This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.
We finish thus; and all our wretched race
Shall finish with its cycle, and give place
To other beings with their own time-doom:
Infinite aeons ere our kind began;
Infinite aeons after the last man
Has joined the mammoth in earth’s tomb and womb.
We bow down to the universal laws,
Which never had for man a special clause
Of cruelty or kindness, love or hate:
If toads and vultures are obscene to sight,
If tigers burn with beauty and with might,
Is it by favour or by wrath of Fate?
All substance lives and struggles evermore
Through countless shapes continually at war,
By countless interactions interknit:
If one is born a certain day on earth,
All times and forces tended to that birth,
Not all the world could change or hinder it.
I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;
I find alone Necessity Supreme;
With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,
Unlighted ever by the faintest spark
For us the flitting shadows of a dream.
James Thomson, “The City of Dreadful Night” (1873)
This makes me smile. It’s comically maudlin, partly because of the obtrusive rhymes and partly because of the inflated concepts. So it reads more like goth song lyrics than a Victorian poem.
This is also why Bolano does best when he sticks to specifics.
(See part one.)
Even as the second part (about Amalfitano, a peripheral character in the first section) begins, Bolano is already undermining the first section. In the story of pharmacist/teacher/literary enthusiast Amalfitano, citizen of Santa Teresa and general sad sack, Bolano gives a richer, more detailed portrait of life than anything on hand in the first section, and the specters of the four characters and their bedroom athletics quickly disappear in favor of the muddy and depressing history of Amalfitano. His wife, as it turned out, ran away from him and their daughter years ago to pursue a silly Bohemian existence of the sort that the first section bloodlessly presented, and Bolano presents it as being about as meaningful. (When she returns years later, she observes that Amalfitano has changed, and Amalfitano observes that she has not. She mistakenly takes it as a compliment.)
When Amalfitano begins to go a bit insane, the literary knowledge in his head jumbles itself incoherently, attempting to find a meaningful form and failing. He reads a book about a bizarre paranormal conspiracy theory. He dreams.
Failure and inadequacy replace the indulgence of earlier, but Bolano, with full certitude, tries to elevate the material to the level of truth. There’s a hard-boiled attitude to Bolano’s repeated myth-busting and proclaiming of the failures of the literary project and its world. The problem with such an attitude is that its effectiveness lies in the vividness of the portrayal, not with the attitude itself, or else people would be reading E.M. Cioran rather than Dashiell Hammett. And Amalfitano himself, unglamorous and earnest, is what makes it vivid. When the fourth section (about the murders) rolls around and Bolano abandons most of the embellishments for a flat recounting of the facts, he is at his best.
What remains from the first section are not the scholars (who, in a rather obvious move by Bolano, ridiculed Amalfitano for being a literary neophyte), but the small affair that one of the scholars had with a local girl, Rebeca, whom he used and tossed away while nursing his own romantic wound. Now Rebeca is part of the real world and he is not, and her life and the danger she is in, with girls like her being murdered constantly, remain in the air long after the scholars have been forgotten.
Combining Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Mill, he gives us the best-case scenario:
The second condition of the possibility of victory is that the consciousness of mankind be penetrated by the folly of volition and the misery of all existence; that it have conceived so deep a yearning for the peace and the painlessness of non being, and all the motives hitherto making for volition and existence have been so far seen through in their vanity and nothingness that that yearning after the annihilation of volition and existence attains resistless authority as a practical motive. According to the last chapter, this condition is one whose fulfilment in the hoary age of humanity we may expect with the greatest probability, when the theoretical cognition of the misery of existence is truthfully comprehended, and this cognition gradually more and more overcomes the opposing instinctive emotional judgment, and even becomes a practically efficient feeling, which as a union of present pain memory of former pain, and forefeeling of care and fear becomes a collective feeling in every individual embracing the whole life of the individual and through sympathy the whole world, which at last attains unlimited sway. Doubt as to the general motive power of such an idea at first certainly arising and communicated in more or less abstract form, would not be authorised, for it is the invariably observed course of historically regulative ideas which have arisen in
the brain of an individual, that although they can only be communicated in abstract form, they penetrate in course of time into the heart of the masses, and at last arouse their will to a passionateness not seldom bordering on fanaticism. But if ever an idea was born as feeling, it is the pessimistic sympathy with oneself and everything living and the longing after the peace of non existence, and if ever an idea was called to fulfill its historical mission without turbulence and passion silently but steadily and persistently in the interior of the soul, it is this.
From this point of view too the possibility therefore appears anything but remote that the pessimistic consciousness will one day become the dominant motive of voluntary choice.
Philosophy of the Unconscious By Eduard von Hartmann, William Chatterton Coupland