Ken Baumann is.
Ken Baumann is.
A new friend in another country emailed me the following. The subject line was 2666: “There is this group of authors that mostly perplex me, from whom I end up reading more books than from anyone else, not really knowing why, Dostoievsky and Kafka were representative, now Bolaño. I never had the chance to hear someone who would have loved/been obsessed by one of these authors tell me about his or her relationship with them. May I ask you to tell me more about what you found (find still I guess) in this book?”
You’ve pointed out a vital, strange fact: some readers feel enthralled to the work of certain authors. This opaque compulsion happens with a handful of authors in a given reader’s lifetime, I believe. It’s as if the enthralled reader cannot afford to give out more of their secret cravings. That to do so would be to risk revealing one’s most vaporous secret.
I’ve read a lot of Bolaño’s work, but I can’t say that I love my time inside his books. They hold for me this strange magnetism, to which you’ve alluded. When I think about the mechanics of Bolaño’s work, and the peculiar atmosphere of nearly all his novels, I often go blank. When I talk about his work with friends, I lean too heavily on metaphor and analogy. I’m either unwilling or unable to face the trace of his work directly, avoiding the center of 2666, or The Third Reich. Is the center of Bolaño’s work too dark to articulate explicitly? Some novels feel like elaborate shields around terror. Though, no: Bolaño’s novels don’t feel like they’re surrounding an evil in order to allude to it while also protecting their visitors, us readers.
To me, 2666 is a document that traces a dark channel of energy. This energy is constituted simply: it is life’s cannibalism of itself. This flow is dark because it lacks exuberance. Power expresses itself in Bolaño’s novels in muteness, or in insinuated terms. Bolaño’s evil whispers, whispers because its weapons have already been buried. 2666, ostensibly a long novel about navigating a world of obsessive violence and mental compulsion, is stylistically tame. Its darkness permeates the stratum just under the surface of its lingual foundation, its simple sentences which sometimes loop around and through psychological agonies—or which sometimes document budding cruelties. Bolaño’s realms are steeped in the sinister. Violence is explicit, but often merely as artifact. We see replica after replica of evil, shorn up in gutters and dumpsters and ditches.
Bolaño’s characters are, as a rule, reduced to confusion, and eventually to a despondency leaden with fate. The characters who catch glimmers off of life’s underground river are often made to disappear. The naive die. The poor, as well. The few who know never know directly; their obliqueness to the truth assures their living, even their becoming mythological. His books are not afraid to present the staggering violence hidden in simple conversations. For Bolaño, the novel is an apparatus for calmly vivisecting our attempts to clothe life in civilization.
As documents of the labor of a mind, Bolaño’s books testify to the great range of creative desire. Hundreds of poems, many novellas, excruciating novels. Bolaño’s work forms a fugue. I think its melody is most strongly stated in 2666, and most precisely stated in The Third Reich. The former novel is open-eyed, openly haunted, and presents the blunt violence of modern life in a cold starlight. The latter novel is precise, figural, listless, claustrophobic, lodging you in a hunting ground conveniently labelled Resort. 2666 invests you in a world in which death and madness are quiet, profane, and assured; The Third Reich invests you in a world in which death and madness are simple moves in a blind and silent game. Though I don’t see Bolaño’s subtle fatalism as equivalent with Kafka’s. Bolaño’s fatalism could only be considered a byproduct of humanity’s hollow pageantry, like a ceaseless laugh in an empty theater. Bolaño’s fatalism feels cosmic, gnomic. The fate spoken by his work has the walled glance of a predator.
But I’ve leaned too heavily on metaphor and analogy. I’ve again avoided facing the center. But what if this is precisely why we find ourselves drawn in to Bolaño’s work? Maybe we find ourselves drawn in to his work because of the astounding fact of its hidden center. Most writers can no longer afford subtlety; Bolaño’s work testifies to the low, rumbling power of a writer unafraid to stare past the world.
I live in a small city called Santa Fe. Among American cities, this one is called old.
I’ve taken writing seriously—and have obsessed over books—for sixteen years. The years don’t mean much on their own; the years merely mark an inclination. This inclination to make, own, and talk about books feels apolitical. Apolitical insofar as it seems further adrift from contingent affairs than other disciplines; the lover of books should see the book as a testimony to the fundamental desire to express, and to be considered far beyond one’s time.
I see in old books—which I’ve studied often in Santa Fe—the testimony of our being in similar patterns. We eat and fight to do so; we sleep and dream of other ways, sometimes aloud; we do not cease in our attempts to make the world ours, or, if not ours, a familiar villain. These acts are crystallized and preserved through books—books as the salt of being. READ MORE >
Between July 9th and August 5th , Alec Niedenthal and I had a long & blabby conversation that began when Alec enthusiastically responded to me saying “I’m almost completely gagged now by fucks like Deleuze.” Knowing Alec mostly as a fellow young philosophy & theory head, I asked after his newfound disillusionment with the stuff.
That conversation posted here—mostly unedited—in hopes you find it useful or rousing.
Ken: What literature strikes you as bullshit now?
Alec: Your question is great, but I’m not sure that I’m equipped to answer it. I’ll explain why. First, I’m not sure how possible it is today to talk about what sort of art is valueless, ie bullshit, when the role of art is so unclear and, less evidently but no less significantly, when we as avant-garde writers are unsure whether there should be an institution called “Art” any longer. That’s to say, it’s hard to even talk about what literature should be doing when the “should”-level claim about literature in general—basically, what it ought to depict and how to depict it—is supposed to be. READ MORE >
Jesse Hudson, one of the most monastic and scholarly people I know, started talking about Hegel on Facebook. Hegel’s work has always felt intimidating to me, and often when I read his writing, I think that he’s totally full of shit—that he took simple, intuitive ideas and hyperinflated their elucidation to appear logically rigorous and philosophically masterful. Basically, I got thinking that Hegel was a damned charlatan.
But I also knew that Jesse deeply responded to Hegel’s philosophy. So I asked him some questions for the Hegel-averse and uninitiated, following the format of The Beginner’s Guide to Deleuze with Christopher Higgs. Here we go:
Why should we read Hegel?
Hegel is fucking difficult, right?
In order to proclaim the importance of reading Hegel, the initial hurdle to overcome is the impression one initially has in regards to the supposed difficulty (or, stated more extremely, incomprehensibility) of Hegel’s texts. This isn’t necessarily a misinformed opinion of Hegel since, without doubt, Hegel’s texts are extraordinarily rigorous and densely packed. It isn’t uncommon to spend hours (or hours and hours over the span of several days) unpacking a mere page or two of his Phenomenology or Logic. This is due, in large part, to the fact that Hegel (like, it must be admitted, any other philosopher) writes with his own peculiar terminology. Derrida has differance; Deleuze has rhizome; Hegel has being-for-self, negation of the negation, positing presuppositions, ‘sublation’, being-in-and-for-self, etc. Hence, reading Hegel involves a great deal of work that is not unlike the work involved in learning a new language. But, to paraphrase Derrida, you wouldn’t necessarily decry the difficulty of a thermonuclear physics text or a text discussing the subtleties of semiotics and differential calculus. Therefore, the cries of anger and frustration seem a bit odd when directed towards philosophy (texts that are undoubtedly as theoretical and ‘specialized’ as the previous examples). READ MORE >
As I get older, sicker, and more beset with claims on my attention, I find myself dreaming up simple rules for gracefully consuming my way through the world. As a person reliant on deeply industrialized and entangled societies for money, food, medicine and entertainment, I find that simple tricks help me feel sane. Heuristics are useful when navigating complex systems, be it 21st century America or your personal ethics.
The following rules of thumb might help if you feel overwhelmed with the incomprehensible amount of interesting culture to eat and be eaten by. Because books are the media that I chase and covet the most, I’ll use them here. Altering the immortal words of Gale: “So many books, so little time.”
1. When in doubt, don’t read it.
Err on the side of omission. You might die tomorrow—hell, you might die tonight—and wouldn’t you regret it if you slogged through fifty more pages of some book that just feels serviceable?
2. If the author’s a bigot, don’t read it.
This applies to Mein Kampf all the way down to that writer that said “I just can’t fuck any more NYU students with Jim Morrison posters on their wall.” With so much potentially transcendent literature written by not-immediately-obvious-assholes just waiting in libraries and in book stores, feel free to judge with severe intolerance.
3. If it’s new, don’t read it.
Like evolution, time is a critic without aim, but there’s a lot of literature that has been retold, copied, salvaged and painfully rebuilt because it’s wildly powerful or innovative to most people that engage it. The newer the book you’re reading, the more likely it’ll be buried by the sands of time.* Lately, I’ve been reading mostly ancient literature and looming works from a few centuries ago, and I’m having trouble returning to contemporary stuff. But this difficulty feels nice.