. . . but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

31 January 2010

Stream of Consciousness Re: 2666 by Bolaño


Speaking of borders, a bit on the cross-cultural barrier. I do not hold myself out as any authority. I write the following in all humility, confident that there are a couple in attendance here capable of knowledgeably correcting me wherein I am wrong.

We in the United States like the phrase “a death with dignity.” People throw that phrase around all the time. The problem is that the usage is sloppy. When I have heard that phrase used in conversation in the United States, whether with regard to others or with regard to the speaker himself, it seems to me many times to be an implicit or euphemistic reference to avoidance of torture. “I hope for a death with dignity” might read “I don't want to be tortured.”

When used with regard to the deceased, it often seems to mean that the deceased person avoided excessive torture through some miracle of modern pharmacology that killed him before he was dead. Hospice people, whom I consider to be angels on earth, might take issue with me about that, but hear me out.

I am of course using the word “torture” here in the broad sense. One might be tortured by Mother Nature in the form of a slowly growing cancer, for example. One might be tortured by old age. One might be tortured by three thugs in a small, remote room with a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

The problem is that there is no such thing as death with “dignity” in the sense that I have described above. Look up the word. One might be able to undertake death with 1. the state or quality of being worthy of respect; 2. a composed or serious manner; 3 a sense of pride in oneself. [book:Compact Oxford English Dictionary] None of that has anything to do with the absence of torture.

There is no such thing as instantaneous death either. Albert Camus eloquently dispensed with that happy notion in his essay on the death penalty, “Reflections on the Guillotine” in the collection [book:Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays].

I am confident that any dead person could verify these things.

Mexicans do not talk about a death with dignity in the sense of avoidance of torture. Insofar as I can understand anyway. They tend to use words related to “dignity” in its dictionary sense. Mexicans tend to talk about death with courage or calmness. He died with courage. That's big here.

I think healthy Mexicans as individuals appreciate one fundamental thing in a very concrete way better than healthy, individual Americans do, that is, that we will all be tortured at some point, perhaps only at the end if we are extremely lucky. Every single one of us. There are only two questions left for Mexicans then, men and women. 1. How long will the torture last? 2. Will my courage fail me before it stops?

Again, that is all based upon my imperfect understanding. But I am pretty sure of this. Millions of Mexicans think in those very terms every day. Americans are resistant to thinking in such terms and would usually rather delude themselves with the idea that modern medical science gives them, if they can afford the health insurance, a good chance at death without torture, which, when you think about it, would not be death at all.

I know that I speak in generalities here, nor do I intend to disparage Americans. I do not know any other way in which to speak of such things.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The foregoing is by way of illustration. As I alluded to earlier, I believe that Bolaño in this book with his art works slowly but surely to bring the individual reader to a mental place by the end of Part 3 where he is calmly contemplating such things at a deep level. It is an entirely different place than where one goes when watching the torture episode in Pulp Fiction, a place that is anything but calm. Calmness, you will recall, is a virtue extolled in Part 3.

Bolaño will fail with some readers and succeed with others. One of the ways Bolaño that succeeds when he succeeds, and I haven't the faintest idea how he does it, is to bring us to the slow realization that Santa Teresa is not a fictional town that fictional characters can drive out of. Santa Teresa is the reality of the world that each of us everywhere lives in.

For me personally, this means that when I crossed into Reynosa, the illusion of having driven into another world was just that. In my heart I truly regarded it as an alien place. In reality it was the same world that I live in and always have lived in. And, we must add, one that I will not always live in. I just did not truly appreciate Reynosa as such until now.

Is it not interesting that Bolaño handed off to us such a thing from the place of his own final torture?

So there you go, *Capitu. I concede. You were right.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The killings of the young women are a perfect vehicle for Bolaño. What an inspiration that story out of Juárez must have been for him. I will not say that something good can come out of anything. I cannot bring myself to relate life and art in that way. I do, however, agree with those brighter than I who say that this is a modern masterpiece. Whatever the content of Parts 3 and 4, I am not going to change my mind about that.

On a related note, I was a bit disappointed in one of my literary heroes, Francine Prose. Her blurb on the back of my edition ends with . . . 2666 seems like the work of a literary genius. Seems? Seems? Geez, Francine. Stop equivocating.

Damn it all. I would still like to get back to Amalfitano.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Calmness is a virtue extoled in Part 3. Calmness is not an American virtue. It might be that if we could accept the reality of things with some calmness and courage, we might be able to act more effectively as a nation than we do, riddled as we are with a multitude of fears. Maybe not. But in a bassackwards sort of way, Bolaño hands us an idea related to that from the place of his own torture.

Such art simply will not “take” with readers who cling with white knuckles to the illusion that through the miracle of medical science the have a good chance at for a dignified death, if they ever let death cross their minds at all. It takes a powerful piece of art to bring many readers to a calm contemplation of the concept that they themselves will inevitably face torture. Everybody will face torture. And to be fair, that is asking a lot of any reader, even Cortázar's active reader.

But I have not done a good job of explaining. What I am trying to say is that for individual Americans torture and death is a spectator sport and only becomes participatory in the end. For Mexicans it is a participatory sport for their entire lives. And from what I have seen, they try to play it with courage.

Now one could throw down the 9/11 card if one were so inclined. I do not dispute that many Americans vividly imagined themselves having to leap off the building at the time. But they put that away very quickly. Very few Americans have imagined themselves leaping off that building at some point in every day since. Some who were close particularly, but very few.

He pulls out all the stops, too, with the specter of torture leavened with sexual abuse. Moving us there gradually, he wrote graphic passages that explore the fuzzy, fuzzy line between sexual gratification and sexual abuse. What I take to be a “snuff film,” Tape II of which I have not seen, takes all that over the top of course.

The only thing I have to say about this subject is that any male reader constitutionally incapable of vividly envisioning himself being sexually abused is going to miss out on something here.

I choose not to write any more about all that here ever again. I would even rather construct some list than do that, perhaps of my own top 25 movies. And that is saying something.

*Capitu is a character in Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, a Brazilian classic.

No comments:

Post a Comment