On the way from Tucson to the border, Oscar overhears a conversation in a diner between a young man and a Professor Kessler, obviously some sort of expert in criminology. Excerpts from Professor Kessler’s mini-lecture delivered to the young man:
In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through a fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn’t want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings. Of course most of the serial killer were never caught. Take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through a filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear. What does a child do when he’s afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he’s about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. [Emphasis mine.]
Professor Kessler, after widening his contemplations to the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries as well, then explains that in order for a murder to cause a sensation, it had to be a murder committed by people with victims who were both a part of society. Nobody cared if 20% of the “merchandise” in the holds of the slave ships died before delivery.
The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn’t tell you.
And then Professor Kessler’s opinions:
“All right, then,” said the white-haired man. “I’ll tell you three things I’m sure of: (a) everyone living in that city is outside of society, and everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus; (b) the crimes have different signatures; (c) the city seems to be booming, it seems to be moving ahead in some ineffable way, but the best thing would be for every last one of the people there to head out into the desert some night and cross the border.”
After this, Fate reads that passage from The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas that is a perfect demonstration of filtering the death in the holds of those slave ships through a fabric of words. That book has been discussed earlier.
I am wondering if, when Bolaño wrote this, he was considering how words might be used in the service of revelation rather than avoidance in connection with the women’s deaths in Santa Teresa, clearly people outside society as Professor Kessler explains it.
Or alternatively, if he wrote this after having written The Part About the Crimes–which I do not believe he did–perhaps he was explaining that he had tried to use words in the service of revelation rather than avoidance when he wrote that part.
It seems obvious to me that one endeavor in this novel is an attempt to make those murders “legible” in a way that they could not be made legible in news reports and the like, and in the process make death itself more “legible.”
At the same time, I am in no way suggesting that Bolaño was any sort of social crusader. I am not saying that he was not either. Whether he was or was not does not make any difference to me.
But that is only one of the endeavors. When I am foolish enough mention 2666 in conversation, for example when I am asked what I am reading lately, often the person will say something like, “Oh, yeah. That is the novel about the murders in Juarez, isn’t it?”
For the sake of keeping the conversation light and moving, I always lie and say, “Yes. That’s what it’s about.”
I think you are onto something with this, in a similar manner to what Maria has said over at the main page. While I don’t think Bolaño is a crusader per se, the more of this book I read the more it seems to me that he is trying to convey the difficulty of being a wordsmith (poet, novelist) and creating art in a world where things like the Juarez murders occur, and where we choose so often simply to turn our attention away. Here is this awful thing, after all, and art is about revealed truth. But how to deal with something so awful when we’d all just rather not, and how to understand our approach to mortality, etc. when we’d much rather discuss (say) obscure German authors.
I’ve had a draft sitting for a couple of days in which I quote the precise long first quote you pull. I also pulled most of the second quote you list. What a compelling overheard conversation that diner vignette was! I go on to say this (no point posting mine as its own thing and in its entirety; I couldn’t quite say what I wanted to say in the end, and you’ve said better things here anyway):
“This [the quotes taken together] seems to be to be something like a mission statement for the book (I think a fellow blogger has said or commented something to that effect somewhere, possibly about something else, but I can’t find it). That a third of the book will be consumed by a catalogue of grisly murders of people at the edge of society certainly suggests that it’s an issue of concern for Bolaño. In contemplating the weight of the impending section of the book, I find myself asking again why Bolaño gave us the rather light first section. It seems to have little bearing on the darker parts of the novel at first blush.”
I was then going to try to say something about the critics’ role in the first part as repackagers of text, as another sort of filter through which we receive communication. That Bolaño sneers at the critics suggests that they’re not a satisfactory filter. The passage you and I both zoomed in on suggests that society’s usual written filters don’t suffice either. Which, leading up to the looming fourth part of the novel, well, maybe it suggests that Bolaño figures he’s going to provide a more useful, possibly more truthful, filter. That the impression people have of the book is that it’s about the murders in Juarez, as you point out, may prove that Bolaño has succeeded — if not at providing a truer truth — at providing exposure and inviting deeper inquiry.
I keep thinking about that famous remark of Adorno’s:
“The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”
I love hanging out with you guys. Very thoughtful comments.
I should put a footnote to everything I write explaining that everything I write should be read as if there is a question mark behind it. I really do not know.
What a great quotation, Maria. I really do think this author attempted something impossible here, and he probably knew he was doomed to fail. He made a run at it anyway.