Jun 19, 2010

The danger of literature

One of the foreign but fascinating things about Roberto Bolaño, I think, is the idea, recurrent in his novels, that poetry is dangerous. In Distant Star, for example, which I just started reading, a Chilean poet is also a Pinochet-allied assassin, and the idea is that this is not some entirely separate, strange thing, but that his politics is part of his poetics. Or perhaps the other way around. The two are intertwined. It's not unheard of, of course, for a poet to claim that his (almost always his) poetry is revolutionary, and will have an impact not just on poetry but all of life, but I don't know anyone who quite makes Bolaño's point that poetry can actually be counterrevolutionary, reactionary, dangerous and not just in a good way, a force for suppression and oppression.

In By Night in Chile, for example, the conservative critics and poets, associated with Opus Dei, are a cover, quite literally but also aesthetically, for the brutal regime and its torture. It is the poetry and the type of poetry that allows for deliberate ignorance, for systems of feigning, and not knowing or pretending not to know that when the lights flicker while you're watching TV, it's because some one's getting shocked repeatedly in the basement. For Bolaño this isn't just incidental, it's not historical accident, and what we're talking about, here, is the substance of literature:
"While I was driving back to Santiago, I thought about what she had said. That is how literature is made in Chile, but not just in Chile, in Argentina and Mexico too, in Guatemala and Uruguay, in Spain and France and Germany, in green England and carefree Italy. That is how literature is made. Or at least what we call literature, to keep ourselves from falling into the rubbish dump. Then I started singing to myself again: The Judas Tree, the Judas Tree ..."
I don't know I'd identify this as a main point or project of Bolaño's. It comes up repeatedly, yes, and he wants to argue against certain schools of poetry in the Spanish-speaking world, but it feels, to me, like Bolaño is working out how, and the idea that poetry is dangerous, "that literature is basically a dangerous occupation," is an assumption that, for him, seems obvious.

I'm trying to think of what it would be like if a group in the US took poetry this seriously.

Relevant links:
Bolaño's speech on writer's homelands and passports; on literature and sickness; a Bolaño syllabus; reviews of Distant Star; a review by Jonathan Letham.