This is a book about concealment. From the very beginning, with the epigraph pointing to an elusive oasis of horror within a desert of boredom, all the way through to this week’s milestone, we’ve seen many instances of concealment.
Archimboldi’s history and person are concealed. Emotions and true feelings (consider Pelletier’s secret near-hope that Espinoza has gone down in a plane crash) are concealed. Edwin Johns’s real motivation for chopping off his hand is concealed. Evidence is concealed. And writing is used for concealment. Kessler speaks of this last at some length, and I’ve quoted it at length elsewhere and won’t do so again here. He speaks, in the same exchange, of people being inside or outside of society. The inside/outside pairing that I’ve explored elsewhere also seems to me to have something to do with concealment. Things go on inside jail that you wouldn’t expect, for example; they are concealed. Ansky’s manuscript is concealed, Reiter and company conceal themselves while watching the baroness and Entrescu have sex. The meaning of the book’s title has so far remained concealed. Examples abound.
In this week’s reading, the man from whom Archimboldi rents a typewriter says the following of authors:
He writes like someone taking dictation. His novel or book of poems, decent, adequate, arises not from an exercise of style or will, as the poor unfortunate believes, but as the result of an exercise of *concealment*. There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter.
This resonated strongly for me with some earlier passages in which Florita (a magic flower of winter?) is portrayed as a sort of instrument or taker of dictation for whatever spirit or power is giving her visions of the murders. In the cases of both the seer and the author, Bolaño suggests that something like the vatic voice is at work. I love the comparison he makes, by proximity/association in the Florita passage, to the roles played by the ventriloquist and his dummy. The vatic voice is a funny thing, in that in work written in that voice, the identity of the real speaker is hidden. As you can’t know for sure whether the ouija board’s planchette is moved by a fellow-occultist or by the spirits themselves, you can’t know whether it’s the author/seer’s voice or some other, inspired voice that’s working. (Was Yeats hearing voices or was he just batshit crazy?) This too is a sort of concealment. The problem of concealment of the author (in general) in his or her work has stoked the fires of the intentional fallacy for ages.
On page 787, Bolaño says a bit more about concealment and art (and more):
Play and delusion are the blindfold and spur of minor writers. Also: the promise of their future happiness. A forest that grows at a vertiginous rate, a forest no one can fence in, not even the academies, in fact, the academies make sure it flourishes unhindered, as do boosters and universities (breeding grounds for the shameless) and government institutions and patrons and cultural associations and declaimers of poetry — all aid the forest to grow and hide what must be hidden, all aid the forest to reproduce what must be reproduced, since the process is inevitable, though no one ever sees what exactly is being reproduced, what is being tamely mirrored back.
This is a critical passage in the book, I think, for it ties together things like the inside/outside pairing (fencing) and concealment while also touching on problems in the academy, in government, in culture, and in the sort of mass reproduction a key product of which is poor factory workers in St. Teresa who become so much refuse. Let’s not forget that the St. Teresa murders themselves are largely concealed from the rest of the world.
In these late sections of the book, it begins to feel more literary to me. Bolaño is slowly beginning to pull a drawstring closed. It’s not tidy, but things begin to hang together a bit; themes and plots mingle more promiscuously. A typewriter-lender in the middle of the century (with its holocaust) says things that resonate very purposefully with speech acts and events across the world late in the century (with its smaller-scale holocaust), and there’s mounting suspicion that they’ll all wind up revolving somehow around Archimboldi (I suppose the suspicion is mounting; I read of such suspicions way back and just this week read of a desire for Archimboldi to make an appearance in St. Teresa). This is what literature does. It’s why, despite all the problems of this book, it is ultimately a good and an important book.
I’ll leave you with a couple more neat quotes about concealment, the first by Bolaño (p. 790) and the second by Matthew Arnold:
Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves–and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
Fantastic commentary on this section and the whole of the book. I’m going to read this post a few times.
Daryl: a very astute post, which I’ll have to read more carefully when time permits, but it totally explains why I’ve been flashing on the filmmaker Michael Haneke throughout my reading of this book (Benny’s Video, The White Ribbon, Cache, Code Unknown): he’s another polarizing auteur for whom concealment is both an overriding theme and a key aesthetic strategy. Violence is also a big theme for Haneke, and his key move is to heighten the moral weight of the violence in his films by having it take place offscreen. For all its goriness, you could say that much of the violence in The Part About the Crimes is concealed, because we encounter it in the form of retrospective accounts of the murders, rather than in the narrative present of the novel.
Regarding the intentional fallacy, I would agree that reading a book solely for the meaning placed there by the author is a dangerous and impoverished way to read a text because a) there are meanings that creep into a text despite the author’s intention, b) novel meanings are generated by the interaction between writer and reader and c) focusing solely on meaning draws your attention away from the aesthetic strategies or qualities of the work, which are what make it literature after all. You don’t read literature strictly for content, and the meanings you find in a work weren’t necessarily embedded there by the writer. That said, I guess I reject the implicit assumption behind the intentional fallacy that analysis based on any kind of external evidence is somehow inferior to the kind of close readings of internal evidence that the New Critics championed. If I recall correctly, the purveyors of the intentional fallacy didn’t argue that you couldn’t do literary biography, or that you couldn’t read a novel in social-political terms, but they did imply that this was an inferior way to read. In other words, the very concept of the intentional fallacy is a value judgment about how one should read a poem or novel. I guess I chafe at its underlying assumptions, though I’d be distressed if I suffered some kind of traumatic brain injury that meant that I could only read a literary text for authorial intention, or the light it sheds on current social-political controversies. But why shouldn’t one both read a novel in literary terms and as part of any number of larger discourses that it seems to comfortably plug into?
Thanks, David. I don’t mean really to denigrate the intentional fallacy. I think it’s nearly impossible for anybody with any real sense of humanity not to try to read a book with the author (and the specter of the author’s intentions) as sort of a watermark on the pages. Reading as part of multiple discourses is just fine with me. 🙂
As Belano put it, “Lotte wasn’t a good reader, whatever that means…”