So submits Roberto Bolaño, in the universally praised 2666, about scholars like me. He falls prey here to the Robertson Davies' romance of academic life, in which even minor disagreements are elevated to shrieks against creed as red in claw as they are long in the tooth. Scholars like myself and Bolaño's "insignificant Serbian critic" argue passionately but ultimately purposelessly, for the "ideas, assertions, denials, [and] doubts" we don't have are
That Bolaño flips Benjamin the finger here is obvious enough. A work of art emancipated from "its parasitical dependence on ritual" bobs on the restless and relentless tide of technological progress, degraded first by facsimile, later by photocopier, today by scanner, by email, tomorrow by technologies of reproduction yet to be invented.
His academics drift aimlessly, a cult without a leader, dependent upon the ritual of reading Benno von Archimboldi (the author whose biography is as mysterious as his novels are spectacular) but incomplete without personal, unmediated contact with the him.
They coagulate into a cult and embrace its trappings, its curdled factions, apostasies, anathemas, the evidences of intellectual combat in extremis. Their soft solid masses attend conferences devoted to German literature, chair panels in which their opponents counter their "festive, Dionysian vision of ultimate carnival" by "[speaking] of suffering . . . civic duty . . . [and] humor" (12).
They do this often, eleven times by my count, across a Europe overteeming with conferences devoted to high modernist literature about which Bolaño only speaks of obliquely through a critical language emptied of everything but the academic clichés, brood references to solitary men and their signal women.
When this sullen lot "[meets] their Moses" (23), a Swabbian journalist who once spoke directly to their absent father, Archimboldi, they discombobulate like jealous underlings: Pelletier (male) and Espinoza (male) bed Norton (female), ignore Morini (cripple), contemplate polyamory and redirect their incestuous agresssion away from their totemized father and toward the hapless Pakistani cabbie disgusted by the frankness of the conversation. The cabbie confessed
that London was such a labyrinth, he really had lost his bearings.
Which led Espinoza [male] to remark that he'd be damned if the cabbie hadn't just quoted Borges, who once said London was like a labyrinth—unintentionally, of course. To which Norton [female] replied that Dickens and Stevenson had used the same trope long before Borges in their descriptions of London. This seemed to set the driver off, for he burst out that as a Pakistani he might not know this Borges, and he might not have read the famous Dickens and Stevenson either, and he might not even know London and its streets as well as he should, that's why he'd said they were a labyrinth, but he knew very well what decency and dignity were, and by what he had heard, the woman here present, in other words Norton, was lacking in decency and dignity, and in his country there was a word for what she was, the same word they had for it in London as it happened, and that word was bitch or slut or pig, and the gentlemen here present, gentlemen who, to judge by their accents, weren't English, also had a name in his county and that name was pimp or hustler or whoremonger. (73)
Had but the cabbie been aware that these well-dressed gentlemen were Freudian primitives he might have been prepared for the violence of their ugly surprise,
the hail of Iberian kicks that proceeded to rain down on him, kicks delivered at first by Espinoza [male] alone, but then by Pelletier [male] too, when Espinoza flagged, despite Norton's [female] shouts at them to stop, despite Norton's objections that that violence didn't solve anything, that in fact after this beating the Pakistani would hate the English even more, something that apparently mattered little to Pelletier, who wasn't English, and even less to Espinoza, both of whom nevertheless insulted the Pakistani in English as they kicked him, without caring in the least that he was down, curled into a ball on the ground, as they delivered kick after kick, shove Islam up your ass, which is where it belongs, this one is for Salman Rushdie (an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mentioned seemed pertinent), this one is for the feminists of Paris (will you fucking stop, Norton was shouting), this one is for the feminists of New York (you're going to kill him, shouted Norton), this one is for the ghost of Valerie Solanas, you son of a bitch, and on and on, until he was unconscious and bleeding from every orafice in the head, except the eyes. (74)
Here my sad parody collapses before the force of Bolaño's prose. The slack parenthetical screams would sound forced or tinny were they deployed inexpertly or paced differently or not so damn distanced from the bloodied, beating immigrant body sprawled dumbly before character and reader alike.
Not that Bolaño nails acadmic life, what with his hammer being fixated on imaginary prey, and what with his romantic obsession with authenticity and unmeddled communion of artist and critic, but a complaint about how he depicts the chill aftermath Espinoza and Pelletier's outburst must be lodged by actual academics, the ones whose breath is caught and heart broken with every blow, because if I beat some ignorant fuck near to death I tell you now it wouldn't matter how ignorant or much of a fuck he was, it would take two hands and a foot to count the decades before I could return to my "labors as fresh as daisies" or begin "writing and attending conferences again with uncommon energy" (85).
P.S. Not every post will fall to the thrall Bolaño's prose quite so deep or earnestly. I have a problem, I admit it, a desire to emulate clumsily what I read, but if I have any ear for tone, and I'm not saying that I do, it owes a blood debt to this compulsion.