Shattered Being – Ethics and aesthetics of composition*


Francis Bacon, Head, 1948

“Though the crime is never perfect,

perfection, true to its name,

is always criminal”

Jean Baudrillard

  1. Dead cold

Allow me to begin recalling the plot of a known masterpiece. A fugitive hides where he previously thought no one will ever go, the deserted island of—he believes—Villings, in Polynesia. Charmed by literary themes, he has escaped from a life sentence into uninhabited territories, not only to disappear, but—perhaps most importantly—to chase the archetypical experience of literary solitude—for this man is both a criminal and a writer. An unexpected group of tourists suddenly disrupts the fugitive’s peace; now he fears to eventually be discovered and taken to the authorities, but these worries soon become secondary at the sight of a woman with which—you guessed right—he immediately falls in love. The man often fails at getting her attention, often because she is hardly ever alone, but also because she wouldn’t acknowledge him. Not that she would treat him with disdain or mistrust—she wouldn’t acknowledge him at all, as if he weren’t there—right beside. Mystery; she does interact normally with other people, but these people also refuse to react to the fugitive’s existence. At some point, they all disappear, just to come back the next day and repeat the exact same conversations—even arguments—the fugitive has witnessed before. Once the puzzled observer puts the content of the conversations together, he realizes that these are not people, but the holographic reproduction of people who once were. They have all been recorded into a new technology that not only captured and now reproduces their tridimensional selves, but also lethally contaminated their bodies with radiation, for what the loving bystander learns that the woman he whimsically loves is most certainly dead. Given the characteristics of the fugitive, his reaction to this circumstance cannot be but radical and exasperatingly capricious: he learns the recorded routine of the woman, rehearses and masters fake interactions with her hologram, and records them, despite knowing that this technology poisons the human body. He dies certain of a shared eternity with his loved one powered by the tide, thanks to the wonderful machine that gives its title to the novel, The Invention of Morel (1940).

This book is perhaps the most celebrated one in the long career of Adolfo Bioy Casares, one of the best-regarded writers from Argentina in particular and from the middle of the Latin American twentieth Century in general. And yet Bioy is now remembered—however fairly or unfairly—as some sort of sidekick partner of Jorge Luis Borges, both his best friend and his main literary rival. Bioy and Borges were close in life and made sure they will remain close on the pages of their work; they are both characters in the mesmerizing “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, and wrote entire books together under the pseudonym Honorio Bustos Domeq. After Bioy’s death in 1999, a series of excerpts from his diaries were published under the pristine title Borges (2006); the book contains more than sixteen hundred pages of references to Jorge Luis in the diaries, emulating—to my understanding—the final gesture of the fugitive in The Invention of Morel—a trick to remain side by side to his beloved friend for all eternity, or at least for all of literary eternity, which nowadays seems rather short. But right now I’m more interested in a famous line written by Borges in the middle of a short prologue to The Invention of Morel, a firm endorsement that has been largely discussed in Latin America with mixed emotions—that of admiration for the deserving praise of Borges, no less, and that of jealousy, perpetual bug buzzing in the back of every writer’s ear. Please apologize the following improvisation in English; Borges on The Invention of Morel: “I have discussed with its author the minutiae of its plot, I have reread it; it does not seem to me an imprecision or a hyperbole to deem it as perfect.” It would not be strange to take these words as the highest possible praise for the novel in question, such is the consensus; I believe there are reasons to tone down the enthusiasm and simply read the statement literally. On the streets, “perfect” is often used as a synonym of “really good”, or probably “the best”: a judgment of value; but here we are talking about Borges, whose argot was that of the lexicographical authority. “Perfect” means, quite literally—and by this I mean etymologically— “fully made”, “complete”, or even “self-sufficient”. No doubt Borges implied a value in his line, but perhaps not a judgment of value. That is to say Borges did not target The Invention of Morel’s greatness, but merely referred to one of its many characteristics—completeness. As readers of the twenty-first Century, it is up to us to decide if perfection is, as surely Borges and Bioy thought it was, an element of literary greatness.

Let us hold that idea for a minute. Meanwhile, I would like to invoke the name of a confessed admirer of the mentioned Argentineans, though radically distanced from them in literary terms, a rara avis, and my most admired Mexican writer, a man who has been constantly accused—because here I begin to unveil my disdain for the following adjective—accused of perfection: Salvador Elizondo. If anyone of you has ever had a cup of coffee or a drink with me, you are already familiar to the name—I have not been able to stop talking about this mysterious man for fifteen years. I will be the first one to admit, though, that his writing is easily datable, for it has with good reason been linked to the Nouveau Roman movement in general and to Alain Robbe-Grillet in particular—associations that Elizondo uselessly denied for years. His 1965 novel, Farabeuf, allegedly attempts to narrate the chronicle of one instant, a sort of goal entertained throughout most of the twentieth Century by several Western movements: an oxymoronic proposal, an attempt to turn the shape into the theme of the piece, a well known sort of game. The sole idea of narrating a precise moment of time already implies a notion of wholeness—and therefore of pursued perfection. Elements like the one roughly described here have convinced people of Elizondo’s hunt these “wholes,” and by extension of his adoption of perfection as a value. But I suspect that those who hold these understanding of his work might have fallen into a trap. I even remember enduring in 2003 or so a heated argument—almost too heated, I must confess—with the Mexican author Ethel Krauze on this point: she insisted, as it is the consensus, that Elizondo accomplished mathematical-like equations or qualities within his prose. Forgive me for not entering in the details of the debate—it wouldn’t be fair to do so in her absence—but the bottom line is that I suspect there are no qualities of that sort in Elizondo’s oeuvre, but merely the illusion of these. That is, the balance, geometry, wholeness, and perfection—not as a judgment of value, but as a mere ingredient of the text—are simply not in Elizondo’s proposal in the same way Adolfo Bioy Casares intended to use them when he wrote The Invention of Morel. If my reading of that quoted line by Borges is correct, there is no way the author of The Aleph could deem Farabeuf—or almost any other piece of work by Elizondo—as perfect.

So far, you have to take my word. Allow me to explain graphically with the remembrance of Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. His famous 1948 lithograph, “Drawing Hands,” could work—following my train of thought—as an example of pursued perfection or completeness: a tridimensional and masterly drawn right hand drafts the sleeve of a tridimensional and masterly drawn left hand, which is also drafting the sleeve of the former. This is both a circle and a graphic oxymoron, a dilemma not unlike the one of the egg and the hen. Elizondo has a story with the same effect, “History According to Pao Cheng” (1960), in which the old wise Pao Cheng reads the History of the world on a turtle shell; within his reading, Pao Cheng discovers a man who is writing a short-story titled “History According to Pao Cheng,” in which the old wise Pao Cheng reads the History of the world on a turtle shell, and so on. Though this self-referential plot contradicts what I had so far argued about Elizondo’s work, let me note that this—as it is the case of Escher’s drawing—is not necessarily the most representative piece of work of his. Escher is also famous for his convoluted variations of shapes that, though they seem at first glance to follow a pattern, are the product of a willful effort to disrupt the pattern. Enters the illusion of perfection I mentioned above. Think about a chessboard: there is no will in that true pattern; each square suggests—or even completely determines—the next one. Vertigo before the abyss of repetition. Escher’s paintings, on the other hand, fake the same dynamic, but are determined by the author’s whim: a chess pawn turns into a fish, which turns into a bird, which turns into a horse, and so on, until we are back at the chess pawn—this is the case of the woodcut series “Metamorphose” (1939). Farabeuf curls into itself with the obsessive revisiting of three scenes without any context: a couple walking on the beach, a woman receiving the visit of Doctor Farabeuf, and the brutal torture of a Chinese individual—captured in an actual photograph from the early twentieth Century, featured in the novel. This triangle could admittedly surrender the text to completeness, but at the end of the book nothing—but perhaps the imminence of pain—remains certain; the composition is all a hank of loose ends, as opposed to the tight outcome of “History according to Pao Cheng.” For those who still champion the idea of Elizondo performing “mathematical equations”, repeating so the overestimated lie of Paul Valéry about poetry—that it is hard science—I would encourage them to show us all, then, the answer to such equations—or even the alleged “mathematical problem.”

But one may not disregard a dearly held value without at least dare proposing a different one. If you apologize the brusque turn to come, I will try to do just that in the following lines.

Last year, a rather unknown, young scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published a revelatory study that would—technicalities apart—propose life as universal imminence, instead of a local rarity, given the numerous environments that we can imagine from what we know about physics and the cosmos. The article is titled “Statistical Physics of Self-Replication,” and it explains that “simple physical intuition dictates that [self-replication] must invariably be fueled by the production of entropy”—this last word roughly understood as a thermodynamic degree of randomness in a given system. The name of the scientist is Jeremy England, and he is no longer unknown outside of his area by any means. He continues: “the minimum value for the physically allowed rate of heat production is determined by the growth rate, internal entropy, and durability of the replicator.” The many glosses that the media dedicated to England’s work simplify the following way—I’m quoting the words of Quanta Magazine’s Natalie Wolchover: “when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life”—an explanation condensed even more by England himself during an interview: “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.” Now, this—and not poetry—is hard science. According to this theory—which, do not forget, is based on fully established physics—life can be understood as a mere redistribution of excessive energy by a given combination of elements. To talk about “a theory of the origin of life” in this case is not the same kind of stretch one gets when PR scientists refer to the Higgs boson as “the God particle” on TV. In fact, it isn’t a stretch at all.

I have purposely aimed at two literary examples that lie right by each side of the imaginary line between the inanimate mix of elements and the first struggling breath. While Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel speaks about—and pursues—a mechanism, a functioning whole in perfect equilibrium—which nonetheless may or may not charm a loving fool—the work of Elizondo represents the irradiation of excesses—as life is the irradiation of the excess of energy. Ordinary memory would suffice to understand that the excess of life is unbearable, because the point of life seems to be not to bare; the living being is the overwhelmed one. And so we reach the first conclusion of this modest lecture: what I attempt as a writer is the living being, however flawed, instead of the dead cold perfection of the beautiful.


Francis Bacon, Study for the Nurse in The Battleship Potemkin, 1957
  1. Production and Reproduction

In order to tie the previous conclusion with the following one, I would like to begin remembering some words from Jean Baudrillard’s provocative essay The Perfect Crime (1995): “Perfection is always punished: the punishment for perfection is reproduction.” We should probably stop and think about these words for a minute. One knows a great sentence has been found when, despite its powerful persuasiveness, one hasn’t been able to fully penetrate it at first: it shows its statement and it shows its mystery—or perhaps: it shows that its statement is Mystery. Baudrillard often sparks this emotion in me, the sudden strike of his sentences gets me excited, as if I were certain that something important is hidden there—and it may be, it frequently is—but after some quick analysis I tend to get the impression that he used to write really fast, mostly carried away by emotion, as one must never read. Maybe we can agree for a moment that “perfection”—a mere abstract idea—even deserves punishment; how can it always be punished, though? Who could do this “job”? I believe we’ve pointed above at the fatality of such “punishment” within the wholeness of a square—in a chessboard, for instance. It is the very condition of “perfection”, or of a perfect item, what suggests the potentially infinite multiplication of said item: a square calls—or demands—the next square and so on infinitely. Stay with me. There is a simpler explanation in abstract terms: the number one is a whole; the numbers are infinite. Having settled this point—basically that we agree with Baudrillard’s idea—let me look straight to the word that is bothering me. Reproduction is either the action of copying an item—which could be a piece of art—or the breeding of living beings, the conceiving and giving birth to Others. This is the quid of my disagreement with Baudrillard—an author I love, I must say: “reproduction” misses the dimension of the punishment the French thinker is talking about: such punishment is imminent, it is infinite; though the word “reproduction” admits the notion of limitlessness within its meaning, it is devoid of the right connotation, it doesn’t feel like much of a punishment. Here is why: reproduction is the way life brings Others to be, Jeremy England’s “self-replication,” and the value I have proposed above for the literature to come. Reproduction, in this sense, cannot be a punishment, but a path—in the sense that Octavio Paz used this word in his mystifying The Monkey Grammarian (1972), a path that is destination. We will come back to this in a minute, hopefully when I find the right word for what I’m trying to communicate here.

At this point, we’ve talked about perfection and about wholeness, and we’ve talked about the repetition implied in those terms, a potentially infinite punishment, according to Baudrillard. And I casually threw the name of Octavio Paz out there, and of his The Monkey Grammarian; casually but not needlessly, for it is that piece of ambiguous writing—part memoir, part poetry, part essay and so on—the one that will begin completing this talk. In the 16th chapter of his book, Paz confronts the word “conciliation” with the word “liberation”—both sisters and antagonists. Conciliation will unite what is separated, while liberation brings up another perspective. Conciliation—community—versus Liberation—sameness: both an identity, the former collective, the latter solipsistic. In the words of Paz: “Liberation is not only an end of others and of otherness, but an end to the self. The return of the self—not to itself: to what is the same, a return to sameness”. I need to take a breath here. “Sameness” must be the true name of the punishment Baudrillard wants for perfection, the true damnation. The very word drags me to notions we have embraced in and out of literature, and there may reside, I believe, my understanding of literature, its task and relevance nowadays. Jean Baudrillard was mistaken: reproduction—inherent to life—is not production—inherent to the industry (again, the ghost of the machine). The curse of perfection is not reproduction—self-replication, life, the call to Otherness—, but merely production—the making of a preconceived item; industry, mass production. There is, too, a politics in the words we utter. Haven’t we all heard the term “literary production”? “Artistic production,” anybody? Is that the way we want to talk about a composition that is meant to turn us inside-out, shake our life experience and confront our beliefs? Either one likes it or not, the expression “literary production” is a political oath; it is the acknowledgement of political militance—one of the many places where thought goes to die. And it reduces—or it at least tries to reduce—literature to a product to be packed and sold, to a consensus, and to a craft. There is craft in literature, but literature is no craft. We pack and sell books, but books are not literature. As for consensus, well, consensus is the enemy. It is sameness; it is the negation of Otherness.

We have heard this short talk’s struggle to hold itself together. In part, this is because the theme is far greater than the space I have here to discuss it properly—and it wouldn’t be immodesty to wonder if the theme is also greater than my own strength. But there is also a purpose in this jumping back and forth from stories to theories, from science to politics, from certainties to the much more preferred uncertainties: literature is only about one thing, language—but this is the thing that contains all things. Everything is interconnected by language and so literature reaches all aspects of life. It can be a set of ideas, a story, rhetorical gymnastics, a public record, anything, but never only a set of ideas and so on. I believe is Ricardo Piglia—through one of the main characters of his Artificial Respiration (1980), Tardewski—who explained that reading, in this profound way, the literary way, is linking; people know how to extract some sense of some words, but that is not actually reading. This according to a character in a novel, a parody of the Polish writer exiled in Argentina, Witold Gombrowicz, but also according to Hans-Georg Gadamer, who said once “reading is not just spelling out” (Acotaciones Hermenéuticas, 2002). This is why I purposely mixed short comments on seemingly independent disciplines, why I attempt now to conciliate them.

Wrapping up: I have proposed that, as a writer, the great achievement is to feel a breath back from one’s composition—not the breath of a perfect being—impossible to achieve, but also trivial and limited in its very attempt—, but that of a shattered being. No organism is perfect, that’s why it dies. But most importantly: that’s why it lives. Living is coping for a moment with our elements in a constant state of emergency. It’s all moving, it’s all falling apart and constant fixing. The body lives in present progressive. But this life, one must admit, is so only in a metaphoric sense. We call it life because it distances us from the dead cold qualities of sameness. Out of the text, though, there is actual life, that of the readers, who must be put above any concept of composition. The composition will not breathe without the reader; the composition breathes within its tensions with the reader. This breath is the goal of the writer: not a text, but a dynamic: ultimately, a reader. Literature is a profound point of touch between individuals. Last, literature confronts us with Others. This should not be a struggle, it is a gift. We have learned that there is a right way to write because we have learned that there is a right way to be an individual; this thought process is a set of boundaries for our imagination and for our tolerance of the difference. I would recommend to unlearn that: there is no right way to write literature, but there is a true way of doing so, and that way is by surrendering our personal ideas, convictions and necessities to the text’s own ideas, convictions and necessities. I know I have written pieces that would never get along—so to speak. Not on purpose, to confirm this idea, but because the pieces in question demanded their own rules, their own chaos disguised as order and vice versa. I believe that this take on literature makes us more receptive and compassionate; if true, this is everybody’s gain. Roughly exposed, here you have my ethics and aesthetics of literary composition.

October 2014

* This text was presented on October 11 2014, at Chase Public Cincinnati, OH.