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What the Heck Is a ‘Coatlicue Complex’?

August 9, 2009

“Hal avoids Dr. Dolores Rusk, who always wants to probe him on issues of space and self-definition and something she keeps calling the ‘Coatlicue Complex.’ 216


216. No clue.

What the hell is this all about? A footnote that basically throws its hands up in the air and says “beats me!” is a nice little gag, but there’s more to this than that.

Coatlicue, as it turns out, is the name of an Aztec goddess. I’m going to sub-contract the descriptive work to Manuel Aguilar-Moreno’s Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, the only semi-reliable source I could find anywhere on the Webs:

Coatlicue (She of the Serpent Skirt) is the goddess of the Earth, a mother goddess; she is at the same time a deity of fertility and destruction, uniting the duality of life and death… she is the cosmic-religious conception of the earth goddess in her two roles of womb and tomb.

From Flickr user rosemanios, here’s a totally sweet photo of a giant statue of Coatlicue housed in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, in Mexico:

Coatlicue statue

By now you should be experiencing an ear-splitting echo of the “mother-death cosmology” that Joelle “repeated over and over, inclined over that auto-wobbled lens propped up in the plaid-sided pram” (230) during the filming of The Entertainment. I had always wondered what the “mother-death cosmology” bit was all about. If I’m not mistaken there’s some thematic linkage in Ulysses between Stephen Dedalus’ recently-deceased mom, the ocean, and death, so I had assumed that maybe Wallace was riffing off this. But the Coatlicue myth opens up a whole new interpretive avenue.

Aguilar-Moreno gets into a lot more detail on Coatlicue, if you’re interested. I thought this bit was particularly germane:

[Coatlicue] stands as a sacrificed victim… the sculpture is at the same time passive and active, monster and victim.

The Coatlicue reference in IJ comes during a chapter in which a lot of Hal’s attention is focused on his own mother, Avril. Hal recalls that Orin said Avril “went around with her feelings out in front of her with an arm around the feelings’ windpipe and a Glock 9 mm. to the feelings’ temple like a terrorist with a hostage.” Or a monster with a victim, perhaps? Sounds like somebody has a Coatlicue complex…



If you’re at all interested in this stuff, run, don’t walk, over to Daryl’s latest post at Infinite Zombies, in which he basically performs the literary-interpretive equivalent of an Aztec sacrifice on the Coatlicue myth and all of its possible resonances in Infinite Jest. Daryl Houston is the Quetzalcoatl of Infinite Summer.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2009 9:48 pm

    Great minds think alike. I homed in on the very same thing in my post for the week. 🙂

  2. infinitedetox permalink*
    August 9, 2009 9:56 pm

    Holy fucking shit, dude — that post is awesome!

  3. August 9, 2009 10:17 pm

    Well, you came up with the mother-death-cosmology thing, which didn’t even occur to me. Also, you found the reference to Avril having her feelings out front. I vaguely recalled that stuff and wanted to incorporate it, but thought it was much earlier in the book (I’m a week ahead b/c I have basically to take this week off from reading to read other things) and couldn’t find it.

  4. August 10, 2009 7:11 pm

    Wow, just wow. I never bothered to look up “Coatlicue” and found your post to be super-enlightening. (I also dug your “triangles” post quite a bit).

    I wonder if the Aztec stuff is also supposed to serve as a nod to Burroughs, who was pretty interested in that mythos.

  5. August 11, 2009 10:46 am

    You’ve both done a great job. I am just tickled that you both went after the same bit at the same time.


  1. Goddesses of Life and Death: Coatlicue- Aztec Earth Goddess – The Bliss Institute

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