Excerpts and notes from an essay in progress towards the anti-postmodern in 2666, by Arian Cato:
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 tells of acts of unspeakable violence and horrors across two centuries. This is well known, so I will not recapitulate the largely discursive plot, but rather I will investigate through Lacanian theory as interpreted by Slavoj Žižek the meaning of Benno von Archimboldi. Natasha Wimmer’s “Notes Toward an Annotated Edition of 2666” informs us that in Bolaño’s last interview, the author states that Hell would be “like Ciudad Juárez, which is our curse and our mirror, the unquiet mirror of our frustrations and of our vile interpretation of freedom and our desires.” In his essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” Bolaño comments on 2666’s epigraph (“An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” from “Le Voyage” by Charles Baudelaire): “There is no more lucid diagnosis for the illness of modern man. To escape boredom, to escape deadlock, all we have at hand, though not so close at hand, because even here an effort is required, is horror, or in other words, evil.” In “Secreto y simulacro en 2666 de Roberto Bolaño” addressing Bolaño’s writing technique, Patricia Espinosa “calls this tendency […] an ‘anarchizing rebellion, an impulse toward permanent revolution . . . the logic of dispersion.’” On page 360 of 2666 Cerro Estrella is described as having “streets winding through an anarchic sprawl,” and throughout the work revolutions are constantly referenced, once by an implied cameo by Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (characters from other parts of Bolaño’s oeuvre) and again by Boris Ansky, a fictional science fiction writer who writes about revolutions that devour its makers (729). If the streets of Santa Teresa and the style of 2666 are anarchic and the epigraph refers to our corrosive modernity and its abuses of freedom and desires, then we can anticipate an even more sprawling post-modern novel. Instead, we read an anti-postmodern novel where a rift world without end can only be sutured by a messianic anti-superhero. 2666 is an allegory of subjectivity depicting our hysterical modern condition as one suffering from the absence of the phallic Master-Signifier.
In a footnote in Less Than Nothing Žižek remarks on the difference between modernism and postmodernism: “Modernism enacts alienation, the loss of one’s roots in tradition, but only with postmodernism do we truly separate ourselves from tradition: its loss is no longer experienced as a loss, which is why we can playfully return to it” (604); as we will see, Archimboldi resists this notion of postmodernism by returning as a mythical figure. 2666 is an anti-postmodern novel in the “negation of negation” sense where it asserts itself not as not-postmodern, but as something that “acts as acting as not postmodern.” In other words, 2666 submits itself to the postmodern tenets but then submits them for critique—it is self-subversive in its self-reflexivity. What has occurred in the world of 2666 is that the freedom unleashed through postmodernity (which in the novel is just “modernity”) has removed the frame through which sublimation can occur, the consequence of which are “returns of the Real” where violence occurs for no reason. Gaps in reality occur and scientific rationalizations are brought to their limits, a condition that pushes aside philosophy (“love of knowledge”: Amalfitano’s director states that he doesn’t believe in the teaching of philosophy when the progress of science will obviate any reference to the art of wisdom) and makes god-like celebrities out of “human scientists” like the shallow Albert Kessler, as well as the proliferation of the art of Edwin Muirs, an artist featured in the first chapter who cuts off his own hand for “the most radical self-portrait for our times,” an attraction which modernizes the area in turn (53).
Modernity in 2666 is the condition where everything is geared towards the future (perhaps to the year 2666) and where the media sensationalizes all (the “Demonic Penitent,” the “Ill-Fated Twins” . . .) so that once the “Age of the Psychopaths” is over the Santa Teresans can happily claim, “There were the usual deaths, yes […] Uncinematic deaths, deaths from the realm of folklore, not modernity: deaths that didn’t scare anybody. The serial killer was officially behind bars” (540). But of course, speaking of cinema, like the zoetrope in Oscar Amalfitano’s chapter, the appearance of a criminal behind bars does not mean that he is actually in prison, and indeed we know better that the killings of Santa Teresa will go on so long as police and investigations processors remain corrupt. This double edge of hyper-accelerated modernity is captured by the parallel expansion of slums and illegal dump sites where traditional modern or postmodern techniques no longer work (since women can simply “come upon death purely by chance” ). In fact, the partly corrupt cop Epifanio tells his fledgling partner, “Don’t you know, you snot-nose bastard, that there is no such thing as modern criminal investigation?” (527). This snot-nose bastard is Olegario Cura, also known as Lalo Cura (as in La Locura—“madness”), a reader and orphan son of either Arturo Belano or Ulises Lima. This conjunction of “madness, police literature, and the modern suggests a world of historical disjunction: The only person on the police force who cares to learn from the past as contained in books is rejected. During the “discovery of Luisa Cardona’s body,” according to patrolman Santiago Ordoñez, Lalo Cura “did strange things, like […] calculating the arc that Laura Cardona’s body must have traced as it fell” (525). Another consequence of modernity’s quickness is the increasing inability to fill the signifier’s place with any permanent object, a condition which erases the necessity for anything specifically to fit in any signifying place, as in Azucena Azucena Esquivel Plata’s case where she was given a high position worse than ostracism because, she and we are told, she was “smart” and “nobody knew her.” For her, truth is a “strung-out pimp,” and power and fame are assured “as long as you’re there. Where? Why, there, the place to be” (609). In other words, “there” sponsored by a state whose commerce commissioner states, “If we let our imagination run wild there’s no knowing where it’ll lead us” and “anything is possible, but there’s no need to descend into chaos,” and to do anything “but discreetly […] without sending anyone into a panic” (471). Yet why this paranoid concern?
What is surprising for me is the general absence of elder characters in the first four parts of the novel. In fact, all the adventures and misadventures are undertaken by people without children, orphans, and young folks. If we take William Butler Yeats’s phrase “no country for old men,” and Cormac McCarthy’s appropriation of it, then the modern world would undoubtedly be a world where only the young gun still works. To lend to this point, 2666’s only “main” older protagonist other than Archimboldi is Amalfitano, whose storyline depicts the “progress” of his supposed descent into madness, as if to suggest that the parental role can only serve to evacuate the country of children in order to save them (like Oscar Amalfitano and Sergio Gonzalez). In Archimboldi we find an inverse of the Amalfitano figure: Rather than an older character, he is an elderly character, one who still fathers no one but at the same time has no father himself, insofar as he has orphaned himself through displacement by adoption of a nom de plume. Further counterpoints: He chooses his own fate and he heads inward to the center of Santa Teresa. On page 741 Hans Reiter (Archimboldi’s birth name) tells himself, “Neither youth nor strength nor love nor peace can be granted to me, nor can I accept such a gift”; on the second point, Amalfitano wants to leave Santa Teresa, his chapter even opening up with his desperate confession, “I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa,” while Archimboldi knows exactly what he will be doing in Santa Teresa. The negativity of choice of the former I will try to explain through the use of a Lacanian vocabulary; as for the latter, I need only refer to 2666 itself to support the previous claim and the claim that 2666 is the painful reckoning of subjective destitution.
On page 796, after leaving the manuscript of his first novel with a dilettante publisher, Archimboldi is described during sex thus: “Sometimes, in the middle of the act, he went off to another planet, a snowy planet where he memorized Ansky’s notebook” (796). This is the difference between father and son, between Hans and Klaus: Hans is effective and can be brought back to earth by the voice of his love (in the end he adopts the persona of “Sisyphus [who] will devise something and he’ll come back to Earth,” another instance of return capability). Klaus, on the other hand, is aloof, distant: “Haas lived away from the din of the center” (477), where also Kessler the “modern scientist” circles (“They circled the center of the city”) in order to assess how to catch the serial killers (589). Voice, in fact, alienates him: The voice of a giant literally tries to destroy him, and over the phone with Sergio Gonzalez as Klaus tells him “they’re postponing the trial. […] They want to destroy me,” we are informed that Sergio hears “the sound of the desert and something like the tread of an animal.” Supposedly Haas has scampered off before Sergio asks, “Haas? Are you still there? No one answered” (540). He is practically an alien in every sense: German by birth, American by nationality, and Spanish by language of choice; also, when his love and lawyer breaks down after a press conference she is seemingly comforted by Haas, whose touch is “not a caress or even friendly, maybe just a token gesture [and whose face is] observing her with scientific rigor, not from that prison room but from the sulphurous vapors of another planet” (607).
Towards the end of the book we find Archimboldi and his wife Ingeborg contemplating the stars. Ingeborg concludes that “we’re surrounded by the past, everything that no longer exists or exists only in memory or guesswork is there now,” to which Archimboldi adds that books, too, are dead, like the Aztecs. Then Ingeborg turns a volta and exclaims that she hates “first editions and pyramids and […] those bloodthirsty Aztecs,” the Aztecs who were one of two things that she used to believe in as a youth (831). To stay warm Archimboldi breaks into a border patrol house to look for some source of heat. He discovers two dead bodies in there and decides to leave. To cover his trail he pours the broken-into glass onto the other side of the door. Of course this makes no sense—why would anybody try to break out from the inside of a house where the lock is? What Archimboldi does is strictly symbolic, which only signals a respect for continuity with the past. This misuse of logic in fact testifies twice: One, it discloses the position from which new meaning can be made from within the symbolic; and two, it clearly appears idiotic or nonsensical. This nonsensical aspect of Archimboldi is one thing which identifies him with the phallus as well as what distinguishes him from the hermeneutic “modern scientists” in search of the “All” (“Meaning belongs to the level of All, while Sense is non-All” [Zizek 697]) in ways that I will elaborate later.
The role of art in 2666 is ambiguous. On one end we have the artist himself, Archimboldi. With him we have the journalist arts writers Sergio Gonzalez (who is actually once perceived as a “crime reporter”) and Oscar Fate, the protagonist of the third chapter. It seems that only through art can the subject matter of 2666 be approached, or even be noticed (by Lotte Reiter in an airport and by Harlem America through an oblique conversation in a bar). Through art are things connected, made into order, and recognized. In fact, this is the fear of every bad artist: to fall into the Hell of bad writers where he or she goes unrecognized. On the other hand, art seems to be a relative of horror, sometimes even a Siamese twin of horror. In fact, when Archimboldi rents his first typewriter, 2666 ventures into the side story of an ex-writer who chastises whoever speaks of purity, since it is purity that Nazis strove for and “thanks to purity and will we’ve all, every one of us, hear me you, become cowards and thugs, which in the end are one and the same” (784). What does purity have to do with art? Apparently, there can be pure art and impure art, the art of shit, which Marco Antonio Guerra points to in the negative affirmative: “Only poetry […] is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit” (226). Young Guerra, however, believes Santa Teresa is going to hell, a privileged man who does nothing but parties and drives a Peregrino (apparently the preferred vehicle for the Santa Teresa women killers, that and Suburbans), and the typewriter lender is a man unprepared to go to the end and “write a masterpiece,” a hypocritical choice of abstinence (read “purity”).
This ex-writer, however, does offer some redeeming theories. He believes that any “book […] arises not from an exercise of style or will, as the poor unfortunate believes, but as the result of an exercise of concealment” (786). He means that “there must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter!” He proclaims that “we never stop being children, terrible children [who] never stop clinging to life because we are life,” before continuing onto the next page with the declaration that “by the same token, few are the writers that give up.” Presumably, when we say “See you at the Nobel,” we mean “see you in Hell.” By the same token, the ex-writer implies that he has the strength to actually stop writing, to put a stop to the “vicious cycle” of writers and the system that supports them. He speaks of a quasi-conspiracy: “all aid the forest to grow and hide what must be hidden […] since the process is inevitable, […] what is being tamely mirrored back.” Or in other words, “sanctioned plagiarism […] as a charade that leads us, likely as not, into the void.” Think of Amalfitano’s speech between pages 121 and 123, whose essence is “In Mexico […] intellectuals work for the state” where the intellectuals speak from a stage that hides through its very theatricality, “the play of light and shadows, a trick of time,” the “real shape of the opening [and of something]” behind the speaker which only the audience members in the first few rows can see. Interestingly, this cover up is called a “dense veil of camouflage.” The state-sponsored speakers “translate or reinterpret or re-create” the sounds bellowing from the mine behind them, a work of “very low standard” that deploys “rhetoric where they sense a hurricane” and that comprises “cheep cheep, bowwow, meow meow, because they’re incapable of imagining an animal of colossal proportions, or the absence of such an animal” (122). Towards the end of “The Part About the Crimes” the Azucena tells Sergio that books are not censored because nobody reads them while the press is censored for that same reason. What operates through these three disparate scenes is sanctioned plagiarism, which “by the same token” is the prolonging of the state-sponsored “system” of concealment and camouflage where the “play and delusion are the blindfold and spur of minor writers,” writers who continue to block the line of sight to the “masterpieces,” the colossal beast that bellows and has the force of a hurricane through its “deafening and hopeless silence,” or even the “absence of such an animal.” This is why the Azucena has to operate in the shadows, through collusions with the few reporters she still has faith in, the upholders of a truth beyond state sponsorship (631).
But we should be suspicious of this pact in the shadows. Always, we must bear in mind the two-sidedness of things referenced above. El Cerdo, who was once the head of a publishing house before becoming “one of the top cultural officials in the new government,” states while telling of his encounter with Archimboldi that “distancing oneself from power is never good, he’d discovered that early on, before he’d been granted real power, when he was head of the house that tried to publish Archimboldi” (102). El Cerdo distinguishes the power to publish Archimboldi from the “real power” of becoming an ambassador for Mexico, a power which is cloying in its extreme forms (such as Fürst Pücklers), but which, if taken in the Fall or Spring, in the middle, the grays, of power then some new efficacy is attained. This is the agency, the autonomous sovereignty, Archimboldi acquires through his years as a Nazi soldier. Archimboldi represents a man with attributes who fought on both the Right and the Left (through Mr. Bubis’s New Left press), a man who almost died twice as a youth and twice as a soldier, a man who died (“Thank God”) in his dream and woke up with a recovered voice. When El Cerdo asks Archimboldi “Weren’t you supposed to have disappeared?” the “old man [just] looked at him and smiled,” knowing that words would make him appear (102). Archimboldi is the shadow that the state-sponsored intellectuals swear they’ve seen, the “German writer” on which depends the intellectual’s “own happiness, his sense of order, his bustle, [and which] his spirit of revelry rest on that conviction” (123). El Cerdo betrays himself when he cautions against distancing oneself from real power by implying that there is a power that is not-real, but which is not fake either.
Žižek refers to Kant’s notion of the “indefinite judgment” versus “infinite judgment.” The former is assertion of a non-predicate, such as “He is non-dead,” while the latter is the negation of the predicate, such as “He is not dead.” The “indefinite judgment,” in other words, asserts the undead while the “infinite judgment” asserts either dead or living. El Cerdo asserts this inadvertently through the temporal sequence his knowledge takes. Not only does “never good” not imply “bad,” but also how could El Cerdo know that distancing oneself from power is never good, unless he has been granted “real power,” which is then implied to be “good,” first, so that a comparison can be made? What occurs is the retroactivation of the notion of “never good” after the singular notion of the good of “real power” is achieved, from which a distance is enacted. This sense of “never good” is virtual in the sense that Žižek explains the existence “of a failed novel in the failed film” of Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. Žižek is referring to the phenomenon that arises when after seeing a terrible film adaptation one suspects that the novel must be better, but which after reading it, really isn’t. What arises and then disappears is the absent object-cause of desire known as objet petit a (617). Archimboldi does not march in step with “real power.” Recall that Archimboldi “had gone into combat as if he isn’t going into combat, as if he wasn’t there or the quarrel wasn’t with him,” that the enemies feared him for this something “in him more than himself,” that “Reiter had something evident even to the enemy, who shot at him several times and never hit him, to their increasing dismay” (672). Archimboldi, in fact, exists in the power of the shadows, as an objet petit a “against” the big Other of “real power.”
However, he is more: Archimboldi also acts as the phallus. To quote from Lacan’s “The Signification of the Phallus,” “the phallus is the privileged signifier of that mark in which the role of the logos is joined with the advent of desire,” which “can play its role only when veiled […] as itself a sign of the latency with which any signifiable is struck, when it is raised (aufgehoben) to the function of the signifier.” The emergence of the phallus is the “signifier of Aufhebung itself, which it inaugurates by its disappearance,” an action which produces complementarity “in the establishment of the subject by the signifier,” the establishment of which then “explains the Spaltung in the subject and the movement of intervention in which that ‘splitting’ is completed” (Leitch 1187). I emphasize here the temporal loop initiated whereby “the symbolic order is an effect which rebels against its own cause, and, vice versa, language itself retroactively generates the heterogeneous Otherness which it represses or excludes” (Žižek 779). The phallus “is itself the signifier of castration [and] l’objet petit a, […] which is nothing but the embodiment of lack, its place-holder.” The consequence of the phallus is such that “far from lack being reducible to the lack of an object, the object itself is a spectral positivization of a lack.” Žižek brings this to the end
the primordial gesture of creation is not that of an excessive giving, of assertion, but a negative gesture of withdrawal, of subtracting, which alone opens up the space for the creation of positive entities. This is how “there is something rather than nothing”: in order to arrive at something, one has to subtract from nothing its nothing(ness) itself; that is, one has to posit the primordial pre-ontological Abyss ‘as such,’ as nothing, so that, in contrast to (or against the background of) nothing, something can appear.
Lacan continues: “The phallus as signifier gives the ratio of desire,” and “the fact that the phallus is a signifier means that it is in the place of the Other that the subject has access to it” (Leitch 1187). However, since the phallus, or what the Other wants, is veiled, the split/barred subject has to face the fact that the Other, too, is inconsistent.
Žižek explains the difference between alienation and separation thus: Alienation is alienation in the big Other, while “separation from the big Other. Separation takes place when the subject takes note of how the big Other is in itself inconsistent, purely virtual, […] deprived of the Thing—and fantasy is an attempt to fill out this lack of the Other, not of the subject, that is, to (re)constitute the consistency of the big Other” (Žižek 337). And what is the consequence of separation? Žižek writes that “the separation of the object from the signifier […] renders visible the utter contingency of their link” (597). This structuralist notion of permutation whereby different material objects can stand in for different places, or in other words, of a structure over which objects circulate, births the notion of objet a, the virtual “little piece of the real” which stands for objectivity as such, that something which “’is’ only its formal structure [so that] permutations come to an end when an element intervenes whose emergence (or disappearance) changes the structure itself” (603). This umbilical shifting presence leads us to repetition and “pure difference,” and the difference between object-cause of desire and object-cause of drive. Objet a of desire will always disappoint, since its essence is to desire desire itself, while objet a of drive can be “satisfied”: “the difference between drive and desire is precisely that, in desire, this cut, this fixation onto a partial object, is as it were ‘transcendentalized,’ transposed into a stand-in for the void of the Thing” (498). Repetition thus enacts pure difference through the parallax shift where nothing positive is added, but rather the objet a of drive shifts the whole structure of desire and subjectivity around by the simple movement of the subject. Tautology is thus a radical repetitive act of pure difference. While holding out in war in a “frozen paradise” Archimboldi encounters a “cave painting” wherein he is included, apparently as someone crazy, probably due to his then muteness and his constant reading, the thought of which made him feel guilty and happy at the same time, but which in the end resulted in a ”different kind of happiness, a heartrending happiness that for Reiter wasn’t happiness but simply Reiter” (742): the positive descriptor becomes the Thing itself, or “the thing itself becom[es] the sign of […] itself, the void at its core” (540). With the phallus symbolic castration is hidden so that way the symbolic order can have its effects without hysteria (which for Žižek is the state where everything is not what it seems, where the subject incessantly must judge, “This is not that”; it is a worldless condition where the symbolic order has no effect). With the phallus voids, absences, lacks, and nothings can be understood through the positive mark.
Archimboldi differentiates himself from the critics of the first part and from his son Klaus in the fourth part by his near absence of desire. What also distinguishes him is his near absence of dream scenes. In fact, his dreams are most detailed while he’s reading Boris Ansky’s notebook. We do know two things, however: Everyone but Archimboldi’s postponement is forced, while Archimboldi’s is taken on, chosen, and Archimboldi does not dream of holes or craters, or any of its permutations. Regarding the first point let me just summarize: the critics wind up settling for “Archimboldi is here and we’re here, and this is the closest we’ll ever be to him”; Amalfitano’s fate depends on the endlessness of his Geometrico testamento and he isn’t strong enough to decline a party invitation nor to look into the craters in his dreams; Fate has to wait for his boss, Haas, and then for Guadalupe Roncal to “think what to ask”; and then all the reporters have to wait for evidence to arrive or for the impunity of crime lords and the corrupt police forces to crack; Haas is endlessly suspended in juridical limbo; and finally, Lotte has to always wait for either her son or her brother. Archimboldi, on the other hand, has the ability to decline. While vacationing from military service, Archimboldi thinks “Why not? Well, for convenience’s sake, to postpone the inevitable, because human beings tend to leave their fate in the hands of others. In fact, suicide rate is highest in wartime, but Reiter was too young then […] to know that” (694). But why this detail of his youthful ignorance? It is as if it would affect his decision. But isn’t he still leaving his fate in the hands of others? If we presume that he could have chosen otherwise depending on contingent information given (such as the statistic bit), then we can claim that Archimboldi chose in his virtuality, a feat not given with the other characters. (In this capacity of rejection and making choices Archimboldi, true to his feminine name [versus the masculine Archimboldo], identifies with the women of 2666, Norton, the Azucena, and even the victims of Santa Teresa [who, besides Lalo Cura, are the only readers in Mexico outside of academia.]) Regarding the second point, he has two principle dreams: First, he dreams of shooting at Ansky where, before turning over his body, he begs “I don’t, I want Ansky to live, I don’t want him to die, I don’t want to be the one who killed him, even unintentionally, accidentally, unawares,” and then discovers that the “corpse had his own face, Reiter’s face” (738). Then in his second dream, “with horror” he discovered that Ansky’s notebook was reduced to a pulp, half stuck to his clothes and the other half disintegrated in the water (743). Upon waking he returned the notebook “then he opened the door, closed it with care, and left the village with great strides” (744).
The importance Ansky played for Archimboldi was twofold: It made him think of semblance and it introduced the work of Archimboldo. Page 741 details his thought process regarding semblance. What is important is how thinking about it made him “think about himself.” This made him feel “free, as he never had in his life […] he also had the strength to prolong as far as possible this impulse toward freedom, toward sovereignty.” Yet semblance bothered him. Somewhere in The Parallax View Žižek claims that philosophy begins with melancholia, which is not when we cannot attain what we want, but rather when why we want something doesn’t vanish when we acquire that something, and so we are left wondering what is it exactly that we have. The self-critical distance of philosophy, however, cannot occur without first attaining a desired object. This is what occurs with Archimboldi here: He realizes that everything is semblance: “Semblance was an occupying force of reality […] even [of] the most extreme, borderline reality […] It set the rules, it rebelled against its own rules […] it set new rules.” He begins checking off those parts of his life which are not semblance, and his conclusions are “Ansky at fourteen isn’t semblance” and “the one [rabid, immature,] true revolution.” That night he didn’t dream. According to Žižek, “according to Freud, the multiplicity of phalli in a dream always points towards castration: multiplicity comes to fill in the gap, the lack, of the missing one.” Žižek states that this “proliferation of quasi-negations bears witness to the fact that some kind of radical negation is already at work in the unconscious [and] the big Other is structured around a loss or obstacle, around an impossibility” (490). Insofar as Archimboldi has realized that semblance set the rules and breaks its own rules only in order to recreate it, that semblance presupposes itself, and insofar as we connect this point with Freud’s insight on the multiplicity of phalli (or whatever) in dreams, we can suppose that Archimboldi has accepted the grounding antinomic impossibility structuring the big Other. This bearing witness of separation allows him to murder the perverted Nazi Zimmer/Sammer without remorse (75). However, he does change his name to escape capture, a change which he contemplates, “With the change of name I’m making the first arrangements for my future protection. But maybe this all means something else. Maybe, maybe, maybe . . . “ (802). What is this persistent “maybe”? Recall his instantaneous responses: “His mother asked him where he’d spent the day and the young Hans Reiter told her the first thing that came to mind, anything but the truth” (644), and “the man took an accounting book out of his desk and wanted to know his name. Reiter said the first thing that came into his head” (784).
This craftiness of Archimboldi is reflected also in his self-mythologization. In the final epistle from him to Mr. Bubis, Archimboldi writes, “the punishment of the rock had only one purpose: to keep Sisyphus occupied and prevent him from hatching new schemes. But at the least expected moment, Sisyphus will devise comething and he’ll come back to earth” (847). Earlier in chapter three the subject of the sacred is brought up. Fate’s friend Charly Cruz laments after remarking the diminished number of “real” theaters, “And there’s no sense of the abyss anymore, there’s no vertigo before the moie begins, no on feels alone inside a mulitplex” (315). He follows a Benjaminian argument and concludes that “if things work out, and sometimes they don’t, you’re back in the presence of the sacred. (Of course, sacrilege and sacraphobia manifest in the next chapter.) Fate then ruminates: “What’s sacred to me? […] An understanding of what can’t be fixed? [Why] do I feel a pang, if that’s what it is, when she looks at me and not when her friend looks at me? Because her friend is nowhere near as beautiful […] Which seems to suggest that what’s sacred to me is beauty.” It’s a sad world, indeed, when beauty is not automatically considered sacred. From the first chapter Pelletier has a nightmare and watches “what was left of a statue emerge from the bottom of the metallic sea. A formless chunk of stone, though a hand, a wrist, a part of a forearm could still be made out with total clarity. And this statue was horrific and at the same time very beautiful” (79). The conjunction of beauty and horror is the consequence of modernity and Archimboldi embodies the only form left for resistance to this murderous pairing of beauty and evil (which manifests around Santa Teresa).
Archimboldi represents himself as Sisyphus, which is one way to suggest that he sees himself as someone who can outwit the Death. He is from another time (remember chapter five takes place during World War II) when the sacred did exist, at least in the popular conscience. While running from the Soviets he encounters a “statue of a Greek goddess, or so he believed [which] for a brief and painful instant, Reiter thought he should ask it something, but no question occurred to him and his face twisted in a grimace of suffering” (703). We already notice the classical traits of asking question (Oedipus), suggesting Archimboldi’s affinity with the detective. Though the words are not with him yet, he is on the right track. In the previous chapter, while hunting for the alleged killer Miguel Montes, a Tijuana cop tells Harry Magana, “It’s always important to ask questions, and it’s important or ask yourself why you ask the questions you ask. […] Because just one slip and our questions take us places we don’t want to go” (442). And we are resigned to this tragic symbolic order: “Our questions are, by definition, suspect. But we have to ask them. And that’s the most fucked-up thing of all.” In an even earlier chapter, we do witness another coming into detective reflecitivity: Norton states that she saw a connection between El Cerdo holding the highest cultural position in the government, between “the nickname or the cruelty of the nickname or the resignation to the nickname, and the criminal acts that had been occurring for some time in Santa Teresa” (142).
To head to a close let us follow Norton and pay attention to the use of names ourselves. Lotte and the Azucena completely miss the point of names, while the fortuneteller who gives Reiter his Gestapo coat and Boris Ansky who gave Reiter his name saw the truth of names. Lacan asserts the notion of les non-dupes errent (“those in the know err”) which Žižek summarizes thus: “Those who refuse to let themselves get caught in the symbolic fiction and believe only what they see with their own eyes are those who err most” (517), this is so because “insofar as [a name] is a Signifier which falls into the signified, it stands for objet a, the X, the je ne sais quoi, which makes a thing a thing. The name names the universality of a thing in its impossible objectal counterpoint” (590). What all this means is that the efficiency of the symbolic structures reality the same way “I pretend to pretend to believe” constructs the unconscious way we as subjects relate to the world (476), or in other words, “truth has the structure of a fiction.” The practical Lotte thinks, “But the name doesn’t really matter, thought Lotte, what matters is the person” (872), while the cyncical Azucena proclaims, “All names are ordinary, they’re all vulgar […] All names disappear. Children should be taught that in elementary school” (605). As Reiter heads away from the war, a the fortune teller he meets tells him, “You must change your name. You must never return to the scene of the crime. You must break the chain” (778). Ansky knows the importance of names, as he frantically tries to remember those “who made revolution and those who were devoured by that same revolution, though it wasn’t the same but another, not the dream but the nightmare that hides behind the eyelids of the dream” (729). Recall that Archimboldi dreams less as he ages and, in fact, he doesn’t even dream the night he begins to question the semblance of himself. The tautological repetition of revolution still enacts pure difference wherein the “nightmare” behind the “dream” can finally show itself for what it is, which can explain why Archimboldi must head into the real life nightmare of the South, because he’s the one who can see “it” all.
Archimboldi is, as it were, the subject who has “traversed the fantasy.” He is the flipside of Amalfitano—Archimboldi actually writes books and believes in God. This last point is made clear when he thanks God that the person he killed in his dream wasn’t him, even when it had his face. What occurred at that moment was a substitution whereby the “Thing starts to function as a substitute for itself,” or when the subject becomes “nothing but its own appearing, the appearing reflected-into-itself” (Zizek 539). Archimboldi is, in other words, a psychoanalyst in the sense that he has somehow undergone his own treatment without suffering subjective destitution or some psychotic breakdown. Insofar as he declares “Thank God” when employing the symbolic, he is an atheist in the Lacanian sense captured in “God is unconscious.” This belief differs from one medical examiner’s belief: “If you don’t believe in God, how do you believe in a fucking book?” (550). Žižek explains that God himself has an unconscious, that “the encompassing universe of reality, is ‘unconscious,’ and insofar as the Freudian unconscious belongs to the pre-ontological level, this leads us to the conclusion that reality is in itself not fully ontologically constituted, non-All” (550). This ontological state of non-All entails that reality as we know it will never be complete by the mere fact of our own subjective inclusion into it. We are, in other words, never masters of our own homes. What the psychoanalyst does in response to this discover is to act as the objet a across from the analysand and desubjectivize his “words, depriving them of the quality of “being an expression of the consistent subject and his intention-to-mean […] to assume its non-meaning, its nonsensical inconsistency, which implies, with regard to his own status, his de-subjectivization” (515).
But what inconsistency exists in Santa Teresa? In chapter four, Senor Demetrio tells Harry Magana, “There are people, and animals, too, and even objects, that for one reason or another sometimes seem to want to disappear, to vanish […] But God won’t let it happen” (421). His son is in jail and yet the “killer keeps killing.” On page 335 Oscar Amalfitano shares his zoetrope depicting a man locked behind bars laughing, but which when it’s not spinning is an image of some prison bars superimposed on a man laughing and drinking, “and that’s reality,” and “he’s laughing at our credulity, you might even say at our eyes” (335). Žižek likes to tell the old Marx Brothers joke, “What are you going to believe, your eyes or my words?” In the context of the world in 2666 this is why fortunetellers are more reliable than the scientists and mathematicians, though “great physicists, great mathematicians, great chemists, and publishers [know] that one was always feeling one’s way in the dark” (823). This would also explain why in Amalfitano’s wonderful monologue about state-sponsored intellectuals Norton can only tell him that she has no understood a word that he has just said. What is missing in this world is the phallus as “the signifier of the pure virtuality of meaning has to be a ‘signifIer without a signified’: it is nonsense, the absence of any determinate meaning, which stands for the virtuality of pure meaning” (613). Archimboldi, the writer who the great critic Lothar Junge who can only remark that “there’s something about him,” German but Persian and Malaysian as well, the writer who Baroness von Zumpe calls a “Germanic barbarian” and Mr. Bubis “an artist in a state of permanent incandescence” (839). But do we need more barbarism or incandescence? I’m not sure, but if we reconsider Archimboldi’s namesake then his childhood considerations of the higher dimensions looking down on the lower dimensions make more sense. On page 666 the young Hans Reiter states that to the person living in the tenth dimension “music would just be noise, noise like crumpled pages, noise like burned books.” But Archimboldi didn’t just hear noise, he painted with words across time and space, and always with the capacity to return to lower levels. Recall that when Ingeborg and Reiter start living together Reiter tells her, “All poetry, of any style, was contained or could be contained in fiction” (774). To learn what advantage fiction has over poetry consider Lotte’s assessment of The King of the Forest: “The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere [and] in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely” (887). But what would make Lotte expect it to “lead anywhere”? Because it is a “fiction,” prose expected to tell a narrative, which is what poetry is unconcerned with, which is probably why young Guerra thinks “only poetry isn’t shit.” However, Archimboldi is able to sustain that poetic “negative capability” in his story to better capture nature itself against the backdrop of expected narrative. It is, after all, the sense of historical continuity that is amiss in 2666 and which Archimboldi represents (he literally adopts the personas of past figures), and so it is only Archimboldi who can see the truth in the semblances of the supposed play of the postmodern world.
What is unique about Archimboldi is that he is “a being of the lower order who soliloquizes [like abused] girls who delivered long soliloquies that made it possible for them to live another day” (839). He is also a fiction writer, something he shares with only Sergio Gonzalez. However, what is unique about Archimboldi is that he believes “all poetry, of any style, was contained or could be contained in fiction” (774) and “in the end [of his stories], all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely” (887). What Archimboldi is able to capture is “nature,” nature where everybody finds “no rest or relief, battered and bloody, [and] at last coming to where the way and all effort has led: terrible, immense abyss into which, upon falling, all is forgotten” (432). What further distinguishes Archimboldi from Sergio is the latter’s entrapment in reportage (like Oscar Fate). Even though both are attuned to the workings of language, the latter is concerned with the content meaning of words. While inquiring a whore he is sleeping with, “a light bulb [goes] on over his head” when she corrects his premature designation of the victims as “whores”: They are maquiladora workers, and Sergio’s insight is into how desert capitalism is to blame (466). Archimboldi on the other hand, as solely a poetic fiction writer sees the workings of the Symbolic order itself, to positivize the negative void around which life circulates and to write stories that lead “nowhere.” Further distinction shows up in how Sergio is entrapped by the state through the tempting offer from congresswoman Azucena Plata, one member deluded into believing she can make a difference in the way postmodern capitalism works, and as Amalfitano delineates in his rant: In Mexico all “intellectuals work for the state [which] adds layers of lime to a pit that may or may not exist” (121). As I will elaborate later, Archimboldi possesses the unique feature of working through the shadows, not just in or behind the shadows, in a way that doesn’t just lead to an abyss of forgetting. This is how Archimboldi is anti-postmodern: He plays with play itself, with “concealment” and “camouflage,” while seeing the non-sense fantasy that supports the reality of the state and reconstituting memorialization through the installment of continuity between the mythical and Renaissance past through his adoption of certain personas (in fact, Archimboldi is himself a myth, something which the critics “lay all their conviction” in and apparently a giant to Lotte and Klaus, to which Archimboldi corrects, “I never was a giant” ). In other words, Archimboldi is the phallic Master-signifier that can re-order the reality of Santa Teresa that is currently so dependent on the discourse of the university, on rationalizations and administrative, modern techniques of science (represented by Albert Kessler).
What is meant by Lotte (Archimboldi’s sister) when she asks Archimboldi, “Will you take care of it all?” He agrees to go to Mexico, but what is it that he will do? Bear in mind how in his final letter to Mr. Bubis (his publisher) he declares that “Sisyphus will devise something and he’ll come back to Earth,” implicitly adopting the Sisyphus character (847). Knowing in the myths that Sisyphus outwits death and gives birth to Ulysses we can extrapolate that Archimboldi’s task will be similar in the land where death reigns supreme. By “dint of intelligence and stubbornness” Archimboldi will supposedly “take care of it all,” which in practical terms will involve his exculpating his nephew Klaus Haas (who is described by Sergio as being “guilty of something”), which can only be done by either catching the “real” Santa Teresa killers or exposing the inefficiency and corruption of the police. I believe he will do the latter with his special insight into the efficacy of the symbolic, an efficacy for illusion illustrated most convincingly by Amalfitano’s zoetrope of a barred inmate. I will explain this later, but for now let me focus on the ramifications of Archimboldi’s intervention on the machinations of the state and police. First, what special effect does Klaus’s imprisonment serve? Klaus is, after all, kept imprisoned for years, postponed eternally to be “destroyed.” We discern some of the truth when the Bisontes gang is caught and “conclusions are drawn” to connect them to Klaus, a fabulation devised by a reporter who “put statements” into Klaus’s mouth and supported by the state’s declaration that “from now on [everything that happens] falls under the category of ordinary crimes” and that “this is the end of the psychopaths” (539). Later on, the mayor’s thesis is supported by a crime which, however cruel, is called “uncinematic […] from the realm of folklore, not modernity” (540). To summarize, if Klaus is exculpated, found innocent, then the city will no longer be able to rest on the conviction that modernity can be tamed by the collaboration between the state, police, and press. Thus, Archimboldi represents the greatest threat to all three and Santa Teresa’s regulated sanity.
But how can Archimboldi solve a crime nobody else can? Recall Amalfitano’s “nonsense” explanation of his claim that all Mexican intellectuals work for the state. In it he states that these shadow-less intellectuals “employ rhetoric where they sense a hurricane, they try to be eloquent where they sense fury unleashed, they thrive to maintain the discipline of meter where there’s only a deafening and hopeless silence” (122). As will be explained later, Archimboldi is not an intellectual of any state (he is in fact hardly an intellectual, given his “barbarian” status of the “lower class”), and as I am claiming now, he can hear the silence. This ability to hear is an act of imagination which only he (and Sergio Gonzalez, Sergio Gonzalez, Lalo Cura, and Florita Almada) possess, a capacity which makes him capable of “imagining an animal of colossal proportions , or the absence of such an animal” of silence. This is depicted when Baroness von Zumpe asks where Archimboldi found his family, to which he cuts her off and states, “This is what it’s about, the silence, do you hear it?” (841). This “it” that nobody else can hear is exactly what Archimboldi will “take care of” (in a way strictly against Kessler’s notion of curing when he laments “Why did I try to cure ymself of stress I didn’t feel, through gardening, no less?” ). In the seer Florita Almada’s first televised vision, she desperately proclaims regarding the Santa Teresa femicides that “the fucking police do nothing, they just watch, but what are they watching?” and that “the silence must be broken” (437). When Florita then stares into the camera and when we recall how during the prison inmate-on-inmate murder of Los Caciques one corrupt cop with his cap removed records the murder, we all know what the police are watching: They are watching the crime of the spectaculization of the crimes that they are part of, or in Baudelaire’s words “the wearisome spectacle of immortal sin.”
If Archimboldi can take care of “it” all and exonerate Klaus then he will dismantle the spectacle of the crimes and return the police, state, and press to a stage of “uncinematic” pre-modernity. Yet why must it be Archimboli, and not, say, the other “good” character of Lalo Cura? After all, when Klaus is being “interrogated” by the police, Officer Epifanio Galindo tells Lalo Cura to leave because he “didn’t want the questioning to turn into a spectacle,” implying that he would turn it into one (481). If the spectaculization of crime is bad, then is Epifanio trying to preserve Lalo Cura’s innocence? I don’t think so, since Epifanio queried Lalo Cura if the latter would partake in the police rape of the incarcerated whores. In short, Lalo Cura, despite all the strangeness of his good deeds is too much embedded “in the (failing yet crime-inducing) system.” This regard of being too-much-embeddedness applies to Sergio Gonzalez and Florita Almada (who appeals to Governor José Andrés Briceño who is probably part of the whole border economy of drugs, femicide, and maquiladoras), which is why the completely alien yet human Archimboldi is the only one fit for the job. As a fiction writer, he is also especially fit to make sense of things, as when out of the chaos of Ansky’s notebooks he “divined a structure and a kind of order” (728). This uncanny ability echoes in his namesakes (Reiter is pronounced “writer” and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s work is known for the multiplied layers of meaning). Furthermore, Archimboldi is in the unique position to make sense out of non-sense. Back in Amalfitano’s “nonsense” rant the shadowy machinations of the state is described as a “humorous camouflage [that] naturally lends itself to many interpretations, which are finally reduced to two for the public’s convenience” (122). This shadow play of state-endorsement (which congresswoman Azucena Plata tells Sergio doesn’t censor his fiction because nobody reads them) is first a spectacle as well as a spectacle which Archimboldi can see through as a “spectator” outside of the state, and so can “interpret” this work in more than two ways (Amalfitano has gllimpsed this “manufacturing of consent” of the state because he, too, is an outsider [from Spain]).
What else lends to Archimboldi’s fitness is his invisibility gained in his self-choosing of a name in the same way that Kelly (whose murder Azucena Plata charges Sergio to investigate) chose her own name, which is “somehow […] the first step into invisibility, into a nightmare” (605). What I think the congresswoman meant by this counter-intuitive effect of naming is that the act of naming is calling attention to oneself, which in turn will draw the attentions of shady figures to suppress the re-named person. What, after all, the state cannot tolerate is having others attain class (which is obtained by the “place” where one “is” the same way a name is nothing but a linguistic place [to be explained later]) and sovereignty (which is what Kelly “was” and what the congresswoman had), otherwise the state cannot run with impunity (which gangs do, and hence the identification of Mexican politicians with gangsters ) and “draw” their own conclusions (a lá the Bisontes gang and Klaus’s culpability). But Archimboldi’s invisibility is a historical invisibility effected from the appropriation of, and thus continuity with, the past: Benno from Benito Juarez (he admits this on page 809, adding the Masterly self-justifying stroke “That’s what I’m called”), Archimboldi from the Renaissance painter Arcimboldo, and Sisyphus from the myth that he in turn reinvents. Archimboldi’s invisibility is thus beyond the auspices of state control. The significance of names is the opposite of the congresswoman’s declaration that “all names are ordinary, they’re all vulgar. All names disappear” (605). For Archimboldi, names do not disappear, and as someone who writes narratives (even if they “lead nowhere”) they serve as points that lend consistency to the person named, as in names are the foundation for historical records (which is why names determine whether a body goes to the common cemetery or not).
Besides this point of restoring history, Archimboldi replenishes the sacred that Fate’s friend Charly Cruz declared amiss in the modern times of the remote control and dwindling numbers of “real” movie theaters. Charly Cruz writes that “there’s no more sense of the abyss anymore, there’s no vertigo before the movie begins, no one feels alone inside a multiplex” (315). Later, Fate wonders what’s sacred in his life, but concludes: “All I register is practical experiences […] an emptiness to be filled, a hunger to be satisfied, people to talk to so I can finish my article and get paid” (316). From this we can discern a definition of the sacred: It is not practical and it is a sense of vertigo and being alone. We know Archimboldi is past practical when he enacts in the purely symbolic the pouring of glass onto the other side of the broken-into border patrol house; we know that Santa Teresa itself is an abyss; and we know that he’s generally a solitary figure (he doesn’t associate with German authors, he reads Ansky alone, and he heads South alone). In all three senses he is sacred (even choosing the sacred figure of Sisyphus for his avatar), but furthermore he represents a sense of the sacred opposite to that of the modernist Edwin Muirs who states that “coincidence obeys no laws and if it does we don’t know what they are. Coincidence is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet. A senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures” (90). These creatures, however, are capable of seeing how God himself is a sheer coincidence, and in this sense are we able to interpret Ansky’s notion that “only in chaos are we conceivable. Behind every answer lies a question” (736). In short, reality is not-All, cracked from within due to our subjective inclusion into it—because of Klaus’s imprisonment the spectacular truth of the crimes cannot be ascertained because the crime is seeing it in the first place. And the whole Mexican universe of 2666 is constructed around the fantasy of unearthing the truth of the crimes. One final point arises from this: Archimboldi is a detective not of Meaning, but of Sense.
In Lacanian theory Meaning is opposed to Sense. As Zizek summarizes, Meaning “is what guarantees the consistency fo our entire field of experience,” “belongs to the level of All,” “is guaranteed by religion,” “is an affair of hermeneutics,” and “is global, the horizon encompassing details which, in themseves, appear meaningless” (Zizek 697). Sense is rather a “local, contingent occurrence in the sea of non-sense,” “is non-All,” “materialist, something arises ‘out of nowhere,’” “is an affair of interpretation,” and is “a product of a nonsensical, contingent, or lucky encounter.” In short, “things have meaning, but they make sense.” Whereas the symbolic order that is the big Other sustains a horizon of meaning in which things can mean something, the non-All Real of sense disrupts and rearranges the entire field of the big Other. Sense is the absolute Real which transpires through the symbolic order when the symbolic order fails. The common feeling of sense is when words fail to convey a sensation of the sublime, of horror, or of the abyss. “Lacan’s notion of interpretation is thus opposed to hermeneutics: it involves the reduction of meaning to the signifler’s nonsense, not the unearthing of a secret meaning,” and this type of interpretation is what Archimboldi can perform in his self-created position as artist who will shake up the establishment and ruin the put-on show of the state capture of the supposed Santa Teresa killer Klaus Haas. Only in this capacity as sense detector can any real action occur without the consent of the big Other machine of the police, state, and press.
After a tiring day Kessler has a dream of walking the perimer of a crater. We are not told if he peers into the crater, or if he takes any notes or anything. Rather, we are told that Kessler thinks “That man is probably me […] but it didn’t strike him as important and the image was lost” (592). What exactly was it that didn’t strike him as important and what are the consequences of the lost image? We know that Kessler is a caring enough man by the lengthy descriptions of his excursions into the city, his exploration of the town to the point that even his driver one day has to tell him, “Let’s go, boss […] let’s not push our luck” (590). In fact, Kessler is so interested in Santa Teresa that one night while sitting down with his cohort to eat he waxes poetic on Cerro Estrella, which he can see in the distance: It “looked like a plaster cast. The black veins must be garbage” (598). As they leave the place, Kessler wonders, “Who got that metal up the hill?” In fact, it is implied that he’s visited, besides the main dump El Chile, the ten plus locations of Santa Teresa where the snatchings took place, places that made made the dump less impressive to Kessler. In his penultimate section, Kessler addresses the city council and reports, “For a woman […] it’s dangerous to be out at night [and that most of the streets […] are poorly lit” (605). In the end we are told that “even the feminists […] settled down to wait fo rthe scientific miracle, the miracle of the human mind set in motion by that modern-day Sherlock Holmes” (610).
But what are his shortcomings? Where he sits across from the view of Cerro Estrella, Kessler internally remarks of his companions, “Young, energetic faces […] the faces of healthy youths, some would die before they reached old age, before they grew wrinkled with age or fear or useless fretting” (598). When Kessler first makes his tours through the slums where he and his cab driver “circled the center of the city” he experiences nostalgia while looking out towards General Sepulveda industrial park: “It had been a while since Kessler saw such a beautiful sunset […] he was reminded of a sunset he had seen many years ago in Kansas” (590). We are told that “it wasn’t exactly the same, but the colors were identical” and that, “bright colors in the west, giant butterflies dancing as night crept like a cripple toward the east” (590). On the same day that Kessler was at Cerro Estrella, while driving through slums we are told that he could not imagine the Santa Teresa residents buying drugs in “this dismal chaos” as he looked out at “the landscape, fragmented or in the constant process of fragmenting, like a puzzle repeatedly assembled and disassembled” (602). He then describes the area as having survived an atomic bomb where nobody noticed, “except the victims [who] didn’t count because they’d lost their minds or were dead, even though they still walked” with the stares “straight out of a Western, the stares of Indians or bad guys,” or in other words the stares of “lunatics, people living in another dimension” (603). In another part of 2666 Hans Reiter asks a composer what people of higher dimensions thought of the world of a lower dimension. Yet, after identifying Indians with bad guys, Kessler goes to a market some called an “Indian” or “norteno” market to buy souvenirs for his wife, which “just like the first time, unknown to him, an unmarked police car followed the whole way” (606).
Copyrighted Arian Cato
Appropriate work citations must be made if my above work is referenced.
“Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories” by Roberto Bolano
“Bolano, Inc.” by Horacio Castellanos Moya
“The Mysterious Chilean” by a founding editor of The Three Penny Review, Wendy Lesser.
Conversation between BOMB’s Carmen Boullosa and Roberto Bolano.
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Mario Vargas Llosa on Roberto Bolano (in Spanish):