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Six Months

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Opening the Savage Detectives

If you like the old joke that life is just the way that DNA make more DNA — and I do like that old joke — then maybe it would be fair to observe that Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives sees poetry mainly as the way poets make more poets. Which is to say, there’s a stunning absence at the center of this book about poets talking about poetry: poetry itself.

I don’t mean, of course, that there is no poetry in it — there is some — but take, for example, this bit of description from pages 6 and 7:

“The end of class was surprising. Alamo dared Ulises Lima to read one of his poems. Lima didn’t need to be asked twice. He pulled some smudged, crumpled sheets from his jacket pocket. Oh no, I thought, the idiot is walking right into their trap. I think I shut my eyes out of sheer sympathetic embarrassment. There’s a time for reciting poems and a time for fists. As far as I was concerned, this was the latter. But as I was saying, I closed my eyes, and I heard Lima clear his throat, then I heard the somewhat uncomfortable silence (if it’s possible to hear such a thing, which I doubt) that settled around him, and finally I heard his voice, reading the best poem I’d ever heard. Then Arturo Belano got up and said that they were looking for poets who would like to contribute to the magazine that the visceral realists were putting out. Everybody wished they could volunteer, but after the fight they felt sheepish and no one said a thing. When the workshop ended (later than usual), I went with Lima and Belano to the bus stop. It was too late. There were no more buses, so we decided to take a pesero together to Reforma, and from there we walked to a bar on Calle Bucareli, where we sat until very late, talking about poetry.”

The lines “reading the best poem I’d ever heard” and “talking about poetry” leap out at me in their unfinishedness. What was said? What made the poem so good? And compare the incredible deft sensitivity that the novel brings to bear on the ways people (who happen to be poets) interact with other people (who happen to be poets) to foreclosures like this; there’s a world in the paragraph, a rich sketched-out world of human sociality for which “poetry” is more or less the incidental catalyst. The entire book seems to follow that pattern, circling endlessly round and around its principle characters, without ever settling on the thing that brings them together, or rather without the thing they use to bring themselves together ever becoming a settled thing.

I’m still thinking this through; I’m not finished with the book, and a lot is still fairly opaque to me. But the poetry of this novel is a very different thing than the monuments of a certain literary tradition; the poems written by these people seem so fundamentally occasional that the idea of a completed corpus — a poetic body to represent the living one — is not merely absent, but basically refuted. One writes poetry, as someone for N+1 put it, because “[a]t one point you started and now you can’t stop; it’s become a habit and an identity.” But I wonder if this might be no more a cause for despair than is our exploitation by our DNA for its own selfish purposes. After all, Lima’s might be the best poem Juan has ever heard, but he will live to hear more and better ones, and maybe even write them, too.

On the Perniciousness of Analogy

At Obsidian Wings, Publius wrote that the unfolding clusterfuckery in Iran

“make[s] me grateful for the stability of our own government.  In America, our political fights — which can get quite nasty — take place upon an invisible foundation of legitimacy and stability.  We have the luxury of ignoring this foundation and pretending it doesn’t exist.  Politics is a fight for power, always — but we are fortunate enough to fight things out within an underlying structural framework that enjoys widespread acceptance.

I suppose. But he can have the comfort of that analogy the same way the CEO of (insert huge multinational corporation here) can thank his lucky stars that he doesn’t live in the grinding poverty that his employees are lucky enough to enjoy. Which is to say, drawing this kind of analogy is a way of making the relationship between its objects (and the consequent chains of causality) disappear: capitalists believe that the “free market” is a level playing field, because if they had to confront the ways their success is predicated on other people’s failure, it would be more difficult to disclaim responsibility for other people’s suffering. But because the analogy stages the comparison between two objects not as a historical one, but as presumes their fundamental distinction, any relationship between tends to remain un-thought. 

The same general point needs to made in the international arena. After all, why does Publius think Iran’s governance is so fucked up? Are we merely lucky to enjoy something that the fates have declined to provide to the unlucky residents of that unfortunate country? Iran is very far away, is it not?

Cadmus sowing the dragon's teeth

The CIA didn’t think so when they engineered the coup in 1953 that overturned Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister. When the Shah’s secret police crushed dissent for decades, the USA not only looked on with approval, but we actively enabled them to do so; it was in, they thought, the best intersts of the United States to do so. And when in1979, the Shah’s government was facing a political Islamist revolution, Jimmy Carter assured the Shah of American support (making him all the more intransigent to reform) while his state department actively worked to support and establish ties with Khomeini’s government.

These are simple facts; they’re not even that controversial. Which is not to say that the Americans who did these things had a full sense of what they were doing; they didn’t. They had no idea in 1979 who Khomeini was or what he would become, and so they were shocked, shocked, when he turned out to be all the things he had been saying he was for decades. Which is exactly the point. Why didn’t they know? Why were they so stupid? Why couldn’t they see what was right in front of their eyes?       

Marx wrote that capital comes into the world dripping blood and dirt, head to toe, from every pore, and he thought long and hard about the ways we have learned, out of a need to maintain our own high opinion of ourselves, to forget about it. If we had to know the extent to which our own wealth is produced not by the stand-alone virtue of our own actions, could we live with ourselves? But the same is true of “political stability.” If we had to think about the extent to which the Islamic Republic was sown with the teeth of American dragons, could we so blithely thank our lucky stars that we are so fortunate not to live there?

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