Week 2: Bolaño and the Academy

by Maria Bustillos

The academy in 2666 is very meticulously observed, and yet I cannot find much detail out there about Bolano’s own formal education. Nobody online seems to mention any specific institutions where he worked, taught, or wrote. It seems almost inevitable that if there were any such institutions, their representatives would have been very keen to claim such an association. So it appears that we are looking at an autodidact? A very, very learned autodidact, who lived all over the world, and who was superconnected in Spanish and Latin American literary and political circles. (Please comment, if you know more on this point!)

I’d like to know more about the apparent difference between the American literary world and the European/Latin American one that Bolano was part of. “Serious” writers in the US seem in general to be more closely tied to the academy, though “establishment” figures like the Nobel-winning Octavio Paz taught at a whole lot of fancy schools. But Bolano was a socialist, in some sense a revolutionary, and I think we can extrapolate beyond that to conjecture that he saw his contribution to literature (as to the world at large) as subversive, anti-authoritarian—as, generally, the work of an outsider.

So, as I was saying, despite the fact that Bolano was not of the academy, he seems to have understood its workings very well indeed. The critics of 2666 are very like real academics in all their ambition and their weird intellectual competitiveness, shot through with a real and passionate desire to read, and understand, and to write, and be understood.

With all this in mind, let’s have a look at the following mind-blowing, virtuoso passage from the novel, quite possibly my favorite so far. It speaks clearly to Bolano’s rejection of the academic life, and of institutions generally. This rejection comes on all fronts: societal, cultural, political and intellectual.

(And at this point it must be said that there’s truth to the saying make your name, then sleep and reap fame, because Espinoza’s and Pelletier’s participation in the conference “Reflecting the Twentieth Century: The Work of Benno von Archimboldi,” not to mention their contribution to it, was at best null, at worst catatonic, as if they were suddenly spent or absent, prematurely aged or in a state of shock, a fact that didn’t pass unnoticed by the attendees used to Espinoza’s and Pelletier’s displays of energy [sometimes brazen] at this sort of event, nor did it go unnoticed by the latest litter of Archimboldians, recent graduates, boys and girls, their doctorates tucked still warm under their arms, who planned, by any means necessary, to impose their particular readings of Archimboldi, like missionaries ready to instill faith in God, even if to do so meant signing a pact with the devil, for most were what you might call rationalists, not in the philosophical sense but in the pejorative literal sense, denoting people less interested in literature than in literary criticism, the one field, according to them—some of them, anyway—where revolution was still possible, and in some way they behaved not like youths but like nouveaux youths, in the sense that there are the rich and the nouveaux riches, all of them generally rational thinkers, let us repeat, although often incapable of telling their asses from their elbows, and although they noticed a there and a not-there, an absence-presence in the fleeting passage of Pelletier and Espinoza through Bologna, they were incapable of seeing what was really important: Pelletier’s and Espinoza’s absolute boredom regarding everything said there about Archimboldi or their negligent disregard for the gaze of others, as if the two were so much cannibal fodder, a disregard lost on the young conferencegoers, those eager and insatiable cannibals, their thirtysomething faces bloated with success, their expressions shifting from boredom to madness, their coded stutterings speaking only two words: love me, or maybe two words and a phrase: love me, let me love you, though obviously no one understood.)

Despite his fire-breathing (and hilarious) condemnation of these conventional representatives of the Life of the Mind, I don’t mistake Bolano for any kind of “art for art’s sake” idealist, or for a sniffy or superior “radical,” either. He distinguishes between those who love criticism more than literature in a manner that suggests very clearly that there is a right side of that question to be on, but he doesn’t really tear these guys down in order to put himself above, in the manner, say, of Henry Miller, or Harold Bloom, or James Wood, even. There’s compassion in it, as well as a smackdown, and the ego quotient is not high. Indeed I have formed the impression that there was not one self-regarding bone in this guy’s bod. Just as an aside, because I know that there are so many admirers of David Foster Wallace here: it’s no surprise to me that so many Wallace fans are drawn to Bolano, because of this pre-eminent quality of intellectual humility, plus low bullshit-tolerance.

(So I had written the above, and then I happened across the most beautiful illustration of this!)

Rodrigo Fresan’s eulogy of Bolano (http://www.letraslibres.com/index.php?art=8981) is a lovely, gentle, rather elaborately worded remembrance of his friend. He paints Bolano as a passionate and lively companion, but most of all, as a writer through and through; a man completely dedicated to and steeped in the literary life.

Toward the end, Fresan’ quotes a remarkable email that he received from Bolano:

Yo no sé cómo hay escritores que aún creen en la inmortalidad literaria. Entiendo que haya quienes creen en la inmortalidad del alma, incluso puedo entender a los que creen en el Paraíso y el Infierno y en esa estación intermedia y sobrecogedora que es el Purgatorio, pero cuando escucho a un escritor hablar de la inmortalidad de determinadas obras literarias me dan ganas de abofetearlo. No estoy hablando de pegarle sino de darle una sola bofetada y después, probablemente, abrazarlo y confortarlo. En esto yo sé que no estarás de acuerdo conmigo, Rodrigo, porque tú eres una persona básicamente no violenta. Yo también lo soy. Cuando digo darle una bofetada estoy más bien pensando en el carácter lenitivo de ciertas bofetadas, como aquellas que en el cine se les da a los histéricos o a las histéricas para que reaccionen y dejen de gritar y salven su vida.

(This is my own translation … please let me know if I’ve botched anything.)

I don’t know how there can be writers who still believe in literary immortality. I understand that there might be those who believe in the immortality of the soul, and I can even believe there are those who believe in Paradise and Hell and in that freaky intermediate station that is Purgatory, but when I hear a writer speak of the immortality of definite works of literature I feel like slapping him. I’m not talking about really belting, so much as just one slap, and afterwards, probably, hugging and comforting him. In this I know that you won’t be in agreement with me, Rodrigo, because you are basically a non-violent person. As am I. When I say, deliver a slap, I’m more thinking of the palliative character of certain slappings, like those in the movies that are administered to hysterics so that they will react, stop screaming, and save their own lives.

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11 Responses to “Week 2: Bolaño and the Academy”

  • Comment from crazymonk

    That quote is phenomenal, Maria — thanks for translating. Having read 2666 a year ago and not participating in this group read, I’m also really enjoying your posts as you make your way through the novel.

  • Comment from miette

    You’ve just convinced me that it’s time to sit down and learn Spanish. Thank you. Fresán has been on my mile-long reading list, but with that quote I may have to dig it out and move it to the top.

  • Comment from Dan Summers

    Whatever his relationship to the academy, he certainly writes with an insider’s knowledge of the foibles therein. And if he was an auto-didact, he was a remarkably successful one. 2666 is a remarkably erudite book.

    I don’t have nearly enough of a sense of 2666 to comment much on Bolano’s sentiments, in general. (This is only my first time reading it.) As a devoted fan of Wallace (and you certainly know your readership), one of the things I loved so much about his writing is the meaning he attached to all of his characters, no matter how minor. So far, it feels like the individual characters in 2666 are bleached of their meaning, an effect I think is obviously intentional, so I haven’t found an emotional toe-hold yet.

  • Thanks you guys … Dan, so far I have found the emotional center of the book is in the narrator. His detached, satirical and yet warm commentary already feels like it’s coming from an old friend.

    This is my first go at Bolaño, and I decided not to read ahead in preparation for our adventure (mainly because I am a big blab, and would find it difficult to prevent spoilers!)

  • Comment from Terrell Williamson

    Great insight. Thanks for the translation of the Bolano email. Wish I could read the eulogy as well. From the little bit I know about Bolano (sorry, I’ve given up on the tilde; just too much trouble), he was an autodidact, it seems. He mostly held odd jobs while he mainly wrote poetry. He turned to writing fiction to support his family. In reading the portions about Edwin Johns, it occurred to me that Johns’s cutting off the hand with which he painted “for the money” is akin to Bolano’s giving up writing poetry to focus on fiction “for the money” to support his family. (Although I not sure he gave up writing poetry. There’s only one volume in translation, though I think several more are in the works.)

    Keep up the excellent posts.

    • Gee, that is an incredibly interesting theory about Edwin Johns! But did writing novels make it impossible for Bolaño to write poetry? I’d love to know more about this. And another thing! How impossible is it to imagine circumstances in this country in which someone could say, well, I had best figure out how to provide for my family–okay, I guess I will condescend to write a huge, sprawling, learned novel(!?) Problem solved?!

      • Comment from Terrell Willliamson

        I don’t think there’s any question that Bolano turned to writing fiction to provide for his family and their future. My point is not that Johns is some sort of simulacrum for Bolano, but that knowing what I have read about his life that Johns character evoked for me Bolano’s decision to start writing fiction for the money. Just offered for what it’s worth.

        • Oh sure, I understood this … (sorry to sound so unclear.) What I meant to ask was, if Bolaño felt a sort of kinship to Edwin Johns through having had to give up poetry for the sake of his relatively profitable fiction, how did that manifest? As soon as I mashed the ‘send’ key on my last I realized that of course, writing fiction is such a ton of work that it really the just the time required would necessarily have stolen poetry from him, in a way … it’s such an interesting (and sad) insight.

          • Comment from Terrell Williamson

            Sad, indeed. I enjoyed reading The Romantic Dogs, though ironically I’m sure that I would never have come to Bolano’s poetry, but for his incredible, hallucinatory prose. His short novels read very differently from 2666 and The Savage Detectives. By Night in Chile reads like one long prose poem.

  • Comment from Daniel

    their coded stutterings speaking only two words: love me, or maybe two words and a phrase: love me, let me love you


    “This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?” — this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it’s perilously close to “Do you like me? Please like me,” which you know quite well that 99% of all the interhuman manipulation and bullshit gamesmanship that goes on goes on precisely because the idea of saying this sort of thing straight out is regarded as somehow obscene.

    From DFW, “Octet” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

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