David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: July 2009

Analogies are not transformations

What lies behind the proposition that the significant concepts of the modern doctrine of the state are secularized theological concepts is not so much a historical insight, as Carl Schmitt asserts when he explains that these concepts were “transferred from theology to political theory,” as it is a dualistic typology of situations. Consider, for example, the proposition that “the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver.” If this assertion were correct, then the other could not also hold, according to which after the failure of the Enlightenment the conservative counterrevolutionary writers attempted “to support the personal sovereignty of the monarch ideologically by means of analogies drawn from a theistic theology.” Analogies, after all, are precisely not transformations. If every metaphorical borrowing from the dynastic language treasures of theology were ‘secularization’ in the sense of transformation, then we would immediately stand before a mass of products of secularization that would have to be entitled “Romanticism.”

Hans Blumenberg

The two rejoinders against Schmitt here are (1) he is employing a false dualism, and (2) he takes appropriation of theological concepts by analogy as proof of the illegitimacy and derivativeness of a non-theological political system. I have yet to see a convincing rebuttal of either of these claims, and it still seems rather ironic that a good chunk of leftist thought is being spent on one of the most dichotomy-friendly political thinkers of last century. Schmitt is unworthy of Blumenberg’s criticism (which seems to be Blumenberg’s attitude as well; there is the sense of exasperation at the sheer lack of support for Schmitt’s attacks).

Further Last Thoughts on Roberto Bolano’s 2666

The last section is about Archimboldi, the mysterious writer who the academics were chasing after way back at the start of the book, and who has not been of much significance since then. Bolano explicitly constructs the section as a linear Bildungsroman, or at least as a pastiche of one.

While the section eventually joins with the rest of the book, it is mostly self-sufficient. Archimboldi is born as a naif, grows up and has horrendous wartime experiences, then slowly becomes a writer. The section is solid if not overwhelming (unlike the penultimate section about the murders), and Archimboldi does give Bolano a nice but contrived mouthpiece for discoursing directly on literature. By this point the critics of the first section are long forgotten, and consequently the the contrast of Archimboldi’s life with their facile obsessions does not weigh too heavily on the writing.

I don’t want to say that much about this section other than to point out a movement that takes place toward its end. After Archimboldi has gone through most of the formative experiences of his life and has established himself as a writer, he disappears. His person is still there in the book, but the intimate introspection given into his mind for much of the section is drastically curtailed. He moves from being a subject to an opaque object, i.e., the object studied by the critics. And evidently this is where he is to stay.

What is meant by this movement? Bolano heavily uses reportage in his work, and when introspection is present, as in By Night and Chile and Amulet, it is carefully circumscribed so as not to overreach its place and time. I suspect that there is some criticism of introspection and psychology as being a luxurious distraction, something that draws our eyes away from things like the horrible murders of Santa Teresa. So Bolano’s abandonment/subversion of the Bildungsroman, where rather than coming to fruition, Archimboldi becomes a cipher, is Bolano’s proposal for how individuals turn into history, or how the mask of intimacy is removed so that inexplicable reality is faced. And this is the movement of the novel as a whole: 2666 is about removing the mask.

In conclusion? The novel is a major achievement, but I can’t call it a masterpiece. (Archimboldi’s somewhat incongruous speech beginning on page 785 rails against the hierarchy of masterpieces and minor works, so take the terms with a grain of salt.) Bolano’s intent was too focused on undermining the claims of the integrity and autonomy of literary work for his skills to work best in long form. By Night in Chile and the stories in Last Evenings on Earth strike me as his best work, where the prose does not have to take on too much weight of undermining itself.

Still, self-abnegation at this scale is striking, and it seems to have successfully disoriented a number of his readers, including Ignacio Echevarria, who writes in his somewhat haughty afterword: “Although the five parts can be read independently, they not only share many elements (a subtle web of recurring motifs), they also serve a common end. There is no point attempting to justify the relatively ‘open’ structure that contains them.” Conveniently, he concludes no justification is necessary, alluding to subtle but apparently indisputable evidence without presenting it. This, too, is something that Bolano would not tolerate.

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