Teaching One Hundred Years of Solitude

by zunguzungu

I’m teaching One Hundred Years of Solitude again, and I’m nervous I won’t have the same zest of “teaching-it-for-the-first-time” that made it at least a qualified success last semester. It’s amazing how often that’s the case, at least anecdotally: teaching a novel you’ve just finished and have only begun processing, you so often teach substantially better classes than when you know exactly what you think and want to say. Ah well, into the breach.

Passing over the opening and its obsessive fascination with the logic of the feminine domestic vs. the mad scientist husband — at one point, our patriarch tries to burn down the house with a magnifying class, for example, and generally ignores the kids, registers the wife only to the extent that she screeches at him to stop, and the only part of the house directly described is the room he builds in the back to get away from his family — I’m trying to think about how to address the mad dream logic of the novel.

This description of Melquiades, for example, the “fugitive from all the plagues and catastrophes that had ever lashed mankind”:

“He had survived pellagra in Persia, scurvy in the Malaysian archipelago, leprosy in Alexandria, beriberi in Japan, bubonic plague in Madagascar, an earthquake in Sicily, and a disastrous shipwreck in the Strait of Magellan”

We hear the phrase “hereditary memory” a few lines later, and that seems an apropos phrase; after all, so much of the early history of the Americas is the story of germs and the ways our bodies experience them and remember the experience, and while Jared Diamond had a few good idea which he buried under dumb social Darwinism and massive hubris, it is nevertheless true that the conquistadors carried both diseases and resistance to them to the new world, and — in passing on only the former — had a massive social advantage in how they set about conquering indigenous peoples. But as with so much of the novel, knowing this only lets you notice that he’s creatively misremembering it, producing a fictive dream that reminds us of the truth without realistically portraying it.

I imagine I’ll make my students endure some Freud today, and I’ll offer up some warmed over capsule histories of the new world. But can you appreciate how dreams misremember if you only have someone telling you what is being mis-remembered?

Or maybe a different approach. Freud claims that:

“In the following pages I shall provide proof that there is a psychological technique which allows us to interpret dreams, and that when this procedure is applied, every dream turns out to be a meaningful, psychical formation which can be given an identifiable place in what goes on within our waking life.”

But isn’t the interesting thing about that Persian pellagra quote the very fact that you can’t actually interpret it with any certainty? Sure, you can understand that the “hereditary memory” of genetic resistance is being obliquely referenced, and you can think about how and why that historical factotum has been re-membered in the way it has, but can we really make it meaningful and identifiable the way Freud wants to? Perhaps I can pose this as a question to my students as a way into the royal road of interpreting fiction.