Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nazi Literature in the Americas, by Roberto Bolaño

One thing that strikes me immediately while reading any of Bolaño's work is how simple and ordinary the work of writing seems to be to him and to his characters. Inspiration seems almost beside the point; writing is pure execution, and I do intend the pun. But this does not mean it is mechanical, rote, or flat.

Bolaño's great theme seems to be the intricate relation of violence and literature. Not madness and literature, or at least not garret-variety madness. Violence—political violence, aesthetic violence, romantic violence. Violence, like literature, is simple—not inspired, but executed. It is not the result of a flash of higher (or lower) consciousness, but is a component of existence.

What Bolaño insists upon so unsettlingly is a collapse of the distinction, so important to our concepts of art and violence, between the sacred and the profane. Unfortunately, what is meant by this distinction has been somewhat lost as the words have taken on different—although still opposing—meanings. "Sacred" has come to mean beatific, holy in an exclusively good, beneficent sense. It has also become associated with spotlessness, purity, even ethereality. "Profane," due to its commonest inflection, "profanity," has become associated with earthiness, grossness, crassness, and vulgarity. This opposition—the ethereal and the earthy—is not the one I mean, but one that is closer to the notion of the division of church and state, to the difference between the religious and the secular. One dictionary suggests another distinction—consecrated and unconsecrated, although etymologically that hardly advances our understanding.

Consider the line from Donne's "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning": "'Twere profanation of our joys / To tell the laity our love." We might tend to read this as a simple expression of the desire not to debase the purity of the love Donne and his beloved share by speaking of it commonly and exposing it to the crassness of worldly conceptions of love. Yet the word 'laity' insists upon a reading of 'profanation' as an antonym to 'consecration' or even 'sacralization.' This reading removes the necessity of purity or chastity being the defining characteristic of their love—this is Donne after all, and I do not think it too much a stretch to read the compass metaphor of that same poem as relating also to a spreading of the legs.

The antonym of 'laity' is 'clergy,' those men or women who have consecrated themselves to the service of Christ (or some other divine being). Donne is suggesting that the devotion he and his beloved share is so strong and so complete, that it is as if they have formed their own priestly class, and that to spread the gospel of that love to anyone outside of that priesthood would de-consecrate it.

Our concepts of art and violence depend for their stability on the idea that they are ministered by their own priesthoods—that there are specially consecrated individuals who are not part of everyday (profane or secular) society. Soldiers, terrorists, assassins, artists, and revolutionaries are separated from the rest of us by a special devotion to their work; there are bright lines of division between us and them.

Bolaño writes in defiance of these dividing lines; he writes as if he knows better than to believe they exist. He writes almost in ignorance of these lines, although ignorance suggests naïvete, while his ignorance is experienced and not innocent. Having lived in the absence of these lines, he refrains from acknowledging even where these lines should be. He writes without any consciousness that they should exist. There is no clergy of violence—nor is there a clergy of art.

The proximity of art to violence is the theme most critics of Bolaño have picked up on, but this is not his most radical insight. The proximity of art/violence to everyday life is produced by Bolaño in terrifying clarity, although it has been misunderstood. In reviews of The Savage Detectives in particular, critics have written of the pervasiveness of literariness, of poetic aspirations as a property of Bolaño's own feverishly poetic mind—all the characters, with their strange, heterodox views on art and literature, are emanations of a great artist's obsession with his art. Or these critics enviously write of the excitement of being part of an intensely literary circle, as if Bolaño lived in a hermetic environment of poet-revolutionaries which also circumscribes his novelistic creations. But Bolaño is celebrating neither a hermeticism of poetry within the prosaic world nor a menagerie of his own obsessions; he is writing of the commonness of art and violence in a world that sees only certain, highly specialized, narrowly defined forms of art and violence.

Obsession does play a large part in his work—no one can say that his characters are not obsessives. But critics take the ubiquity of obsession in his work to be a defining characteristic of Bolaño or of his coterie, and not as a statement by Bolaño of the nature of humankind. In this (and in many other things) he is like Dostoevsky; we read the Underground Man, or Raskolnikov or, above all, the characters from The Possessed as exaggerations of real-life, as if Dostoevsky did not intend them to be read as potentially real people. The constant excess of Dostoevsky's art is therefore read as a style particular to Dostoevsky, never as representational to the world, or even to part of it. We read Dostoevsky—and I think we are beginning to read Bolaño—as a writer of mad sacrality, consecrated to the depiction of a world set an angle to ours, perhaps even wholly detached from it.

This, I feel, is a mistake, and one we must struggle against.

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