Saturday, October 3, 2009

2666: The Part About Archimboldi (continued)

Several days ago, I came out with a rather clumsy post (mostly written during my lunch break) comparing "The Part About Archimboldi" to a novel by Jakov Lind called Landscape in Concrete. Basically, it was one of those things where you have an intuitive grasp of a concept but you can't quite articulate said concept into a coherent argument. I'm not sure how much sense I made or how cohesive my post was.

What I was trying to do was interpret the relationship between life and art. Art is a uniquely human product. Even the most intelligent of animals, though they may be capable of using tools or feeling complex emotions, cannot think in abstract, symbolic, or creative terms. Dean Koontz expresses this thought very poignantly in his sci-fi/horror thriller Seize the Night, which deals with genetically engineered animals and a looming apocalypse. One night, the human protagonist spies a group of enhanced rhesus monkeys enacting what appears to be a primitive religious ritual, and subsequently finds himself ruminating on sentience and metaphysics:
I believe the monkeys are hostile toward humanity because we created them but did a half-assed job. We robbed them of their simple animal innocence, in which they were content. We raised their intelligence until they became aware of the wider world and of their place in it, but we didn't give them enough intelligence to make it possible for them to improve their lot. We made them just smart enough to be dissatisfied with the life of a monkey; we gave them the capacity to dream but didn't give them the means to fulfill their dreams. They have been evicted from their niche in the animal kingdom and cannot find a new place to fit in. Cut loose from the fabric of creation, they are unraveling, wandering, lost, full of a yearning that can never be mended. . .

. . . Perhaps this wasn't a game that I was witnessing, not play but ritual, a ceremony with symbolic significance that was clear to these rhesuses but was an impenetrable mystery to me. Ritual and symbol implied not only abstract thinking but raised the possibility that these monkeys' lives had a spiritual dimension, that they were not just smart but capable of brooding about the origin of all things and the purpose of their existence.

This idea disconcerted me so much that I almost turned away from the window.

In spite of their hostility toward humanity and their enthusiasm for violence, I had already felt sympathy for these pathetic creatures, was moved by their status as outcasts with no rightful place in nature. If they indeed possess the capacity to wonder about God and about the design of the cosmos, then they may know the exquisite pain that humanity knows too well: the yearning to understand why our Creator allows us to suffer so much, the terrible unfulfilled longing to find Him, to see His face, to touch Him, and to know that He is real. If they share this quiet but profound agony with us, then I sympathize with their plight, but I also pity them.
There's an idea that's been floating around for decades now about the relationship between myth and fiction. Narrative is how the human cognition organizes a world of contingency in a way that makes sense and can be engaged with. A group of humans perceives a meta-narrative that explains all things (basic spirituality), which is then further embellished by the human imagination, using a variety of surprisingly universal tropes.

Now on the one hand, such beliefs are a comfort when faced with the seemingly random nature of reality. (Why do bad things happen to good people?) But, when taken too far, myth (national, cultural, religious) becomes a bad conspiracy theory, which is a relatively modern variation of the meta-narrative that attempts to explain evil by whittling it down to the machinations of a singular, identifiable group (i.e. the Illuminati, the Freemasons, aliens, people in black helicopters, even the Jews - think The Protocols of Zion and Mein Kempf). There is an insidious "other" that opposes (a narrowly-defined) us and/or seeks to destroy us. It's a very paranoid, black-and-white worldview that is nevertheless reassuring in its easy categorization. Basically, you don't have to think too hard about complex issues.

That's part of what I was trying to get at with Wednesday's 2666 post. In comparing Archimboldi to Lind's Bachman - both of them German WWII veterans who witness atrocities - I discussed how Bachman is a dead end. He wants to believe in the Nazi myth and be faithful to the beloved Fatherland, but, as a result of this willful obedience, only finds himself being used, abused, and manipulated into becoming a monster. He wants something concrete (literally and figuratively) that he can faithfully rely on and hold onto. He does not want to have to process and try to comprehend the chaos of war and human society, and would quite frankly prefer that the entire hot mess be obliterated. It's an apocalyptic deathwish.

Archimboldi, as well as Roberto Bolaño himself, ends up doing the opposite. Archimboldi experienced the dark side of human nature and engaged it. He does not embrace the totalitarian mindset, as Bachman tried to. Archimboldi learns from individuals such as Ansky, a revolutionary bound to another totalitarian regime (Stalin's). He encounters war criminals and shell-shocked fellow veterans and the silent dead. In an overall genre-crossing novel, Archimboldi's tale is a bildungsroman, in which the protagonist grows into the sum of all his life, which he then translates into internationally renown prose. With 2666, Bolaño similarly tackles these sticky issues of hate, violence, sexuality, and misogyny. Obviously, we don't know what exactly Archimboldi wrote about (Bolaño only hints at it), but looking at 2666, my very first Bolaño novel, I get the sense of someone who wants to explore but not necessarily try to explain. He doesn't try to "solve" the Santa Theresa murders or any of the ancilliary questions of human brutality. He articulates. He exposes. But he doesn't try to offer us a resolution. Says Emily:
The whole of 2666 brings the world of reading and writing into contact with the world of violence, and it seems to me that they coexist, without negating each other. It doesn't seem to me that 2666 is asking "What is the point of art in such a fucked up world?" Often, this is the way the debate is framed, as if art must somehow overcome the world's darkness in order to validate itself. Bolaño, on the other hand, lets them exist simultaneously, each on its own terms.
That's what I'm try to get at as well, but I would also add that part of what distinguishes 2666 is that it just is. Bolaño, and maybe Archimboldi (if he is intended to be partially based on his creator), is the absolute polar opposite of Bachman. His (Bolaño's) narrative resists categorization (there really aren't any good guys), never attempts to prove any ideology or particular worldview, and never tries to offer any consolation or possible solution to the madness. It's a rather dangerous position - I think with that type of nihilism (for lack of a better word) you can potentially turn out like Dean Koontz's angry, intelligent rhesuses. I don't mean literally inclined to violence, but maybe feeling utterly hopeless in the face of an implacably amoral universe. But I also think there's a purpose to this type of dark-toned art. You really can't confront something without articulating it first. And you certainly can't ignore subjects like mass murder and social injustice.

(Somehow I don't think Mr. Koontz approves of Bolaño. In The Darkest Evening of the Year and The Face, he gets all worked up over novelists who don't write books that are ultimately uplifting and basically condemns them as closeted sociopaths. Dean, I love you, but please lay off the moralizing.)

But I don't mean to say that 2666 is just this bleak book that leaves the reader feeling totally down. There is also a lightness to Archimboldi's story that is not present in the rest of 2666. As Claire put it in her own analysis:
I felt a deep affinity for Archimboldi. His fierce and quiet love for Ingeberg made him more human amidst his supposed indifference, his seaweed-like nature of merely floating about life. A perfect depiction is the night in the village at the mountain when Ingeberg wandered out in the snow and Archimboldi, upon finding her, threw his arms around her. With her he appeared to have a hopeful energy, which we don't see before nor since. It's one of the more unforgettable scenes to me, when they were surrounded by the past, the night sky, of light cast by stars hundreds and thousands of years ago.
I had the same reaction. Out of everyone in 2666, Archimboldi is the only one who seems to feel genuine love for other human beings: Ingeberg, Lotte, and, to an extent, Mrs. Bubis. The critics all claimed to love each other, but there was that eerie wrongness to it that characterized most of the human relationships in 2666. (Both myself and Steph argued that Liz Norton seemed to function solely as the receptacle of the male critics' sexual release. Her character is also described as more emotional and less stable - unconscious sexism on Bolaño's part?) Amalfitano and Rosa felt like two detached people who just happened to live in the same house and share a genetic link. Rosa and Fate were more or less thrown together and didn't seem like they had any real permanency as a couple.

Archimboldi, the only character who ever creates anything (the critics can only critique), is also the only character who is truly sympathetic. Who doesn't come across as somehow innately corrupt. Who never articulates any belief system other than the written word, which he puts forth with such power that famous intellectuals swoon over him even though they know nothing about him. Maybe Bolaño is offering a nugget of hope - that true art cannot exist without some positive impetus. That love still exists even when it shouldn't. That love and creation are intertwined. That love is tangible even in a violent, contingent universe.

Bolaño never offers a solution or a way out. He never promises things will get better. But there is always hope.

Also check out:
Book 1: The Part About the Critics
Book 2: The Part About Amalfitano
Book 3: The Part About Fate

Book 4: The Part About the Crimes

Other participants:
Claire at kiss a cloud
Emily at Evening All Afternoon
Jackie at Farm Lane Books Blog
Frances at Nonsuch Book
Gavin at Page247
Lu at Regular Rumination
Richard at Caravana de recuerdos

Also: here is an excellent review of 2666.

And now onto Kristin Lavransdatter! Did I spell it right?


Emily said...

Explore but not explain! I completely agree. And I wouldn't have thought of this stance as nihilistic, exactly, because it seems to me that, just as love and art coexist with violence without explaining or even necessarily engaging with it, so violence coexists with art and love, without negating them. It's a big ol' complex mess with no guarantees or easy answers, but there are good things mixed up in the pot along with bad things.

It's also interesting to think about how Oscar Fate figures into the creative mix. He doesn't seem to be accorded nearly the agency or effectiveness of Archimboldi; is that because he's a journalist rather than a creative writer, or just because he's not as good at what he does, or...? I don't know the answer, but it's interesting to think about.

Eileen said...

Yeah, I'm thinking of "imaginative" works, like fiction, poetry, and visual art. I just remembered the crazy artist and that crazy poet in "Critics" and "Amalfitano," so I'm actually amending my thought to "Archimboldi is the only character who ever creates anything AND doesn't go insane in the process."

You're right: I wouldn't literally say "nihilistic" either, but I couldn't come up with a better word to describe a worldview that sees violence as a natural, unavoidable aspect of human society but still allows for the possibility of love and creation. I love how Richard put it:

"Without actually saying it, Bolaño seems to want to remind us that war and not peace is the natural state of man. That injustice is king. That the stars themselves are a sort of ubi sunt warning to the living. He offers up Art as a possible escape route, but as a testament to his own artistry he isn't really convincing in this regard."

Frances said...

And I don't think that Oscar Fate had a command over an authentic voice nor was he channeling something hidden within him as is suggested of the writer of fiction in part five. Fate was an amalgam of parts none of which he had a full command.

Love this post - the best among your many good ones. That seems to embrace that messiness that the novel embraces.

Onto Kristin indeed!

Richard said...

I agree with many of the points you make here, E.L. Fay, but I don't agree at all that Archimboldi was the only major sympathetic character. In fact, part of the thing that makes him such an interesting character for me are the dichotomies he presents to us: romantic hero/soulmate to Ingeborg and confessed killer. I also haven't decided whether he was really just fleeing the evil in his past or some sort of a symbol of death; bad stuff seems to happen all around him--sometimes because of him--and Bolaño lays out enough mythological references to death and the dreamworld in regard to Archimboldi that I see him as a potentially darker presence than Amalfitano, Fate or any of a number of secondary characters (all the women in his life except his mother, for example).

On Bolaño never offering "a solution or a way out," on the other hand, I think you are right on the money. This is part of what makes him such an interesting writer from my point of view--he leaves it up to the reader to draw out his/her conclusions from the tangled web of stories. While Bolaño takes a couple of funny swipes at lazy readers in The Part About Archimboldi, 2666 is full of testaments to his desire to engage readers actively in the style of a Cortázar or of another big messy book like Moby-Dick. Does this offer a nugget of hope like you ask? I think so. Sorry for taking up so much space in the comment box, but you covered quite a lot of ground in your own engaging post! P.S. Have you ever read Céline's Journey to the End of the Night? Now there's a nihilistic--and totally entertaining--novel for you!

Gavin said...

E.L. Fay - Thank you for this wonderful post. I am sad that the read-along is over but very happy to have been a part of it. It will take me a while to assimilate everything from part 5, there is so much there.

Eileen said...

Frances: Yes, I think you nailed it. Fate may be a professional writer but he's not a creator or an authentic artistic voice.

Richard: You think so? There was a darkness to everyone in this novel, but I think Archimboldi is the only one able to channel it into something creative and affirmative. I'm glad you liked my conclusion - I am horrible at writing conclusions.

Gavin: Yeah, I didn't even touch the two embedded stories-within-stories (Ansky and that other Soviet writer). This section in particular was very dense.

Isabella K said...

You know what? I didn't much like Archimboldi - I didn't find him sympathetic at all. I don't think he engaged with his surroundings at all -- I thought of him as very much a passive vessel. I thought he disengaged emotionally from most circumstances, allowing things to happen, as an impassive observer (all of which makes for an excellent writer). The other writers speak through him, but Archimboldi himself wasn't an active creative force -- it was jsut his state of being. I keep thinking of Archimboldo paintings, and the seaweed image, as something organic, but not fully sentient. I had the sense all the way through that something was wrong with him.

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