Category Archives: Walter Benjamin

when literature reflects life: gabo’s “collected stories”

We spent last weekend couchsurfing in Campeche, a small pueblo 40 minutes outside of Barranquilla. We were in the area in order to attend the famous Barranquilla carnival, a very racuous, energetic affair that definitely lived up to its debauchery-fused reputation (the plastic toy babies with the long dangling brown dildos that the drag queens kept flashing at us are just one example). By comparison, Campeche was much more relaxed and low-key, with a smaller carnival parade that definitely felt more traditional in comparison to the giant blast that was the Barranquilla extravaganza. All weekend long, I kept telling anyone in my small travel group that would listen that Campeche felt “straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story,” whose Collected Stories I’d just finished reading (talk about appropriate timing!).

A typical street in Campeche

Collected Stories is a collection of his first three short story volumes, Eyes of a Blue Dog, Big Mama’s Funeral, and The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother (a title that always makes me feel like exhaling deeply after I type it all out). Eyes of a Blue Dog can be seen as his Faulkner-Joyce phase, a period in which you can definitely imagine the young GM struggling to find his own unique artistic voice (kind of like when Tori Amos made Y Kant Tori Read, her hair metal album). I hadn’t read most of these before and I’m afraid I didn’t really enjoy them too much, with the exception of “Monologue of Isabel Watching It Rain in Macondo.” A lot of them just confused me, which makes me glad that I read them in English first, as opposed to Spanish–eh, maybe I’ll go back and read them again someday. The early stories do contain some classic GM phrases, such as this gem from the first one, “The Third Resignation” (written when GM was all of a precocious 19–aaaaah, I’m so lagging!!!): “Madam, your child has a grave illness: he is dead.” (5) LOL. I also love this from Isabel’s monologue:  “The notion of time, upset since the day before, disappeared completely. Then there was no Thursday. What should have been Thursday was a physical, jellylike thing that could have been parted with the hands in order to look into Friday.” (100) Killer. 

The level of energy and creativity (you also could just call it liveliness!) definitely picks up with Big Mama’s Funeral, with stories that actually contain crackling dialogue, energetic plots and spunky characters, as opposed to just droning monologues. My favorites here include “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon,” which I first read in high school (the ending still creeps me out just as much today as it did back then); “Tuesday Siesta” (very Flannery O’Connor-esque, with the descriptions of the hot train ride through the dusty town); “There Are No Thieves In This Town” (which has a fun plot to summarize: a man steals the local bar’s poolballs and thus curses the entire town to stagnating boring because everyone is left with nothing to do); and of course the title one. I hadn’t read most of these before, which is maybe why I enjoyed them so much.

 Erendira was published after One Hundred Years of Solitude and contains classics from high school curriculums such as “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” and the title story. Most of the stories in this collection feel like they’ve been deliberately written to seem like parables, or fairy tales for children (the subtitle of one story, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” goes so far to blunty present itself as ‘A Tale for Children.’) These are arguably the stories that people think of when they think of “classic” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or when they give a “definitive” example of his writing style. It’s a little strange, because to me these stories represent a departure from GM’s writing style, from everything that came both before and after. The categorizing of canonical authors is ddefinitely a weird affair. 

So what did I mean by that phrase, “straight out of a GGM short story”? I might have meant what I called “the fundamental spirit of Colombia, the weird mixture of absurdity and violence that’s difficult to summarize.” I guess I might also have meant that strange combination of dreamy surreality, as though a scene is springing straight out of your imagination, mixed with the grittier sights and smells of reality. That eternal conflict between the subjectivity of your imagination versus the crudeness of the reality before you. In this interesting article in the Nation (which is actually a review of a recent GM biography), the author calls “the struggle between reality and subjectivity” the central subject of GM’s work, which is as good a phrase as any to sum it all up. 

Lorenza

It was a feeling we kept running into all weekend, the feeling that something was happening to us that felt like it should have been narrated to us instead. Like the man who inexplicably kept walking up to us holding up a mirror, pretending it was a camera, saying “Look, it’s you! It’s you!” once we saw our faces. Or Lorenza, the parrot of our host’s grandmother, who could say two things: “Run, run, or the cat will get you!” and “Lorenza, turn on the motorcycle! Vroom vroom!” (She could also imitate human laughter, which was pretty eerie to hear.) Or our host’s pet bird, Pacho (short for Francisco–I never figured out why a female bird had a male name), with her rickety legs from being locked in a cage by her previous owner and was missing an eye, and who hurt our ears with her harsh, grating calls. 

Pacho

The parade was also straight out of a scene from the story “Big Mama’s Funeral”, with its cast of eccentric characters and inexplicable rituals. The drag queens, the parade queens: “Stripped of their earthly splendor for the first time, they marched by, preceded by the universal queen: the soybean quen, the green-squash queen, the banana queen, the meal yucca queen, the guava queen, the coconut queen, the kidney-bean queen, the 255-mile-long-string-of-iguana-eggs queen, and all the others who are omitted so as to not make this account interminable.” (233) (This passage is how you know for sure that GGM definitely grew up on the coast. As my co-worker told me the other day, “Oye, los Colombianos tienen reinas para todo!” (Colombians have queens for anything)). There were the guys dressed up as narcos during the parade, handing out fake money with Homer Simpson’s face on it, an interesting example of how people incorporated contemporary reality into the community’s rituals (ethnography, here I come!). There was the man who shoved a plastic pink bowl of wet noodles at my sister and I, a ritual I’m stil not sure of. I’m listing these anecdotes because I’m trying to recreate the feeling of what that whole weekend was like: a feeling that we were living in a short story that at the same time felt so gloriously raw and real. When I think of GGM, one of the many things I think of are random and colorful anecdotes that are fun to recite, along with wonderfully vivid adjectives, descriptions and metaphors: “sad breasts.” “smelled of onion.” “The world had been sad since Tuesday.”

Queens

"narcos"

the mysterious noodles

I’m deliberately trying not to use the word “magical realism” here. My undergraduate thesis advisor hated that word, and once viciously dissected it in a long rant as nothing more than a marketing ploy, a form of propaganda. Well, I don’t know about propaganda, but I did read a really interesting review of Joan Didion’s Salvador the other day (which luckily enough I happened to read in January) that made me think about MR in a different context. The review quoted a passage about the use of language and information in El Salvador, which could be applied easily-peasily to Colombia:

Actual information was hard to come by in El Salvador, perhaps because this is not a culture in which a high value is placed on the definite… All numbers in El Salvador tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if numbers denoted only the “use” of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number. At any given time in El Salvador a great deal of what goes on is considered ineffable, and the use of numbers in this context tends to frustrate people who try to understand them literally, rather than as propositions to be floated…”

At one point Didion writes that following her experiences reporting the political turmoil in El Salvador, “I began to see Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a new light, as a social realist.” That pretty much sums up my understanding of “magical realism”: I no longer see it as this deliberate authorial technique that you can apply to a work of fiction like pressing a keyboard (a la Insert Magic Fantastical Critter or Event Here), but rather, it’s a naturalized form of depicting subjects as they appear in everday life. As far as “magical realism” goes, the key word thus isn’t the “magic” part, it’s the “realism” bit. You can definitely argue that the reality of Latin America is one that deals with a lot of ineffability, with vagueness, with things that can only be reported subjectively, as opposed to as solid facts. (The impossibility of coming up withclearcut Good Guys or Bad Guys in Walking Ghosts is a testament to this.)

Thus it’s not so much the twee magical elements of GGM’s stories that interest me now–the grandmother bleeding green blood in “Erendira,” the smell of roses mysteriously emitting from the ocean in “The Sea of Lost Time”–but rather the nitty-gritty details, the ones that feel straight out of a reporter’s notebook. Like the grandmother in “Tuesday Siesta,” who “bore the conscientious serenity of someone accustomed to poverty.” (106) Or the war veterans who come to Big Mama’s funeral, “for the payment of their veterans’ pensions which they had been waiting for for sixty years.” (212) Sentences that make me feel like the author is angry about something, like he’s using fiction in order to depict a social reality that he finds unjust to the point of bizarreness.

Another important characteristic I think of when I say it “feels” like GGM is community. A lot of the narrators in the latter half of his Collected Stories are part of a clearly defined community, one that feels very pre-modern in its simplicity and unity. “Pre-modern” in what sense? Well, I guess I mean in the sense that it no longer exists, that that particular form of united community in which people can narrate from a “we” voice is dead, gone, RIP. Maybe that’s why the stories with the strongest sense of community (such as “Old Man with Wings,” “Handsomest Man,” “Roses,” etc.) are also the ones with arguably the most fantastical elements. Maybe the idea of the existence of rural communities that unite over common beliefs and accept the same versions of reality is the most fantastical element of all (at least from a modern standpoint–I’m sure these kinds of communities did exist at one point and continue to exist; they’re just few and far in between enough to seem exotic to us).

The parades we watched this weekend felt like a rare example of a community united over shared beliefs, with their acceptance actualized in the forms of common rituals and traditions. The parade made me think of Walter Benjamin, of all freaking people (thanks liberal arts education, for permanently infiltrating my brain!), and how one of the main themes in his writings was how modern civilization has lost its ability to appreciate myth. I have no interest in getting too academic here, but bear with me a little.

The role of myth in civilization is a pretty interesting one to think about. Corey was talking the other day about how the human brain is hardwired to look for patterns in everything, a tendency that you see reflected in nature (fractals, bee hives, garden plots… I could go on and on). This desire, this need, this drive of us silly humans to look for patterns in everything can explain why civilization need to seek out things like religion: it’s a way of connecting the dots, of drawing the lines between things and making it seem like they’re part of a system. It’s just a good way to keep organized.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of NATURE in our myths about civilization, and how nature itself is expressed in our myths. For instance, it was really interesting to me that a lot of the masks and costumes and dances in the parade had to do with nature. There were the little kids with the iguanas on their heads., for examples. The countless bull, rhino and jaguar masks. The kids in green leotards lined up and doing a caterpillar dance. The indigenous costumes.

Caterpillar dance!

The macaws were my favorite :)

the man (woman?) in the palm-draped truck with the giant frog was also a bit of a mystery

 What is ESPECIALLY interesting to me is that it’s as though these dances and rituals and traditions are referring back to nature, to the wilderness, to the jungle… which of course no longer exists in the area! All these community rituals and traditions are referring back to something that absent, gone finito! Whatever jungle that was there got cut down and cleared out long ago to make way for pastures (if not in this specific geographical area, then definitely in others). And yet, whether they know it or not, once a year people come together and “act” out the characteristics of the jungle, the so-called wildness, savagery, barbarity and so on.

The marimonda character is an especially interesting example of this. There is no entry for the Colombian version of the marimonda on wikipedia, which feels like absolute BLASPHEMY to me (is it also, maybe, a sign that I should finally write my first wikipedia entry? Hmm, I think I might leave it up someone who’s more of a marimonda expert…). Basically, as explained to us by our exceedingly gracious couchsurfing host, the marimondo is like a spirit that is meant to protect the jungle by attacking and harming those who cut down the plants and hurt the animals. In the parades, they appeared with elephant-like masks and lots of different colors, which apparently was meant to represent their shapeshifting abilities. They were definitely my favorite “characters” of the parade. I especially liked their little white gloves, and the way they thrust their hips and rolled around in the dirt.  

they were EVERYWHERE! it was seriously like the marimonda meme.

these little kids were the best dancers! so much energy...

 Coreywas telling me ( (based on his extensive Mardi Gras experience) how carnivals can be understood as fertility rites. (One of these days I’m gonna have to get better sources than my boyfriend and wikipedia, I swear!) In traditional, connected-to-the-earth and the-changing-of-the-seasons communities (the kind that could appear in a GM story), you want to have your child conceived around February, because that way, when it’s born around October or November, you’ll be in the fall, or the season of abundance, where you have enough food and crops on hand to be able to feed yourself and your kid. To me, it’s fascinating to think about how these rituals and traditions can be understood as expressions of how fundamentally connected we are to nature–how we are PART of and FROM nature, as opposed to separated or outside it. A lot of the time, we may not even be aware of how our rituals and traditions refer to this inescapable reality, this precedence of Nature and The Earth above all things. I hope that doesn’t sound too hippy-dippy, but there you go. I’m not trying to argue that “oh man when we were hunter-gatherers living at peace with nature everything was so much better.” As much as I can admire the beauty, organization and natural systems of biology and ecology and so on, at the same time there is very much a Werner Herzog part of me that sees nature as this very cruel, alien place that will **** you silly humans if you don’t know exactly what you’re getting into.

I wonder what other underlying myths of my culture and my world are out there waiting for me to discover and learn about…

The lake we swam in!

Banana country

On the road

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Filed under colombia, events, modernity, nature, photos, Walter Benjamin

Faces of Life and Death

“In the course of the nineteenth-century bourgeois society has, by means of hygienic and social, private and public institutions, realized a secondary effect which may have been its subconscious main purpose: to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying. Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one… In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living… Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in a sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs.” (Benjamin)

I’m afraid of death. I don’t think my brain can fully comprehend it. I have never had to fully confront or face it. There are people close to me who’ve had people close to them die. My grandfather died a few years ago and I saw the profound affect it had on my mother. The closest I’ve been to death, I guess, is when my nanny died of a heart attack at a bus station. It still upsets me to this day, thinking about that.

There seem to be two ways of understanding death: death as the simple end of life, in a biological return to nature; and death as a disappearance that is also a step towards of gaining something new. This latter concept of death can be seen in Christianity and many other religions, where the idea of death is seen as a step towards ‘direct contact’ with the truth, or death as a means to achieve a closer approximation to truth.

Even if we may not think about death every day, our whole existence is marked and characterized by our relation to death. This connection with death, therefore, determines the existence and the essence of knowledge. If we do not make sense of the time that is given to us as one limited by our own death, if we assume that we’re immortal and that our actions have no meaning, then we are existing in a meaningless coming and going of day after day, where our life cannot form itself into one whole and meaningful existence.

According to Hegel (ooh, philsophy so exciting!) human beings are defined by their ability to make choices; it’s what differs them from stones. ‘Being’ vs. ‘being able to’. Our choices for action always have something to do with knowledge. To choose to take action thus calls for an examination of your knowledge of your own life. And yet, I can never look at my life as a whole, since it has not yet come to an end, and is therefore still incomplete.

Therefore one can only ‘know’ the meaning of one’s life after death. It is a knowledge that remains completely unavailable and unattainable to me throughout my lifetime, since when it does become available, I will be dead. My life as a whole and its meaning will exist in the eyes of those that survive me. Only they will be able to judge whether my life has been truly worth living or not. Consequently, as long as I am alive, I cannot know myself, and when I am dead, I will not know myself either. Bummer. Instead, we have to settle for understanding our life from the viewpoint of others, and it is for this reason that we understand death as well as something that happens to others, which is to say to ‘everybody else, but not me.’ It is for this reason that we become habituated to mistake death for an abstract fact of life, rather than a concrete part of our existence. How often do you really think to yourself, “I could be dead right now. What if?”

In regards to using knowledge in order make choices which eventually lead to action: how does my life become something that I choose, rather than something that others choose for me? How do I live an authentic, individual life (and thus die an authentic, rather than mechanical, death?)? The whole of my life is still not a given; its meaning stretches out before me like an empty meadow. The way that this meadow will be filled is only in my control up to a certain point, because I have no way of knowing when and where and how I will die. Such thoughts brings all of us anguish and insecurity in us all (not just Woody Allen), the basic concept of not knowing what the future has in store. Ironically enough, only thing that any of us can know as a 100% given in our future, out of all the different possibilities and paths our lives may take, is that we will die. It sounds self-evident and kind of “duh” to say so… but in order to exist authentically, I must understand first that I am a temporal being. Easy say–hard do!! The meaning of my existence cannot be granted in terms of looking at it in terms of minutes, seconds, days, or years, but rather that the ‘meaning of my life’ can only be understood as a whole, as a concrete temporal span, as opposed to a series of moments.

If it were not for the presence of death, we would remain in the illusion that things could go on as they are and therefore we would not have to do anything about our lives. It is our knowledge of our deaths, then, that makes us make the choices to act. Death, while limiting the possibilities of what I can do with my life, is also simultaneously the source of all the possibilities of what I may or may not do with my life. It’s a negative that is also a positive. Moreover, it is only in death that I am truly unique. In everything else that I am, I can be substituted by another—Reed student, Corey’s girlfriend, etc. (not for biological sister though…hmm).

Where does this leave me? I’ve never been able to live according to the creed “Live each day as though it were your last.” Obviously if we all really lived by that creed, people would be rolling around in fields and jumping into oceans as opposed to going to class or work, I think the sentiment behind that expression is more in terms of “Make the most of your time each day, because it’s limited; be constantly asking yourself, ‘is my behavior right now truly getting me what I want?'”

I remember at my nanny’s funeral, somebody in her family gave me the candy and hair barettes she’d been carrying in her pockets, little gifts she often got for me and my sister. I remember how my sister and I just looked at each other wordlessly: I wouldn’t know how to explain in words even if I knew what it was, but we were definitely feeling the same thing. I also remember, at the wake, my mother asking me if I wanted to see the body in the coffin. I shook my ‘no.’ I remember feeling that very strongly, of emphatically not wanting to see the body (even typing “the body” feels strange… as though it wasn’t Angela, my nanny, who was dead and in the coffin, but rather “it”, the body, something separate, something different, a horrible mistake, a mix-up of the universe). I guess I felt like “it” would ruin my memories of HER as alive; I didn’t want them stamped out by the face of a gray corpse instead. The funny thing though, is I still try to picture and imagine what she would have looked like, anyway. That’s what I kept thinking about, looking at the link in the first sentence. The way everyone’s lips are droopy, the way the skin of everyone’s faces seems to be close to sliding off. I feel unnerved and disoriented right now, sitting in the living room with my computer warming my lap, a lukewarm espresso at my side. I don’t really know what to do next.

“The words outlive me, because in a certain sense I am irrelevant to them.” (Blanchot)

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Filed under death, truth, Walter Benjamin