Art as Escapism

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 Bolaño’s Archimboldi has withdrawn from an immoral world.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.



I finished the book, but probably won’t get around to posting final thoughts for another week or so. I’ve been ridiculously busy at work lately, and it’s been all I can do to pound down the last 100 or so pages of the novel while traveling between home and work on the subway. So, for now, a big thanks to Matt Bucher for organizing the group read, and many thanks to all the bloggers and commenters whose thoughts and observations helped me make sense of such an otherwise massive and forbidding work of fiction. I can’t wait to read your various takes on What It All Means.

2666 and the Holocaust

I seem to remember one critic describing the books that comprise 2666 as like tectonic plates rubbing up against each other. The relationship between the parts, at least so far, seems more like the reverberations set off by contact between massive but distinct entities, than like a set of closely connected parts that can be unlocked with a master key. This, for me, is part of what makes the book both a blast to read and an exercise in frustration bordering on futility. The balance Bolano strikes between chance and deliberation in the construction of the novel makes it feel both rich in meaning and maddeningly opaque. That said, there are certainly themes and preoccupations that resonate throughout the various parts of the novel, and as Dan at Imagined Icebergs notes, placing a section set in Europe during World War II immediately after the section set in Santa Teresa begs the question of what Bolano is trying to say about the relationship between Mexico under the cartels and Europe under the Nazis.

The first thing that struck me when reading this section was that, ironically, the Santa Teresa section felt more violent than the section set during World War II–one of the greatest conflagrations in human history. Part of this has to do with the fact that the Archimboldi section spans a longer period of time, but, as Paul’s recent commentary at I Just read About That made me realize, part of it has to do with the way the violence is presented. There’s just as much violence in The Part About Archimboldi as there is in The Part About the Crimes . It’s just that the narrative tone of the Archimboldi book is not as uniformly grim as the tone of the Crimes section. Also the violence in The Part About the Crimes is parceled out in small doses over 250ish pages, whereas the violence in the Archimboldi section feels more concentrated (the crucifixion of Entrescu, Sammer’s extermination of the Greek Jews, Mickey Bittner’s description of carpet bombing). The effect of this, I think, is to increase the gravity of the crimes in Santa Teresa (and by extension Juarez) in the reader’s mind, and to bring the moral weight of what’s been happening in Mexico for the past decade closer to the level of an atrocity of world-historical importance like the Holocaust.

Another thing that struck me is how little overt antisemitism there is in the Archimboldi section. It’s there, to be sure, but Bolano doesn’t really present us with any one character or set of characters that are meant to crystallize the antisemitism at the heart of Nazi ideology, and you rarely hear the foot soldiers express antisemitic sentiments. Antisemitism pops up fairly regularly, to be sure–in Ansky’s story, and in the conversations about war guilt, but at that point the defeated Germans are running away from it or trying to disavow it–but at best it’s there as a kind of background noise, and moreover noise that plays at a pretty low volume compared to the ambience of misogyny in The Part About The Crimes . In The Part About The Crimes you get a very vivid sense of a rancid atmosphere of misanthropy/misogyny/homophobia hovering over the city and turning people’s thoughts and actions in the direction of either violence or resignation. Maybe you could say that Bolano is doing the same thing with ideological violence that he did with physical violence: ratcheting up the volume in Santa Teresa and lowering it in war-torn Europe, so as to bring the two closer together in historic importance.

And then there’s the question of collaboration. One of the things that drives readers to distraction about The Part About The Crimes is the almost willful blindness of the citizens of Santa Teresa to the atrocities being committed in their midst, and the seeming unwillingness, or inability, of anyone to do anything about it. My guess is that the unwillingness flows from the inability: due to the level of corruption and collaboration between the narcos, the police force and the politicians, it seems pretty much impossible to wage an effective protest against the violence, and those who do run a very real risk of becoming victims themselves. The book seems to me to both understand and deplore this. Santa Teresa under the narcos, perhaps, has some of the psychological characteristics of life in a totalitarian state. Obviously this comparison only goes so far, and the differences are far greater than the similarities, but both Santa Teresa and Nazi Germany are, effectively, ruled by criminal regimes that extract swift vengeance on opponents and dissenters, or anyone who threatens their power. So, are the passive citizens of Santa Teresa somehow like the “Good Germans” of World War II? Is neutrality in the face of injustice or atrocity always equivalent to complicity? Is passivity a form of guilt in an environment where most avenues of redress are closed off, and where the institutions of civil society have been so thoroughly dismantled, and the ideological climate so thoroughly contaminated, that one’s conscience might almost cease to function?

Dan at Imagined Icebergs tries to get at the relationship between Santa Teresa and The Holocaust through Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil. And he notes, correctly I think, that Sammer, the Nazi administrator charged with the disposal of 500 Greek Jews, embodies a lot of what Arendt intended by this concept, which she coined in her classic work Eichmann in Jerusalem, about Israel’s 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann for crimes against humanity. My first thought on reading the Sammer section was, this guy is Eichmann for sure: a little man, motivated less by a driving hatred of Jews than by a desire to do his job well, to impress his superiors, and to rise in the party hierarchy. Eichmann was the Nazi official charged with managing the deportation of Jews from the Reich. Eichmann, however, in Arendt’s telling, claimed to bear Jews no ill-will whatsoever, and even portrayed himself as something of a Zionist. Arendt, ultimately, portrays him as thoughtless, as half-consciously employing a number of mental tricks in order to avoid confronting the moral consequences of his actions. The case of Eichmann suggests that one of the most frightening things about Nazism was that it’s crimes were carried out, to a great degree, not by diabolical monsters, or vicious antisemites, but by petty bureaucrats almost mindlessly doing what petty bureaucrats do every day. Eichmann was evil, to be sure, but in this case evil came in an unexpectedly unexceptional form. And Arendt doesn’t argue, I don’t think, that Eichmann was SIMPLY a cog in a machine, although he certainly was that (and she doesn’t argue that, to the extent that he was a cog, he deserved to avoid punishment). He actively and enthusiastically carried out his duties. But his motivations boiled down less to ingrained Jew-hatred than to the pettier motivations of the careerist—doing your job well, impressing your superiors, getting ahead. In any event there’s more than a few shades of Eichmann in the character of Sammer.

There’s a good introduction to the thesis of Arendt’s classic work, as well as an account of the controversy that erupted on its publication, in this article from The Nation. The piece also highlights the debt Arendt owed to Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg. One of the more controversial aspects of Eichmann in Jerusalem was Arendt’s attempt to assess the “guilt” of Jews who helped administer the forced emigration of Jews within Europe. Her take on this is deeply problematic, but it definitely helps you appreciate how murky the question of guilt during wartime (or under a reign of terror) can be.


There’s a good discussion of the homophobia in 2666 going on right now. Dan at Bleakonomy has been largely responsible for driving it to the forefront of discussion. A few weeks ago I posited that it was part of the toxic atmosphere that saturates Santa Teresa, and that somehow enables the crimes. Jeff teased out the connection between homophobia and misogyny. Dan at Bleakonomy finally lost his patience with the seemingly gratuitous use of the word “faggot” and declared Bolaño a homophobe. And Dan at Imagined Icebergs, kind of agrees with Dan at Bleakonomy, and looks at the role homophobia plays in the book’s attitude toward machismo.

Curiously, the homophobia in 2666 (and to some degree in Savage Detectives) has gone largely unremarked upon in most mainstream commentary about the book. It’s been a while since I’ve read any reviews, but I don’t remember it featuring prominently in any I read, and I confess to not giving it too much thought until Bleakonomy Dan forced the issue (if anyone knows of instances where it is discussed, please leave a link/citation in the comments). In my and others’ defense, I suppose if you did a quantitative analysis of the book (there must be software for this) homophobia would be a relatively minor theme. I suspect lots of people probably read the homophobic sections like I did–thought “WTF is that all about?”, casually assumed that it somehow fit with the grand conception of the novel (whatever that is), and then just moved on to all of the other things they found compelling about the book. Also, the book is far more saturated with misogyny than homophobia, so it was easy to assume that it’s just all of a piece, and no one, to my knowledge, has accused Bolaño of being a misogynist, though I have to agree with Jeff and both Dans that the homophobia–chiefly, but not solely, in the form of the use of the word “faggot” as a term of derision–feels far more gratuitous than the ultra-frequent use of the word “whore” to describe women.

In any event, what follows is a slightly expanded version of a lengthy comment to (Imagined Iceberg) Dan’s latest post, Machismo v Machismo. I’m basically plagiarizing myself here, but I wanted to give this issue a more prominent place on my own blog.

It seems to me there are three questions at issue: a) Is the book homophobic? b) Is Bolaño homophobic? c) What’s the role of homophobia in the overall conception or “argument” of the book?

Clearly the book is homophobic. Dan at Imagined Icebergs cites a number of the more notable instances of homophobia in the novel, but these just skim the surface. While homophobia may be a minor presence in the book statistically, qualitatively the book is obsessed with homosexuality, gay sex, and “faggotry.” (note: I’m, not endorsing the use of the word “faggotry” as a term to describe effeminate behavior on the part of men, gay or straight, only noting that this is how 2666 seems to conceive of it; part of the problem with the way Bolano deals with gay characters is the assumption that effeminacy and homosexuality are inevitably twinned). While this hasn’t gone completely unnoticed in commentary on the novel, it’s been pretty much ignored in most mainstream reviews of the book. But the fact is it’s a pervasive presence in the book, and one that needs examining.

As (Icebergs) Dan and Jeff note, 2666 is also obsessed with misogyny, and seems to be critiquing it, and as I’ve argued there is a way to see the misogyny and the homophobia as two components of the same toxic stew of misanthropy pervading Santa Teresa. But I’m not by any means married to this idea. And as Jeff notes, there’s an organic connection between misogyny and homophobia, and it’s possible to see homophobia as a species of misogyny–on the one hand a kind of transference onto gay men of negative attitudes about women, and also a more disturbing (to homophobes) rupturing of the prevailing script of gender relations. But, ultimately, homophobia can’t be reduced to misogyny, and it seems pretty clear to me that the homophobia in 2666 has a role independent of its connection to misogyny.

As to whether or not Bolaño himself is a homophobe, it’s hardly beyond belief. I’m reluctant to say definitively yes he is, just because a) the book is so inscrutable in so many ways that I’m hesitant to assume I know definitively what he’s up to at any one time b) I’m still unsure just who is narrating the book, though I do argue in a recent post that the book is a kind of memoir–a highly sublimated record of Bolaño’s struggle with his own terminal illness; it could be that he’s also airing his own homophobia c) there’s a least a little counter-evidence, both inside and outside the text. For example there are not unsympathetically drawn gay characters in both 2666 (Reinaldo and his circle) and Savage Detectives (Luscious Skin)–I won’t necessarily say they are skillfully drawn, but they don’t seem invented to be ridiculed (at least not any more than anyone else); A quote from an interview in Bomb Magazine where Bolaño says that in his younger days being a poet meant being a revolutionary which meant being “completely open to all cultural manifestations, all sexual expressions, being open to every experience with drugs.”; The fact that he was apparently a big admirer of Pedro Lemebel “an openly gay Chilean essayist, chronicler and novelist” [Wikipedia] (His book My Tender Matador can be sampled on Google Books–the word “faggot” pops up on page 2). But look, all of these things are compatible with homophobia, especially for someone steeping themselves in the psychology of a culture steeped in machismo, of which homophobia is a prominent element.

Dan at Imagined Icebergs hints, tantalizingly, at “a moment near the end of the book…that…offers the biggest contrast to the novel’s norms for addressing homosexuality”, so I’ll be on the lookout for that. But, assuming that things don’t get much better, or that the moment he refers to doesn’t decisively reframe all the homophobia that’s preceded it, one interesting question Dan raises is what is the role of homophobia in the overall “argument” of the book? Dan posits, on the one hand, that it may not play such a role, that it’s possible that Bolaño “just thinks its funny.” I think this is probably too simple an answer, but admittedly there are still remnants of the old infrarealist tendency to do whatever it takes to freak out the squares in Bolaño’s writing, and I sometimes wonder if Bolaño isn’t animated by Jean Genet’s dictum that art is “the capacity to make you eat shit and like it.”* But Dan wonders if the homophobia isn’t somehow tied in to the book’s critique of the general passivity and inaction with regard to the crimes. In other words that Bolaño is essentially, gendering homosexuality feminine, reading femininity in antiquated terms, as passivity, and then using anti-gay epithets as a way to either deride characters for their passivity or to goad them into action. “And”, Dan writes, “this is a problem, because it suggests that Bolaño’s solution for combating machismo and the culture of violence it perpetuates is another kind of machismo.” I guess I hadn’t quite considered the idea that homophobia as fear of that which is (stereotypically)womanly in man might be tied to the revulsion at the passivity of most Santa Teresan’s in the face of the seemingly unstoppable climate of violence. Ironically, the ultimate macho response, some kind of cleansing act of violence, is something Bolaño denies you, at least in The Part About the Crimes. I suspect many readers are half hoping for some kind of macho response.

Finally, one section in this week’s reading struck me as odd and especially phobic, though I don’t quite know what to make of it. It’s the story on page 731-34, of the French Anthropologists in Borneo, who are trying to introduce the western custom of the handshake, “two hands that grasp and pump or shake, faces impassive or friendly or surprised, eyes that frankly meet each other’s gaze” etc, to a group of indigenous people, who have their own custom for shaking hands: who, when they shook hands, stood sideways, did not meet each others’ gaze and passed their right hand under their left armpit or vice versa. Anyway, when one of the anthropolgists tries to force one of the Borneans to shake hands the western way, all hell breaks loose, and they later find that the word the Bornean screamed, “dayiyi”, means (in the novel), among other things, “cannibal who fucks me in the ass and then eats my body”. A charitable reading would be that this is an expression of some kind of primal anxiety about homosexuality, irrational and difficult to eradicate. An uncharitable reading would be that Bolaño in some way endorses this reaction. As is true throughout this novel, he doesn’t give much away.

In any event, the point is that even if Bolaño is a homophobe (and I’m not saying definitively that he is), and assuming that the book has some kind of underlying agenda (even if Bolaño was only half aware of it when writing it) then the role of homophobia in the book bears investigating. This, true, would give it a “literary” justification, but I don’t know why calling something “literary” somehow magically exalts or excuses it.

*I’m actually quoting film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s characterization of Genet’s dictum. Edmund White translated it this way: “poetry is the art of using shit and making you eat it”

More From Juarez

Salon has an interview with Judith Torrea, who lives in Juarez and blogs about the drug violence there.

Her blog, Ciudad Juárez, en la sombra del narcotráfico, is here

Charles Bowden discusses his new book on Juarez, Murder City, on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show

Prefiguration of Lalo Cura

There’s a new Bolaño short story in the latest New Yorker: Prefiguration of Lalo Cura

2666 As Sublimated Memoir

I’ve been having much more fun lately reading and commenting on other people’s posts than composing my own, but I’m determined to keep to my quota of a post a week, so here are some meandering thoughts containing undercooked ideas that hopefully provide a morsel of food for thought. Raw food is supposed to be good for you, right?

Two things I tend to forget about this book:
-It’s an unfinished novel
-It was written by a dying man

I’m increasingly inclined to think of 2666 as a kind of sublimated memoir. Almost all fiction is sublimated memoir, to some degree. The writer either writes about what he knows, or comes to know what he writes about, and even when a story and characters are completely fabulated they are filtered through the author’s experience and sensibility. Of course it’s an elementary mistake to assume that the narrator or characters are equivalent to the author, but it’s an equally elementary mistake to assume they have little-to-nothing to do with each other.

Fictions are more or less sublimated accounts of an author’s beliefs, values and experiences. Some, like for example Gary Indiana’s roman a clef Do It In The Dark, feel as close to memoir as they do to fiction. Others, like Nabakov’s Lolita, are ways of exploring the psyche of a character that (hopefully) is as far away from that of the author as could possibly be. But I suspect there’s more than a bit of Nabokov in Humbert Humbert, though hopefully not the part about desiring to kidnap and molest little girls (probably more like the jaundiced eye Humbert casts on 50’s conformity and conventionality).

Anyway, 2666 is a book that
-blurs the line between “fiction” and “reality”
-has a documentary feel and employs documentary techniques
-frequently comments on itself

In the same vein, I think its clear that the novel is, more or less, about Bolaño’s struggle with his own terminal illness. While there are doubtless innumerable examples of Bolaño dealing with his own condition in the language, subject matter, imagery and symbolism of the novel, here’s one example where he seems to speak directly to the reader about his own condition:

“Healthy people flee contact with the diseased. This rule applies to almost everyone…The diseased, anyway, are more interesting than the healthy. Then, too, all healthy people will in the future know disease. The sense of time, ah, the diseased man’s sense of time, what treasure hidden in a desert cave. Then, too, the diseased truly bite, whereas the healthy pretend to bite but really only snap at the air. Then too, then too, then too.” [661] (Of course Bolaño is also talking about Hans Reiter here, but I excised the 4 very short sentences about Reiter to highlight the degree to which Bolaño may also be talking about himself).

I’m not sure how fruitful Bolaño-David Foster Wallace comparisons are, but I can’t resist playing the game, so here’s one: Both 2666 and The Pale King are unfinished novels written by men who were staring death in the face as they wrote. Both are, doubtless, commenting on and grappling with their own terminal condition. Obviously there’s a crucial difference, in that Bolaño was dragged unwillingly into the abyss, whereas David Foster Wallace took his own life, although the question of how much agency a suicidal person has is an open one to be sure. It’s probably inaccurate to say that Wallace was “staring death in the face” the whole time he was writing The Pale King, since he worked on it for 12 years. Also someone with suicidal tendencies is not staring at death so much as staring at their own wavering ability to summon the will to remain among the living. But the two books are posthumously published unfinished works by men actively grappling with their own mortality.

As anyone who’s ever known someone faced with imminent death, especially death at an early age, knows it’s not a uniformly dignified process. It’s as much about dealing with anger and rage as it is about coming to terms with the inevitable. It’s as much about settling scores or breaking ties with those one considers inessential as it is about spending time with your loved ones. This is pure thumbsucking on my part (hey, this IS the blogosphere after all), but I wonder if one of the things we are seeing in this novel, in a more or less sublimated fashion, is someone with a more porous barrier between the murky waters of the id and the face he presents to the world than someone who unconsciously feels that he has acres of time stretching out before him.