To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
– William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
I caught my first glimpse of Cusco just as the sky faded to a pale azure. For a place that was so unfamiliar, it seemed to unite various elements of cities that I already knew – an abundance of brick buildings, like Boston; adjoining concrete shops, like Bombay; narrow alleys, like Istanbul; the occasional brick-laden road, like Amsterdam; and houses stacked up the side of a hill, like San Francisco.
It’s a natural human tendency to process the unfamiliar by drawing comparisons to the familiar. I knew, of course, that Cusco wasn’t Boston, Bombay, Istanbul, Amsterdam, or San Francisco. I’d never set eyes on those intricate, gothic-style, black-and-white streetlamps before. The multicolored alpaca merchandise was strikingly unique. And the Incan art on store walls wasn’t a cheap imitation for an Indiana Jones movie – it was completely authentic.
Just before I fell asleep, the bus rolled past a vibrant mural. Armor-clad Spanish conquistadors clashed with staff-wielding Incan warriors. An Incan emperor stood in the center of the painting, one arm extended as though directing his troops to victory – a victory that, I knew, would never be realized. I have years of history classes to thank for that little revelation. As the story goes, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro strategically weakened the once-great Incan empire by distributing blankets contaminated with smallpox. He and his troops then marched into the palace, taking Emperor Atahualpa prisoner. In exchange for his freedom, Atahualpa promised Pizarro a room filled with gold. Pizarro – in true mercantilist style – quickly agreed. Atahualpa maintained his promise, completely filling a large palace room with gold. Pizarro, however, was not satisfied. In late 1533, he had Atahualpa executed.
The fall of the Incan Empire was a crucial inflection point in Peruvian history. In Spain, Pizarro was hailed as a conquering hero. In Peru, he was reviled as a ruthless destroyer. Pizarro’s actions are the reason why Spanish stands as an official language of Peru; why western influences permeate the country; why the native culture has become infused with sixteenth-century Spanish customs.
One glance at the mural was enough to spark this flurry of thoughts. For me, the mural was a succinct – albeit simplified – depiction of Peruvian history. All the other nuances were visible in the city around me. The brick buildings, the adjoining concrete shops, the narrow alleys, the brick-laden roads, the hillside houses… Cusco was as much an amalgamation of global elements as it was a representation of local culture.
In “Auguries of Innocence,” William Blake discusses the power of microcosmic representations. He contends that one is capable of seeing “a World in a Grain of Sand”; that a single wild flower can capture the essence of Heaven; that Infinity can fit “in the palm of your hand”; and that Eternity can be condensed into an hour. This morning, I saw Cusco as my microcosmic representation of the world. It’s far larger than a grain of sand – but it holds the same amount of power.