From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, “The Part About Fate, pages 266-267:
“We’ve gotten used to death,” he heard the young man say.
“It’s always been that way,” said the white-haired man, “always.”
In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through the fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn’t want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings. Of course, most of the serial killers were never caught. Take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear. What does a child do when he’s afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he’s about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. And the funny thing is, the archetypes of human madness and cruelty weren’t invented by the men of our day but by our forebears. The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. You could say the same about madness. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. Maybe it’s because polite society was so small back then. I’m talking about the nineteenth century, eighteenth century, seventeenth century. No doubt about it, society was small. Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century, for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale, to Virginia, say. And that didn’t get anyone upset or make headlines in the Virginia papers or make anyone go out and call for the ship captain to be hanged. But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor and then went galloping back home, dismounted, and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total, Virginia society spent the next six months in fear, and the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations. Or look at the French. During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police. The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner. How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn’t tell you.
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