David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2007 (page 1 of 2)


I’d quote the whole thing if I could. I love Lucretius for his specificity and visceral style, and for his tremendous empathy for our subjective being.

Men seem to feel some burden on their souls,
Some heavy weariness; could they but know
Its origin, its cause, they’d never live
The way we see most of them do, each one
Ignorant of what he wants, except a change,
Some other place to lay his burden down.
One leaves his house to take a stroll outdoors
Because the household’s such a deadly bore,
And then comes back, in six or seven minutes–
The street is every bit as bad. Now what?
He has his horses hitched up for him, drives,
Like a man going to a fire, full-speed,
Off to his country-place, and when he gets there
Is scarcely on the driveway, when he yawns,
Falls heavily asleep, oblivious
To everything, or promptly turns around,
Whips back to town again. So each man flees
Himself, or tries to, but of course that pest
Clings to him all the more ungraciously.
He hates himself because he does not know
The reason for his sickness; if he did,
He would leave all this foolishness behind,
Devote his study to the way things are,
The problem being his lot, not for an hour,
But for all time, the state in which all men
Must dwell forever and ever after death.

De Rerum Natura III, tr. Humphries

Roberto Bolaño: Amulet

Several people asked me why, in my review of The Savage Detectives, I thought that Auxilio Lacouture was not given a convincing female voice. I didn’t know exactly why, but something about her tough talk seemed too schematic to me, as though Bolaño’s women tended to fall into the categories of wispy crazies or hard-nosed butches. So I hoped to give it some more thought with the very short Amulet, which was written a few years after Detectives and is entirely in Auxilio’s voice.

What I found, though, is that it’s less of an issue here. Amulet, far from delving more deeply into the real horror of the toothless, bitter Auxilio’s two weeks trapped in a Mexican university bathroom while the army occupies the campus, is more ruminative and abstract than her visceral narrative in Detectives. And it reads as a less gendered narrative to me, by which I mean it doesn’t seem to exist in a social space where gender is such a dominant constitutive element. (In contrast, the sex-laden Detectives puts gender front and center.) So while it doesn’t help me figure out the Auxilio of Detectives, it does clarify some of Bolaño’s thematic obsessions.

Amulet draws a much more explicit line between Auxilio and Bolaño’s fictional stand-in Arturo Belano. Belano/Bolaño goes to Chile as a teenager to help “build socialism,” but Pinochet’s coup results in his imprisonment. This event is only mentioned as hearsay in Detectives and Amulet, but Auxilio is quicker to connect the dots in the latter:

What I mean is that Although he was the same Arturo, deep down something had changed or grown, or changed and grown at the same time. What I mean is that people, his friends, began to see him differently, although he was the same as ever. What I mean is that everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn’t give a shit.

And yet Auxilio, who has been through hell herself, doesn’t feel any closer to him; she is just as alienated from him, whom she calls “a child of the sewers,” as his other friends. This is vividly demonstrated in an entertaining sequence where they both track down the dangerous “King of the Rent Boys” in the slums and Belano rather effectively threatens him into releasing his claim on one of their friends. This is the only real narrative episode in the novel, and by the end Auxilio has descended into her own personal nightmare of mythology and history. She says:

I felt as though I was being wheeled into an operating room. I thought: I am in the women’s bathroom in the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature and I am the last person left. I was heading for the operating room. I was heading for the birth of History. And since I’m not a complete idiot, I also thought: It’s over now, the riot police have left the university, the students have died at Tlatelolco, the university has opened again, but I’m still shut up in the fourth-floor bathroom, as if after all my scratching at the moonlit tiles a door had opened, but not the portal of sadness in the continuum of Time.

This is a strange passage, and on its own it’s more striking than anything in The Savage Detectives. And it gives us, I think, Bolaño’s version of historical trauma. We are given, in his works, descriptions of horrific political events experienced on the personal level. They are presented in a more or less opaque fashion. They do not, as one would think, create a shared sense of community and identity, but instead they act as a cleavage of language and self from others. Belano’s poetry, it is implied, becomes so private that it would be useless to share it. (This is, perhaps, Bolaño’s explanation for his own turn to fiction.) Auxilio and Belano do not come together despite having endured similar traumas; Auxilio’s role as the “mother of Mexican poetry” is wholly spiritual, because poetry has become private. Auxilio describes the door that opens to her only negatively: one that is not sad, one that is not in Time, and presumably the same one that Arturo Belano disappears into in Liberia at the end of The Savage Detectives. We only suffer alone and cannot explain.

Schiller and Wittgenstein

If you’re looking for proto-Wittgenstein parallels from the era of German Idealism, this one seems pithy enough to me:

Warum kann der lebendige Geist dem Geist nicht erscheinen?
Spricht die Seele, so spricht ach! schon die Seele nicht mehr.

Why can’t the living spirit manifest itself to the spirit?
If the soul speaks, alas, it is no longer the soul that speaks.

(Schiller, “Sprache”)

There’s a thread straight through to Hofmannsthal and Wittgenstein (early and late).

Hegel and Wittgenstein

Philosophy-haters, you probably want to skip this one; it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Whoever says he acts in such and such a way from conscience, speaks the truth, for his conscience is the self that knows and wills. But it is essential that he should say so, for this self must be at the same time the universal self. It is not universal in the content of the act, for this, on account of its specificity, is intrinsically an indifferent affair: it is in the form of the act that the universality lies. It is this form which is to be established as actual: it is the self which as such is actual in language, which declares itself to be the truth, and just by so doing acknowledges all other selves and is acknowledged by them.

(Hegel, Phenomenology of Reason 654, tr. Miller)

It is select passages like these that have caused people to link Hegel and Wittgenstein, ones in which Hegel suddenly mentions language in a seemingly non-linguistic context. More than with any other book I have ever read, it is impossible to isolate any intrinsic sense to his words without considering how to interpret them in light of his successors, and just as impossible to hypothesize how they would be read had he had different successors. So as much as he’s an ur-text for any and every philosopher who followed him, Hegel is also in large part an empty prophet, his words awaiting fulfillment by the future. A trivial example: the insane obscurity of Hegel’s text is itself a comment on linguistic content in philosophy, and yet it took Gadamer to explain this sort of problem as one of an ever-shifting historico-interpretive horizon.

This particular passage comes in the middle of the section on conscience, which has something or other to do with how people follow their consciousness on a situation-by-situation basis, avoiding all Kantian moral abstractions. In the absence of any abstract moral laws, conscience justifies itself: if you act on your conscience, you’re moral, because that’s what it is to act on your conscience. But in this passage, it appears, conscience isn’t in your head, it’s in the linguistic act of saying to other people, “This is an act of conscience!” Otherwise, it’s back to subjective-objective dualism and Kant. From that, I’d guess he’s invoking a community that recognizes the idea of individual consciences that can disagree with one another, yet endorses the essential ethicality of all of them, as long as they can explain themselves. Ethicality consists of ones words denoting ethicality to the community and being recognized as such by the community. From here, we remove the ethics and we supposedly get Wittgenstein’s language-game: play the game, follow the rules, and you speak a language. Play the game of verbalizing your conscience, and you are ethical.

Maybe. Hegel is faced with two unattractive options here: first, allow any claim of conscience to count as valid in the community; or second, make claims of conscience subject to some sort of community standards. These two options, not coincidentally, map respectively onto the seesaw between the “acting” and “judging” consciousnesses that then follow.

Rather than address that problem, I want to point out that the problem is in fact a consequence of Hegel’s failure to privilege language. Hegel’s claim for speech is rather empty, because setting up a linguistic community is the easy part. If language, like the civic laws of the community, were simply a matter of communal determination, then indeed, the progression above would make sense. But to do so is to ignore the very heart of the philosophy of language, which is that language is not determined in such a way. It is the difference between enforcing a law and interpreting an explanation, and as far as I can see, Hegel thinks that those two things are the same. By eliding the problem of interpretation, Hegel’s supposed linguistic community is not linguistic at all. The gap that Wittgenstein spent decades on–that of the problematic relation of past speech to new speech acts–is missing. Without any hint as to how language as language is regulated by the community, there is nothing special about language that serves Hegel’s approach in this passage, which is why I tentatively conclude that the injection of language is arbitrary rather than necessary. Hegel’s supposed linguistic insight is only a reiteration of his earlier positions on intersubjectivity.

Robert Brandom has done some work attempting to systematize and synthesize the Hegelian and Wittgensteinian strands, but I’m not terribly familiar with it. Maybe when he’s done, we’ll again look back and see that it was in Hegel all along.

Aeneid Psychology

And Nisus says: “Euryalus, is it
the gods who put this fire in our minds,
or is it that each man’s relentless longing
becomes a god to him? Long has my heart
been keen for battle or some mighty act;
it cannot be content with peace or rest.

(Aeneid IX 243-247, tr. Mandelbaum)

Strikingly modern, that.

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