Literatures of desperation

12 March 2010

— Peter Handke, The Weight of the World, p. 16

Joaquín Font, El Reposo Mental Health Clinic, Camino Desierto de los Leones, on the outskirts of Mexico City DF, January 1977:

There are books for when you’re bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you’re calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. And books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And books for when you’re desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write. A serious mistake, as we’ll soon see. Let’s take, for example, an average reader, a cool-headed, mature, educated man leading a more or less healthy life. A man who buys books and literary magazines. So there you have him. This man can read things that are written for when you’re calm, but he can also read any other kind of book with a critical eye, dispassionately, without absurd or regrettable complicity. That’s how I see it. I hope I’m not offending anyone. Now let’s take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience for 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 opinion), or, for that matter, Les Misérables or War and Peace. Am I making myself clear? Good. So I talked to them, told them, warned them, alerted them to the dangers they were facing. It was like talking to a wall. 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 a 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 know longer reads books written for desperate readers. Of course he reads them! Especially if their 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 the heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technically perfect page does. I told them so. I warned them. I showed them the technically perfect page. I alerted them to the dangers. Don’t exhaust the vein! Humility! Seek oneself, lose oneself in strange lands! But with a guiding line, with breadcrumbs or white pebbles! And yet I was mad, driven mad by them, by my daughters, by Laura Damián, and so they didn’t listen.

The Savage Detectives, Bolaño (p. 184-85).

In vain I searched for a way to piece this particular monologue out, but I’m not smart enough to thread my way through the layered ironies here & not confident that excerpting would do anything but misrepresent it. I’m left in a welter of confusion — half wanting to nod my head in simple assent, half wondering how straight to take something that, for starters, calls the project of Bolaño’s misspelled alter ego a terrible mistake & is a paeon to the virtues of cool-headed detachment narrated from a mental asylum — and that becomes, as it goes along, more & more agitated itself, less & less cool-headed. Eating its own tail.

It reminded me, in a way — probably because I read it yesterday — of Andrew Seal’s years-old piece about regret & avid readership, and of the reactions to Salinger’s death, and the presumed audience for Catcher in the Rye. Can we assume, for instance, that Belaño is or isn’t trying to write a literature of desperation? (Garcia Madero, our narrator for the first howevermany pages of the novel, being a prime example of a desperate reader, although the novel is full of them, & full of people too who reach a point in their lives where they’re no longer really reading or writing poetry anymore.) Can we point to a kind of fantasy of the disinterested spectator, uncoupled from deprivation or investment, the sort of person only moved by a ‘technically perfect page?

SH: Why do you think people are interested in art?

DH: I think they want to touch the source of something, you know? It doesn’t make people better. It doesn’t make them happier. It doesn’t make them smarter, and you can’t teach people to do it or like it. So who knows?

Believer interview with Dave Hickey

It comes down to, I think, whether literature is redemptive — does it cure us? (“The desperate reader . . . ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably, he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he’s cured!”) And if it doesn’t make us better or happier, what does? — and does that destroy our capacity for literature? — or for an identification which Joaquín Font calls an ‘absurd or regrettable complicity,’ which is to say, a visceral, personalized response instead of a considered one.

A multivocal novel, I called SD a couple days ago, sure: voices, choruses of them, unharmonized. And we could say that the author himself is effaced, the fiction speaks on its own, except of course that Bolaño is well-known to have a stake in this, a definite extratextual point of view, a history that can be mapped onto the novel.

Jeeze, folks, I don’t know. I’ve waded into this now, it’s too late to stop, but I’m over my head. All I can do is place things on the table next to each other & see if you can make more sense of it than me. Fill my mouth with the words of others. As, for instance, Gabriel Josipovici on the Psalms, via the Space:

‘It is as if simply opening your mouth, giving utterance to your voice, releases something in you; as if finding words to express your total despair and the sense you feel of being shut up, unable to come forth, of having been rejected by the whole world, God included, makes the water return to the desert, makes life return to the one who was dead. The fact that the Psalm in Jonah is embedded in a narrative allows us to verify the truth of this, for no sooner has Jonah finished speaking than ‘the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.’ [10] Of course it is important that Jonah and the ‘I’ of the other psalms on this topic cry out to God; but in a sense they only do so because God is the one who will always be prepared to listen. Simply giving voice, I would suggest, finding words for your anguish, is what in the first instance, makes it possible to overcome that anguish.’

—  Gabriel Josipovici, “Singing a New Song.”

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One Response to “Literatures of desperation”

  1. Roman Says:

    Jim, I went to thisanaloglife.blogspot.com accidentally, meaning to find you, but instead got a terrible personal experiment in blogging gone horribly afoul. Four posts, maybe? It’s such a shame dead blog names aren’t recycled.


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