Minor Works & Masterpieces — An Excerpt from Bolaño’s Novel 2666

Another stand-alone segment from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666—from “The Part About Archimboldi”:

Our hero Reiter (writer!)—who at this moment (or just before it, unbeknownst to the reader) adopts the ridiculous nom de thing Archimboldi (!!!)—secures a rented typewriter from a failed writer, an old man who takes the time to lecture on writing and camouflage and masterpieces and Jesus &c.—and writing as channeling (or maybe a type of divine madness), as a ventriloquist act (which I touched on here). (Perhaps I’m pushing the limits of copyright law here. Look, I think you should all buy and read this book and give copies to loved ones and enemies alike).

“I was a writer,” said the old man.

“But I gave it up. This typewriter was a gift from my father. An affectionate and cultured man who lived to the age of ninety-three. An essentially good man. A man who believed in progress, it goes without saying. My poor father. He believed in progress and of course he believed in the intrinsic goodness of human beings. I too believe in the intrinsic goodness of human beings, but it means nothing. In their hearts, killers are good, as we Germans have reason to know. So what? I might spend a night drinking with a killer, and as the two of us watch the sun come up, perhaps we’ll burst into song or hum some Beethoven. So what? The killer might weep on my shoulder. Naturally. Being a killer isn’t easy, as you and I well know. It isn’t easy at all. It requires purity and will, will and purity. Crystalline purity and steel-hard will. And I myself might even weep on the killer’s shoulder and whisper sweet words to him, words like ‘brother,’ ‘friend,’ ‘comrade in misfortune.’ At this moment the killer is good, because he’s intrinsically good, and I’m an idiot, because I’m intrinsically an idiot, and we’re both sentimental, because our culture tends inexorably toward sentimentality. But when the performance is over and I’m alone, the killer will open the window of my room and come tiptoeing in like a nurse and slit my throat, bleed me dry.

“My poor father. I was a writer, I was a writer, but my indolent, voracious brain gnawed at my own entrails. Vulture of my Prometheus self or Prometheus of my vulture self, one day I understood that I might go so far as to publish excellent articles in magazines and newspapers, and even books that weren’t unworthy of the paper on which they were printed. But I also understood that I would never manage to create anything like a masterpiece. You may say that literature doesn’t consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wild-flowers. I was wrong. There’s actually no such thing as a minor work. I mean: the author of the minor work isn’t Mr. X or Mr. Y. Mr. X and Mr. Y do exist, there’s no question about that, and they struggle and toil and publish in newspapers and magazines and sometimes they even come out with a book that isn’t unworthy of the paper it’s printed on, but those books or articles, if you pay close attention, are not written by them.

“Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man’s wife can testify to that, she’s seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she’s seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance,” said the old man to Archimboldi and Archimboldi thought of Ansky. “The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece. Read More

“The Priest Is Us”: The Power and The Glory, Graham Greene’s Adventure of Religion and Faith

The Gospels are powerful not simply because Christ performed miracles and taught kindness, strength, and humility. Humanity has long attributed to certain individuals impossible deeds, tremendous suffering, and inordinate wisdom. We survey the collective memory and search for meaning in the lives of renowned teachers so that they might serve as an example during our own unpredictable, harrowing journey. What separates the story of Jesus from the stories of other merely great people in history is the idea that God manifested itself to humans as a human: wracked with doubt, vulnerable to temptation, victim of unimaginable pain.  Although he taught that love is the first commandment, Christ was flailed, tortured, left to die on a cross between two thieves, all ostensibly for no benefit but our own.  Wasn’t it Borges who said that every story is either the Odyssey or the Crucifixion?  The stories we tell each other, in their reflection, become the same nothing cycle of words, told again and again, a record of our inadequacy and cowardice.

Graham Greene, in his short and powerful novel The Power and the Glory, considers the life and death of Jesus as he narrates the life of a man brought low by pride and circumstances. The last priest someplace in southwestern Mexico flees from the authorities.  His hunters seek to free the peasant farmers who populate the land from exploitation and superstition with their own imperfect liberation theologies: the abolition of superstition and private property; the self-sufficiency that follows honest labor.  The men in red shirts ride horses and believe in the impending, always near, revolution.  On the back of a mule, the father sneaks from town to town, trying to fulfill his duty, but without understanding the significance of the words that tumble clumsily from his mouth in Latin. He performs sacred rites in exchange for sanctuary until even a hiding spot is denied to him. The police have started to execute men and boys in villages who they believe have colluded to shelter this wayward man of God.

As the priest travels, he finds himself stripped not only of the vestments of his profession: his chalice, his incense, his robes, and his bible, but his own air of invincibility, privilege and comfort. Exposed, fearful, living in a state of mortal sin and unable to confess, this fallen man of God, like Christ himself, is destroyed.  The priest is, by his own admission, a bad one. He drinks heavily and thinks too much of his own comfort. Led to his profession not so much by attention to the divine will but by a desire for status and privilege, during his exile he recalls fondly dinners lavish dinners with wealthy members of his assembly and the gifts they gave him. While he may have seen that the most of his flock made a meager living on small farms after taxes and fees paid to local bosses, he never stopped to consider the meaning of his own observations, busying himself instead with ambitions for his own greater glory. He is, for the first half of the book, greedy, proud, and self-concerned.

But, as he eludes the authorities and traverses the country, he becomes, in Greene’s capable hands, a symbol of redemption and an affirmation of a full but unrealized life.  Words that lacked meaning help to ameliorate the strongest pain he has ever felt. He is jailed, extorted, and rejected by the people who love him the most, but in humiliation finds real faith.  Performing the sacred rites of his profession, he confronts the banality of evil and comes to finally realize the true power of the promise he brought to those who came to him:

He had an immense self-importance; he was unable to picture a world in which he was only a typical part — a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same confession — Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had did; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.

This is a book about religion and faith, but The Power and the Glory doesn’t require its reader to have an inclination towards either.  It is an adventure story, recounted in bold, confident sentences, about a normal man who fears that incorrect choices will cause him to suffer. This fear is real and it manifests itself in the priest’s moral and ethical dilemmas.  We are asked to ponder those things that lead from sadness to strength.  The priest is us: we see ourselves completely in him and give him our sympathy.

Jesus Christ’s Death Mask

Okay. Yes. Obviously this is the Shroud of Turin, which, hey, take it or leave it at your metaphysical will.

On August 29 of 2010 Biblioklept ran an image of Walt Whitman’s death mask; the day happened to be a Sunday, and we’ve run a death mask every Sunday since then, with the exception of Sunday, September 11, 2011, when to do so seemed to be in poor taste.

Over the past year and a half, folks wrote in to tell us repeatedly that the death mask was in fact a life mask, or that the death mask was perhaps of spurious origin, or even just that they liked the death mask. Thanks.

Anyway, Sunday death masks were fun for the past 17 months or so, but next Sunday marks a new year, and today’s Sunday is the last of this year, and it’s Christmas, which makes the Shroud of Turin a nice, easy way of saying: no more death masks, at least not on a regular basis. Maybe we’ll do some other regular Sunday posts (mugshots? bookshelves?) but no more regular death mask Sundays.

“The Point of RoboCop, of Course, It Is a Christ Story” — Paul Verhoeven’s Cyborg Messiah

Director Paul Verhoeven explains why his film RoboCop is a Christ allegory, and suggests what the American Jesus might be like—

 The point of RoboCop, of course, it is a Christ story.  It is about a guy who gets crucified in the first 50 minutes, and then is resurrected in the next 50 minutes, and then is like the supercop of the world, but is also a Jesus figure as he walks over water at the end.  Walking over water was in the steel factory in Pittsburgh, and there was water there, and I put something just underneath the water so he could walk over the water and say that wonderful line, “I am not arresting you anymore.” Meaning, I’m going to shoot you.  And that is of course the American Jesus.

Flannery O’Connor on Freaks in the Christ-haunted South

From Flannery O’Connor’s 1960 lecture, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

Hear O’Connor read a version of her lecture here.