Week 3: Institutionalized

by Maria Bustillos

After getting a sense of the rhythms of Bolaño’s sly humor, you can tell that something is up right away when he describes the critics’ first impression of Amalfitano:

… a castaway, a carelessly dressed man, a nonexistent professor at a nonexistent university, the unknown soldier in a doomed battle against barbarism, or, less melodramatically, as what he ultimately was, a melancholy literature professor put out to pasture in his own field …

Since the critics are generally (but not always) depicted as a pretty oafish crew, we can begin by assuming that there will be more to this character than meets the eye. As indeed there proves to be. The first serious conversation between the four scholars concerns the possible whereabouts and motives of Archimboldi.  Has he come to Mexico to visit a friend? What if Almendro lied to them?

Almendro who?  Hector Enrique Almendro? said Amalfitano, who goes on to say that he wouldn’t bet much on a tip from that guy. Why not?

Well, because he’s a typical Mexican intellectual, his main concern is getting by.

Now Amalfitano launches into the most extraordinary flight of fancy: a series of volcanic, wild, beautiful, splendid lamentations on the subject of the intellectual milieu in Mexico.

“Literature in Mexico is like a kindergarten,” he begins. (Bolaño slips from “they” to “you” in this passage, indicating that Amalfitano to some extent reckons himself to have been a member of this fraternity.)

You sit in a park and read Valery (not by accident a big “establishment” figure, protege of Mallarme, member of the Academie francaise, correspondent of Gide and of Einstein,) and then you go hang out with friends.

(“Having devoted [some] hours to the life of the mind, I feel I have the right to be stupid for the rest of the day.”)

And yet your shadow isn’t following you anymore.

This surprising shadowlessness is getting at the loss of some essentially human component, something lost by contact with the conventions of intellectual life, with institutions. But it’s more than that. The whole passage is full of poetic conceits, none of them arbitrary. In the case of the lost shadow, we’re looking at the loss of an ability to matter. A loss of realness, yes, but recall that one writer may live in the shadow of another, that a writer may cast a long shadow; in short, the shadow represents the chance to leave one’s mark.  (And is there a suggestion of vampirism, as well?)

In any case, dude is just getting warmed up, here!! I could go line by line and show you some startling new insight or beauty in this passage, which consists, mind-blowingly, of a single paragraph. But let us get on to the main event: a complete recasting of the tale of Plato’s cave, adding a whole new level of deafness, blindness and powerlessness to the proceedings.

The intellectual (“you”) arrives on a kind of stage, without his shadow, and starts to “translate reality, or reinterpret it or sing it.”  The intellectual is facing outward, toward an audience, and behind him is a tube which leads to a mine. “Let’s call it a cave. (!!) That is to say, intellectuals could be looking into the cave, even bringing people out of there, maybe; at the very least they should be investigating the cave, mining the reality of the human condition and then showing the results to their audience. If you can get even partway out, that is what you are supposed to be doing! But no! These shadowless intellectuals can’t grasp anything from the cave but “unintelligible noises.”  They’re quite cut off from the reality of what it is to be human, even though the occupants of the cave are making a big racket, “syllables of rage or of seduction or of seductive rage or maybe just murmurs and whispers and moans.” The intellectuals don’t really understand a bit of it; they’re just enjoying the spotlight. “They employ rhetoric where they sense a hurricane.” They make animal noises because they can’t begin to conceive of the enormity of the beast within.

The stage on which the intellectuals ply their trade is comfortable and pretty, but it’s shrinking, which is to say, less and less people in Mexico care about literature because these guys are not saying anything of true interest; they’re not really interpreting correctly what is going on in the cave. The audience for TV, by contrast, is enormous. They don’t know what the hell is going on in there, either, but no matter, the audience grows and grows. Once in a while they let a shadowless intellectual on there.

Man, Mexico is not the only place where this is happening. I mean, WHOA.  Utterly, wiglet-blastingly brilliant.

There’s so much here, but the predominant message is that artists, writers, could be connecting people with reality, could be articulating for us what it means to be human, could be leading us out of the cave, and yet they do not. The intellectuals themselves know that there is something missing. At night one may “wander off course” and drink mezcal and he thinks:

 what would happen if one day he.  But no.

Naturally, our own European intellectuals can make neither head nor tail of this blazing fusillade.

“I don’t understand a word you’ve said,” says Norton.

“Really I’ve just been talking nonsense,” said Amalfitano.

Bolaño’s retelling of this story presents an underlying call to arms, not at all unlike what I remember of Plato’s original one.  In his own sad, funny, clever way he’s saying that aware, thinking people have a real responsibility to engage with the world, and to improve it if they can.

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21 Responses to “Week 3: Institutionalized”

  • By the way, here’s a refresher from Wikipedia re: Plato’s cave. There is such a ton to write about in this section!! Whew.

    • Comment from Señor Steve

      There can be only one Maria Bustillos in the entire world–this world anyway. And I have found her again. I cannot imagine a more perfect being with whom to discuss 2666. Sorry to be late, but I am here now.

      • Well I’ll be damned. You rascal! I thought I told you to wait in the car.

        • A brilliant exploration of that passage, Maria. The only thing I would add is that Amalfitano gives an explanation of the specific mechanism of this intellectual malaise as it manifests itself in Mexico and contrasts it with the situation in Europe. It has to do with the intellectuals’ relationship with power, he says. The meat of this is in the passage that begins:

          In Mexico, and this might be true across Latin America, except in Argentina, intellectuals work for the state. It was like that under the PRI and it’ll be the same under the PAN. The intellectual himself may be a passionate defender of the state or a critic of the state. The state doesn’t care. The state feeds him and watches over him in silence. . . .

          • Yes. This did not escape me … the question of how society at large is going to manage the philosophers (a tricky business, no matter what) appears also in Plato, whose idea it was to send the philosophers back into the cave, there to govern (even if unwillingly, out of a sense of duty.)

            I guess you could say that the critics are this type of guy … philosophers who have no intention of having anything whatsoever to do with the cave.

  • Comment from James

    thanks for the breakdown! I knew there was a lot of meaning in this passage but I didn’t initially take the time to unfold it

  • Comment from Dan Summers

    I feel like my finger is right on the pulse of Internet Bolaño Reading Experience, because the passage you describe here is the same one that I found most interesting, insightful and poetic, is the one that I chose to discuss a bit in my own post on this week’s section:

    That being said, I’m going to stick up a bit for Liz. I am no great fan of the critics. At all. But when we read the passage, we have the luxury of reading slowly, going back and reading again, and sitting back to ponder the interpretation. When I first read this passage (which I admit in my comments), I feared it was a pile of inscrutable metaphor, devoid of meaning. It was only on the second, more patient reading that its beauty and brilliance unfolded.

    Poor Liz is supposedly sitting with Amaltifano having a real-time conversation. As gorgeous as this passage is, as conversation it’s a bit rambling and discursive, and I think would be hard to follow for anyone. While I think Bolaño is perfectly happy to have Norton miss the meaning, I also think to a certain degree she’s a proxy for readers who are a bit baffled by this heady stuff, and I think Bolaño’s warmth and good humor (which I know you admire) shines through in Amaltifano’s wry response.

    This was my favorite passage in the entire book thus far, and I’m glad to be leaving the critics behind to spend more time with the character who gave it to us.

    • Hi Dan! Great blog post. It’s my favorite passage, too! I have complicated feelings about the critics. There is a lot in them, if not to admire, to sympathize with. They’re dazzled by the literary world in this kind of endearingly daft way, for one thing … a way I myself am far from immune to. They love the drama of it, of being up in that ivory tower.

      I would say Liz ought to have known what was being said in our passage because she is a dyed-in-the-wool “intellectual” herself, and she’s shadowless, too. Also she should know her Plato, I guess. Once you view the passage through that lens it hardly even seems metaphoric anymore; it’s the rewriting of one of the most famous allegories in literature, almost a literary exercise itself, like Flaubert’s Parrot or Wide Sargasso Sea, where the picture is widened to open onto new and broader vistas.

      As for the discursiveness of Amalfitano’s vision: I’ve got to disagree. On a third reading it seems to me like every syllable has got a specific, discernible and brilliant meaning.

      My own notes on the passage, now those are discursive. I was so excited (and so pressed for time this morning) that I basically just blabbed like a crazy person! What the hell, though, onward and upward.

      • Comment from Dan Summers

        I suppose I’m inclined to be sympathetic to Norton in this case because I certainly didn’t grasp the meaning in what Amaltifano was saying until I went back and read it again. And, despite a passing familiarity with Plato, it wasn’t until I read your post that the parallel with Plato’s cave became clear to me. (Thanks for your insight, which is incredibly helpful to my own appreciation for the book.) On the other hand, neither am I a professional intellectual of Norton’s ilk, and philosophy/lit crit are far afield from my area of expertise, so perhaps I’m being too charitable.

        • The question of the author’s intended sympathy or lack thereof vis-à-vis the critics is a really interesting one. I’ve noticed that readers here are very much divided on this question; some seem to feel really contemptuous of them. I don’t, not at all. They show kindness to one another, their solicitude for Morini is touching; the sexual peccadilloes of the three younger ones I really read as just the ordinary excesses of youth itself. I’ll be writing about this issue next, I think (with particular reference to Norton’s eventual choice of Morini as a companion.)

          Thanks again, Dan, for your thoughtful contributions here.

          • And they are loyal allies in an intellectual battle about which they are passionate. So the Wild Man will simply sit here scratching himself patiently while he awaits you installment on the subject, Maria.

    • Comment from John Gallo

      I understand what you are saying, but I can’t feel too bad for Liz. I get the feeling that the critics are so self involved that, even if they did follow what Amaltifano was saying they would have dismissed it because he wasn’t from the Continent.

      Of course, at this point I don’t feel like you can give the critics any benefit of the doubt because, well, they seem pretentious and terrible. This is my bias.

  • Comment from Mike Tripicco

    Thanks for the illuminating post – about two-thirds of the way through the passage about the cave I had go back to the beginning to re-read it because a) I realized I had no idea what was going on, and b) I recognized that this was a key passage in our reading to date. Without perceptive guides I’d be lost – thanks again!

  • Comment from Ben

    I enjoyed this passage as well, just with a surficial read. I almost laughed out loud when I read Amalfitano’s reply to Norton. In any case, this post and the comments have added a great deal for me. Thanks.

    Anyone care to take on the passage from p. 133-134 where Pelletier and Espinoza go to Amalfitano’s house for lunch? I can’t make heads or tails of the book on the clothesline and the critics’ decision to cut the lunch short …

    • TOTALLY baffled by clothesline.

      • My goodness, Maria, here are your own words:

        In his own sad, funny, clever way he’s saying that aware, thinking people have a real responsibility to engage with the world, and to improve it if they can.

        That is perfectly relevant to the book on the clothesline. Amalfitano is forcing that vapid text regarding the purported unexplored profundity of geometry to engage with the real world.

        And I was so fascinated to learn that the folks in Chile call clothespins perritos.

        • Heh! There is much in what you say, Señor. But are we to assume that the book in question will be improved by having been hung out to dry? I may keep this intelligence from my daughter, who is certain to find the idea appealing with regard to her own boring textbooks.

    • I am totally enamored with the whole conceit of hanging out the book, Ben. However, I am very new here and am still getting the hang of how the progression of discussion is supposed to work. That whole thing is a central aspect of The Part About Amalfitano. Bolaño includes Calvin Tomkins’s description of Marcel Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade there.

      • Comment from Ben

        Ah, well then maybe it will become more clear to me as I read more of The Part About Amalfitano. I’ve only read the first few pages.

        It’s good to hear, Maria, that I am not alone. Even better that I’m in the company of someone who seems to have such a deep grasp of other things in the book.

  • Comment from Jenny

    A recent article that has been circulating among American academics lately is The Big Lie About ‘The Life of the Mind,'” and it seems along the exact ideas Bolaño is introducing here.

  • Comment from Maria Bustillos

    Incredible article, thank you (to say nothing of the comments!) The ‘outsiderhood from within’ really is intimately related to this book. What I really want to know is: how can we have so many kids who need teaching, and so many teachers out of work?

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