In Theory : Georges Bataille – “Literature and Evil”

All-purpose theorist Georges Bataille: Christian brothel-goer,  compere to the surrealists, ancestor to the post-modernists and post-structuralists, Nietzche’s descendant and Sartre’s rival, influential on Michel Foucault as well as on “the two Jacques” (Lacan and Derrida), and an authority on the so-called literature of transgression. After some nudging I thought I would pick up “Literature and Evil,” a slim collection of cryptic critical essays profiling notorious defenders of the dark side: Emily Bronte ( with her devotion for the satanic Heathcliff); Charles Baudelaire (possessor of a childish belief in his own uniqueness); William Blake (and his hermetic mythology that has no consistency and does not withstand logical scrutiny); Marcel Proust (too deep a socialite to do more than dabble on socialism), and the Marquis de Sade.

The chapter on de Sade is both the most accessible and most entertaining because it gives us historical ambiance, indulges in prurient gossip, makes a case for the Marquis’ supreme importance, and still points out that the pervert-monk-litanies of “Justine” and “120 Days of Sodom” are as frequently boring as they are shocking.  (“Literature and Evil” also contains pieces on Jean Genet and Michelet; I’ve not read either of those authors, and in fact had never heard of Michelet before.) The translation I read was not without some inelegant phrasing that I won’t blame on the original text; the clunky use of alliteration on a few places does seem traceable to Bataille’s poetic pretentions. His purportedly daring statements about literature’s “Evil” can and should be greeted with skepticism. Bataille’s dogmatic altar boy kneels before the overwrought shrine his own  impenetrable prose, and prays earnestly: the words should resound like Gospel, and perhaps they do in French, but will strike modern English ears as tinny, minor Apocrypha. There are interesting observations throughout, though: for instance, when Bataille suggests that God lacks the quality of Freedom, (since Freedom means the ability to act beyond, outside, and/or against God’s Order, which obviously God is unable to do.) An all-powerful God that is nonetheless powerless to overcome its own Godliness? Hmmmm.



Literature is Fire and Water – Mario Vargas Llosa – “Making Waves”

Something to Hide?

It’s for strong stomachs to review their own writing. Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Making Waves” is compiled from some thirty years of essays and criticism, and when browsing through it the veteran writer must have winced a little at his less mature incarnation. The picture of intellectual progress that emerges is mostly positive; after all, Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for being the relatively centrist voice in a South America that sometimes seems stuck between armies of the right and guerillas of the left.

Still, I wonder if he would groan a little re-reading his own praising appraisal of Fidel Castro in 1962. Young MVL’s awestruck giddiness in the presence of the loving crowds chanting, “Fidel! Fidel!” make it seem as if the naive 20-something had never picked up a history book. Couldn’t he have guessed that hysterical mobs chanting the names of “Great Men” are rarely good at political discernment? By 1968, after the Soviet Union’s inexcusable “intervention” in Czechoslovakia, Vargas Llosa begins to see the clay feet: “It is distressing to see Fidel reacting in the same conditioned and reflex was as the mediocre leaders (…) who rushed to justify the Soviet intervention. The words of Fidel have seemed as incomprehensible and unjust as the noise of the tanks entering Prague.”

“Making Waves” tracks the subsequent political maturation, (an unlikely one: he’s ascended from semi-Commie to the Spanish Nobility as the 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa !) But the essays are better when explaining the seeds behind his first few novels (“Conversation in the Cathedral”, “The Green House” and “The City and the Dogs”); or when they show Vargas Llosa as an exile vagabond in 1960’s Paris, strolling through the Pet Sematary where Rin-Tin-Tin is buried; or confiding in us the guilt he feels over the sad fate of an acquaintance named P’tit Pierre, a Gavroche of the type that France insists on producing (ask the Dardenne Brothers); or simply fighting the domestic invasion of mice in his British rental house.

And the collection is at its best far away from politics, when Vargas Llosa talks books, movies, arts. Then the declarative politician gives way to the exploratory critic. Here he bemoans the often sad pre-Latin-Boom fate of Latin American authors; exposes with admiration the revealing lies in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”; examines the existentialist novels of Camus, Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, and the threat presented to them by the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet; celebrates James Joyce’s “The Dubliners”; and visits a festival of Luis Bunuel’s “excellent, bad films” (the commercial, melodramatic Mexican stretch that goes from “Gran Casino”, “The Great Carouser”, “Daughter of Deceit”,  “A Tram-Ride of Dreams” and “River of Death”).

That visit is paired with a more personal one, to the Parisian home of the aging director himself. Bunuel serves his in-house-creation, the “Bunuel” cocktail, and, with a smirk, claims that all of his movies contain a moment of what he calls “morcillismo”. Morcilla was a mediocre Spanish painter who contradicted any comments directed at his work: if praised, he insisted his paintings were terrible; if scorned, he declared them masterpieces.

Like this so-called Morcilla, Vargas Llosa insists, in essay after essay, that literature must always be there to dissent: it is the ultimate duty of the writer – of any  artist, period. There is no point in adding to some overwhelming choir, or on sailing with the prevailing winds; every piece of art must be a fiery solo, a stand against tide and ebb.


End of an Era : Douglas Coupland – “Polaroids from the Dead”

ABOVE: The Late Tate

Douglas Coupland (“Generation X,” “Worst. Person. Ever.”) writes fiction that has the hurried pace of a journalistic sketch – and that, like, a newspaper, feels the need to make headline-grabbing pronouncements rather prematurely. His non-fiction is no different. He’s the kind of writer who sees omens everywhere, and I bet the words “this is the end of an era” cross his mind every time his tube of toothpaste goes flat. Some era ends every day, some era begins every day.  “Polaroids from the Dead” supplements a series of highly fictionalized observations at a Grateful Dead concert in the early 90s with some stray essays (pleas to Kurt Cobain, dispatches from places like Los Alamos or East Berlin) and a final take on the O. J. Simpson trial that, at this distance, feels unnecessary. They’re not all of equal polish but showcase Coupland’s withering satire, and they’re entertaining even if they persist in drawing the sort of grand, unearned conclusions  that mar a lot of modern essays. At least he’s intentionally funny about it, like in the scene in which a Dead concert-goer notices two hippie survivors huddled together, performing some complicated maneuvers. When he enthusiastically runs over, hoping to partake on some druggie ritual, he realizes with disgust that the complicated maneuvers are related to the insertion of contact lenses.

End of an era, man, end of an era.