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2006.02 =>

[JANUARY 2006.]

Music Salon

i wonder what you might make of Osvaldo Golijov. his "La Pasión según San Marcos" in particular.

I make a big deal over Golijov’s “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” on Pica’s Kronos box set—it may have been what I was listening to when I wrote the last bit of my novel. Didn’t know about the Pasión, I will keep an eye out for it.

(Shostakovich, Symphony No. 14, conducted by Bernard Haitink with the poems in their original languages: it is really weird to hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing in Spanish. Works, though. Being able to follow languages I sort of understand, instead of the usual Russian, made me realize that I had never quite stopped and listened to the symphony before. The question is whether any of this understanding will now translate back to the Russian versions.)


Roberto Bolaño: 2666

1. If this interests you, see Pica on La Literatura Nazi en América and/or “Dance Card,” a brief story by Bolaño which demonstrates my points better than I can express them. (The translation isn’t authorized and in a couple of days I’ll take it down. This May a collection of translated stories will appear from New Directions under the title Last Evenings on Earth; I hope that it sells well, and that a reasonable portion of the proceeds makes it back to the family that Bolaño once described in an interview as the only homeland he had remaining.)

2. It’s difficult to separate the appeal of Bolaño’s writings from his appeal as a personality; a strong and idiosyncratic sensibility runs through and links together his work. The events of “Dance Card” stick to his biography insofar as he actually was a young Chilean poet who spent his adolescence in Mexico City, returned to his homeland at age twenty-one to participate in Allende’s socialist project, and a month later was forced to flee the Pinochet coup. After a brief imprisonment he successfully made his escape; a great many others didn’t. He spent the rest of his personal life in exile and the rest of his artistic life attempting a response to the continuing obscenities and horrors of Latin American history.

3. Orwell wrote political fictions with obvious lessons. Nabokov abhorred this practice because it seemed to deprive art of its aesthetic autonomy, but his own attempts in Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister to dramatize how individuals can assert this autonomy and triumph over repressive states (essentially, by refusing to believe in them) seem hollow, since actual dictatorships are not so easily banished. Bolaño’s way out is to avoid opposing art to life; for him the two are inextricable.

4. At one point in 2666 an ex-leader of the Black Panthers speaks at a Detroit church. He announces that his speech will cover five themes: danger, money, food, stars, and utility. What follows is fifteen beautiful and strange pages organized along these themes, told in straightforward, almost clinical prose that does not exclude haunting turns of phrase. Talk of death, of street life and prison life, alternates with a recipe for pork chops (which the speaker claims saved him after his release from prison) and a discussion of Voltaire (whose works the speaker read in prison and offers as an exemplar of utility). Here, as throughout the book, intellectual and aesthetic pursuits are of unspeakable urgency, even for those in desperate circumstances. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does not apply.

5. At another point a professor of literature asks his pharmacist which are his favorite books, and is saddened to discover that they are The Metamorphosis, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” A Simple Heart, and A Christmas Carol, and imagines an alternate list: The Trial, Moby-Dick, Bouvard and Pécuchet, A Tale of Two Cities. “Not even enlightened pharmacists,” thinks the professor, “still brave the great works, imperfect, torrential, those which open a path into the unknown. They choose the perfect works of the great masters. Or what comes to the same thing: they want to see the great masters in entertaining fencing sessions, but they don’t want to know anything of the true combats in which the great masters fight against something, that thing which terrifies us all, that thing which makes us cowards and fixes us in cement, and there is blood and mortal wounds and strench.” What is unquestioned is discussing Kafka with one’s pharmacist in the first place. Art is axiomatically necessary.

6. Which is not to say that it is always a force for good. One character in La Literatura Nazi en América is a sadist under Pinochet who creates both skywriting and violent porn films. It is these latter that allow him to be tracked down many years later, though he never appears onscreen; something about the camera’s gaze itself is recognizable as an extension of the man. Creator and creation are one.

7. Art and life: roughly half the plot of 2666 concerns the fictional German author Benno von Archimboldi, a Pynchon-like recluse who inspires obsession in his devotees. The other half is based on the real-life serial rapes and murders of women and girls in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; numbering in the hundreds and still unsolved, these are as glaring a demonstration as you could wish of impunity, misogyny, and social inequality in Latin America. The plot strands are complementary, though their correspondence is not forced. Archimboldi’s aesthetic education comes through witnessing the horrors of the eastern front in World War II. And Bolaño spends hundreds of hideous pages enumerating murder after murder in his fictionalized border city not only to provide them the materiality that disappears in statistics, but also to force the skin-crawling realization that these acts are not distant from artistic practice, as dictatorships are not distant from artistic practice: they are methodical realizations of plans and dreams.

8. Bad art, bad science, and bad politics spring from the same root. One of the great laughs in 2666 (laughs which are physiological necessities, like those in Kafka and Beckett, providing us refuge) comes when the professor of literature, a Chilean exile, reads an insane treatise on telepathy in the Mapuche Indians and seriously considers the possibility that its author is Pinochet.

9. As the correspondence of the plot strands is not forced, their convergence is a question mark. A man imprisoned in Mexico as a scapegoat for the murders, a somewhat nasty character for whom our sympathy is limited, still stirs our heartstrings with his cryptic declaration that a giant is coming to rescue him—for if the giant is Archimboldi, what sort of rescue or redemption can he effect? If art is a mortal struggle like any other, 2666 rests its final sights on the question of how it can directly face the horrors of history, the question to which Orwell and Nabokov gave equally unsatisfactory answers. Explicit solace, Bolaño knows, too easily makes for platitudes. What refuge we have lies in the fact of the book itself.


Radiohead: Sail to the Moon

The news on global warming and harlequin frogs sent me back to this song, always my sentimental favorite off Hail to the Thief. Thom Yorke’s printed lyrics are generally very brief, and oblique in the usual fashion of modern rock; at its least effective the technique simply shunts the job of conveying emotional charge over to the music, but this song shows it at its best. Here’s the first half:

I sucked the moon
I spoke too soon
And how much did it cost?
I traveled on moonbeams
And sailed on shooting stars

The harmony, carried on block piano chords with understated help from the guitars, rests for a time on an A major seventh chord before making a pedal-point shift to C and E minor, then a two-step cadence through F major seventh back to A major seventh. This harmonic movement coincides with the vocal’s melodic climax, which in the first verse picks out the words “how much did it cost?”—a disturbing suggestion of debt in what is otherwise a standard pop-song starscape. In the second half we find out why.

Maybe you’ll be president
But know right from wrong
Or in the flood you’ll build an ark
And sail us to the moon

Those star-struck enough to follow Yorke’s personal life will recognize the addressee of these lines as his infant son. In this verse the lyric over the climactic chords, emphasized by a prominent guitar arpeggiation, is “but know right from wrong”—about the saddest five words I’ve ever heard committed to disc. They leap right past the grandstanding and anger with which most rock bands have responded to recent politics, instead conveying a terrible resignation—this is the present as seen from the future, as completed history—tinged with a faint hope that, because so personal and bound to family, escapes the bombast that cripples most earnest rock songs about the future. The last lines carry forward this emotional mixture and link it back to the first verse; we are sailing—we might sail—to the moon because we have lost the earth.

This is affecting rather than grandiose because the hope remains a private hope, and the obliquity of the lyrics is crucial to this effect. The lines are not glossed because they have no audience other than the infant boy. Of course Yorke knows that he is a celebrity and that his biography is available context, but the song is innocent of this knowledge. It implicitly indicts the people whose policies are set to lose us our world, but it does not address them, because they cannot be addressed. One might as well accuse the flood itself.

it doesn't look very good.


“her own identity?” I thought you were a guy and you lived with a womajn

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Blog!

I couldn’t agree more. The hell with being public; let us move forward into the hermitic & hermetic & hemeneutic. PERI HERMĒNEIAS

Just back from Reno, because for the past few years I’ve been a proud recipient of the Bust Your Ass During School Breaks Fellowship... this morning I got up at seven and the snowy hills were pink and a jay scolded me for leaving footprints in the snow. Berkeley is the same; the cat, who was sick, is coping; I have a reading list a mile long and a will as strong as ever, only not quite ready to hand. I rolled it up and stashed it somewhere so it would fit on the plane.

People at the next table are talking about a novel that one of them is publishing, about changes forced by agents and editors. Maybe better just to do it for love and leave it in a shoebox.


Highway Log

Driving through rural California yesterday, I rounded a snowy slope and came upon a cauldron of fog stretching below for thirty miles or more, bounded near and far by sharp mountains in white sun and blue-white shade. The fog was the color of snow but had a softer texture, like clouds seen from an airplane. I descended the slope and the sky whitened and dimmed. I turned on my headlights. The radius of the universe shrank to twenty feet: snow and road slipped past like motorized sidewalks under a low gray dome. Points of light appeared, oncoming cars, the passing dark bulk of a pickup or SUV. I was far from the city. The radio carried nothing but Bible readings and heavily produced anthems of rural pride:

You get the line, I’ll get the pole
We’ll go fishing in the crawfish hole
Five-card poker on Saturday night
Church on Sunday morning

At the Highway 167 junction I changed plans and turned left onto a slow upward grade leading out of the cauldron and back toward Nevada. I passed a sign for a ghost town. The universe enlarged; the fog now appeared to wave like white breath or hair a hundred feet ahead. Shadow birds, hawks or ravens, slid past. A mile before the state line the sky cleared and the mountains, which are guardian mountains, resumed their folded forms. They had always been there. I braked for motion in the road, eight mule deer who stood on the asphalt and watched my approach, turned and sprang into the sage, bounding from their hind legs like rabbits but more slowly, since gravity is proportionally slower on their larger bodies, slow-motion rabbits leaping through glutinous air.

Late that night I heard a preacher on the radio compare homosexuality and abortion to slavery and the Holocaust. In the course of this extended analogy he reminded the congregation that Hitler killed six million Jews, not to mention Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals—here he stumbled for a moment, apparently unsure of this facet of the argument, then regained his confidence and carried through. No major church denomination protested slavery before the Civil War. The German churches kept silent during the Third Reich. The humanists say that we can believe whatever we like in private, but we Christians cannot withdraw from politics as we have in the past; withdrawal from public life leaves the field to Satan; Samuel Adams said that we must earn our liberty through virtue; we the people, in Christ—

Right now I am on the fourth floor of a bank building. There are strong winds outside.


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