Artificial Respiration by Ricardo Piglia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Some of my favorite passages from Artificial Respiration:
Last night, for example, I stayed up until dawn discussing certain changes that could be made in the chess game with my Polish friend Tardewski. A game must be invented, he tells me, in which the functions of the pieces change after they stay in the same spot for a while; they should become stronger or weaker. Under the present rules the game does not develop, but always remains identical to itself. Only what changes is transformed, Tardewski says, has meaning. In these feigned arguments we pass the idle provincial hours, because life in the provinces is famous for its monotony.
The exile is the utopian man par excellence, he lives in a constant state of homesickness for the future.
Besides the emptiness that exile brings, I have had another personal experience of utopia that helps me imagine the romance I would like to write. The gold rush of California – that feverish march of the adventurers who eagerly advanced westward – what was that but a search for the ultimate utopia – gold? Utopian metal, treasure to be found, a fortune waiting to be picked up in river beds: alchemical utopia. The soft sand runs between the fingers. We shall be rich at once now, with California gold, Sir, sang the men on the brave Wells Fargo coaches. So I know what the fuss is all about. Every night before going to sleep I feel the weight of that golden illusion against the skin of my waist. A personal secret, hidden like a crime. Not even Lisette knows about this. What do you carry there? she has asked me. A bronze sash, I have replied; a doctor recommended that I wear it to correct a curvature of the spine. And I don’t lie: didn’t I walk bent over double like a slave for years? Nobody can be surprised now if in order to combat the effects of the uncomfortable posture prescribed for me by history I should have to use a sort of corset made of solid gold. Only gold cures the memory of subjection and betrayal.
Besides, on those caravans to utopia that crossed the alkali deserts of New Mexico I have seen horrors and crimes that I would never imagine in my wildest nightmares. A man cut off his friend’s hand with the edge of a shovel so as to be able to reach a river bed first, a river bed where, it should be said in passing, no gold was found. What lessons have I learned from that other experience I underwent in the hallucinatory world of utopia? That in its quest all crimes are possible. And that the only ones to reach the happy, gentle realm of pure utopia are those (like me) who are willing to drag themselves down into the most utter depravity. Only in the minds of traitors and evildoers, of men like myself, can the beautiful dreams we call utopias flourish.
Thus the third experience that serves as material for my imagination is betrayal. The traitor occupies the classic position of the utopian hero: a man from nowhere, the traitor lives in between two sets of loyalties; he lives in duplicity, in disguise. He must pretend, remain in the wasteland of perfidy, sustained by impossible dreams of a future where his evil deeds will at last be rewarded. But – how can the traitor’s evil deeds be rewarded in the future?
One day, it seems, he decided to go away on a trip, to change his life, to begin again – who knows? – somewhere else. And what’s that, after all, I tell him, if not a modern illusion? It happens to all of us eventually. We all want, I say, to have adventures. Renzi told me that he was convinced that neither experiences nor adventures existed any longer. There are no more adventures, he told me, only parodies. He thought, he said, that today adventures were nothing but parodies. Because, he said, parody had stopped being what the followers of Tynianov thought, namely the signal of literary change, and had turned into the very centre of modern life. It’s not that I am inventing a theory or anything like that, Renzi told me. It’s simply that I believe that parody had been displaced and that it now invades all gestures and actions. Where there used to be events, experiences, passions, now there are nothing but parodies. This is what I tried to tell Marcelo so many times in my letters: that parody had completely replaced history. And isn’t parody the very negation of history?
Once I was in a Warsaw hospital. Motionless, unable to use my body, accompanied by a pathetic series of invalids. Tedium, monotony, introspection. A long white hall, a row of beds – it was like being in jail. There was a single window, at the end of the room. One of the patients, a bony, feverish guy, consumed by cancer, named Guy by his French parents, had had the luck to be placed near that opening. From there, barely sitting up, he could look out, see the street. What a spectacle! A square, water, pigeons, people passing. Another world. He clung desperately to that place and told us what he saw. He was the lucky one. We detested him. We waited, to be frank, for him to die so as to take his place. We kept count. Finally he dies. After complicated maneuvers and bribes I succeeded in being transferred to the bed at the end of the hall and was able to take his place. Well, I tell Renzi. Well. From the window all that could be seen was a gray wall and a bit of dirty sky. I too, of course, began telling them stories about the square and the pigeons and the traffic in the streets. Why do you laugh? It’s funny, Renzi says. It’s like a Polish version of Plato’s cave. Why not, I tell him; it serves to prove that adventures can be found anywhere. Doesn’t that seem like a beautiful practical lesson? A fable with a moral, he says to me. Exactly I say.
He identified with what are usually called failures, he said. But what, he asked, is a failure? Perhaps a man with less than all the talents imaginable, but talented, more talented than many successful men. He has those gifts, he said, but he does not make use of them. He wastes them. So, he said, in essence he wastes his life. He was fascinated by all of those failures who wander around, especially on the fringes of the intellectual world, always with projects and books they mean to write, he said. There are many, he said, all over the place, but some of them are very interesting people, especially when they get older and know themselves well. I would search them out, he said, when I was young, as one seeks out the wise. There was a fellow, for instance, that I used to see often. In Poland. This man had made a career of being a student at the university, without ever being able to make up his mind to take the exams that he needed to finish his degree. In fact he left the university just before getting a degree in mathematics and had then left his fiancée waiting for him at the altar on their wedding day. He saw no particular merit in finishing anything. One night, Tardewski tells me, we were together and they introduce us to a woman that I like, that I like a lot. When he observes this he says to me: Ah, but how is it possible? haven’t you noticed her right ear? Her right ear? I answered him: You’re crazy, I don’t care. But then, take note, he told me, Tardewski. Take note. Look. At last I managed to look at what she had behind her ear. She had a horrible wart, or a wart anyway. Everything ended. A wart. Do you see? The guy was a devil. His function was to sabotage everyone else’s enthusiasm. He had a deep knowledge of human beings. Tardewski said that in his youth he had been very interested in people like that, in people, he said, that always saw more than they needed to. That’s what was at issue, he said, at bottom: a particular way of seeing. There was a Russian term, you must know it, he tells me, as I understand you are interested in the formalists: the term, in any case, is ostranenie. Yes, I tell him, it interests me, of course; I think that’s where Brecht got the idea of distancing. I never thought of that, Tardewski tells me. Brecht knew a lot about the theory of the Russian formalists and the whole experience of the Russian avant-garde in the twenties, I tell him, through Sergei Tretiakov, a really notable guy; he was the one who invented the theory of literatura fakta, which has since circulated so widely, that literature should work with raw documents, with the techniques of reporting. Fiction, said Tretiakov, I say to Tardewski, is the opiate of the people. He was a great friend of Brecht’s and it was through him that Brecht surely found out about the concept of ostranenie. Interesting, said Tardewski. But returning to what I was saying, that form of looking that I would call ostranenie: to be always outside, at some distance, in some other place, and thus to be able to see reality beyond the veil of custom and habit. Paradoxically, the tourist’s vision is like that, but so too, ultimately, is the philosopher’s vision. I mean, he said, that philosophy is definitely nothing other than that. It is constituted in that way, at least since Socrates. “What is this?” Right? Socrates’ questions everything, continually, with that sort of vision. That aberrant lucidity, of course, makes them sink deeper into failure. I was very interested in people like that, in my youth. They had a devilish enchantment for me. I was convinced that those individuals were the ones who exercised, he said, the true function of knowing, which is always destructive. But here we are at my house, Tardewski says now, going up to open the front gate.
So he returned to Cambridge to say so and began to do philosophy again or, as he said, if not to do philosophy then at least to teach philosophy. While his book made his influence ever greater, while his ideas were decisively influencing the Viennese Circle and in general all of the later developments of logical positivism, Wittgenstein felt more and more empty and dissatisfied. He viewed his own philosophy, he once said in class, the way Husserl had said that psychoanalysis should be viewed: as a sickness that confuses itself with the cure. That was what Husserl said about psychoanalysis, Wittgenstein said that time in class, and that is what I think of my own philosophy, expounded in the Tractatus. That is what Ludwig Wittgenstein would say about himself and about his ideas to his students at Cambridge in 1936, Tardewski tells me, which should at the very least be considered an example of what some people call intellectual courage and fidelity to the truth.
I had gone the same as every other day to the library to study some books I needed to use for my thesis. I had gone to consult a volume of the writings of the Greek sophist Hippias and, when I requested the book, due to an error in the classification of the entries, instead of the volume by the Greek philosopher they delivered an annotated edition of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. I must confess, Tardewski continued, that I had never read that book; it would have never occurred to me, in any case, to read it, had it not been for the error that upset and amazed the reference librarian there at the British Library and that also amazed and upset me, but for a period of many years.
Tardewski said that it had never occurred to him to read Hitler’s book and that beyond a doubt he would never have come across that edition, annotated by a German historian of firm antifascist convictions, had it not been for that chance. He said that that afternoon he had thought: since chance (perhaps for the first time in history, as the trembling reference librarian asserted) had found its way into the cards that began with HI in the British Library, since chance, he said, or some hidden Nazi, which in this case would be the same thing, had confused the cards in that way, he, Tardewski, who was superstitious besides (like a good logical positivist), believed he perceived in that event what in fact had really happened, that is, he said, a call, a sign from fate. Even if I did not see it with clarity, I obeyed all the same, using the argument that I could put aside for one afternoon the reading of the Greek Sophists and take a rest from the arduous development of my thesis. In any case, said Tardewski, I spent that afternoon and part of that evening at the British Library reading the strange and delirious autobiographical monologue that Hitler had written, or rather had dictated, in Landsberg Castle, in 1924, while he suffered (as they say) a sentence of six months of obliging prison. The first thing I thought, what I understood right away, was that Mein Kampf was a sort of perfect complement or apocryphal sequel to the Discourse on Method. It was a Discourse on Method written not so much (or not exclusively) by a madman and a megalomaniac (for Descartes was also a bit of a madman and a megalomaniac) but by an individual who uses reason, supports his ideas, erects an ironclad system of ideas, on a hypothesis that is the perfect (and logical) inversion of the starting point of René Descartes. That is, said Tardewski, the hypothesis that doubt does not exist, must not exist, had no right to exist, and that doubt is nothing but a sign of weakness in thought and not the necessary condition for rigorous thought. What relations existed, or better still, what line of continuity could be established (this was my first thought that afternoon) between the Discourse on Method and Mein Kampf? The two were monologues of an individual who was more or less mad, who is prepared to negate all prior truths and to prove in a manner that was at once commanding and inflexible in what place and from what position one could (and should) erect a system that would be at once absolutely coherent and philosophically irrefutable. The two books, I thought, Tardewski said, were a single book, the two parts of a single book written far enough apart in time so that historical developments would make it possible for their ideas to be complementary. Could that book (I thought as the library grew dark) be considered something like the final movement in the evolution of rationalist subjectivism as inaugurated by Descartes? I think it can, I thought that afternoon, and I still think so now, said Tardewski. I am therefore opposed, of course, and you will have noted immediately, to the thesis argued by Georg Luckás in his book, The Destruction of Reason, for whom Mein Kampf and nazism are nothing more than the culmination of the irrationalist tendency in German philosophy that begins with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. For me, in contrast, Tardewski says, Mein Kampf is bourgeois reason taken to its most extreme and coherent limits. I would even say, said Tardewski to me, that bourgeois reason concludes in a triumphal way in Mein Kampf. That book is the realization of bourgeois philosophy.
Tardewski said then that if philosophy had always sought a path toward becoming real, was it so surprising that Heidegger should have seen the Führer as the very concretion of German reason? I’m not making a moral judgment, said Tardewski; for me it’s a matter of logical judgment. If European reason is realized in this book (I said to myself as I read it), what is surprising about the fact that the greatest living philosopher, that is to say, the one who is considered the greatest philosophical intelligence in the West, should have understood that right away? Then the Austrian corporal and the philosopher of Freiburg are nothing but the direct and legitimate descendants of that French philosopher who went to Holland and there sat down in front of the fire to found the certainties of modern reason. A philosopher sitting before the fireplace, said Tardewski, isn’t that the basic situation? (Socrates, in contrast, as you know, he told me in parentheses, wandered around the streets and the squares.) Isn’t the tragedy of the modern world condensed in that? It’s totally logical, he said, for a philosopher to get up from his armchair, after having convinced himself that he is the sole proprietor of the truth and that there is no room for doubt, and for him to take one of those burning logs and devote himself to setting fire with his reason to the entire world. It happened four hundred years later but it was logical, it was an inevitable consequence. If at the very least I had stayed sitting down. But you know how difficult it is to remain seated for very long, said Tardewski, and he got up and began pacing back and forth across the room.
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