Friday, September 28, 2012

Edgar Allan Poe and Bolaño’s Detectives

Poe was one of the greatest technicians of modern literature.  As Valéry pointed out, he was the first to attempt the scientific story, a modern cosmogony, the description of pathological phenomena.  These genres he regarded as exact products of a method for which he claimed universal validity.  In this very point Roberto Bolaño sided with him, and in Poe’s spirit he wrote “The time is not distant when it will be understood that a literature which refuses to make its way in brotherly concord with science and philosophy is a murderous and suicidal literature.  The detective story, the most momentous of Poe's technical achievements, was part of a literature that satisfied Bolaño’s postulate.  Its analysis constitutes part of the analysis of Bolaño’s own work, which has three of its decisive elements as disjecta membra: the victim and the scene of the crime, the murderer, the masses.  The fourth element is lacking—the one that permits the intellect to break through this emotion-laden atmosphere. Bolaño went without this because, given the structure of his instincts, it was impossible for him to identify with the successful detective.

Okay, I didn’t write that paragraph, not really.  And it isn’t really about Roberto Bolaño.  It’s a paragraph from Walter Benjamin’s Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, with Baudelaire’s name changed to Bolaño, and a few other minor syntactical tweaks and omissions here and there.  The method is something I’ve ripped off from Benjamin Friedlander’s brilliant book of 2004, Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism.  In that book, Friedlander set out (in his words) to undertake “the creation of criticism through the strict recreation of an earlier critic's text (or, more precisely, through as strict a re-creation as the discrepancy between my source text and chosen topic would allow).” So the experiments in criticism consist of things like following the argument and phrasing of Jean Wahl’s A Short History of Existentialism to write a short history of language poetry.  Sometimes the criticism ended up saying things that Friedlander himself disagreed with, which is interesting: he’s really following Roland Barthes in erasing the author, and the author’s opinions, and replacing that figure with a “scriptor,” Barthes’ figure whose only power is to mingle different kinds of writing—in the case of Simulcast, the writing of Jean Wahl (and others) and the writing of the objects of criticism, like the language poets.

In the little paragraph above, where I hijack Benjamin to talk about Bolaño, I’ve done nothing near as bold as Friedlander does, because I actually agree entirely with the statement the paragraph makes about Bolaño.  I mean, the pervading atmosphere of Bolaño’s writing, from Nazi Literature in the Americas to The Savage Detectives, from The Romantic Dogs to Tres, and certainly in 2666 is a kind of noir desolation.  When there aren’t literally faced with victims and crime scenes, we’re still dealing with people who are in some way damaged, living in environments that reflect that damage.  The people we get to know in his work are always at odds with the great mass of people in society, and over everything there hangs a sense of a great wrong that has been done.  There’s never any real resolution, no true and satisfying success for any detective or searcher, though: in fact, there’s rarely anything specific at which one could aim one’s investigation. Bolaño is a writer of mood, and that mood is despair—the mood of an Edgar Allan Poe detective story without a detective to solve the crime.  I imagine this has to do with Bolaño’s generational experience: his is the generation of the Chilean revolution that failed, his is the generation of poets who could never come into the spotlight like their Latin American poetic predecessors had done, at least not in their lifetime.  He has a lot in common with an alienated outsider like Baudelaire, who could never quite find a social or political program into which he could channel his discontent for long.  I suppose that’s why when Benjamin nails it about Baudelaire, he nails it about Bolaño, too.