The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Affect

by Maria Bustillos

Quite early in these proceedings, information pills Terrell Williamson wrote in a comment:

In reading the portions about Edwin Johns, stuff it occurred to me that Johns’s cutting off the hand with which he painted “for the money” is akin to Bolaño’s giving up writing poetry to focus on fiction “for the money” to support his family.

I’ve been wondering about that ever since, increasingly, as we’ve come to know something more about the sad case of Edwin Johns, and also about the sad case of Roberto Bolaño. Difficult though it is to believe, this book is the work of a gravely ill man. He was waiting for a liver transplant. Accounts differ as to the source of Bolaño’s illness: Benjamin Kunkel (of all people) stated quite flatly (in a highly MFA-flavored 2007 piece in LRB) that Bolaño’s liver had been damaged as the result of addiction to heroin; Bolaño’s family disputes this account. There is doubt, it looks like. Bolaño was very young, certainly, to have been suffering from liver disease.

Loads of interesting details are available in this recent NYT article: (Highly recommended.)

It’s clear from a piece that appeared in El Mundo right after his death that Bolaño had been hopeful about getting through the transplant surgery okay. I’ve translated the relevant bits below. Spanish readers will find a number of interesting links on the page.

El escritor chileno Roberto Bolaño fallece en Barcelona a los 50 años

El escritor chileno Roberto Bolaño, de 50 años, ha muerto a las 2.30 horas en Barcelona tras sufrir complicaciones en una enfermedad hepática que padecía y para la que se preparaba para un trasplante, según ha informado el diario chileno ‘La Tercera’ y han confirmado fuentes cercanas a la familia.

Precisamente por esta operación -un trasplante de hígado-, Bolaño, una de las plumas chilenas más brillantes de la última década, pospuso su próxima novela, titulada ‘2666’, de la que él mismo dijo que sería su obra más ambiciosa.

“No estoy para hacer el trabajo que exige la novela. Son más de mil páginas que tengo que corregir, es un trabajo como de minero del siglo XIX”, dijo el escritor al diario La Tercera a mediados de junio.

“Procuro ahora hacer un trabajo más reposado. Voy a corregir la novela sólo después de la operación”, había señalado al matutino chileno.

En la entrevista, Bolaño se refirió a la esperada operación de trasplante: “El doctor dice que me va a avisar cinco horas antes y en ese tiempo tengo que pedir perdón, hacer mi testamento y poner mi alma en funciones. Estoy tercero en una lista para recibir el trasplante”.

Tras residir en Chile, México y Estados Unidos, Bolaño se trasladó a España en 1977. Pasó sus últimos años en la localidad gerundense de Blanes, donde vivía con su mujer Carolina López y sus dos hijos. En los comienzos se vio obligado a realizar diversos trabajos eventuales, desde comerciante hasta vigilante nocturno.

The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño succumbs at age 50

The writer Roberto Bolaño, aged 50, died at 2:30a.m. in Barcelona after suffering complications of an illness of the liver, for which he was preparing for a transplant, according to the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, and confirmed by sources close to the family.

Precisely because of this operation, a liver transplant, Bolaño, one of the most brilliant literary lights of the last decade, postponed his next novel, entitled ‘2666’ which he himself said would be his most ambitious work.

“I’m in no shape to do the work the novel requires. There are over a thousand pages that I have to correct, it’s a job akin to being a miner of the 19th century,” said the author to La Tercera in mid-June.

“I’m looking to do more restful work. I’m going to correct the novel after the operation.”

In the interview, Bolaño referred repeatedly to the expected transplant.  “The doctor says that he’s going to let me know five hours beforehand, and in that time I must ask pardon [for my sins,] make my will and activate my soul.* I am the third on a transplant list.”

After living in Chile, Mexico and the United States, Bolaño relocated to Spain in 1977.  He spent his last years in the area around Blanes, where he lived with his wife Carolina López and their two children. At first he found himself obligated to do odd jobs, from trader to night watchman.


Returning now to Edwin Johns. The four critics are joined in a certain way over the painter, but in a manner different from their communion over Benno von Archimboldi. Norton introduces the other three to his work; to Morini directly, and to Pelletier and Espinoza through Morini. Morini is fascinated by the story, so much so that he makes a pilgrimage to the insane asylum to question the weirdly intimidating Johns. “I’m not an artist,” he tells Johns, who replies, “I’m not an artist either. Do you think you’re like me?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Morini replies.

One thing is certain: Bolaño depicts a substantial divide between artists and others. I suspect that this is an authentic conviction for him, that is, he himself believes this, rather than observing it to be a commonly-held or noteworthy belief. But what is he saying constitutes an “artist”?

One way of looking at this is, Johns is considered an artist simply because he lopped his own hand off. Absolutely, this act created, for him, a succès de scandale. The world outside the novel does not lack for parallel examples, the most obvious being the performance artist Chris Burden, who in 1971 staged his own shooting as a sort of art-happening (admittedly, one with less permanent consequences.) For Johns to mutilate himself, not in a performance but “for money” as he claims, focused the world’s attention on both himself and his painting. Can we assume that he cared deeply enough about the latter to relearn how to do it with his remaining hand? Was his self-mutilation really just cynical, mercenary? Self-loathing? Just a show? Or was it the final existential shriek that brought public attention to something of genuine value, something that he was so committed to, so much that he was ready to make any sacrifice in order to get that attention?

A simpler, really kind of banal reading is: the hand symbolizes the artist’s talent. In order to find fame the artist has to betray his own gift. In this reading, we’re looking at shorthand for pandering.

A third reading is that it really is a heroic act to cut off your own hand. It requires balls, people will be scared shitless of you forever, and you wind up in a comfortable Swiss chalet with nobody to bother or hassle you, attended by charming women, surrounded by a gorgeous landscape.  So which is it?

* the phrase is “poner mi alma en funciones,” a phrase you would ordinarily use not of a soul but more like, say you are president, and you’ve hired someone to do an important job but they haven’t really started working yet. So you say, “I’m going to put this guy in the game.”  As in, crank it up.

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6 Responses to “The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Affect”

  • p.s. After I wrote this I discovered that even Jonathan Lethem in the NYT told the heroin story, in his review of 2666. I have been avoiding reviews because I’m not reading ahead, but I have managed to gather that a former addiction to heroin was the reason for Bolaño’s illness. Apologies for any errors or infelicities in the above, which was written in a big tizz.

  • Comment from Dan Summers

    First of all, thanks for your thoughtful post over at my place. (I’ve replied over there, and won’t drag that conversation over here.) I’m thrilled to have your perspective and insight as I grapple with this book.

    I think there’s a strong connection between madness and artistry for Bolaño. After all, by the end of The Part About Amalfitano, we’ve encountered two artists that have been consigned to asylums Perhaps Bolaño is saying that true artistry either requires or leads to madness? That the truth of artists’ vision, the clarity with which they see the world is incompatible with our notions of sanity? Even if your cynical choice #3 above is correct (and it’s closest to my own guesses about Johns), one could argue that it’s both an unvarnished view of the (art) world and hardly what you’d call “sane.”

    Putting on my doctor hat, there are certainly plenty of explanations for hepatic failure in a man as young as Bolaño, but drug- or alcohol-related damage is quite plausible, and is somewhat consistent with Bolaño’s enfant terrible literary reputation.

  • Comment from adriana

    Hola Maria
    Muchas gracias por haber escrito en Español y mandar mas links relacionado a Bolaños. Estoy viviendo su obra maestra como si fuera la ultima vez de mi vida. Lloro, pienso y analizo mucho lo que Bolaños me esta transmitiendo en cada segmento de su novela.
    cariños de La Mexicana que tambien vivio en Caracas.

    • Hola, Adriana! Caracas, wow, hace muchisimos años desde la última vez que estuve ahi. Ha cambiado mucho …

      Me alegro que estés disfrutando tanto como yo de esta novela.

      Por favor disculpe mis errores. Mi español es malísimo, sirve solo para chismes! Un fuerte abrazo a los dos.

  • Comment from Steve

    Regarding Johns having cut off his hand for money. . .

    Here is what bothers me about that visit of the three male critics with Johns. At the end Morini’s asks, “Why did you mutilate yourself?” Johns says, “I’ll tell you why I did it.” Then he leans over and whispers something into Morini’s ear. We are not told what he whispered. I think that the suggestion that he did it for money came up before this. For some reason, I do not think that what he whispered into Morini’s ear had anything to do with money. Perhaps I need to be set straight on that. [p. 91]

    And why does he refuse to shake Morini’s hand?

    • I thought too that Morini might have fabricated this story. Yet he tells it only to Norton, for whom he has, quite obviously, a high regard. We haven’t really got evidence of his being deceitful; he tends to avoid discussion of uncomfortable topics (e.g. where the heck he went after the visit to Johns) rather than invent some kind of dissimulation. So on balance I felt that he was telling the truth.

      In that case, why would Johns tell his secret to Morini only? It is rather an embarrassing reason, lacking in mystery or poeticism. What is it about Morini that makes him willing to confide?

      Why does he refuse to shake Morini’s hand? This might suggest that he whispered “for money,” choosing the crassest possible construction, because he despised Morini–??

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