Monday, November 24, 2008

Bolano: The Desperate Reader

I have not found, although I must confess to not having engaged in a desperate search, a review of Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. I found plenty of “reviewers” who said, “oh what a wonderful book” and left it at that. Why is it wonderful? What’s good about it? They don’t say. Well I’ll say a little bit. I can’t say anything all-encompassing because his book is so episodic, but I can say a few things about some of the episodes. The following from pages 184-5) purports to be something said (I’ll only quote what I consider to be the meat of it) by Joaquin Font who is incarcerated in a “Mental Health Clinic” near Mexico City:

“. . . Now let’s take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience of the literature of desperation. What do we see? First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He’s the kind of fucking idiot (Pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. Second: he’s a limited reader. Why limited? That’s easy: because he can only read the literature of desperation, or books for the desperate, which amounts to the same thing, the kind of person or freak who’s unable to read all the way through In Search of Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain (a paradigm of calm, serene, complete literature, in my humble opinion), or for that matter, Les Miserables or War and Peace. Am I making myself clear? Good. . . Furthermore: desperate readers are like the California gold mines. Sooner or later they’re exhausted! Why? It’s obvious! One can’t live one’s whole life in desperation. In the end the body rebels, the pain becomes unbearable, lucidity gushes out in great cold spurts. The desperate reader (and especially the desperate poetry reader, who is insufferable, believe me) ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he’s cured! And then, as part of the regenerative process, he returns slowly – as if wrapped in swaddling clothes, as if under a rain of dissolved sedatives – he returns, as I was saying, to literature written for cool, serene readers, with their heads set firmly on their shoulders. This is what’s called (by me, if nobody else) the passage from adolescence to adulthood. And by that I don’t mean that once someone has become a cool-headed reader he no longer reads books written for desperate readers. Of course he reads them! Especially if they’re good or decent or recommended by a friend. But ultimately, they bore him! Ultimately, that literature of resentment, full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs, doesn’t pierce his heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technically perfect page does. . . .”


Font doesn’t go into detail about the “literature of resentment” although the reader could probably glean what Bolano thinks it is from other parts of The Savage Detectives, but just looking at what is here, we do know there was a rash of suicides in Europe, primarily in Germany, when Werther was first published. Werther committed suicide for love and this was deemed so beautiful by young men that many of them followed suit. This is indeed age-related. I haven’t read statistics on this matter, but probably not many older people committed that sort of suicide: reading The Sorrows of Young Werther and being so struck by the beauty of it that they committed suicide as well. I read Werther when I was young but was probably too cynical (having served a hitch in the Marine Corps before entering college) to even understand why Werther would do anything so idiotic.

I don’t feel that Joaquin Font, with the single mention of Werther, adequately describes the sort of literature that appeals to desperate people. I agree with Font that the sort of person who would commit suicide after reading Werther is idiotic, but is he desperate? Font hasn’t demonstrated that. He describes more completely the sort of books a desperate person could not read; although I’m not sure Proust’s multivolume In Search of Lost Time should be on this list. There are many reasons besides desperation for not making it all the way through this collection of novels. I must confess that I made it only through two and a half of them and the reason I gave up wasn’t desperation.

I did read The Magic Mountain and enjoyed it, but I wasn’t young when I did so; so that wouldn’t count. Les Miserables was a novel forced upon us in High School. We didn’t make it all the way through the novel during class and I was never inspired to compete it. I don’t recall that desperation entered into it. I didn’t like the novel at the time and have never been sufficiently inspired to finish it, but maybe this is along the lines of what Font means. Perhaps I was desperate in some way and so incapable of reading Les Miserables. The only “desperation” I recall was the desire to complete High School and get on to something else – joining the Marine Corps as it turned out. I did read War and Peace when I was in my early 20s; so perhaps I wasn’t terribly desperate.

What sort of literature might suit the desperate reader? What came at once to mind when I asked myself this question, was Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. I can recall being stunned by that volume. I had never read anything like it. I read a review some place and went out at lunch from work and bought it and then sat on a bench some place and let her poetry hammer me. Plath was desperate when she wrote those poems. She committed suicide shortly after the last of them. Years later when I tried to read them I didn’t feel the same impact. I recall that I read Plath during my Leftist phase; so perhaps I was interested in reading that sort of literature. Resentment is a part of what made Plath’s poetry so powerful. Her resentments were personal rather than against “the system,” but perhaps it didn’t matter.

I was interested in Muck-Raking literature at one time. I read many of the Classics of early American anti-Capitalistic literature. They embodied resentment against various parts of the Capitalistic System: The Octopus, The Jungle, and The Brass Check come to mind. I also read Jack London’s The Iron Heel, which was pretty poor literature. Maybe London was one of the steps I took in eventually rejecting the “literature of resentment” if that is what it was. Although I don’t feel that I’ve changed in regard to disliking the same things that Norris and Sinclair disliked. It isn’t that I’ve changed in that regard. It is that Capitalism turned out to be more malleable than Marx gave it credit for. The sins and crimes that the muckrakers publicized have been punished and corrected, more or less. Workers and lower classes of today don’t suffer to the extent they did back when the Muckrakers wrote. What Capitalism has become, Liberal Democracy, is better than anything else out there. The Media is still looking for Muck to rake up, but it isn’t the same.

In thinking about the modern penchant of the media, looking for muck, I recalled reading, perhaps in Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bowl, about the religions of primitive peoples. Typically they had rituals, certain things that they did and said over and over. They felt compelled to do them and thought it would be a great sin not to do them, but they couldn’t recall the origin of their rituals. The same thing might be said of the modern media. I wonder how many modern journalists have read the great Muckrakers of the past like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair. Do the moderns have the same motives? I don’t see how they could have. The things those muckrakers criticized have been fixed. So what are their motives? Whatever they are, I suspect they have more in common with those of primitive people than with those of Norris and Sinclair.

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