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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