of those Mayan moms and dads tumbling lifeless down the pyramids, it’s clear their society had scotched the whole notion of No Child Left Behind.
A good hunch is that the bipartisan best and the brightest from the Mayan Hasty Pudding and Skull and Bones clerisies attempted to fine-tune their planetary rescue program with decapitation relief for the middle class. But if so, this was inadequate to halt the flight of capital, much less the brain drain.
Thirty years ago the kleptocratic Mexican government of the Partido Revolucionario Institutional and the French resort developer Club Med forged a “public-private partnership” to operate a hotel, Villa Arqueológica, next to the ruins of ancient Cobá. The Mexican taxpayers and ultimately the United States taxpayers who underwrite the International Monetary Fund no doubt paid dearly for the Villa’s fine restaurant and its comfortable, attractive, well-kept and nearly empty guest rooms.
Cobá is a placid place abundant with natural beauty but also with the eerie peace of a great vacant city whose downfall remains a cause for speculation. It is a great spot to read Percy’s Love in the Ruins, subtitled, “The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World.” Percy’s protagonist barely escapes a Faust-like bargain made with a demon disguised as a program officer for a public-private partnership of the big East Coast foundations and the federal government’s National Institute of Mental Health. The novel prophetically manages to probe such touchy contemporary issues as euthanasia while succeeding as a rollicking comedy.
It is well worth a visit here to the serene Villa Arqueológica. For one thing, though you may never have heard of the place before, you’ve already paid for it. In any case, the vast ruins make an apt setting for reflection on the grandiose folly of big government and Ozymandian make-work, of pre-Christian and post-Christian idolatry; for meditation on the mysteries of human nature, of love and death. The bureaucrats and social engineers of Whitehall and the Quai d‘Orsay, of Foggy Bottom and Turtle Bay, the relentless ideologues of “progress“ and “development,“ should see this place. You and I would have to pay their expenses, of course, but we do so anyway wherever they go and whatever they do. Here they might do less harm than usual, and maybe there‘s just a wisp of chance that the rubble of Cobá could disabuse them of utopian idolatries, reminding them we are rational creatures of a Creator who made us from dust to which we shall return.
(Mr. Duggan is in Mexico to lecture in politics and communications at Tecnológico de Monterrey.)