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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