mediation

Juan Goytisolo“I went [to Sarajevo] with many ideas,” Juan Goytisolo is quoted as saying in Ben Ehrenreich’s “Me and the Major”. “I came out only with doubts, no certainties at all.” It’s not clear, however, whether he is talking of his first visit to the city, in 1993, or his subsequent, 1994, trip.

In 1993, if his “Sarajevo Notebook” is any guide, Goytisolo finds that his experience of the city under siege leaves him little time for such doubts:

Life there acquires a vertiginous rhythm and intensity. [. . .] New friendships become deep and long-lived. Sincerity and a longing for truth take hold. One’s sense of morality is refined and improved. Discarded concepts hurriedly cast on the dungheap of history are reborn with a new richness and strength: the need for commitment, the urgency of solidarity. Things that previously seemed important wane and lose substances; others slight in appearance suddenly acquire greatness and stand out as self-evident truths. (51)

Even so, and despite this insistence on “experiences and images that don’t fade from the mind” (51), in practice what emerges from Goytisolo’s account of his trip is how heavily mediated he found his encounter with war.

His first dispatch for El País, for instance, opens with a mediation on an advert glanced in Paris as he is en route to the airport. These feature “the blackened manly face of an actor (Tom Berenger?) beneath capital letters of a film title: SNIPER, CRACK MARKSMAN” (3). This “true grit face of the Crack Marksman” is, Goytisolo suggests, “the sublimated ideal and ineffable model of those shooting for real in Sarajevo” (3). But how to distinguish the ideal from the real?

For, however much he lambastes the indifference of the European public, and particularly the reticence of other intellectuals to visit the city (“Attempts by Susan Sontag and myself to bring writers of renown to Sarajevo have ended in fiasco” [47]), the Spanish novelist is continually aware that he himself also remains at one remove from what’s going on. His bullet-proof vest, for instance, “compulsory to board UN planes [. . .] privileges me and separates me out from the rest of the besieged” (50).

And at the airport in Rome, headed to Split, though Goytisolo casts an eye askance at his fellow travellers who are, he imagines, on some kind of war tourism thrill, “on their way to the land of Bosnia in their search for a succulent repast, a huge repertoire of genuine horror scenes” (4), is he not reflecting on his own motivations? For is he not, too, but another of these “seekers after such singular encounters” (4)?

Madrid posterMoreover, this account of violence in the Balkans, and international indifference, is continually framed in terms of Goytisolo’s own obsessions with the prelude to fascism in the 1930s, and above all the fate of the Spanish Republic. He has prepared for his experience of Sarajevo by re-reading Antonio Machado’s account of Madrid under siege: “Whoever heard the first shells fired over Madrid by the rebel batteries, set up in the Casa de Campo, will always remember one of the most distasteful, distressing emotions . . . that can ever be experienced in life” (49).

Goytisolo (born, Barcelona, 1931) surely never heard those shells over Madrid. Is he now, “profoundly reliving the feelings of the poet canonized by our socialist politicians” (49), finding in Sarajevo an aide mémoire to reconstruct an intangible scene of Spanish trauma?

But is this not too easy a critique? Despite his claims to experience and the authenticity of his encounter with the Balkan conflict, Goytisolo hardly hides or shies away from the multiple mediations that frame his account. His point, indeed, is not that there has been silence about the fate of Sarajevo, or even that much obfuscation: he asks rhetorically whether the tourists, who he has later decided are in fact off to a beach holiday on the Dalmatian coast, can “be unaware of what is happening only a hundred kilometers away?” (6). Of course not. “We cannot plead ignorance: the journalists and photographers dispatched to Sarajevo and the war fronts have generally ‘covered’ the news with exemplary honesty and courage” (47). It is not that we do not know. It is that we do not do anything about our knowledge.

The difference between Sarajevo in the 1990s and Madrid in the 1930s, then, is properly posthegemonic. The issue is not ideology or truth, but affect and habit. For some reason, Europe in the 1990s is no longer affected by what happens at or within its borders. The problem is not doubt–if only it were–or the unreliability of the media. It is a question of habituation.

Finally, then, if we lack solidarity, it is not because we lack imagination. What’s required, rather, is an affective rapport, a resonance that is felt physically. We need to be moved, immediately if without resort to ideologies of authenticity.

tiredness

“The body is never in the present,” Gilles Deleuze notes, “it contains the before and after, tiredness and waiting. Tiredness and waiting, even despair are the attitudes of the body” (Cinema 2 189).

Gabriel Garcia MarquezGabriel García Márquez’s “No One Writes to the Colonel” is concerned above all with tiredness and waiting–and so also the corresponding attitudes of the body. It provides, therefore, a version of what Deleuze terms the “time-image”:

the series of time. The daily attitude is what puts the before and after into the body, the body as the revealer of the deadline. The attitude of the body relates thought to time as to that outside which is infinitely further than the outside world” (189)

The story opens with the colonel of the novella’s title making his wife a cup of that ubiquitous stimulant, coffee, banishing tiredness with caffeine. The process is described in all its material determinants: the ground beans, the boiling fluid, and a series of containers that themselves leech into the resulting mixture as he “scrape[s] the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with bits of rust, fell into the pot” (109).

At the same time, we also get an early insight into the physical maladies that ail both the colonel and his wife. He finds his gut and stomach affected: “the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut” (109). She “had suffered an asthma attack” the previous night and “sip[s] her coffee in the pauses of her gravelly breathing. She was scarcely more than a bit of white on an arched, rigid spine” (109, 110).

The pair’s deteriorating corporeal condition is a direct result of their long wait for the colonel’s overdue pension. “For nearly sixty years–since the end of the last civil war–the colonel had done nothing else but wait” (109). And in the novella’s sixty or so pages that follow, there is not much in the way of action except for the small routines that occupy the couple in their quiet, desperate poverty.

In the first few of these pages, the colonel makes coffee, winds the pendulum clock (one of their few remaining possessions, a constant reminder of time’s passage), sees to the rooster they are keeping for a forthcoming cockfight, seeks out his suit, shaves, dresses… “He did each thing as if it were a transcendent act” (112). But of course these habits are far from transcendent; they are the endlessly iterated reflexes of a life spent waiting for transcendence, for a response from that department of state bureaucracy charged with allocating money to war veterans.

For of all the colonel’s routines, the most symptomatic is his weekly trip down to greet the mail launch, follow the postman to the post office, and watch him sort the mail. “And, as on every Friday, he returned home without the longed-for letter” (127).

Colonel waitingStill from the film El coronel no tiene quien le escriba
These are, then, bodies that have yet to be scripted into the national narrative. The colonel frequently and somewhat obsessively casts his mind back to his role in the revolution–in which ironically he himself was a type of mailman, whose own arduous journey delivering funds for the war is somewhat belated, arriving only “half an hour before the treaty was signed” (131). But he receives a receipt for his delivery, a proof of his service, and can’t believe that it can now have been mislaid in the national archives. “‘No official could fail to notice documents like those,’ the colonel said” (131).

But indeed, despite the myriad documents and missives that circulate through the story–newspapers, pamphlets, an air-mail letter for the local doctor–the story emphasizes the lives and experiences that never achieve representation. All this writing is characterized by its absences, its lacks. The national papers are subject to censorship, demanding but also frustrating suspicious interpretation: “‘What’s in the news?’ the colonel asked. [. . .] ‘No one knows,’ [the doctor] said. ‘It’s hard to read between the lines which the censor lets them print'” (119). While there’s little hope that any outsiders will interest themselves in local happenings: “‘To the Europeans, South America is a man with a mustache, a guitar, and a gun,’ the doctor said, laughing over his newspaper. ‘They don’t understand the problems'” (127).

And though there are also clandestine missives and messages that attempt to make up for this representational lack, these endlessly say “the same as always,” and the colonel doesn’t even bother reading them (137).

Waiting, waiting, the colonel and his wife are subject to a “slow death” (165). But almost to the end, they maintain their patience, however much it is tried in their various squabbles as they figure out strategies to keep their bodies at least semi-nourished. Should they sell or keep the clock, and above all the rooster whose fight might lead to a big pay-out? “But suppose he loses,” objects the wife (165).

In the end, the couple are reduced to something like what Giorgio Agamben terms “bare life”. What are the two then to eat? And yet it is, strangely, this condition, in its loss of hope for transcendence and realization of pure, immanent materiality, that is portrayed as a moment of almost ecstatic ascesis. After all his hesitations, his anxiety, after all the ways in which he is ignored or taken advantage of by the state and local notables alike, somehow the waiting is over:

It had taken the colonel seventy-five years–the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute–to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit, invincible at the moment that he replied:

“Shit.” (166)

(In the meantime, it would seem that García Márquez himself is now tired of writing.)

chance

Jorge Luis Borges

One of the curiosities of Jorge Luis Borges’s stories is the way in which they combine the most rarified of philosophical abstractions with an almost obsessive focus on violence, death, and the body.

In one of his earliest books, Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy), Borges is interested in how violence is narrativized: in the semi-mythical narratives that accrete around crime and criminality, preserving but also domesticating our fear of those who live on and transgress society’s margins.

“The Widow Ching–Pirate” is particularly concerned with the intersection between storytelling and warfaring. Its plot details the way in which this notorious pirate “queen” is compelled to surrender ultimately not by force, but by her own interpretation of signs both natural and man-made:

The moon grew thin in the sky, and still the figures of rice paper and reed wrote the same story each evening, with almost imperceptible variations. The widow was troubled, and she brooded. (23)

The widow feels that she herself has been emplotted in this narrative that she reads in the skies, a narrative slowly coming to its “inevitable end,” either “infinite pardon or infinite punishment” (23). And in surrendering she both accepts and influences her fate, choosing to seek pardon rather than punishment, or at least to take her chances.

It is then chance–the unpredictable, undecideable, and indeterminate–that also connects violence and narrative. Texts are constantly subject to “almost imperceptible variations,” some of which may have the most dramatic of consequences. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, though in many ways a playful satire of avant-garde literary pretensions, alerts us to the different interpretations that can be generated by barely (here, absolutely) imperceptible differences between texts:

It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard with that of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the “ingenious layman” Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

History, the mother of truth!–the idea is staggering. (94)

Again, we shouldn’t forget the comedy here, but Borges returns endlessly to the drastically contrasting outcomes that can be the result of the smallest initial differences: in, for instance, “The Garden of Forking Paths” (and compare the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors) or “The South”.

So in “The South,” it is not so much that there is any one pivotal moment: there are many, all of which cumulatively lead the plot to its narrative conclusion, and the story’s protagonist, Juan Dahlmann, to his untimely end. But each of these pivots on which the story and Dahlmann’s fate rests is presented as the lightest of touches: literally so, in the instance of the injury that leads him to septicemia and the sanatorium. “Fate can be merciless with the slightest distractions,” comments the story’s narrator:

That afternoon Dahlmann had come upon a copy (from which some pages were missing) of Weil’s Arabian Nights; eager to examine his find, he did not wait for the elevator–he hurriedly took the stairs. Something in the dimness brushed his forehead–a bat? a bird? On the face of the woman who opened the door to him, he saw an expression of horror, and the hand he passed over his forehead came back red with blood. (174-175)

The choices we make only half-aware (taking the stairs rather than the elevator) combine with half-noticed events (a brush on the forehead) to produce unexpected and sometimes fatal results. This particular event is here later mirrored when, in a store in the south of the story’s title, “Dahlmann suddenly felt something lightly brush his face” (278). But it would be wrong to say that it is his reaction to this encounter–accepting a young thug’s challenge to a fight–that seals his fate. For one thing, what’s required is the intervention of yet another “unforeseeable” intervention, a gaucho throwing Dahlmann a weapon; for another, we might also say that our protagonist’s conclusion has been inscribed in his ancestry, his grandfather’s own death fighting in the south, and the “pull” of that lineage.

Moreover, it’s not even as though the story ends so very determinately: it requires the reader to imagine a perhaps inevitable conclusion: “Dahlmann firmly grips the knife, which he may have no idea how to manage, and steps out into the plains” (179; my emphasis).

Finally, “The Library of Babel” examines narrative, and its infinitude, and also the violent passions that it can provoke, with its image of librarians searching for the elusive (but assuredly existent) volume that would vindicate their lives:

Thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed downstairs, spurred by the vain desire to find their Vindication. These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men of distant regions. Others went insane… (115)

The despairing realization here is of the dark nexus between chance, certainty, and totality. For it to be certain that the library contains precisely the volume that the pilgrims seek, then the library has to be infinite, to contain the totality of all possible books. Which means that the chance of finding that particular text “can be calculated to be zero” (115).

As such, even in the perfectly ordered world represented by the all-encompassing universe that is the library, we are left at best to take, but also then to relish, our chances.

Library of Babel

fragile

Glass GraduateA brief note in the July 2003 edition of The American Journal of Psychiatry, entitled “Delusional Self-Portrait”, concerns the case of “Mr A, a 32-year old Caucasian man” who had asked

to have some wires that stopped him from sleeping removed from his leg. He said there were many more wires inside his body that he had discovered after experiencing that “a magnetism of storms” produced multiple internal sensations in the form of erratic contractions and “electric currents,” which he tried to alleviate by sticking needles into himself so as to “discharge the current by touching the wires with a metallic object.”

Mr A depicted his condition by means a stick figure, made of wire, which he had taped to the cover of his diary: “That’s what I’m like inside—all made of metal.”

The psychiatrists treating him diagnose “cenesthetic schizophrenia,” a condition characterized by “a peculiar conservation of affectivity.” Chambers defines cenesthesis (also, coenaesthesis) as “general consciousness or awareness of one’s body.” Webster defines it as “common sensation or general sensibility.” It is, in short, affect without specific object. It is affect in common, affect as such; an unspecific but decidedly concrete consciousness of materiality.

It is not then so surprising that the treatment prescribed for Mr A should have been markedly literary: the point was presumably to (re-)enable representation, to give this non-specific affect subject and object. So the patient was recommended to read Miguel de Cervantes’s “El licenciado Vidriera” (“The Glass Graduate”). Upon reading Cervantes’s short story, we are told, Mr A gained a measure of relief:

I was relieved that somebody else had experienced the same as me, and I realized that reality is a very broad, diverse concept, not something unique and the same for everybody.

This Golden Age “exemplary novel” thus proves its exemplarity: providing both a literary precursor against which experience can be (re-)cast as similar, a repetition; and also ironically modelling singularity, that is the unrepeatable, itself. The singular becomes representable only through its iteration, its doubling.

We have something here of what Jacques Derrida, in Monolingualism of the Other, terms “the exemplary or testimonial singularity of martyred existence” (27; emphasis in original). Cervantes becomes a proleptic witness to Mr A’s pain. And Derrida is precisely interested in this establishment of representation by means of the paradoxical meeting of the singular (an unrepresentable affect, a pain no-one else can feel) and the universal (a sign system available to all):

As regards so enigmatic a value as that of attestation, or even of exemplarity in testimony, here is a first question, the most general one, without the shadow of a doubt. What happens when someone resorts to describing an allegedly uncommon situation [. . .] by testifying to it in terms that go beyond it, in a language whose generality takes on a value that is in some way structural, universal, transcendental, or ontological? When anybody who happens by infers the following: “What holds for me, irreplaceably, also applies to all. [. . .]” (19-20)

The only twists here are, first, the pre-emptive character of Cervantes’s exemplarity–a “classic” written almost 400 years ago–and second, the analytic scene. But this is precisely how analysis works: transforming immanence into a relation with transcendence through representation, by provoking identification and recognition on the part of the analysand: the conjunctive synthesis, “so that’s what it was!” (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus 20).

Miguel de CervantesThat moment of realization is, of course, the fruit of interpretation. In his Prologue to the Exemplary Novels Cervantes underlines, albeit circuitously and somewhat ironically, the ways in which they demand readerly hermeneutics:

I have called them Exemplary, and if you look closely, you will see that there is not one from which you cannot extract some profitable example; and if it were not for the fact that it would make this over-long, perhaps I would show you the delicious and wholesome fruit which could be pulled both from the collection as a whole and from each one alone.

He is not going to show us the moral to be gleaned from his writing, precisely because a large part of that moral–perhaps the moral–is the requirement to “look closely” and to decipher the texts’ meanings, apparently for yourself (your self?).

The story prescribed to treat Mr A, “The Glass Graduate,” is in many ways an allegory of interpretation: it deals with clarity and obscurity, and, equally, the difficulties of knowing either the self or the other.

Very briefly, the plot concerns a boy, who initially adopts the name Tomás Rodaja and is in turn adopted by two “gentleman students” from Málaga and sponsored through the course of studies in law at Salamanca. He subsequently takes up with a Captain of the army, and tours Italy before going on to Flanders. Returning to Salamanca, he is poisoned by an ardent suitor, as result of which

The unfortunate young man imagined that he was all made of glass, and in this delusion, whenever anyone approached him, he would shriek, begging and pleading with coherent words and arguments, for people not to come near, because they would break him, because really and truly he was not as other men–he was made of glass from head to foot. (73)

Taking as his name the Glass Graduate, or just Glass, in his madness the youth wanders the streets delivering caustic aphorisms on contemporary social mores, and as such becomes something of a character and celebrity. After two years as a semi-itinerant holy fool, sleeping and travelling packed in hay to ensure that his fragile body is well protected, he is rather abruptly cured by a Hieronymite friar. But, as a notorious former madman, he is unable to return to the practice of law, so with the name now of Tomás Rueda he sets off instead to seek fame in arms in the company of his friend Captain Valdivia.

The graduate’s sense of self is shown to be brittle in a host of aspects. As I’ve indicated, he’s forever changing both his social role and his name: there’s more than a little of the picaresque about his adventures, except that he is for all intents and purposes without character; he is instead consistently renamed and re-adopted by those around him. We learn next to nothing about his background, and never, for instance, learn his real name (if indeed he has one). Until his final (un-narrated) incarnation as valiant soldier, he is notably shy to commit or invest in anything or anyone. (Elaine Dunn’s “Fashioning Identities in ‘El licenciado Vidriera'” is good on the ways in which he “resists all forms of intimacy and social relations” [130].)

He never really acquires an ego, then: he serves rather as a lens through which others are led to believe they see the hypocrisy and corruption of their own society all the clearer. In this sense, he’s not far wrong to imagine himself as made out of glass. (Indeed, as George Shipley implies in “Vidriera’s Blather”, perhaps that’s about the sum total of what he’s not wrong about.)

But at least he is of interest. For all the desire for a cure, or for all that this like the other exemplary novels is designed to be curative, in the end the normalized subject is, frankly, portrayed as rather boring. In fact, he’s not portrayed at all, but is dispensed with in a final, single sentence, paragraph. When the exemplary becomes universal, it no longer holds any pull on narrative; it has simply flattened out into language as such. It is only in so far as the exemplary remains singular, and so resists representation, that it also demands narrativization, even if that narrative ultimately irons out and eliminates the very singularity that is at first so seductive.

The same is true, for instance, of the eponymous “Jealous Old Man from Extremadura.” As soon, at the tale’s resolution, as he comes to his senses and gives up his jealousy, he is promptly dispatched without further ado, expiring within seven days and a single sentence. (On a rather different tack, I heartily recommend Shirfa Armon’s analysis of this story in “The Paper Key”, which persuasively argues that it is a critique of Spain’s unprofitable investment of American spoils, and an anticipation of the shift from faith in precious ore to the fluidity of paper money.)

Finally, though, is there not another way of thinking about creatures of glass? One outlined in a poem by Keith Walton that also takes the title “The Glass Graduate”. This gives us a voice whose glass self is not distanced and packaged away from the world, but vibrantly expectant and affectively, joyously, erotically responsive to the slightest liquid touch:

I sing
          as the wetted finger
                                           circles my rim
vibrate
wait
terrified –
                  Sing!           Sing!           Sing!

translation

Bernal Diaz“Properly to extol the adventures that befell us,” writes Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his “Preliminary Note” to The Conquest of New Spain, “and the heroic deeds we performed [. . .] would require eloquence and rhetoric far greater than mine” (14).

From the outset, then, Díaz suggests that there is something improper about his account. Its lack of the required eloquence is felt as some kind of somewhat disturbing fault that has to be signalled right at the start.

Absent these skills, Díaz informs us: “What I myself saw, and the fighting in which I took part, with God’s help I will describe quite plainly, as an honest eyewitness, without twisting the facts in any way” (14). The hope is that honesty and clarity will perhaps make up for, or even outdo, a rhetorical excess that could be interpreted, indeed, as “twisting the facts.” But Díaz has implanted some seeds of doubt as to whether he is a fit chronicler of the story he tells.

Moreover, the issue of who speaks and how, and of who can or should mediate or represent on behalf of others, is central to The Conquest of New Spain. Not least because of the famous, indeed notorious, role of “Doña Marina,” otherwise known as “La Malinche,” in the events that Díaz relates.

La MalincheDíaz takes time out from his narrative, which is otherwise concerned above all with a detailed chronology of the various expeditions to the mainland, above all that led by Hernando Cortes, to give us, almost as an aside, “Doña Marina’s Story.” But this aside, as is so often the case, contains what is in fact essential.

There’s a good reason why “before speaking of the great Montezuma,” Díaz should want “to give an account of Doña Marina” (85).

Doña Marina was an object of numerous exchanges: her parents, caciques from Paynala, had secretly entrusted her to “some Indians from Xilango,” who in turn “gave the child to the people of Tabasco, and the Tabascans gave her to Cortes” (85). Passed around in this way, she clearly picked up a facility with languages, developing a hybrid subjectivity of which the Spanish were crucially to take advantage. She was able to translate between Nahuatl and the language of Tabasco, a language with the former deserter Jeronimo de Aguilar had picked up in the Yucatán: “these two understood one another well, and Aguilar translated into Castillian for Cortes” (86-87).

These two renegade subjects, then, Doña Marina and Aguilar, formed a communicative relay, enabling Cortes to represent himself and to be in turn addressed by the Aztecs and their vassals. In Díaz’s words:

This was the beginning of our conquests, and thus, praise be to God, all things prospered with us. I have made a point of telling this story, because without Doña Marina we could not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico. (87)

And in fact time after time, notably in Cholula shortly before the conquering party moved on to Tenochtitlan itself, they made good use of the fact that they were able to gather information about the natives’ plans. Díaz reports that this was why “they took us for magicians and said that no plot against us could be so secret as to escape discovery” (203).

So it turns out that the people who are able to speak “properly”–and though we hear relatively little about Aguilar, we often hear how Doña Marina “translated [Cortes’s] speech and made it perfectly clear” (199)–are these hybrid, somewhat untrustworthy subjects. The Spaniards are reliant on their powers of translation and persuasion, but also naturally somewhat suspicious of their abilities.

No wonder, too, that Cortes should warn against the way with words apparently possessed by someone such as Bartolomé de las Casas, who “was never tired of talking” about the conquistadors’ unwarranted massacres. Las Casas “writes so persuasively that he would convince anyone who had not witnessed the event, or had no knowledge of it, that these and the other cruelties of which he writes took place as he says” (203). But, Díaz insists, we should “beware of this book of his” (203). Its very fluency should alert us that its tale is perhaps too seductive, too convincing.

So in the end Díaz’s account is a defence of the improper, of the stumbling, stuttering way in which he himself writes, often informing us of the lapses in his own memory: the chief’s name or the idol’s name he forgets, for instance (192, 202). It’s precisely these lapses in his chronicle, these failures to translate or articulate adequately, that guarantee, Díaz suggests, its truthfulness.

Jack Shafer expresses a very similar sentiment at the end of his mea culpa detailing how he was taken in by one of the many recent scandalous writing “frauds” (JT Leroy, James Frey), in this case Stephen Glass: “Anyone can doubt a bad writer. It’s the good ones who need watching.”