A roundabout introduction to the brief essays of Fabio Morábito

The following appeared alongside the October 2019 monthly mailing from Sublunary Editions, which featured three short essays from Fabio Morábito, taken from his collection El idioma materno (Mother Tongue), translated by Curtis Bauer.

Literature has two functions: to show us the promise of language as either a beacon or salve, or two disavow us of the idea that language can at all make sense of the world. Its history is blighted by false dichotomies. As such, what’s one more?

The former case often happens by pure happenstance, though it can be engineered once in a while, though it becomes painfully obvious when the well is approached one too many times. The spark of this kind of literature is often a novel juxtaposition, of words, phrases, images. The root of all art is in juxtaposition, and these are the quickest ways to forge new neuronal pathways. A physical rewiring of the brain is unavoidable, in fact, for the attentive reader, and, if the impression is strong enough, this connection may last some time, even until death. These small sparks can be thought of as metaphorlets, the kind of quantized packages that, in their larger, more complete forms—though how many grow to adulthood? very few—may well become fully functional metaphors, and I use functional in the sense of to do work. Our modern culture is propped up on metaphors, our foundations dug deep into the sediment of subsumed ideas, and atop our foundation, a stack of chairs atop which we sit, counting our modern blessings. This is the vantage afforded by metaphor. Ask the bricoleur to show you what he carries on his back, and you will see something akin to this stack of chairs, though just enough for one man. So we all proceed.

The discomfort we feel, fumbling for words, must be for some deeper part of our minds like watching an infant attempt to perform surgery on a capillary-rich organ. For most everyday speech we rely on patterns which sand down the edges of the truly novel, which we encounter far more than we realize. This typically comes out of the view that language is that in which we swim, and that our world is so shaped by it, that our minds produce it as the apex of an evolutionary process, that it is sometimes jarring when it fails—really fails, not just in the slip of the tongue, but at a fundamental level. I say sometimes, because this happens with astounding frequency, we are mostly just unaware of it and thus do not learn from it in useful ways. “[I]f we stick to the picture of language as a medium, something standing between the self and the nonhuman reality with which the self seeks to be in touch, we have made no progress”, wrote Richard Rorty in the opening chapter of his excellent Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. But language evolves within the ecology of our minds, though I do not mean to suggest it can be at all private, an essay for another time.

All of this is to pay homage to the work of Fabio Morábito, in particular the texts of Mother Tongue, three of which are excerpted here. The eighty-four short fictions that make up the collection, many of which have not yet been published in English, are each illustrative of some way in which language proves a loose grip on a wet rock, where we thought it the rope and anchor. In “Vallejo’s Lookout”, he expresses deep affinity for the work of César Vallejo, even though he has only read lines and never complete poems by the Peruvian. Language is here subverted by something deeper as the medium of connection between writers, a sense of the language. In “Short Sentences”, Morábito laments the advice he was given at all stages of his education, to write “short sentences, short paragraphs, clear ideas”, sheering off the messy and unstable clauses that are the stuff of self, of style. And in “Poets Do Not Write Books”, Morábito expresses first dismay then a calm and reasoned acceptance at a remark by his mother that the books of poetry and plays that preceded his first novel, published at the age of fifty-five, were not really books. “[G]iving a title to a collection of poems,” he concedes, “is to ignore the anti-bookish and anti-official nature of poetry,” echoing Valéry when he wrote, “Most people have such a vague idea about poetry that this vague feeling itself is their definition of poetry.”

The essays of Mother Tongue are a model for dealing with the messy and contingent nature of language, not as dispassionate cynic, but as Camus’s happy Sisyphus, loving the brace of the boulder, but minding his toes near the top.

— Joshua Rothes

Revelation and spectacle: dead cows as seen from trains in Monterroso and Bernhard

“While I was traveling on the train the other day, I suddenly stood up, happy on my own two feet, and began to wave my hands with joy, and invite everyone to look at the scenery and see the twilight that was really glorious. The women, the children, and some gentlemen who interrupted their conversation all looked at me in surprise and laughed; when I quietly sat down again, there was no way for them to know what I had just see at the side of the road: a dead, a really dead cow moving past slowly with no one to bury her or edit her complete works or deliver a deeply felt and moving speech about how good she had been and all the streams of foaming milk she had given so that life in general and the train in particular could keep going.”

“Cow”, Augusto Monterroso, Complete Works and Other Stories, translated by Edith Grossman

“Last week we witnessed the spectacle of five cows running, one after the other, into the express train in which we had to return to Vienna and of seeing them cut all to pieces. After the track had been cleared by the train crew and even by the driver, who came along with a pick-ax, the train proceeded after a delay of about forty minutes. Looking out of the window I caught sight of the milkmaid as she ran screaming towards a farmyard in the dusk.”

“The Milkmaid”, Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott.

Why does Monterroso’s narrator take such joy in the sight of the deceased cow? Why does Bernhard’s remain aloof? No essayist in their right mind aspires to the truth, in the strictest sense, so with that in mind, I’ll venture a notion or two.

 Of primary important is the fact that, in Monterroso’s story, the cow is seen, presumably, by only the narrator, whereas there is a “we” present in Bernhard’s, and, given the duration of that stop, it seems likely that many interested parties aside from the narrator and his immediate coterie saw the grisly results of the collision. In a sense, what we have is the difference between a revelation and a spectacle. Being the sole recipient of the sight of the cow, Monterroso’s narrator experiences something like a religious fervor, a desire for others to come and see, a responsibility to communicate to others the sacrifice that has been made, by an artist no less (echoes of Mayakovsky, “the wheels of a locomotive will embrace my neck” (t. Pierre Sokolsky)). But he is received indifferently by the other passengers, who only briefly interrupt their conversations. As Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason, “Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication.” Therefore, the revelation loses not only its luster but its content once Monterroso’s narrator seeks to convey it to his fellow travelers. Bernhard’s narrator, on the other hand, is part of a group that witnesses the spectacle firsthand of the cows running headlong into the train, and, presumably, with the delay it caused, even more passengers would view the grisly aftermath. There is a cold indifference on the part of Bernhard’s narrator (indifference being one of Bernhard’s great themes), but neither does he mention much of a reaction from the others, even an impatience at having their express train delayed (an impertinence Monterroso’s passengers would certainly not have withstood without comment). In this case, there is no responsibility; everyone has seen it, the milkmaid plays the mourner, and the train company’s employees must deal with the bloody remains with their pickaxes. Meanwhile, what can be said of meaningful content in a scene we all observe simultaneously, a scene like many we have seen before, furthering Debord’s point that the spectacle must be confronted and critiqued as “a visible negation of life.”

 If Bernhard’s great theme is indifference, its counterpart is surely annihilation, and the short stories of The Voice Imitator approach this theme in a variety of ways, exploring the forces of nature, society, and self that cause us to break, that ultimately lead to the annihilation of human beings, the indifference of others—and here lies the crux of Bernhard’s critique (or utter disdain) for the kind rewriting of Austrian history by the prevailing cultural forces of his day—being perhaps chief among them. Here I might also venture a Freudian reading of the two stories, an idea I take from Fernando Valerio-Holguín’s 1999 paper, “La Perversio’n del texto en ‘Obras Completas (y Otros Cuentos)’ de Augusto Monterroso”. The death instinct, which, as he explains, prefigures an ultimate moment of relaxation, comes in response to the tensions of life, often as a result of serial displacement, a mourning for a more authentic mode of existence. (On the case of mourning, I couldn’t get past this essay without mentioning as a potential source of inspiration Platonov’s (considerably longer) short story, “The Cow”, in which a mother, having long her calf, wanders into the path of a train, which is to be taken as a suicidal gesture, and very likely, a nod to Anna’s suicide in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Oddly enough, “The Cow” was made into an Oscar-nominated children’s animated feature in 1989.) In this way, a more modern story might instead feature deer encountering semi-trucks, a more relatable symbol of the tension between man and nature, as man segments nature according to his needs, leaving the deer in a state of tension resolvable only, in the Freudian sense, by death. You can imagine, in Monterro’s story, the long passenger on a crowded bus to notice a dear on the side of the road, or in Bernhard’s, a more forceful impact, a doe and fawn, that causes a stop to tie off a loose bumper and replace a radiator cap.  

 But cows are not the most reliable symbols of nature, their habitats are human-made, therefore already segmented, and I would conclude, ultimately, that the two stories can be most effectively read as a Debordian critique of the spectacle. Cows, divorced from nature proper, are commodities, as real as commodification gets, physical impediments. As György Lukács put it, “all the social and economic conditions necessary for the emergence of modern capitalism tend to replace ‘natural’ relations which exhibit human relations more plainly by rationally reified relations.” In the scenes from the two stories, you have the image of the cows, reified commodities, mediating the relations between the people aboard the train. Monterroso’s narrator may then therefore be exemplary of the pre-spectacle individual, who experiences the dead cow with nerve endings bared, while the individuals aboard the train in Bernhard’s story—and for that matter, the others in Monterroso’s—are the dispassionate observers of a spectacle, or, in the latter case, perhaps even too wearied to participate at all. The experience of the cows, in all the gruesomeness of the scene, is no longer lived directly.

There is another sense in which annihilation is important to both Bernhard and Monterroso. In the aforementioned essay, Valerio-Holguín more broadly associates the idea of death with Monterroso’s recurring theme of the “complete works”, a motif which appears in three stories in the aforementioned collection. In Bernhard as well, the pursuit of completion or perfection in a work of art is frequently tied to the destruction of either the art or the artist, most famously in The Corrections, but sprinkled liberally throughout his oeuvre, including The Voice Imitator, in which a chorister is beheaded for singing a wrong note, a comic actor throws himself off a ledge to escape the trail of laughter that follows him (he fails), and a first-time playwright murders his audience for an incongruous reaction. I do not think Bernhard had this intention while writing “The Milkmaid”, but it draws an interesting parallel to what Monterroso may have had in mind with “The Cow” and other of his stories in Obras Completas. 

 What then stands as my thesis? Well, that this was an interesting coincidence.

 We pull the string. The cow says nothing, because it is dead.

— Joshua Rothes

Literary atomism: from ‘The Recognitions’

And when unrest showed on those gray shoals, he put them as dismal ease once more by reminding them that they were, even at that moment, being regarded from On High as a stiff-necked and uncircumcised generation of vipers: they found such reassurances comforting.

William Gaddis, The Recognitions.

There is a subtle, shifting consonance that gives it a quality of rhythm William Gass (forwarder of the work in question) would call “by the mouth for the ear”. Those light repetitions give the line, and indeed much of the work, a sermonic tone, of language audibly gaining steam.

— Joshua Rothes

Literary atomism: from Juan José Saer’s ‘The Clouds’

In three or four days the bodies had reached, from the net of tissue and blood where they once struggled, from the constant pull and throbbing of doubt and passion gnawing at them, a freedom from the grueling chicanery of the particular and reached the immutability of universals through the white simplicity of their bones, passing first from subject to object and now, rediscovered by human eyes, from object to symbol.

Juan José Saer, The Clouds. Translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel.

A journey after death, the coldness by which the particular is ascended to the universal (there is no way to humanize this). Saer paints decomposition as a transaction, more importantly, a reduction, or better still (“net”) a subtraction. What is lost is lost (and gained) only in the eye of the beholder, a trick of the lush narration, a foothold even for narrative authority. The narrator, not the author here, imbues humanity on simple bones, a godlike power on the flood- and fire-ravaged plains of Argentina.

Originally posted on a now-defunct blog somewhere in 2016.

— Joshua Rothes

Against flash

I read the word “flash”, in the context of “flash fiction”, in one of two ways: that the work was written quickly, dashed-off; or that it is meant to be, or is at least capable of being, read quickly. In the first sense, it conjures the notion of a writing exercise, something perhaps meant to limber up the author for the real work ahead, the quick bout of calisthenics before the grueling race, and so an artifact of the sidelines. While I’m certain the formal constraint is alluring to some subset of writers, I would argue that the vast majority of well-known works that fall into this category are, to their authors, exactly as long as they need to be. The form of the short prosaic text is then, in this way, very different than the haiku. The second, while true in one sense, does a disservice to the work and to the author, putting the emphasis on the minimal time investment required. To be immersed is not a function of the length and breadth of a body of water, but the depth, which, in all but the shallowest cases, cannot be discerned from the most readily apparent dimensions. It is also hard to spot an analog across artistic media, even limiting the search to other forms of writing. If Howl is a poem proper, then surely Rilke’s Der Panther is a flash poem. The term then reads like permission, to read quickly, assuming the writer has written quickly, as one takes in a caricaturist’s sketch. Categories of text like this—see also the proem, the novelita, sudden fiction, the longread—are much the same as the new neighborhoods that are always appearing in established cities, which is to say, the product of marketing, and should likewise be avoided for the sake of their constituents.

— Joshua Rothes