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The Monstered Self
Narratives of Death and Performance in Latin American Fiction
By Eduardo González
Duke University Press Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Counterfeit Bewitchments: The Storyteller in Benjamin, Borges, Wells, and Vargas Llosa
... I will counterfeit the bewitchment of some popular man, and give it bountiful to the desirers.
—William Shakespeare, Coriolanus (2.3.100-102)
Caius Martius of Corioles hates the mob and above all those who sway it with fables and spells; but in Shakespeare's play he must live by the word, and even his wounds become voices. Caius Martius is a warrior, not a Storyteller; he can have his "nothings monster'd" by the rumor of fame that thrives among those who would have heroic deeds transformed into exhibitions and heroes themselves into things for tasting. Stories swirl around Caius Martius as if he lived in the age of the media; he is the only one among Shakespeare's tragic heroes to resemble a commodity. His well-advertised likeness to a thing, a god, a dragon, or just to nothing threatens to undo tragedy in him. George Bernard Shaw thought that Coriolanus was Shakespeare's greatest comedy.
Roman citizens want to baiter with the warrior's marked body as if it were a fetish, a tool of oral greed. Thus the Third Citizen says of Coriolanus:
For if he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds,
we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them.
and, he goes on:
if he tell us his noble deeds, we must also tell him
our noble acceptance of them
The Third Citizen is an expert on monsters, crowds, and the melting pot:
Ingratitude is monstrous,
and for die multitude to be ungrateful,
were to make a monster of the multitude;
of die which we being members,
should bring ourselves to be monstrous members.
By contrast with the would-be confidence man, monster Coriolanus stands alone, and takes pride in being "author of himself"; his awful virtues are parthenogenic, and his ranting phobia against all manner of reference addressed to him would make Coriolanus a biologist of speech in our present age. The "multiplying spawn" he sees around him act less like people than like word-borne particles of tainted seed. Coriolanus fears being brought from nothing to monster by the mob's gossip; he hates to be born from words rather than from the sword's cruel path into the aroused flesh of some worthy enemy.
This hasty résumé of an unnatural genius is meant to qualify Coriolanus as our counterfeit embodiment of the storyteller. I choose him as my exemplary man due to his antithetical value as both an adversary of stories and gossip and as a generator of them, in the shape of the myths produced by his own Charisma. As an engine of destruction, Coriolanus inspires (as much as he would destroy them) those parasitic raids on group dreams carried out by traditional storytellers and word enchanters. He qualifies for the role of involuntary storyteller shown in a frightful and sacrificial shape. He is quite sensational, his fate is more performative than substantive, more memorable than tragic. Coriolanus is too hot and proud to be a dictator and too real to be worshipped as a god.
Contrary to the impact caused by Coriolanus's deeds and words, most stories cast a spell of their own, detached from the storyteller's person. But the stories and plots examined here have been chosen in order to uncover and examine the intrusion of a mouthpiece, a voice, a body, a self performed and thus monstered. It will matter little if such an intrusion of the authors' surrogates in these plots is felt in written form or as an effect of voice. In fact, the distinction between the oral and the written will play only an accessorial role in the central issue of the storyteller's involved presence in his material. At every significant twist and turn in our study of a given tale, its teller will be implicated, his handiwork transformed into a testimony of vulnerability and prowess, of sacrificial vanity and elation.
Dissections of the Sacred
[T]he image of classlessness is put back into mythology instead of becoming truly transparent as a phantasmagoria of Hell. Therefore the category into which the archaic coalesces with the modern is far less a Golden Age than a catastrophe.—Theodor Adorno to Walter Benjamin, quoted in Richard Wolin, Walter Benjamin: The Aesthetics of Redemption
Adorno warned Benjamin in a letter against idealizing tribal solidarity. In his view, pristine societies found consensus in structures of domination mediated by a sense of material scarcity and the threat of external aggression. A dialectical view of archaic social bonding must reject the illusion of classlessness to which a nostalgic view of the primitive so often leads; a horizon of violence and internalized coercion encircles a modern political appropriation of myth. Adorno is responding to Benjamin's militant search for a collective subject in archaic society capable of offering a model of political action against fascist mobilization. In "The Work of Art in trie Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936), Benjamin reaches a bold synthesis of the views criticized by Adorno. The essay's main themes merge with the seemingly antithetical theses developed in "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov" (1936). Taken together, both pieces of materialist analysis provide us with a counterpoint approach to the art of storytelling examined by Borges in two short essays that have come to share a common space in his poetics of fiction: "La postulación de la realidad" (1931) and "El arte narrativo y la magia" (1932).
A curious affinity between materialist and idealist views of aesthetic representation in Benjamin and Borges emerges if one examines not so much their explicit or implied doctrines as their respective fictional modes of rendering such doctrines vivid to themselves and their readers. In what follows, this fictional mode of illustrating argument will be explored in relation to the corporeal self's involvement in its own fictions (or the narrator's personal embodiment in the texture of either essay or story). The physical and the fictional will coexist at key moments in the acts of persuasion in which Benjamin and Borges involve the reader, of whom they represent the first recognized instance. The body in question will resemble a surface read, newly exposed, as when two pages from an old book are peeled apart to reveal faint traces of their print on each other.
I will not be equating the act of reading with the activity of writing in a straightforward manner, nor with the notion of écriture in vogue at least since Roland Barthes's Writing Degree Zero (1953). In the specific case of Benjamin and Borges (leading up to Wells and Vargas Llosa), reading will be identified with a mood, with a mode of possession rather than with a professional activity. In fact, for the most part, reading of the sort imagined here should remain oblivious to writing of the written kind, although not to the wide phenomenon of arche-writing, insofar as what is written should not constitute a mere accessory to ideas or to the effect of their representation (see Derrida, Of Grammatology 51ff). We are interested in naïve, possessed reading, in a mode of immersion not alien to trance and analogous to a sort of receptive alienation: self-absorption rather than professional zeal should define the essence of what we understand by reading. When, for instance, in the first preface to Historia universal de la infamia (1935), Borges speaks of his "rereadings" (relecturas) of Stevenson, Chesterton, "and also from Sternberg's early films," he makes it a point to identify his art with Biography, and with the "sudden shifts [solución] of continuity, and the paring down [reducción] of a man's whole life to two or three scenes" (Infamy, 13). A mood of asceticism underlines his method of editing and montage, as if it were aimed at the surgical removal of superfluous and moody symptoms from the lives of his adopted characters. A "propósito visual," or visual aim, informs Borges's method: the stories "are not, they do not try to be, psychological" (Infamy, 13); and in this aim he coincides with Benjamin's assertion that "nothing ... commends a story more effectively to Memory than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis" (Discusión, 91). As a result, Borges's implicit notion of reading may seem very much at odds with the one adopted here, for it seems to imply the opposite of absorption and randomness; even its profession of modesty suggests a discriminating sense of high alertness to the perils rather than the pleasures of passive assimilation. "Reading [insists young Borges] ... is an activity which comes after that of writing; it is more modest, more unobtrusive, more intellectual" (Infamy, 13).
Fastidious or not, such a densely minimalist profession of reading aimed at nothing less than improving the already-written seems balanced by two strong disclosures about the fate of writing. In the preface to the 1954 edition of Historia, Borges defines baroque as "that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody." He now sees Historia flaunting a style of late self-consciousness and parody through each of its pages; "to curb them," he adds, "would amount to destroying them" (11). Obviously, and regardless of other implications, by baroque Borges means a style of aristocratic defense at odds with candor and coolly in favor of authenticating what is written by alluding to motives so deep they escape the innermost reach of psychological understanding in an age where psychology may prove more egalitarian than democracy. Such an unpsychological notion of baroque will lend itself rather easily to its own redefinition in Borges's canon as the classic mode of storytelling in opposition to the romantic one, a crucial distinction that will be analyzed in depth soon.
Baroque's defenses lie in humor. Sometimes, as with Baltasar Gracián, humor appears unintended. However, with Donne, humor becomes "voluntario o consentido" (di Giovanni translates this as "deliberate, or self-conscious," but it may be rendered as "self-willed," "self-indulgent," or "spoiled"). But if it is true that baroque defends itself against passionate candor through near-suicidal humor, one may wonder if, albeit faindy, time has allowed humor—of the unwitting kind—to creep into the following declaration by Borges: "I inscribe this book [Historia] to S.D.; English, innumerable and an Angel. Also I offer her that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow—the central heart that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities" (Infamy, 7). More queer than baroque, Borges's English becomes self-conscious in spite of itself. It could be said that the adopted style of writing defends its writer against the risks and flaws of voicing and gesturing, that as a form of hyper-writing baroque protects him against involuntary lapses between brain and mouth and a certain body impact. Such idioms of body voice and body gesture were inscribed as a passionate hoax on a platonized female, for it seems that baroque writing in young Borges (as revised by his older self) aims at several simultaneous women rather than at a single actress of the sublime. In terms of the present urge to regard reading as a diffuse state not disciplined by writing, the dedication to "S.D." can serve as evidence of how fragile the liberated conscience of the writer becomes when it journeys beyond feelings and desires which it then chooses to address indirecdy, or in the medium of fictions actually written or read in preparation for their ultimate shaping into a story or essay.
With this keenly private and undisciplined view of reading in mind, I should argue that, in constructing a view of transcendent expressiveness in film and story, both Borges and Benjamin project their own peculiar feelings of surrogacy as fiction makers into the common space of storytelling. Each imaginary storyteller provides a space in which the author perceives a conflict between individual autonomy and the stereotypes of group solidarity found in magic and Ritual. In so doing, the storytellers blur the conventional lines separating essay from story, and transform the relative autonomy of essayistic theory into the inherent captivity of the teller within his own fictions—whether in the form of essay or story. Such captivity—such a way of being caught as a character in one's own analytic fictions—suggests that the writer in Borges and Benjamin is perhaps Mourning (through a parody of sacrificial elation or by seriously contemplating his own death-spectacle) the passing of an age in which he did not write, did not enjoy such a trained pleasure, an age when desire and pleasure appeared and disappeared and were thus absorbed and renewed only within the leisurely space of reading: a Golden Age.
If there is a certain hectic quality or a given rapport with violence in what the writer chooses to write while in such a state of elated mourning, his quickening of emotion could reflect an opposite posture, a bygone mood of leisure, a manner of vagrancy through which early readings escaped the work ethic, the potlatch, the orgy, and other forms in which culture already conspired to make one's actions either plainly or aberrantly useful and meaningful to others. Besides concerning itself with questions of individual autonomy and group solidarity, this notion of pristine reading in the style of a neophyte on spiritual holiday would seem to banish writing into the future, into an age of labor. Framed and ruled by an economy of usefulness, writing emerges in alienation of truly meditative experience and the exploitation of memory. As a matter of professional or cultivated loneliness, reading-as-writing may exist among the preconditions of modern pastoral and its aura of incestuous dwelling in the landscapes of remembrance. The work of reading as a posture of false loneliness attempts to bypass the conditions of authority set in place by social contracts or by the regulations of business life. In a harmless sense, this kind of reading is indecent: it represents a cool and indefinite form of being horny, within oneself and yet in print.
In Benjamin's view, the age of mechanical reproduction—of which photography and film are the dominant media—brought about a devaluation of authenticity as a criterion by which one could measure the artwork's authority over its beholders. For him, the authentic in art "is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the History which it has experienced." Although the thrust of his argument in the essay on mechanical reproduction differs from that in the essay on the storyteller, the notion of experiencing what has become transmissible on account of its authentic makeup and history leads to the notion of experience as the fundamental content and context of traditional storytelling. Just as the "aura" of authenticity vanishes in the age of mechanical reproduction, so does what Benjamin perceives as genuine experience, or the traditional stuff of which stories are made. For him, in the modern industrial world that centers on the First World War, the ability to exchange experiences has faded, human experience has "fallen in value," and newspapers convey information that in former times would have traveled from region to region by word of mouth in the form of stories laced with practical wisdom. Sheer information of the journalistic sort has replaced the type of person-to- person communication in which what was learned through direct experience was handed over to someone who then became the bearer of that experience in face-to- face encounters with different groups of listeners. Mechanical warfare during the Great War obliterated the old channels of personally traded information. Benjamin evokes a landscape of utter allegorical loneliness in the face of swift changes affecting the tenor of life after the war: "A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body" (84). In a world shattered by the engines of mechanical reproduction and warfare, the storyteller of old (a man) comes into the essayist's mind like a figure of "full corporeality": man and tale form a single matter. Such weathered resilience contrasts with the way in which authentic experience has broken down, carrying with it all the bits of practical wisdom that it once conveyed to the listeners of tales.
Traditional tales used to reflect the values of "an artisan form of communication," performing such a duty in a manner now broken, as the tiny human presence is left facing an empty landscape from which all information value has been extracted. As conceived by Benjamin, in traditional times the artisan's image draws itself in tight rapport with its own means of production, its representation (or product) is reduced to a minimal art glued to the artisan's body. The artisanship of telling stories "does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report"; its method of passing wisdom to the audience, says Benjamin, "sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again. Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel" (92). This memorable nostalgic sentence expresses Benjamin's emphasis on use value and the way in which it may transform a sense of individual autonomy into one of communal adherence, or into signatures of material solidarity which yield a type of residual aura free from the inherent cult value that sustains the notion of aura when Benjamin illustrates its dissipation under mechanical reproduction.
Excerpted from The Monstered Self by Eduardo González. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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