Julia Kristeva, defining abjection, in a 1980 interview with Elaine Hoffmann Baruch.
HBO debuted the first episode of True Detective this weekend. The series will be an anthology, with its first eight-episode season exploring a ritualistic murder in the backwoods of Louisiana. Written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga (who filmed a moody 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre), True Detective stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as State murder police trying to solve the crime.
I loved the opening episode, “The Long Bright Dark.” There’s a heavy streak of Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy here, not to mention a dose of The Wire, Michael Mann (and a pinch of David Lynch). Detractors of the show will likely single out its ponderous and cerebral dialogue, or maybe point out that, yeah, we’ve seen this story before. Such criticisms would be (will be) intertwined; those who want a murder mystery delivered with a nice neat bow on it are almost surely going to be disappointed—and most likely, will fault the show’s philosophical tone.
It’s easy—comforting, maybe—to ignore that philosophical tone, most of it delivered by McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. There’s even something of an audience surrogate in Cohle’s partner Marty Hart (Harrelson), who bristles uncomfortably at Cohle’s near-nihilism. I found this particular scene electrifying (uh, language NSFW):
The lines that stand out in particular come at about the 2 minute mark. Cohle:
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself—we are creatures that should not exist by natural law . . . We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory, experience, and feeling—programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.
It’s easy to dismiss these lines, as Hart would like to—to not listen, to fail to attend to the meaning there—to pin Cohle’s outlook down as meaningless, dark gobbledygook—because the lines essentially attack “the illusion of having a self,” an illusion we all hold dear, an illusion that protects us. Cohle here echoes what Jacques Derrida called “auto-affection”—the I that thinks/feels itself into being. This auto-affection stabilizes us, tells us our certitude is, y’know, certain. It authorizes us.
I’ve seen only the first episode, but my guess is that the murder that the series would seem to foreground is really its backdrop. Murder—figured here in the gruesome, abject corpse that we (to use Cohle’s term) “bear witness” to in the show’s opening moments—destabilizes the illusion of having a self. It tears down the borders between the illusion and the real.
The murder is not to be solved/resolved then. The murder instead functions to call attention to the problem that Cohle posits in the middle of this first episode: The illusion of having a self.
From “A Conversation with Gordon Lish,” an outstanding interview between the writer/editor and Rob Trucks. The interview is really amazing—Lish talks at length about his writing process, his sense of competition, his friendships with Don DeLillo and Cynthia Ozick, his interest in Julia Kristeva, his feelings for Harold Brodkey and Barry Hannah—and Blood Meridian. Lots and lots of Blood Meridian.
I chose this little nugget because I think it reads almost like a perfect little Lish story—or at least, it seems to perfectly express Lish’s voice, which if you haven’t heard it, my god, get thee to his own reading of his Collected Fictions. Again, the whole interview is well worth your time if you have any interest in Lish. It includes this insight into the man’s fiction:
Book shelves series #42, forty-second Sunday of 2012
Couldn’t really get a good pic of the whole shelf, so in portions, starting with a spread of postmodernist favorites from years past. Julia Kristeva was a particular favorite of mine in grad school, but her Portable stands up well outside of, jeez, I dunno, theory and deconstruction and all that jazz; there are plenty of memoirish essays, including a wonderful piece on Paris ’68 and Tel Quel &c. Sam Kimball‘s book The Infanticidal Logic of Evolution and Culture still maintains an important place in the way I approach analyzing any kind of storytelling. Love the cover of this first American edition of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which I bought for a dollar years ago at a Friends of the Library sale:
I may or may not have obtained the The Viking Portable Nietzsche through nefarious means in my sixteenth year. In any case, it’s not really the best intro (I’m partial to The Gay Science), but it’s not bad. The Plato I’ve had forever. I never finished Bloom’s The Western Canon, although I’ve returned to it many times in the past five or six years, as I’ve opened up more to his ideas. I wrote about many of the books on this shelf, including a few by Simon Critchley.
The book I’d most recommend on this section of the shelf—indeed, the entire shelf—is Freud’s The Future of an Illusion:
The end of the shelf moves into more pop territory, including two good ones by AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin. You might also note Reality Hunger, a book that I am increasingly afraid to go back to, fearing that I probably agree more with Shields’s thesis, even if I didn’t particularly like his synthesis.
Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States is an overlooked gem that should have gotten more attention than Shields’s “manifesto.” He shares a bit of Georges Perec (whose writing helped spark this project of mine):
From my review:
Like most people who love to read, both academically and for pleasure, I like a good argument, and Wood’s aesthetic criticism is a marvelous platform for my ire, especially in a world that increasingly seems to not care about reading fiction. Wood is a gifted writer, even if his masterful skill at sublimating his personal opinion into a front of absolute authority is maddening. There’s actually probably more in his book that I agree with than not, but it’s those major sticking points on literary approaches that stick in my craw. It’s also those major sticking points that make the book an interesting read. I’d like to think that I’m not interested in merely having my opinions re-confirmed.
1. How to go about this?
A starting place:
Clarice Lispector’s 1977 novella The Hour of the Star is a superb collection of sentences.
2. But what do I mean by this ridiculous statement? I mean isn’t that what all or most writing amounts to–a “collection of sentences”?
What I mean then is that Lispector’s sentences prickle and tweak and glare, launch off in strange angles from each other as if they were building out narratives in disparate, separate tones, moods, colors.
3. Another way to say this: the writing is strange, marvelous, uncanny. The good weird.
4. Or maybe I should let Lispector’s narrator say it:
Remember that, no matter what I write, my basic material is the word. So this story will consist of words that form phrases from which there emanates a secret meaning that exceeds both words and phrases.
(Our narrator repeatedly invokes the power of “the word,” but I’ll linger on the way those words string together in sentences).
5. And yes, our narrator is a “he.” Clarice Lispector the ventriloquist. Early in the book the narrator says that the tale could only come from “a man for a woman would weep her heart out.”
6. I’ll be frank: I don’t know how to unpack all the ventriloquizing here, the layering between Lispector and her narrator Rodrigo S.M., who relates the sad tale of Macabéa (a typist!), indigent slum-dweller, no talent and no beauty.
7. Narrator Rodrigo S.M. seems unsure himself how to unpack the tale. He spends almost the first fifth of the book dithering over actually how to begin to start to commence:
I suspect that this lengthy preamble is intended to conceal the poverty of my story, for I am apprehensive.
And a page or two later:
I am scared of starting. I do not even know the girl’s name. It goes without saying that this story drives me to despair because it is too straightforward. What I propose to narrate sounds easy and within everyone’s grasp. But its elaboration is extremely difficult. I must render clear something that is almost obliterated and can scarcely be deciphered. With stiff, contaminated fingers I must touch the invisible in its own squalor.
8. (I promise to pick back up on that squalor and whatever invisible might be at the end of this riff).
9. The Hour of the Star: The story is thin, the plot is a shell, a threadbare ancient trope, as brave Rodrigo S.M. repeatedly tells us.
10. The plot is archetypal even. The orphan girl in the big city. Cinderella who imagines the ball, or tries to imagine the ball. Etc.
11. So here’s a proper plot summary, c/o translator Giovanni Pontiero (who surely deserves large praise heaped at his feet (or a location of his choice) for his poetic translation):
The nucleus of the narrative centres on the misfortunes of Macabéa, a humble girl from a region plagued by drought and poverty, whose future is determined by her inexperience, her ugliness and her total anonymity. Macabéa’s speech and dress betray her origins. An orphaned child from the backwoods of Alagoas, who was brought up by the forbidding aunt in Maceió before making her way to the slums of Acre Street in the heart of Rio de Janeiro’s red-light district. Gauche and rachitic, Macabéa has poverty and ill-health written all over her: a creature conditioned from birth and already singled out as one of the world’s inevitable losers.
Her humdrum existence can be summarized in few words: Macabéa is an appallingly bad typist, she is a virgin, and her favorite drink is Coca-Cola. She is a perfect foil for a bullying employer, a philandering boy friend, and her workmate Glória, who has all the attributes Macabéa sadly lacks.
12. A dozen things that The Hour of the Star may or may not be about: Poverty, storytelling, lies, illusions, abjection, resistance, agency, self, class, power, romance, fate.
13. But let’s get back to those words the narrator is braggin’ on:
Another angle at approaching The Hour of the Star: Its page of thirteen alternate titles, which act as a prose-poem descriptor for the novella:
14. And some sentences:
The first provides a context. The second tells us everything about Macabéa. The third tells us everything about her awful, venal “boy friend” Olímpico:
For quite different reasons they had wandered into a butcher’s shop. Macabéa only had to smell raw meat in order to convince herself that she had eaten. What attracted Olímpico, on the other hand, was the sight of a butcher at work with his sharp knife.
15. Macabéa, our primary, and Olímpico a distant second. But also Rodrigo S.M. (and a few others):
The story—I have decided with an illusion of free will—should have some seven characters, and obviously I am one of the more important.
16. (Again though, how to parse Rodrigo from Clarice Lispector . . .)
17. So maybe in one of his (her) parenthetical intrusions (but how can they be intrusions?). From late in the novella:
(But what about me? Here I am telling a story about events that have never happened to me or to anyone known to me. I am amazed at my own perception of the truth. Can it be that it’s my painful task to perceive in the flesh truths that no one wants to face? If I know almost everything about Macabéa, it’s because I once caught a glimpse of this girl with the sallow complexion from the North-east. Her expression revealed everything about her . . .)
Solipsism? Hubris? Humor? Irony?
18. But I want to say something about how funny this novella, but I don’t know how to say it, or I’m not sure how to illustrate it, how to support such a claim with text—how does one support a feeling, a vibe, a phantom idea? Is The Hour of the Star actually funny? Or am I a sick man? Why did I chuckle so much?
19. I think, re: 18, I think that it must be a mild streak of sadism, or an identification with the narrator’s flawed empathy, his raw presentation of a pathetic, abject heroine, a heroine whose heroism can only manifests in strange eruptions of self-possession, minor triumphs of the barest self-assertions.
20. Perhaps an illustration, re: 18/19—a lengthy one maybe, but indulge me (or, rather, indulge yourself):
At this point, I must record one happy event. One distressing Sunday without mandioca, the girl experienced a strange happiness: at the quayside, she saw a rainbow. She felt something close to ecstasy and tried to retain the vision: if only she could see once more the display of fireworks she had seen as a child in Maceió. She wanted more, for it is true that when one extends a helping hand to the lower orders, they want everything else.; the man on the street dreams greedily of having everything. He has no right to anything but he wants everything. Wouldn’t you agree? There were no means within my power to produce that golden rain achieved with fireworks.
Should I divulge that she adored soldiers? She was mad about them. Whenever she caught sight of a soldier, she would think, trembling with excitement: is he going to murder me?
Can you feel the shifts here? A distressing Sunday, a hungry Sunday (“without mandioca”); its strange happiness; an ecstasy that repeats a childhood vision; the desire for more, to rise above one’s allotment (The Right to Protest, or, She Doesn’t Know How to Protest); the limits of words, of language. An unexpected, seemingly irrelevant anecdote. A rare dip into our heroine’s consciousness.
21. There’s a certain absurdity here, a methodical absurdity, of course. There’s a rhythmic certainty to the prose—a sense of aesthetic uniformity—but the content jars against it, the meaning spikes out in subtly incongruous jags that form some other shape. Folks say folks say Lispector echoes Kafka in this way. (I’m reminded of Robert Walser’s sentences too).
22. But I’ve shared enough to give you a sense of Lispector’s style, a taste anyway, right?
What about the book’s claim, its viewpoint, its thesis?
23. Okay, so it’s right there upfront in the book’s fifth paragraph, delivered early enough when the reader is suitably perplexed, looking for some kind of narrative inroad, not looking necessarily for a theme or a message or what have you:
Even as I write this I feel ashamed at pouncing on you with a narrative that is so open and explicit. A narrative, however from which blood surging with life might flow only to coagulate into lumps of trembling jelly. Will this story become my own coagulation one day? Who can tell? If there is any truth in it—and clearly the story is true even though invented—let everyone see it reflected in himself for we are all one and the same person . . .
24. Let’s not misunderstand the last sentiment as some hippy-dippy bullshit: Let’s go back to: “I must touch the invisible in its own squalor.”
25. That squalor is the abject, the filth, the not-me, the other, signified most strongly in waste, blood, filth, vomit, the corpse.
26. The gesture of The Hour of the Star is to make visible—in sentences, in words, in language—the invisible in its own squalor.
27. Highly recommended.
1. In Powers of Horror philosopher Julia Kristeva describes the idea with which she’s most closely identified, the abject, the intense horror our subjective psychology—and our bodies—experience when faced with corporeal reality: the edges of our body: filth, vomit, shit, blood, death: the me that is not me. Breakdown of subject and object: abject.
2. Julia Kristeva shows up as a character, a phantom from a photograph in Roberto Bolaño’s story “Labyrinth,” collected in The Secret of Evil, new from New Directions.
3. (Can there be a more Bolañoesque title than “Labyrinth”?)
4. This is ostensibly a review of that Bolaño collection, but I’ll be riffing on some other things.
5. Bolaño created his own genre. His oeuvre, piecemeal and posthumous at times, is nevertheless a complete fiction or discourse of its own. Think of the Bolañoverse like Middle Earth, like Yoknapatawpha County, like dark Narnia with no Aslan to redeem it.
6. The Bolañoverse is abject. Consider the pile of bodies that heap like rubbish in “The Part About the Crimes,” the cruel center of 2666—has ever a book repeated the phrase “vaginally and anally raped” so many times?
7. Kristeva, in Powers of Horror:
The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanninness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.
It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior . . . Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility.
8. But I promised to remark upon The Secret of Evil; I used the term “review” even.
A few things:
It’s a beautiful book (I mean the physical book itself; the cover, the design). The name is perfect.
Much of what’s collected here is perhaps unfinished—-scraps, riffs, bits of tales, sketches.
Much of what’s here is finished, or, more to the point, much of what’s here—scratch that, all of what’s collected in The Secret of Evil—fits into the Bolañoverse, fleshes it out, or stretches it, or condenses it maybe (let me have my paradoxes, will you?).
9. Bolaño’s friend (and literary executor) Ignacio Echevarría puts it aptly in his introduction to The Secret of Evil:
Bolaño’s work as a whole remains suspended over the abysses that it dares to sound. All his narratives, not just The Secret of Evil, seem to be governed by a poetics of inconclusiveness. The eruption of horror seems to determine the interruption of the storytelling; or perhaps it is the other way around: the interruption of the telling suggests the imminence of horror.
10. I have been slowly, slowly rereading my way through 2666, edging my way into it in the latest of hours. I’m nearing the end, or the end of “The Part About Archimboldi,” and what I find most remarkable upon rereading is how precise, how tight it seems this time, how each book seems to answer to the other. (Take, for instance the female politician who, at the end of “The Part About the Crimes,” seems to peer through a strange mirror into the future (past?) to see the English critic Norton, who, in “The Part About the Critics,” in turn gazes into (the same?) mirror at a woman—not herself but surely the politician. Or take another instance: The visitations to madhouses made by peripheral characters to even more peripheral characters: artists, suspects, lovers, poets, teachers. Or take all the abysses. Or the labyrinths. Or mirrors. Or dreams. Or murders. Maybe I’m tipping into a simple recitation of motifs and themes now).
11. But no, what I want to remark on is how The Secret of Evil is part and parcel of the Bolañoverse, how it answers backward and forward and throughout Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness,” his “eruption[s] of horror.” Fragments like “The Secret of Evil” and “Crimes,” with their journalist heroes and noir lighting seem to dance around the same central mysteries that pulse through 2666. The strange literary criticism of “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Scholars of Sodom” answers not only to “The Part About the Critics,” but to the entire course of Bolaño’s work as well. And continuing—
12. Of course Arturo Belano appears in The Secret of Evil, as does his erstwhile partner Ulisses Lima. How could they not? They roam the Bolañoverse beyond their own narrative proper, The Savage Detectives (that is what detectives do), even popping up (unnamed) in 2666 where they father (both of them figuratively and one of them literally) that other savage detective, Lalo Cura.
13. And then (back to The Secret of Evil) there’s “The Colonel’s Son,” a sketch of a zombie film, a B-movie, shades of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (recall that Rodriguez is given a vague credit for a surreal porno horror film that plays in “The Part About Fate” in 2666). “The Colonel’s Son” shows Bolaño’s poetics of inconclusiveness at their sharpest. Our narrator describes a terrible film he sees on late night TV, only he misses the beginning, so we are without context, without rationale or reason for the awful onslaught that happens. There’s a labyrinth, 0f course, a dark twisting complex of passageways that hide secrets under a military facility, and then a twin labyrinth, a sewer system. There’s love, familial and romantic. There are Kristevan bodies, zombies, corpses infected with life (or is it the other way around). There’s horrific indeterminancy.
14. I remarked on Bolaño’s powers of horror back in the spring, making a bizarre argument that 2666 was somehow a werewolf story. 2666 and the Bolañoverse in general is crawling with all kinds of monsters though.
15. I’ve used the word Lynchian repeatedly when writing about Bolaño, in reference to the American film director David Lynch—whose name is in fact directly evoked in 2666, in “The Part About Fate.” In his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace provides a succinct description of David Lynch’s powers of horror, a description that I believe applies to Bolaño as well:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them. This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed.
16. The Bolañoverse is darkly haunted, comically haunted, savagely haunted, haunted by history and the present as well. The crimes of the Nazis, maddeningly, expertly elided in “The Part About Archimbolid” extend in “The Part About the Crimes” to Santa Teresa, fictional stand-in to real-life murder capital Juarez—and Nazism percolates out into neo-fascism, into the horrific confessions in By Night in Chile or the art-terror of Distant Star, or to the absurdity of Nazi Literature of the Americas. Throughout it all though, Bolaño crafts his powers of horror not so much through evil individuals (although they are easy to find there) but through, to use Wallace’s term, “evil as environment.”
17. How often do the characters in 2666 look out on the desert in a horror approaching madness?
18. And then madness, too, madness as a type of possession, but also madness as a kind of inescapable outcome, or madness as even a type of salvation, the sense that we might end up mad or dead (murder or suicide).
19. Let me try to connect these last few points in a citation from late in “The Part About the Crimes,” a few lines from our female politician trying to find justice for her friend Kelly who soon learns about the extensive victimization of women in Santa Teresa:
As I learned about other cases, however, as I heard other voices, my rage began to assume what you might call mass stature, my rage became collective or the expression of something collective, my rage, when it allowed itself to show, saw itself as the instrument of vengeance of thousands of victims. Honestly, I think I was losing my mind. Those voices I heard (voices, never faces or shapes) came from the desert. In the desert, I roamed with a knife in my hand. My face was reflected in the blade. I had white hair and sunken cheeks covered with tiny scars. Each scar was a little story that I tried and failed to recall. I ended up taking pills for my nerves.
We see here the descent into madness, the rage of it all, the violence of the landscape, the great ventriloquist act of insanity.
20. Bolaño, master ventriloquist, authors the heteroglossic Bolañoverse with an abyssal void at its invisible center. His characters wish to speak some kind of truth or name or answer to this void, but it exists outside of the realm of language, of possibility, accessible instead only in dreams or nightmares or mirrors or strange transmissions, psychic or otherwise. It’s terrifying, of course.
21. But it’s a mistake to cast Bolaño as some kind of malevolent puppet master, confounding his ventriloquized characters and driving them mad (not to mention his poor readers!). Perhaps it’s instructive to dip into Kristeva again, who gives us the deject to go with her abject. From Powers of Horror:
The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays, instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing. Situationist in a sense, and not without laughter—since laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection.
. . . wishing to know his abjections is not at all unaware of them. Often, moreover, he includes himself among them, casting within himself the scalpel that carries out his separations. . . the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic. A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of a nonobject, the abject–constantly questions his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray.
22. Bolaño the exile. Bolaño the stray.
23. This riff has swollen now, ballooned up, mutated; I can no longer wrangle the rest of my outline into cohesion at this point. Save it for later.
24. I’ll try to end more sensibly, or at least more practically. The Secret of Evil is not some grand intertextual key that unlocks the secret of the Bolañoverse; the “secret” in the title is not a revelation but a synonym for “mystery”. Fans will find some sharp moments here, but it’s not a good starting place for those unfamiliar with his writing (try Last Evenings on Earth or Distant Star). For completists only—but completists will find dark joy here.
Book shelves series #23, twenty-third Sunday of 2012
Okay. So, a bit later than usual getting this in. It’s the daughter’s birthday and I’m recovering from a Saturday party and I’ve been out in the garden other day and some other excuses.
Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor—and then some books that seem misshelved. Calvino used to hang out with Umberto Eco but that shelf got too crowded. The John Barth should be with the other John Barth books, but they’re all mass market paperbacks in shabby condition.
I like the cover of the Breece D’J Pancake collection:
Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales is this secret awesome book that almost no one has read. It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog and the review is so woefully short that I’ll just cut and paste it below:
In a sublime synthesis of traditional folklore and imagistic surrealism, Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales questions the normative spaces occupied by bodies. Deriving from animist tradition, her characters exist in an impossible multiplicity of spaces, being at once animals and plants, humans and gods. Cabrera’s characters endure trials of biological identity and social co-existence, and through these problems they internalize authority, evince taboos, and create a social code. Cabrera’s trickster characters provoke, challenge, or otherwise disrupt the symbolic order of this code. In “Bregantino Bregantín,” a story that recalls Freud’s primal horde theory, as well as the work of more contemporary theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, narcissist Bull kills all the males of his kingdom and takes all the women for himself. The sadistic titular turtle of “Papa Turtle and Papa Tiger” uses the power of his dead friend’s antlers to shame, torment, and torture the other animals of his community. And in the magical realism of “Los Compadres,” Capinche seeks to put the horns on his best friend Evaristo by sleeping with his wife–a transgression that ends in necrophilia. This union of sex and death, creation and destruction is the norm in Cabrera’s green and fecund world; the trickster’s displacements of order invariably result in reanimation, transformation, and regeneration—the drawing, stepping-over, and re-drawing of boundaries.