While I wouldn’t dream of arguing that works of art have never done any good in the world, ultimately literature cannot be reduced to a species of activism. Art, at bottom, is not a form of social responsibility. Art has its own motivations, and those motivations are more dubious than we might suppose. Art sits as comfortably with injustice and atrocity as with enlightenment and empathy, and the creative impulse is driven as much by envy of, and competition with, one’s aesthetic precursors, as by a desire to correct the flaws of the “real world.”
A couple of posts ago I asserted that there was no one master meaning at the center of 2666, but the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe there is, and that it has to do with the insufficiency of art when confronted with the ineradicability of evil and atrocity. And, beyond that, the degree to which aestheticism, on the part of both writers and readers, blinds one to injustice (even while parading it in front of our eyes in great and gory detail), or serves as compensation for one’s relative lack of power to fight against it. JW, in comments to a previous post, put it about as well as it can be put:
“Most interesting of all is that the vehicle by which [Bolaño] has chosen to connect these two seemingly unconnected events [Santa Teresa/Juarez and the Holocaust] is Art. Art which seeks to create beauty even as evil flourishes alongside it. Bolaño’s Archimboldi has withdrawn from an immoral world. But, according to Bolaño, his art (and implicitly, all Art) fails to inspire morality in others. It feeds our asesthetic needs, but fails to evoke real outrage and action. This, apparently, is his vision of the human condition.”
Stacy D’Erasmo, writing in the New York Times Book Review, puts it this way:
“Among the many acid pleasures of the work of Roberto Bolaño…is his idea that culture, in particular literary culture, is a whore…The word has no national loyalty, no fundamental political bent; it’s a genie that can be summoned by any would-be master. Part of Bolaño’s genius is to ask, via ironies so sharp you can cut your hands on his pages, if we perhaps find a too-easy comfort in art, if we use it as anesthetic, excuse and hide-out in a world that is very busy doing very real things to very real human beings…”
(note: This quote was pilfered from the Wikipedia article on Bolaño)
It would be absurd to argue that art can never be a spur to activism. If you consider criticism a form of art, as I do, then Martin Luther King’s Letter From The Birmingham Jail is art just as surely as Picasso’s Guernica. And one has only to think of the role of music in the civil rights or anti-Apartheid movements to see how art can be used to clarify moral issues and promote a sense of solidarity. Art can be a powerful tool for creating and sustaining social movements. But in general I think art is equally likely to encourage an inwardness and a solitariness that chafes against the activist impulse–it encourages contemplation rather than action. The things a novel activates in its readers are mostly interior things: thoughts, speculations, ruminations, fine sentiments, satisfying expulsions of bile, but rarely revolution or social change. All art is, at least potentially, entertainment, a form of escapism (the whole Bolaño as homophobe controversy is an excellent example of why its good to consume art in groups–it pulls us away from solipsism and toward the wider world and it’s injustices).
JW argues that while Bolaño’s prose may be opaque, the structural choices of 2666 make his point about art and atrocity abundantly clear. In general I agree, but I also think there’s a point to the obscurity, or rather lack of transparency. Bolaño, like many modernists, is at war with transparency. In part this may just be an example of what Cynthia Ozick describes as the modernist penchant for “radical alteration of modes of consciousness.” But one reason for shunning transparency is to fight against the techniques and tropes that make art appear to be a perfect mirror of life. We all know that, duh, literature is not life, but the whole point of transparency in prose is to create the illusion that it is, at least while you are immersed in it (for example John Gardner’s idea that fiction should create a “vivid and continuous dream”). It creates what Susan Sontag (I think) called “the effect of the real.” And, transparency helps promote the inwardness that blocks out the world, and that threatens to substitute literature for the world. I realize how problematic this is–the stuff that goes on inside our heads is as real, as materially substantial, as the stuff that happens outside of our heads, and literature effects real, material changes in consciousness, and all of our heads are linked together intersubjectively anyway. But perhaps the point of shunning transparency is to fight against the illusion that changes in sensibility are a substitute for action, or compensation for one’s relative inability to combat evil and injustice.
2666 is saturated with both a love for literature and a profound knowledge of its limitations. There’s a self-consciousness within the novel of how inadequate any novel is at spurring action and urging the moral life. 2666 is no different in this regard. It’s as much about Bolaño’s anxious attempt to pay homage to and transcend his literary antecedents as it is an altruistic attempt to open the reader’s eyes to injustice in the world. It’s both a refraction of recent events in Juarez and a self-sufficient aesthetic entity. It avoids psychological realism, and observes its characters from a discrete distance, precisely because it wants to focus attention on our outer lives, and make the point that the trap of art and culture, the trap of aestheticism, is to fool the aesthete into thinking that he’s a better person than he is by keeping his attention focused on the refined and elevated contents of his inner life, rather than looking at how inadequate his actions are in the face of the massive violence and injustice of the world.
This is, in my opinion, the great truth and the great flaw in 2666: On the one hand Bolaño makes us realize how beside the point art is in the face of evil and atrocity, and how it can become the handmaiden of both. He warns against the danger that we will use art and literature to so richly stock our inner selves that it will blind us to how passively complicit our outward lives often are. At the same time, by focusing on the worst atrocities–the Holocaust and the incredible violence in contemporary Mexico–he sets the stakes so high that he implicitly devalues any action one might take. The book posits evil and injustice as ineradicable features of the human condition. Well, they are. But that doesn’t mean that any action one might take to ameliorate their effects, however cosmically inadequate, is an exercise in futility.