David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2007 (page 2 of 2)

Roberto Bolaño: The Savage Detectives

Q: You are Chilean, Spanish or Mexican?

A: I am Latin American.

(Roberto Bolaño)

This is a long book–too long, in fact–but it makes its point. Bolano, who died a few years back as a consequence of alcoholism, drug abuse, and assorted other consequences of extreme living (read the New Yorker profile of Bolaño for an overview), wrote a lot of short books and two very long books, including this one. And not only does it play at being autobiography, but also at a bildungsroman, as it follows “Arturo Belano” and his friend Ulises Lima from Mexico to Europe to Africa. But given Bolaño’s life, it reads as the only bildungsroman he could have written: a paean to the costs and benefits of never growing up. The bildung is entirely ironic, or negative.

The setup, in the words of James Wood:

“The Savage Detectives” was published in 1998, but its heart belongs to the Mexico City of the mid-1970s, when Bolaño was an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas. Like much of his work, the novel is craftily autobiographical. Its first section is narrated in the form of a diary, by a 17-year-old poet named Juan García Madero who is on the make, erotically and poetically, and who has been asked to join a gang of literary guerillas who have named themselves the “visceral realists.” The group is led by two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, a wild duo who appear elsewhere in Bolaño’s work (in “Amulet,” for instance). Lima is based on one of Bolaño’s friends, the poet Mario Santiago, and Belano is based on … Bolaño.

Yet for this scenario, there isn’t a lot of literature in the book. Much of the so-called literary discussion is nothing more than trivialities, like Garcia Madero quizzing his friends on obscure poetic terms, and so-called “visceral realism” is, it is made clear, a mere platform for attacking the many betes noires of Lima and Belano (and Bolaño), particularly Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda. Bolaño never slips: the book is entirely committed to showing literature as a lifestyle and not as an artwork, and what it extracts.

Much has been made of the book’s structure, and justifiably so. It is sandwich-shaped, with two shorter bookends taking place in 1975 and 1976 of the diaries of Juan Garcia Madero, and the main section narrating events episodically from 1977 to 1996 with intermittent flashbacks to 1976. The first section shows most of the benefits of the characters’ lifestyle, and it is not without some irritation that I read through one hundred pages of Juan sleeping his way through his fellow women poets and talking big with his fellow male poets. This irritation is intentional, because when things of consequence start happening, they are exactly the product of the sort of indulgent childish lives of wastedness that the visceral realists have been living. The rest of the book details the costs.

Even in that first part, we don’t forget that they are children: the visceral realists are people in their late teens and early 20s. Even Belano, who was imprisoned by Pinochet’s government in Chile after the coup before returning to Mexico, treats his experiences in the detached, solipsistic way a writer would: his politics are vague and more visceral than intellectual. The Chilean experience is only alluded to, while the book slides into a soap opera plot about Belano, Lima, and Garcia Madero going on the run with a girl trying to escape from her murderous thug boyfriend. If this sounds dissonant in summary, it doesn’t on the page, but it is terribly disconcerting, when the soap opera seems more real than Allende and Pinochet. So it is with adolescents. Bolaño hardly shied away from political topics, embracing them explicitly in works like By Night in Chile, but here he intentionally resists them because they are at odds with his characters and subject matter, and this is part of the tragedy he is trying to convey.

We return to the soap opera of 1976 at the book’s end, after having seen Belano disappear into civil war Liberia after nearly getting killed there, having stopped drinking due to a liver ailment that has doomed him to an early death (as one did Bolaño, killing him in 2003). Yet there hasn’t even been a progression during the middle section, and this is significant. Scenes from 1976 keep acting as a magnetic attractor as the other recollections move forward in time, arresting any sense of forward progression. Since the middle section of the sandwich is so diffuse, containing recollections from dozens of characters who never recur, many of who only had the most tangential interactions with Belano and Lima, no robust narrative emerges as a counterweight to Garcia Madero’s diary, and Garcia Madero himself is definitively absent from the middle section. The overall sense is that indeed, all of these characters’ lives ended in 1976, as Garcia Madero’s seems to have, and what is playing out afterwards in the middle section is a kind of afterlife purgatory of the sort Alasdair Gray brilliantly portrayed in the last two books of Lanark: a purgatory in which the characters wander lost without development. It is in this way, and no other that I can find, that the book makes sense, and a fatalistic, depressing sense indeed.

There are moments in the book–only moments–where the priorities change. The first is the horrific story of Auxilio Lacouture who hides in a bathroom for almost two weeks while the Mexican Army occupies her university in 1968 (she recounts this in late 1976 in the forward timestream of the book). She proclaims herself “the mother of Mexican poetry.” In the language of the book, this means that she, like Garcia Madero, disappears completely after 1976. Bolaño does not call attention to her disappearance, but it is crucial for the narrative that she vanish from the book: she represents the mother of all that is damaged and cannot survive. (It is at this crucial episode, however, that Bolaño’s writing falters, as Auxilio talks like a man, as happens with many of his most significant female characters.)

The other moment is the Liberian civil war, and it must be there that Belano vanishes, because it is there that his childhood truly runs out, as he seems to be faced with something he cannot comprehend.

And yet, Bolaño has stacked the deck, for Belano gets divorced and does not have children; Bolaño remained married and had two children. Belano lives on alone, near-suicidal in his excursions. Bolaño escaped, but for the sake of the narrative of Latin American and Latin America’s writers, Belano is sacrificed. The pathos is complete.

I am not in love with Bolaño in the way that Matthew details in his entry on Bolaño. As the work of a man who was racing against time to produce something urgent and vital, it is appropriately striking and direct. But The Savage Detectives, for all its careful construction, doesn’t quite have the juice to justify its conceit: Bolaño doesn’t quite manage to complete the circle to link Belano’s adventures in Liberia to the final 1976 episode with Garcia Madero. And the very end of the book, rather than making excuses, appears to acknowledge exactly that incompletion. Bolaño proclaims the imperfection of his work, and implies that perfection has gone to death with all his young characters. While not a satisfying ending, it is one I accept.

Heinrich Heine on Hegel

The man was funny! Here he is giving the Romantic reply to Hegel:

I was young and proud, and it pleased my vanity when I learned form Hegel that it was not the dear God who lived in heaven that was God, as my grandmother supposed, but I myself here on earth. This foolish pride did not by any means have a corrupting influence on my feelings; rather it raised them to the level of heroism. At that time I put so much effort into generosity and self-sacrifice that I certainly outshone the most brilliant feats of those good Philistines of virtue who merely acted from a sense of duty and obeyed the moral laws. After all, I myself was now the living moral law and the source of all right and sanctions. I was primordial Sittlichkeit, immune against sin, I was incarnate purity; the most notorious Magdalens were purified by the cleansing and atoning power of the flames of my love, and stainless as lilies and blushing like chaste roses they emerged from the God’s embraces with an altogether new virginity. These restorations of damaged maidenhoods, I confess, occasionally exhausted my strength….

(Confessions, tr. Walter Kauffman)

Summary: might be better to believe that there is something in the universe not within one’s authority or knowledge. Could be God, could be aliens, could be the unified theory.

Longinus on the Middle Path

Turgidity seems to be one of the most difficult faults to avoid, for those who aim at greatness try to escape the charge of feeble aridity and are somehow led into turgidity, believing it “a noble error to fail in great things.” As in the body, so in writing, hollow and artificial swellings are bad and somehow turn into their opposite as, they say, nothing is drier than dropsy.

While turgidity attempts to reach beyond greatness, puerility is its direct opposite, altogether a lowly, petty, and ignoble fault. What is puerility? Clearly, it is an artificial notion overelaborated into frigidity. Writers slip into this kind of thing through a desire to be unusual, elaborate, and, above all, pleasing. They run aground on tawdriness and affectation.

In emotional passages we find a third kind of error which borders on puerility. Theodorus used to call it parenthrysos or false enthusiasm. It is a display of passion, hollow and untimely, where none is needed, or immoderate where moderation is required. For writers are frequently carried away by artificial emotions of their own making which have no relation to their subject matter. Like drunkards, they are beside themselves, but their audience is not, and their passion naturally appears unseemly to those who are not moved at all.

(On Great Writing, tr. G.M.A. Grube)

The Fall and Romanticism

K-Punk’s wonderful series on the aesthetics of Mark E. Smith and the Fall is wonderful nostalgia for any of us who spent months or years obsessed with Smith’s verbal acuity and ruminated over the cryptic lyrics (transcriptions c/o the invaluable Fall Lyrics Parade:

So R. Totale dwells underground
Away from sickly grind
With ostrich head-dress
Face a mess, covered in feathers
Orange-red with blue-black lines
That draped down to his chest
Body are a tentacle mess
And light blue plant-heads
TV showed Sam Chippendale
No conception of what he’d made
The Arndale had been razed
Shop staff knocked off their ladders
Security guards hung from moving escalators

And now that is said
Tony seized the control
He built his base in Edinburgh
Had on his hotel wall
A hooded friar on a tractor
He took a bluey and he called Totale
Who said, “the North has rose again”
But it will turn out wrong

(The N.W.R.A.)

“The Fall’s Pulp Modernism:” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

K-punk begins with two of Smith’s avowed heroes–H.P. Lovecraft and Blake–and from there spins a chronicle of Smith’s embrace of pulp materials in the service of anti-romanticism in the tradition of Wyndham Lewis. And there’s something to this. Horror, science fiction, and conspiracy theories figure prominently in the lyrics, but they’re never properly shaped. Nazis pop up repeatedly as sinister figures precisely because they are cartoonish and inhuman; Smith is fatalistic about these matters, not humanistic. The dog-fucker of “Impression of J. Temperance” who impregnates one of his canines (hat tip to pastemob for explaining this to me many years ago) is clearly on the other side of normal, and so is his offspring:

The next bit is hard to relate.
(There are no read-outs for this part of the track.)
The new born thing hard to describe
Like a rat that’s been trapped inside
A warehouse base, near a city tide
Brown sockets, purple eyes
And fed with rubbish from disposal barges brown and covered

(Impression of J. Temperance)

Even “Spectre Vs. Rector,” one of the more outright narrative pieces, turns abruptly when Spectre possesses the rector and two more characters (the Inspector and the Hero) have to show up to finish the storyline. Yet I don’t see the modernism in this. Smith ladles on Gysin/Burroughs-esque cut-up techniques and Artaud-esque writing processes, but what results is not modernism, not even the collage and nonsense modernism of Dada and surrealism. The psychology and historicism of high modernism doesn’t exist in his lyrics, but neither do the word-poems of Tzara and Huelsenbeck. Smith’s referents are slippery, but with the exception of things like “Levitate,” where he slips into outright language poetry, he remains attached to Blake’s idea of language as invocation, and not as reality in itself. When K-punk says:

If pulp modernism first of all asserts the author-function over the creative-expressive subject, it secondly asserts a fictional system against the author-God. By producing a fictional plane of consistency across different texts, the pulp modernist becomes a conduit through which a world can emerge. Once again, Lovecraft is the exemplar here: his tales and novellas could in the end no longer be apprehended as discrete texts but as part-objects forming a mythos-space which other writers could also explore and extend.

I would argue the opposite. When Lovecraft goes on and on about how inexpressible his horrors are, and when Smith invokes Nazis and spectres, the world does not emerge, but instead it subsumes. The disorganization and cut-ups are not manifestations of authorial process as with Dada, but mimetic representations of a reality that corrupts language. (K-punk’s reference to Smith as “channeling” is apt, but again, I think the flow goes the other way: it pulls the listener rather than pushes.) I do not see Joyce in these words. If I was going to trace a lineage, it would be from Blake to Baudelaire to Hofmannsthal to Rilke to Pynchon and others who have taken up the pre-modern mantle. Anti-romantic, certainly, but hardly anti-Romantic. The world triumphant over the word, represented immanently in the broken, strained language of visionaries. Blake, Coleridge, Byron. Like so:

Hail the new puritan
Out of hovel, cum-coven, cum-oven

And all hard-core fiends
Will die by me
And all decadent sins
Will reap discipline

(New Puritan)

Albert O. Hirschman: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Genealogically speaking, this book isn’t as captivating as Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, because it’s not a survey of past rationales, but an analysis of contemporary behaviors in response to this phenomenon:

Firms and other organizations are conceived to be permanently and randomly subject to decline and decay, that is, to a gradual loss of rationality, efficiency, and surplus-producing energy, no matter how well the institutional framework within which they function is designed.

Free of the meta-analysis, Hirschman doesn’t manage the ideological sweep of the other book, but there’s enough here that should interest even the most impractical humanities scholar. (Like the other book, this one is very short.) Hirschman’s structure is simple: when employees or consumers of an institution are faced with decline of how that institution serves and services them, they either vocalize their grievances (“voice”) or they vote with their feet (that would be “exit”). Various constraints make one option more attractive than the other, and sometimes exit isn’t available, or voice is minimized. There are two scenarios in particular, one conceptual and one historical.

The first is Hirschman’s free-market apostasy in saying that competition can work against voice, since the more vocal and less vocal can be separated into equally impotent factions. The easily dissatisfied ping-pong between equally bad options while the more inertial sorts stick around and don’t complain, giving no incentive for the institution to improve. (Think cell-phone companies.) This plays itself out in a more class-stratified way if there is a better but more expensive option for the privileged class to exit towards, leaving the less empowered stuck with a system that again has fewer incentives to change. (Think public and private schools.) Under orthodox conceptions, this is no prisoner’s dilemma, as the free-marketer would expect any exit to motivate the institution to improvement. In actuality, the institution will often be glad to be rid of these complainers. Sometimes it’s because they weren’t worth the trouble, but often it reinforces existing resistance to the troublesome process of reversing decline. One look at the sociologically fascinating Mini-Microsoft reveals a handful of salutary problems facing Microsoft in decline:

  1. Many of the most creative and most vocal leaders and employees have already left.
  2. Those remaining are miserable.
  3. Because of the first factor, the company has less incentive to address the second.
  4. The company’s attempts to stem the damage are perceived as cosmetic, and because of the above reasons, probably are.
  5. Remaining executives are perceived as not being accountable in the slightest and cashing in.
  6. If the increasingly livid tenor of the comments is any indication, things are getting worse, not better.

Mini-Microsoft is a particularly interesting case because even though the remaining employees are an extremely vocal and articulate bunch, the exit behavior appears to have caused a backlash demoralizing both executives and low-level employees. Hirschman’s optimistic suggestion that voice be recognized before things decay to this point seems unrealistic, however, since it requires a foresight that no institution can be expected to have: why listen to people gripe when everything is fine? I fear that only the absence of exit makes voice truly viable, and that is only because the possibility for organized, open revolt exists when those first exiters aren’t able to leave.

Point two: the United States was founded on exit, grew through exit, and exit is ingrained in its psyche. Founded by those who voted with their feet, grown on cheap immigrant labor, expanded through pioneer expeditions, and granted the luxury of isolationism through geographical position, the country has been notably reticent to address complainers, and the massive backlash against civil rights and entitlement programs is only one of the more distasteful examples. Complaint is frowned upon precisely because of the “If you don’t like it, go to Russia” ethos:

Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?

Ironically, this book was written in 1970, so Hirschman cites the black power movement as a notable exception to this trend. Forty years later, a singular, failed exception it remains.

I have not spent enough time with other cultures to have a sense of how distinctively American this trait is, but people from Tocqueville to Veblen to Richard Hofstadter have remarked on it, so I’ll assume it’s at least more extreme here. It makes me wonder if the comparative absence of politically-engaged novels and works of philosophy in U.S. history (note that I am talking about political engagement rather than agitation and muckraking, so I don’t count Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis, nor the disenfranchised voices of Baldwin, Ellison et al.; Dewey is a notable exception, however) can be traced not only to individualism, but also to the disparagement of voice in our culture. Do we teach our writers to stay the hell out of politics? Is that why our supposed politically-engaged writers (Mailer, DeLillo, Franzen) are such a joke?

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