Yesterday I wrote a reply to a note by Maria at wwww.bolanobolano.com, a brilliant person whom I have known for years. The gist of it was that middle class people derive meaning in life from the things they buy. When they purchase a copy of 2666, there is much gnashing of teeth when they do not find meaning in it. I mashed the “Post” button.
Within minutes I realized that was not close to the idea that I wished to propose nor was it at all in the spirit with which I wished to propose it. For one thing, I am aware that the phrase “middle class” is never uttered without a sneer by some. I was not sneering. After all, I are one. I was too lazy to come up with a phrase less freighted with that baggage. But what would that have been? “Bourgeois people?”
Then the problem was that I could not figure out how to take down that reply. I considered for time posting a reply to my own reply, a reply that screamed, “This man is a cretin!” Then I said to myself, “What the hell? It is not as if I accidentally discharged my pistol and killed a child.” I went about my business. Now I feel pretty much as if I had accidentally discharged my pistol and killed a child.
I gnash my teeth more than most as is demonstrated over and over here. It is in the nature of the beast.
All I wished to suggest was that in former centuries people derived meaning from faith. Before that was magic. With the erosion of faith, people began to derive meaning from the things that money can buy. Now materialism is proving catastrophically unsatisfactory globally and spiritually.
Maybe one of the questions being illustrated by 2666 is, “What next are we going to try in our attempt to find meaning in an existence the meaning of which is obscure at best?” Again, maybe the book as a whole, through the response of mystification that it elicits in us, illustrates that question as opposed to posing the question more directly, or even indirectly, in a particular piece of text within it.
Assuming we get by Amalfitano’s philosophers’ question of whether we actually exist at all, that is, whether our hand is really a hand.
If Bolaño has big questions in mind, he never asks them. He illustrates them. The problem is that the illustrations are Rorschach tests.
Maria had proposed a meaning, extrapolated from a section of the novel, that somebody needs to do something about these murders of women in the hundreds. Maria is brilliant, as I have said, and I look forward to where she goes as she pursues that in the context of this novel. I say that with not a hint of sarcasm.
The kind of thing I said in that reply spilled from my partially fossilized left brain. Meanwhile, my right brain bubbled with delight when Oscar Fate later actually does do something—not much in the big picture of hundreds of murders, but something. Óscar Amalfitano, relying on calm just as the voice had admonished him, later does do something, too—again, not much, but something.
In the end, however, we are right back at the issue that Maria was pondering.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
For example, . . .
I cannot help but gnash my teeth regarding the meaning of the maquiladores churning out consumer goods, the stacks of garbage generated by the city, the parking lots carved into the sides of mountains, the stink of the place and such. Maybe these are nothing more than manifestations of the wonderful economic growth of the city as extolled by a couple of the less appealing characters, but the novel certainly has an apocalyptic feel about it.
The biocatastrophe people foresee a multifaceted worldwide apocalypse resulting from the infestation of the earth with human beings. That biocatastrophe, according them, will feature profound climate change, increasingly scant water, peak oil, diversified and intensifying waves of “ecotoxins” and “ecocontaminants,” antibiotic-resistant plagues, total collapse of ecosystems, and last but not least, the implosion of the monetary system—all occurring concurrently.
In other words war, famine, pestilence, and death with no rationale and no meaning from our perspective in the middle of it. No king’s writ is going to hold the center together. They blame this all on the consumer economy in the broad sense of the phrase, including the consumer economy of weapons. They foresee us all ultimately being on The Road with Cormac McCarthy, another acclaimed novel in which folks strain to find meaning.
There are those that take the position that we are past the tipping point already. The biocatastrophe is already inevitable. There are those that insist that if we do something now, the biocatastrophe might be avoided.
One might argue that Roberto Bolaño is in part offering us a vision of the front edge of this biocatastrophe, that with his recurrent rat imagery, he is suggesting that there are too many rats in the cage. It might be said that his vision of the biocatastrophe places an emphasis on the dimension of lawlessness.
I discarded that possible reading of the Rorschach test. I do not buy any of that biocatastrophe stuff. The very word implies a value judgment. Oscar Fate contemplated the dinosaurs in Temple A. Hoffman Memorial Playground, which, had they had the gift of self-awareness, would certainly have regarded their own extinction as a biocatastrophe.
It would only be a massive catastrophe from the human point of view. From the planet’s point of view, the Earth would simply be cleansing itself of us in preparation for righting itself over geologic time. In which case the more women murdered in Santa Teresa the better. The planet is not as fragile as folks imagine. Bolaño may just as well be telling us to relax. Everything is going to be fine.
My current working theory is that the author has cleverly chosen to speak his meaning to us through the ditzy philosopher, Rosa Méndez: Have fun. Life is short.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Notwithstanding all that, I do still believe that it is premature at a point less than halfway through this novel to become frustrated that the relationship between the five parts is not yet clarifying let alone clear, that the overriding theme or theme of the book is or are not apparent, or that the large meaning of it all is not emerging from the mist. That might be legitimate cause for dissatisfaction when nearing the halfway point of a conventional novel. It might. But this is not one of those.
Perhaps the best thing to do at this point is to pretend that it has no meaning, and rather, focus on trying to understand the characters to the extent we can, making sure we know what happens to the characters, comparing impressions of the imagery, trading notes on the other authors to whom this author alludes, and the like. There will be whatever lifetime is left to each of us after finishing the novel to ponder the big questions.
This is only a suggestion.
Also, I believe that I need to give considerably more thought to my replies over in http://www.bolanobolano.com before mashing the “Post” button.
Gee whiz, wild man. I disagree violently with the idea that you ought to hold back in any way. These are just the frustrations and half-understandings and bizarre blind alleys I want to be exploring with you.
As you astutely point out above, Bolaño is interested in the big questions but does not address them head-on. His methods are oblique. Fortunately we’ve got a number of poets wandering around here (Michael Mullen and JT Jackson, I’m talking to you) who can help talk us up to or down from the clouds, as needed. For example, in my next post I am going to address the fact that Fate, having been given the slave trade book by Seaman, goes on to buy another copy. What the hell?
So. Bolaño himself is said to have headed back to Chile in order to participate in political activity; he was at least at some point in his life an attempter of deeds. And what a mess! As those of us who are dinosaurs ourselves understand all too well, all we can really do is provisional, illusory, half-baked and in half-measures.
Regarding biocatastrophe: how weird is it that many of us dinosaurs don’t necessarily view our own extinction as such a bad thing as all that. What do we know? But even given our limited, small consciousness of what is taking place, we may as well just try to be “mostly harmless,” I think.
The very fact that we go all haywire when issues of class and money are raised kind of does show us to be more like the critics than we imagine, don’t you think? That thought had crossed my mind within the first few days of starting this book. There’s no decent “outside” place to inhabit. (As Oliver said to me yesterday, sorry Archimedes! There’s nowhere to stand!)
p.s. thank you for kind words above … we really have known one another for a long time! I still owe you an abbreviated rundown of the last few years, and vice versa. And Oliver sends his warm regards.
I think this is super astute: RB’s illustrations are Rorschach tests. I wouldn’t hold back either, upsetting people on the internet is a lot easier (and has less impact)than in some bougeouis living room book club. I think it is a success if we are doing some groupread rorschach, but don’t be surprised if I turn up crazy.
This is all great stuff. Too bad RB’s not around to see what his book is provoking. Isn’t this the type of discuss that any author dreams his or her book will illicit from its readers. Keep up the provocative posts; I think everyone here is a mature adult who realizes that these are all provisional ideas about an incredibly dense and meaningful novel.
Thanks for taking the time to flesh out what you were getting at.
I do think that our consumerist culture has latched onto materialism as a means of assuaging the pain and fear that often comes with being alive. (I say this as a relatively happy person, for the record.) I don’t think this is limited to one class or another, but is pervasive across our society. And I agree that this kind of denial, or perhaps inattention is a better word, is what Bolaño is trying to get us to confront with 2666.
And no matter if I get my feathers ruffled or not (and I have unruffled them), I agree with Maria that much of the value in this (very rewarding) group read experience comes from being confronted with views that challenge one’s own.
Thank you all so much for the kind comments and for letting that cryptic reply over in bolanobolano kinda wash on over the dam.
Let us not forget that Marco Antonio Guerra told us flat out:
“Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game. I don’t know if you follow me, Professor. Only poetry–and let me be clear, only some of it–is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit.”
I am most sure that there the author is talking to us directly, in spite of the fact that Amalfitano did not think much of Guerra’s favorite poet.
A great group here, an absolutely great group with which to work through this novel.