unknowable

Still more Roa Bastos…

The Body

“Usted mismo, Señor, dice que los hechos no son narrables” (568)

As much as this is a book about language or power, it is also a book about the limits of both, which it identifies at least in part with the materiality of the body. Indeed, even history, in so far as it is a narrative of or about power, finds its limit in the physicality (and corruptibility) of the matter that constitutes us. In fact, the book’s broad narrative could perhaps be summarized in terms of an attempt to use language to stave off the bodily dissolution threatened by the anonymous decree, an attempt ultimately doomed to failure as the Supreme recognizes the futility of the struggle to impose narrative on events.

The main body of the book (and that the book also has a body is not insignificant) ends with a conflagration engulfing the Supreme’s papers, and a vision of the dictator’s body consumed by worms. We take, I think, this to be the conflagration that has partially destroyed the texts with which the compiler constructs the novel we have before us. That the compiler is continually forced to interpolate comments (more frequent in the final pages than hitherto) indicating the state of these texts (burnt, illegible, missing) reminds us that language has to be incarnated in some physical medium for it to be transmitted. We are constantly reminded that literature has a real (not simply an ideal) presence, that the letter is also material, and so subject to the vicissitudes that may befall all material things. At the same time, the partial survival of the Supreme’s papers point to another, contrasting aspect to the letter’s materiality: the fact that the dictator is unable fully to destroy his papers demonstrates that once committed to paper his thoughts have a stubborn presence that cannot easily be revoked. In short, the paradox of materiality is that it is both obstinately resistant to change and yet also always mutable, never self-similar.

Likewise, then, the Supreme’s predicament might be described as a combination of the fact that his written or spoken dictates are insufficiently powerful to provide him with absolute power over the Paraguayan social body, yet his words will inevitably prove more durable than his own decaying flesh. On the one hand, his power is not powerful enough; on the other, his power far outstrips his own body.

Traditionally, one way in which to conceptualize this second dislocation between the mortality of those who wield power and the presumed eternity of power itself revolves around the concept of the “king’s two bodies.” As a subject of power, the king’s body is incorruptible and immortal, transcending any particular individual (hence the instantaneousness of transition articulated in the declaration “The king is dead, long live the king!”); as a human subject, however, it is recognized that the king’s body may suffer illness and decrepitude. The separation between “yo” and “él” that we see in Roa Bastos’s novel expresses therefore not only a linguistic complexity, but also a material doubling. Yet even in this neat solution to the question of power’s materiality, problems arise in the intricate relation between these two bodies. What happens, for instance, when the king seems to go mad (as with George III)? And, more fundamentally, rather than preserving an ideal, untouchable body is not this doubling itself a form of monstrosity?

As an attempt to resolve these contradictions, the Supreme’s discourse therefore attempts a constant dialogue between language itself and materiality. Yet this is always inevitably a failed dialogue, as there can be no dialogue between language and what is not language; by definition a dialogue can only be established within language. The material will always remain forever mute and (at least in part) unknowable.

One thought on “unknowable

  1. Pingback: Boom! | Posthegemony

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