By Night in Chile

A short review below of this book. I am going to enjoy, I think, reading more Bolano. He seems to be the sort of writer I was getting at in my Anti-writing post.

I do not like those communities of artistic people who are talk and tinkle. I believe the world needs action from good being. Literature is indeed a valid pleasure for its own sake. But there are conservative, reactionary, and, I would say, bad folk out there who put ‘Art’ above life and politics. Surely it can be as much a retreat and sanctuary as anything, but to suggest it as a self-sufficient entity that represents some sort of suprahuman state seems to me to be deeply dangerous.

My Review of the Book

I thought this very good. It’s my first encounter with this writer, and although I have seen reviews suggesting his ‘difficulty’, I have no hesitation in recommending this to anybody. (I thank Mike Puma for suggesting it as probably the most suitable introduction to the author).

It’s very rich and dense, with startling images and cross-cutting motifs; many extra-textual references too, but I hardly think they matter at this stage. Later, I will return to read the book again, as one will return to a film, looking forward to the total experience, reading differently, with more prepared resonance as a reader.

Here I’ll reveal what struck me immediately. The single paragraph of the novel (well, there’s two if you include the seven word paragraph at the end, important as it is) is the confessional of a Priest/Poet/Aesthete/Critic who believes he’s dying. He isn’t – except of course, he is, as we all are. He’s not a sympathetic character, what with his being a coward, a debauch, a hero worshipper, a solipsistic fool (just to begin the  catalogue). But he is sympathetic too for the poor man is just anyone. I’m not convinced that this is remotely a book about Chile, despite the confessor’s search for the very Christian, very Chilean,  I think a reader who goes in fangs bared knowing this Priest is  member of (fashionably, what else, negatively connoted) Opus Dei or intuiting that he was part of the establishment that crushed the brave Socialist experiment will miss much of what is actually in the text. That’s something ironic, something of the the world of the lovers of literature and the arts generally, that something being you don’t approach act and being as a political animal by chattering about representations. There are the precisely controlled traces, just enough, of the horrors of Chile – and, incidentally, Europe and the USA – to help embrace a certain readership into necessary active political studies of the nature of myths , narratives of gods, nations, good and evil, left and right, personal identity. Even Pinochet – who has a speaking part in this novel (during one of the Priest’s six stories) understands that to defeat a story you meed to understand it. Bolano, though, goes deeper, and suggests that if you scratch away at any story an utter boredom, acidie, ruination and decay are revealed. Again, here, the reader who knows knows about relating to personalities at a much more positive level (by contrast): the lecher priest who feels Pinochet’s hand upon his knee like a myriad desiring multitude of hands; the frightened priest who sees in a namesake baby with eyes and mouth closed himself against the world (while, in this moment also rushing with heterosexual desire) knows nothing of health: for him the world is in ruins, and broken and unstable as much of the imagery of the novel explores.

It’s useful to have priest-aesthete as narrator. For one thing, such an individual has the ideological permission to be above the mere world of the messily human, and Sebastian (the priest) assumes such permission (as many do do). His torpor (mere boredom) in Chile is followed by aesthetic excitatation springing from one part of Europe to another. In a hymn to his God he praises not the Lord’s justice or concern for the oppressed but his own being graced by encounter with “my happiness, passion regained, genuine devotion, my prayers rising up and up through the crowds to the realm of pure music, to what for want of a better name we call the choir of angels, a non-human space but undoubtedly the only imaginable space we humans can truly inhabit, an uninhabitable space but the only one worth inhabiting, a space in which we will cease to be but the only space in which we can be what we truly are…” My guess is that there are priest-aesthetes  spouting this all over the world in various forms. There may have been refined monsters in Auschwitz sharing sherries with their local clergy who hissed it too.

This particular failed poet longs for a more ‘cultured’ ‘Chile’. He immerses himself in Graeco-Roman ‘culture’ (clean as a sculpture, and neatly forgetting Aristotle’s – and later Aquinas’ – emphasis upon the political centrality of being); he longs for ‘his’ country to open itself to Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Hugo, Borges, Tolstoy (what a truly bizarre conglomerate!); he wilfully, proudly, separates himself from the universe of political events (the real people’s acting and being), and regularly joins the grotesque gatherings of third-rate literati, artists and such that chatter in comfortable soirees while beneath them in the basements of a house whose labyrinthine corridors are laid our ‘like a crossword puzzle’, victims of torture suffer and die. But he’s no more a coward than anyone who lives like that. Anywhere, any time.

The failure of aestheticism to complete and identity is the torment of this narrator. It is universal. He’s allowed limited reflection himself, for instance awareness of his own own poems’ division into apollonian and dionysian (such a division, of course, being about as creative, active, poetic as a crossword clue), Where the insistent filmic image of ‘zooming’ in through the petals of a flower, through the entrance to the Emperor’s room through door after door of antechambers, to the ‘tunnel of time, back into time’s great meat-grinder’ (the latter near the end) there’s a redemptive possibility, that the frightened story-maker and conservative adult will recognise the wizened youth within and eschew both.

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Roberto Bolaño

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing.

Bomb 78/Winter 2002

Hugh MacDiarmid

After His Death

Norman MacCaig

for Hugh MacDiarmid

 

It turned out

that the bombs he had thrown

raised buildings:

 

that the acid he had sprayed

had painfully opened

the eyes of the blind.

 

Fishermen hauled

prizewinning fish

from the water he had polluted.

 

We sat with astonishment

enjoying the shade

of the vicious words he had planted.

 

The government decreed that

on the anniversary of his birth

the people should observe

two minutes pandemonium.

 


On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts

Great review by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post of new biography of De Quincey

(For)  most of his adult existence, De Quincey was an opium addict, an alcoholic in all but name, and a man who spent years dodging creditors, constantly moving from one rented room to another. What money he didn’t spend on laudanum – his preferred opium-alcohol mixture – he spent on buying thousands of books, many of them pricey and rare. For years he rented Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s old home in the Lake District, and essentially used it to store his library and papers. Though from an upper-middle-class family and exceptionally well educated in Latin and Greek, De Quincey nonetheless dropped out of Oxford, eventually married his housekeeper (who bore him eight children) and was regularly shamed by public announcements of his nonpayment of bills. He contributed to multiple magazines, Blackwood’s being the best known, and sooner or later quarreled with nearly all his editors. In person, he was diminutive (under five feet tall) and exceptionally courtly in his manner and speech.

Today De Quincey is remembered, and by some revered, for his evocative (at times purple) prose and for two or three of the most influential works of the 19th century, the most famous being the autobiographical “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” No less an authority than William Burroughs has called “Confessions” “the first, and still the best, book about drug addiction. . . . No other author since has given such a completely analytical description of what it is like to be a junky from the first use to the effects of withdrawal.”

In this lucid, deeply researched biography, Robert Morrison makes plain that De Quincey wasn’t just a recreational user, but truly a slave to his habit. He would regularly pop pills – laudanum capsules that he kept in a snuffbox – even in the presence of company. Although De Quincey tried repeatedly to break the drug’s hold over him, the consequent shakes, fevers and depressions would eventually destroy his resolve. And yet two sections of “Confessions” are honestly titled: “The Pleasures of Opium” and “The Pains of Opium,” for the drug lifted some of life’s burdens, even as it imposed others. It also allowed for vivid, hallucinatory dreams and memories, often of the dead: the beloved sister whom De Quincey lost when young, the prostitute Ann who shared his early miseries, the 3-year-old Wordsworth daughter he played with and adored, his own deceased children. In opium visions they might all, for a moment, live again.

…. …. ….

Murder, in fact, always deeply fascinated De Quincey and comes to the fore in his wittiest essay, the savagely deadpan “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Conceived as a lecture to a society of connoisseurs, it remains the foundational text for the grisly black humor of films such as “Kind Hearts and Coronets” or Patricia Highsmith‘s novels about the talented Mr. Ripley. As our lecturer observes: “Something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.”

Alas, the wholly aesthetic murder can be elusive: “Awkward disturbances will arise; people will not submit to have their throats cut quietly; they will run, they will kick, they will bite; and, whilst the portrait-painter often has to complain of too much torpor in his subject, the artist in our line is generally embarrassed by too much animation.”

THE ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER

A Biography of Thomas De Quincey

By Robert Morrison.

Pegasus. 462 pp.

Nietzsche: Words and Things

 

From On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)

Are designations congruent with things? Is language the adequate expression of all realities? It is only by means of forgetfulness that man can ever reach the point of fancying himself to possess a “truth” of the grade just indicated. If he will not be satisfied with truth in the form of tautology, that is to say, if he will not be content with empty husks, then he will always exchange truths for illusions.

 

The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise, there would not be so many languages. The “thing in itself” (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for. This creator only designates the relations of things to men, and for expressing these relations he lays hold of the boldest metaphors.’ To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one.

 

We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities.

Nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us.

Every word instantly becomes a concept precisely insofar as it is not supposed to serve as a reminder of the unique and entirely individual original experience to which it owes its origin; but rather, a word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases — which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether unequal. Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects.

We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us.

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

 

That immense framework and planking of concepts to which the needy man clings his whole life long in order to preserve himself is nothing but a scaffolding and toy for the most audacious feats of the liberated intellect. And when it smashes this framework to pieces, throws it into confusion, and puts it back together in an ironic fashion, pairing the most alien things and separating the closest, it is demonstrating that it has no need of these makeshifts of indigence and that it will now be guided by intuitions rather than by concepts. There is no regular path which leads from these intuitions into the land of ghostly schemata, the land of abstractions. There exists no word for these intuitions; when man sees them he grows dumb, or else he speaks only in forbidden metaphors and in unheard — of combinations of concepts. He does this so that by shattering and mocking the old conceptual barriers he may at least correspond creatively to the impression of the powerful present intuition.

Anti-Writing

There’s anti-poetry: it’s a label or name applying to a specific kind of poetry (called anti-poetry). I’d thought there may a similarly recognised species of writing called anti-writing, but can’t find it if it exists famously (fame in literary matters, of course, may only need a thousand or so people involved). Not surprisingly, Derrida comes close to something that is recognised by more than many thousands of people, if only by hearsay, but I’m looking for a literary approach to producing work more than a philosophy (although I can’t entirely ignore the latter).

Anti-writing could be a starkly defined term. Perhaps the preliterate, communal ‘oral’ culture before the printing press and the advent of increased interiority, self-centred individualism and the third dimension if Marshall McLuhan was right. Or, close to this, a Tolstoyan idyll of woodcraft folk living in a sort of Leavisite organic community where authentic humanity returns to a place before the fall. Mention of the fall and authenticity raises possibilities that essence and existence, or at least questions about them, precede and supercede writing. Alas, Sartre, Camus, Tolstoy and Leavis had a certain reliance upon the written word which renders any examination of their work in search of anti-writing to be immediately unsuccessful.

Actually, the phrase  “anti-writing” does occur frequently in pedagogic literature. It refers to a refusal to read and write, mainly by young people, as a leading cause of illiteracy (rather than inadequate teaching methods, lack of educational provision or sending children down mines). It would be possible with such a clear use of the phrase to move it easily to a prorevolutionary and triumphant rebellion against the written word. That is something which may be no bad thing, but although I sometimes think it would be a very good thing, I don’t want to spend time on it here. I am looking for something else.

There are, allegedly “writerly” books read by the few, and “readerly” books read by the many. The “writerly” are often in a category called “literary”, and the “readerly” in one called “popular”, although the boundaries are diffuse. It is also quite possible to read some writerly book in a readerly way, and some embarrassments have occurred by certain refined readers confusing readerly books with writerly ones. There is, however, certainly a sort of movement against “writerly” books (largely led, it must be said, by people who do not read very much anyway) on the basis that not only are they boring and almost totally incomprehensible, they are also elitist and too clever by half. This movement sees writing as the gift of everybody, for everybody is a writer so “anti-writing” here would mean an attack upon the belief that writing per se is something which is a craft and something that can be done more or less badly or well.

There is a school of thought, vaguely located in literary theory where it meets the more arid hinterland of narrative psychology, which sees writing as the circulation, reinforcement and reproduction of things in quotation marks. Obviously the quotation marks are not necessarily visible, and are more usually not which is also when they are at heir most insidious. A thick miasma formed of millions of interpenetrating skeins of phrases and off-the-shelf lexicons of emotional structures hangs like a perpetual fog in which people grope not for vision but for meaning. Writing is the metaphor for all forms of ideological expression; language, in a very broad metaphorical usage, is at once a dynamic of competing phrases and ideas but yet held in miraculous stasis by forces which I suppose are ultimately located in the economic base. I have perhaps over-ornated what is in fact rather dull, but such ideas do still excite the suspicions against the intellectual, and worse, the bourgeois intellectual, and who else but an intellectual would write? On the other hand, I do believe that universal literacy was faced with horror by the bourgeois establishment for untold chaos and anarchy would surely follow if the proletariat ever became educated to read and, god forbid, to write.

But none of this is what I mean by “anti-writing”. It’s simply this. It’s there anyway in irony, satire, humour, the very spirit of writing. It is like apophatic theology or cynical philosophy. It destroys, rips to bits, puts into an acid bath all of its own medium as it is producing itself. Then, and this is the magic part, after destroying everything not worth having it’s discovered in a piece of anti-writing the restoration of the vital value of writing. That’s why it’s true when they say all writing is about writing, all poetry is about poetry, and so on. It’s true, but there’s more, much more, and a lot still needs tearing to shreds before we’ll get near it.