The Prophetic Silence of Bolaño’s ‘2666’
By Richard Marshall.
Violence can be the mind’s abyss. It can be so dark and the heart so frail that we are easily fooled. Eichmann fooled Arendt, and we soaked up her brilliant but false view of him as the epitome of ‘the banality of evil.’ He was far from being Arendt’s hapless bureaucrat who didn’t understand what he was doing. The Sassen tapes have refuted this once and for all. Sassen was a Waffen-SS member who collaborated on a proposed book with Eichmann sometime in 1955-56 in Peron’s Argentina. In tapes made between them Eichmann is bullish and confident:
‘No, I have no regrets at all and I am not eating humble pie at all. In the four months during which you have rendered the whole matter, during which you have endeavoured to refresh my memory, a great deal has been refreshed. It would be too easy, and I could perfectly reasonably, for the sake of current opinion, play the role as if a Saul had turned into a Paul. But I must tell you that I cannot do that, because my innermost being refuses to say that I did something wrong. No – I must tell you, in all honesty, that if of the 10.3 million Jews shown by [the statistitian] Korherr, as we now know, we had killed 10.3 million, then I would be satisfied. I would say “All right. We have exterminated an enemy.”
That Eichmann lied in court to escape the hangman, calling his murderous deeds ‘obedience’, and that Arendt worked up her image of the one-dimensional man, is partly to do with promptings from the existentialist Karl Jaspers. Some modern commentators are disturbed by their assessment of German existentialists, in the movement’s ‘dirty secret’ as Jan Philipp Reemtsma calls it, as they looked on the Nazi street thugs and revolutionaries. The existentialists seemed to have both feared and admired the virility of Nazi killers. Jaspers likened Eichmann to an eagle fallen into the hands of cunning trappers and encouraged Arendt to rewrite the image.
Kempowski’s mother in his autobiographical novel ‘Tadelloser and Wolff’ asks ‘How on earth’ when a stray bullet rips into the leaves of a pear tree. She means: ‘how could it have come to this?’ Harald Welzer’s 2005 book on mass murderers asks: ‘How could an ordinary man do this?’ Schopenhauer wrote ‘ many a man would be capable of slayng another, merely to smear his boots with the victim’s fat.’ Todorov writes of conquistadors killing idiots to check the sharpness of their blades. The criteria for what is ordinary shifts.
Schiller said the Thirty Years War ‘… turned back the improving manners of the country into their pristine barbarity and wildness.’ Adorno compared the 2nd World War with Schiller’s war. He wrote: ‘Karl Kraus was right to call his play ‘The Last Days of Mankind.’ What is being enacted now ought to bear the title: “After Doomsday”… The idea that after the war life will continue normally or even that culture might be ‘rebuilt’ – as if the rebuilding of culture were not already its negation – is idiotic. Millions of Jews have been murdered, and this is to be seen as an interlude and not the catastrophe itself. What more is this culture waiting for?… One need only think of revenge for the murdered. If as many of the other are killed, horror will be institutionalized and the pre-capitalist pattern of vendettas, confined from time immemorial to remote mountainous regions, will be reintroduced in extended form, with whole nations as the subjectless subjects. If, however, the dead are not avenged and mercy is exercised, Fascism will despite everything get away with its victory scot-free, and, having once been shown so easy, will be continued elsewhere.’ Thomas Mann agreed. There is no adequate response to Nazi crimes. Hannah Arendt wanted to make the extermination of the Jews discontinuous with the history of war and peace. But then Germany would have been left unable to ever make amends. Adorno’s predicted catastrophes of 1944 didn’t happen. Germany did make some limited progress towards making amends.
Modernity coexists with extreme violence. We haven’t put violence behind us. Freud wrote in ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ that civilization couldn’t prevent barbarism. This, he assures us, builds our sense of reality. Adorno thought that all culture and cultural criticism after Auschwitz was garbage . Sicilian fairy stories are told with a firmer grip; the stories may end ‘happily ever after’ but we continue to live in suffering. It’s why we tell the stories.
Reemtsma notes that what Adorno and Horkheimer said about Homer applies to the modern mind: ‘ The speech which gets the better of physical strength is unable to curb itself. Its spate accompanies the stream of consciousness, thought itself, like a parody: thought’s unwavering autonomy takes on a moment of manic folly when it enters reality as speech.’ In Bolaño there is something of the parodic, but as a simulacrum, an architectural folly. It is in spate, and isn’t curbed, and the impression it gives is of Menenius Agrippa preventing a revolution in Coriolanus by telling an absurd tale about ‘body limbs in rebellion against the body.’ Adorno and Horkheimer write about ‘… the fragile advantage the word has over violence’, an advantage the use of silence withdraws. Bolaño writes his complex silence out as an 893-paged prophetic object.
Modernity’s code of behaviour is alienation or functional differentiation. It is imbued with trust that people adhere to assigned roles. ‘Fulfilling a role confers meaning on oneself.’ The roles are skin deep and so authentically modern. Trust is a key element because for any modern person ‘… a complete absence of trust would prevent him from getting up in the morning. He would be prey to a vague sense of dread, to paralyzing fears… Anything and everything would be possible. Such abrupt confrontation with the complexity of the world at its most extreme is beyond human endurance.’ Trust is complex, contested but considered a basic element of cohesion. Hobbes was amongst the first to see its place as a cornerstone. State sovereignty provides the trust required for cohesion. What happens when practices designed to secure a culture’s trust fail? The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shook European’s trust in the world. These practices are the criteria for normality, reliability and predictability. They require seriousness. They provide an image of what the world is and should continue to be. Even though we know they are constructions we must always ask: do we believe one another?
Helmut Plesser writes to the phenomenology of violence, rather than its sociology, history or psychology. He addresses this in the striking phrase ‘… the basic form of human existence under the spell of the body.’ Freud called humankind ‘the prosthetic God’. Slavery was a prosthetic tool. It literally (from the Greek) means ‘human-footed.’ ‘12 Years a Slave’ shows a lay public how the modern prosthetic gods created an industrial-scale machine of race cruelty and violence. Can you even start to understand post-war Jewery without understanding the Final Solution? Can you similarly even begin to understand racism against Africanians without understanding slavery? Or perhaps a better question; how far can anyone be trusted without having these quintessences of modernity writ large.
German historicist Max Weber’s concept of power becomes sociologically amorphous in his hands: power exists in situations of dominance but also when there is no resistance. Weber is clear that violence is not an essential component of power. But he talks of modernity as an iron cage. Foucault talks about modernity as being like straightening trees. Kant talked about the crooked timber of humanity. Ferdinand Braudel in ‘The Wheels of Commerce’ writes that ‘ the gibbets, the corpses dangling from trees whose silhouettes stand out against the sky in so many old paintings, are merely a realistic detail – they were part of the landscape.’ He quotes an eye witness: ‘ In Lent of the said year 1559, the Rouerguais was burned; Ramon was broken on a wheel; Arnaut was tortured with tongs; Boursquet was quartered; Forimon was hanged, Le Negut hanged near the Valandre bridge in front of Fourie’s garden; Pouiout was burned near the Roque des Arcs.’ General growing aversion to torture and public killing abolished their use mostly during the second half of the eighteenth century and the first part of the nineteenth. Revulsion started much earlier. Modernity is the result of a new attitude rather than the condition for the new attitude. Van Dulman writes: ‘Even before the Enlightenment discredited the old system as barbaric and unjust, some things had already changed.’ Shakespeare indexed revulsion explicitly in both “Richard III’ and ‘King Lear.’ This was the result of the shifting function of execution rituals. Since state authority and control had been fortified, severe punishments were no longer as necessary and were hence carried out less frequently.’ He says that the humanization was a matter of utility rather than Enlightenment thinking per se: ‘… the state abandoned cruelty because it was no longer useful.’
Freud wrote that the command to love thy neighbour leads to violence against our neighbour’s neighbour, riffing on Nietzschean’s identification of double-tongued resentment and his disgust with the post-Socratic ‘ascetic planet.’ If Africans and Jews are the objective correlatives of this, they are joined by women. We may rewrite the Freudian insight: ‘the command to love thy neighbour leads to violence against our neighbour’s neighbour’s women.’ Black Slavery, the Final Solution and Femicide are three horsemen of modernity. Together they are a code for unlocking the dirty secrets of what Steven Pinker has shown is an ever more peaceful, less violent contemporary landscape. Our modern grim enclaves are variations of their themes. We earn our livings knowing that somewhere else all three are being triggered, sometimes all together, at other times as a pair or else singly. This brutal trio is an enormous unspeakable abyss where screams are too far away and prayers unanswered.
Bolaño writes into this abyss. In the folktale ‘Robert the Devil’ Robert is a child of the duchess who called on the devil to overcome her barrenness. Robert is a monster but then realizes the great wrongs of his life and is told by the Pope to become a hermit and as penance is told ‘: keep silence, feign madness, and eat nothing save what can be snatched from dogs, until God gives a sign.’ Roberto Bolaño was born in the devil Pinochet’s Chile. One of his character’s says; ‘every hundred feet the world changes.’ Of the same character, an old woman who perhaps has gifts of second sight, we are told, ‘If it was true that all effort led to a vast abyss, she had two recommendations to begin with, first, not to cheat people, and, second, to treat them properly. Beyond that, there was room for discussion.’ Bolaño’s world is the world Kleist would have recognized, the Kleist who wrote in ‘Der Hermannsshlacht’, ‘ Grab a club twice as heavy/And strike him dead’.
‘2666’ is an unsettling arrangement of parts as if every thousand words or so the world changes its belief in fate. So he writes, at one terminus, of a mother, anxious about her little daughter, who takes on a new way of life to protect her young charge because ‘… by this point she didn’t trust the word of men and she worked hard and put in overtime and even sold sandwiches to her own coworkers at lunch until she had enough money to rent a little house in Colonia Veracruz, which was farther from Interzone than the shack by the trench, but it was a real little house, with two rooms, sturdy walls, a door that could be locked. She didn’t mind having to walk twenty minutes longer each morning. In fact, she almost sang as she walked. She didn’t mind spending nights without sleeping, working two shifts back to back, or staying up until two in the morning in the kitchen when she had to leave for the factory at six, making the chile-spiked sandwiches her fellow workers would eat the next day. In fact, the physical effort filled her with energy, her exhaustion was transformed into vivacity and grace, the days were long, slow, and the world (perceived as an endless shipwreck) showed her its brightest face….’ But the daughter isn’t saved.
The words of men are cued here as untrustworthy. Bolaño writes the abyss. He creates a modernist prophetic object formed, loosely, into the appearance of a novel. One kind of reader of this novel reads it as knowledge of dread vividly imparted. For this reader it is a kind of epistemology. Another kind of reader denies that it’s about knowledge and says its not a matter of truth or falsehood but is rather about something else. A warning perhaps. Alternatively, it is an overwhelming expression of that dread that creeps in. Bolaño remains, like the penitent, silent.
Both readers find conditions that satisfy their readings. Perhaps it comes down to the reader’s view on creation. For there are events that happen, singular, terrifying, sublime events that seem to have a unity and corporeality that force us to ask whether they were there all along, part and parcel of and integral to the unceasing, revolving matter of the days, or alternatively were accidental breaches in nature, not integral at all but sensationally, dangerously contingent. For Macbeth, we recall, murder is such a breach. The eye is on fire, its wheel magically below the height of history. No surprise that Susie Sioux reworked Dylan’s reworking of that Shakesperean nightmare image, one that curls through the smouldering ashes of Blake’s ‘Tyger‘ and Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet‘, in particular, in the unrevealed smoking tattoo of devillish Frank. Happenstance is transparent and ambivalent and like a curtain of smoke. Profound ambivalences compel ambiguous formulations. The writer learns her craft to delete the conditions that betray truth. These conditions are all around. Expressive skill and analytic clarity can be machines built from hallucinated waters in Lady Macbeth’s skull where ‘a little water clears us of this deed.’ Macbeth understands that no such machine exists. His despair answers his own question: ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/ the multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red.’
Bolaño understands the sick thinness of this erasing water. It is a somnambulist nightmare of mercy answering the question of the character Popescu: ‘What is the look of absolute fear?’ He writes of the skin of water that allows water to peep over the rim of a cup; ‘ … then the horseman returns, or his shadow, or the idea of him, and he has the skin, empty of water now, because he drank it all during his trip, or he and his horse drank it, and the skin is empty now, it’s a normal skin, an empty skin, because after all the abnormal thing is a skin swollen with water, but this skin is swollen with water, this hideous skin swollen with water doesn’t arouse fear, doesn’t awaken it, much less isolate it, but the empty skin does, and that was what he saw in the mathematician’s face, absolute fear.’
Modernity conditions us to delegitimize violence. Violence is illegitimate when the time is not ripe. This is our formulation. The rhetoric of temporal regression is used to delegitimize the thought of autotelic violence. It relies on a distinction between temporal and spatial modernities. Reemtsma writes: ‘Had the US administration called the 1994 mass murder of Tutsis ‘genocide’ , modernity would have gone global. Instead, the United States legitimized the situation in Rwanda by insisting that it was a ‘tribal conflict’, and the UN did not intervene.’ Nietzsche in his Christ parody ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ places autotelic violence with modern instrumentality:
‘Thus speaks the red judge: “ Why did this criminal kill? He wanted to rob.” But I say to you: his soul wanted blood , not robbery. He thirsted for the bliss of the knife! But his poor reason did not comprehend this madness and it persuaded him. “What does blood matter?” it said. “Don’t you at least want to commit robbery in the process?” And so he listened to his poor reason, like lead its speech lay upon him – and he robbed as he murdered.’
What ripped time and nature this time was a femicidal wave. Each murder is a breach, a tear. Writers write so that we can cross over. A report by a UN expert panel visiting the border in the fall of 2003 noted: “A total of 328 women have been murdered in Ciudad Juárez during the 1993–2003 period. Of this total number, 86 aggravated homicides have been perpetrated involving sexual violence.” Another academic study raised the figure to 144 victims in 2004. Within this universe of cases, some would be what many criminologists identify as serial murders.’
Sociological writing tends to focus on the morality or psychology of violence. Trutz von Trotha writes: ‘ Violence remains the analytic stepchild of mainstream sociological theory.’ Marx made violence secondary, merely ‘ the midwife of history’. Durkheim and Compte saw it as a necessary means of state control. Elias and Foucault don’t understand violence as social action. Simmel sees violence as a variation on the concept of rule. Even Weber is brief about violence as social action. Habermas is silent (But only as a sociologist; his political critiques engage with violence). Sociologists turn to violence as social action only in studies of social deviance. Birgitta Nedelmann writes that any sociology of violence must begin with bodily harm. It tends not to be because sociologists place violence by definition outside of society. Popitz, by considering noninstrumental violence without pathologising or mystifying it, is the exception to the rule.
Journalism and the novelist as witness gauge Bolaño’s achievement. Bolaño is not quite the opposite of these but there’s a distance measured in how opposite the directions being taken are. Bolaño is constrained by history and time and points to eternity. But it is surely equally dependent on his own will, his own obscure intentions. He creates out of a time that is precise and singular yet can reach to imperatives that transcend the days. It should even by now be impossible to read this impossible object without referring to its ur-text, “ Femicide Machine’ by Sergio González Rodríguez. The contrast is instructive. The prophetic quality is entirely missing in the Roderiguez novel. Throughout the writing of ‘2666’ Bolaño continually wrote to Rodríguez who gave Bolaño the material he requested.
Rodríguez’s essential novel bears witness to history. in contrast, Bolaño does not testify. His act is prophetic, where he combines the power of imaginative construction with the sense that there is something before us whilst removing it simultaneously. A reconstructed breach occurs, a tear in existence, in its own creation. It becomes impossible to exist. Or rather it exists but in a recalibrated formation, something radically reshaped, perhaps reduced or made gigantic, so that the concrete particularity of events draws us to things that have yet to happen as well as believing that there are objects depicted that existed before and were never abstractions. Yet there are also, alongside these concrete manifestations of his imagination also the ripped philosophical abstractions that come up as his characters discuss matters in hand, the critical juice that brings crazy wisdom to the shape and momentum. In this Roberto Bolaño is joined by the likes of Valerie Martinez and Keston Sutherland.
If Bolaño is taken to have created a prophetic object then a reading of ‘2666’ corresponds to the reader’s views of prophecy. Bolaño may be understood as having been miraculously chosen (by history or God or psychological or artistic charges, or luck, happenstance, something contingent or else a depth-charged necessity, probably by homicide, by a maniacal tellurion) imposing on him a mission or command. ‘2666’ is a miraculous eruption like other prophetic objects such as ‘Macbeth’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘V’ and ‘Godot’. Recall that for Shakespeare murder is itself a miraculous breach in nature. Or else Bolaño may be considered a kind of artistic apotheosis, dependent upon nothing more than the writer’s stubborn, in-born willingness to bring about through a certain abundant merit of intellect, finesse and wisdom an object of perfection. Or else, again, Bolaño is neither wholly dependent on external forces nor merely human perfectionism. His perfection is warranted by his artistic merit but his prophetic realization depends on permission of a certain will of history or God or genocidal twist. The prophetic object is realized as a gift, possibly in terms of an insane Maimonides, Hegel, or Marx.
There’s a contrast that the philosopher Dani Rabinowitz reminds us of between Mosaic prophecy and non-Mosaic prophecy. This distinction comes from Maimonides and was influential in medieval theology and philosophy. Non-mosaic prophecy takes place as a dream. The prophetic object is the dream that the prophet then is required to interpret. Mosaic prophecy is the prophecy technique of Moses. He doesn’t dream. The object is created whilst he is awake and doesn’t involve the imagination but is a straight rational faculty mechanism in action. But Moses is an exception. The prophecy of Moses can’t be overturned but the rest of the prophets can be because they can be unsafe. By unsafe I mean that even if correct there are too many close possible worlds where the belief could be false. If unsafe then even if correct a belief can’t be knowledge. If Bolaño’s ‘2666’ is prophetic then it’s by definition non-Mosaic, given that it’s an object created by Bolaño.
Bolaño literally withdrew from the surroundings of the novel, leaving South America to write ‘2666’ in Spain. The sense of images, conversations, whole stories arising from his own consciousness is profound. Prophecy is not like lightening. It emerges slowly from nurtured talent and senstivities unraveled from unwary sleep. The internal element of the prophecy crashes into its external matter. Bolaño’s external matter is not Bolaño. The subjectivity of the sleeping prophet’s dream is not the subject of the prophecy. Bolaño’s novel, however, is chock full of moments of pure dream. At the end of the first section there’s a strange, disturbing scene of Americans singing along to Willie Nelson, and a background trickle of dead bodies. The Americans are looking down the street from their hotel but we are shown nothing, told nothing and nothing is revealed. Yet as in the haunting, terrifying moment in Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ when a character, as he listens to the barking of a dog in the distant suburb, asks ‘Who the hell owns that dog?’ we are confronted with subterranean dread and hideous knowledge. Bolaño is like Lynch in that both understand that dreams are links. Bolaño at one point writes that ‘… the University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain… It was also like an empty dance club” and this becomes a willful address to external, pre-existent force.
In Rodríguez’s novel the facts are theorized. He writes: ‘In Ciudad Juarez, a territorial power normalized barbarism. This anomalous ecology mutated into a femicide machine: an apparatus that didn’t just create the conditions for the murders of dozens of women and little girls, but developed the institutions that guarantee impunity for those crimes and even legalize them. A lawless city sponsored by a State in crisis. The facts speak for themselves.’ These are tragic facts that are being ordered. In Rodríguez there is a single idea. And he is alone. Or feels that way. There is a sort of single-minded tenacity of the South. Vico discovered a way of thinking about the primitive histories of people. They were lonely and fearful. Rodríguez writes of the new primitivism in terms of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben who writes about “the camp,” where “law and life” become indiscernible so that neither can produce legitimate restraints on the other. The chaos and mystery of the present and of the recent past doesn’t invite arbitrary eclecticism. Rodríguez connects with this human existence and makes judgments.
He writes: ‘The phenomenon of female homicides in Ciudad Juárez began to be denounced in 1993. There is evidence these crimes began years before. Why were they murdered? For the pleasure of killing women who were poor and defenseless…’ His judgments are not dogmatic nor abstract. He asks:
‘How many victims have there been? Of the 400 women and girls killed for various reasons from 1993 to the present, at least 100 murders were committed in tandem with extreme sexual violence. The lack of reliable information from the authorities is part of the problem.’ Bolaño plays Mnemosyne and insists on fidelity to these facts. He finds his way back to the primitive facts without political chauvinism. But whereas Roderiguez bears witness to the crimes and determines his femicide machine ‘… whose functioning has evolved over time, incorporating judicial and political systems, to such an extent that Mexican authorities have sidetracked or blocked the investigations. This performance goes beyond the mere incompetence or negligence which some have cited to justify their own actions. Authorities have continually discredited those who oppose their official version of the truth: The crimes, they insist, are merely a product of domestic violence, or, more recently, the war on drug trafficking. They seek to discount the systematic and peculiar violence against women, a violence wherein organized crime and Juárez’s political and economic powers converge…’ Bolaño is esoteric and obscure.
Where Roderiguez asks; ‘Who killed them? Drug traffickers, complicit with individuals who enjoy political and economic power. Where and how did the events take place? The victims were abducted from the streets of Ciudad Juárez and taken by force into safe houses where they were raped, tortured, and murdered at stag parties or orgies… The victims’ bodies were dumped into the desert like garbage, tossed onto streets, on corners and vacant lots in the city’s urban and suburban zones, and in the outskirts of the city. In many cases the victims’ clothes and identification cards were interchanged in a kind of perverse game. Authorities refused to investigate the cases in depth. These events imply a misogynistic furor that escalated from an isolated crime to a collective ravaging; especially in terms of the “copycat effect,” in which imitators stalk victims and replicate the femicide machine’s efficiency. Impunity is the murderers’ greatest stimulant’, Bolaño conceals judgment because we sense he understands what it means to judge. A proper understanding of existence is that we are not its purpose. Bolaño writes to that impressive fact. His esotericism is a matter of asserting this anti-providentialism. It results in a change of consciousness. Yet as an author there is a lingering requirement to order and structure that rejects happenstance. Bolaño’s writing knows that there is a creative imagination ordering and processing. But the new consciousness it springs out of is one that withdraws from saying what purpose it has, or if there is any.
Roderiguez writes about the femicidal horrors without attempting any transformation of consciousness. His heroism is of a different kind to Bolaño’s. He presents his testimony as a witness. As with Nadezhda Mandelstam’s ‘Hope Against Hope’ there is a sense not merely of being a witness but of bearing witness. Terrestrial forces are portrayed automatically within their own lofty assurances. ‘These are the conclusions of numerous experts in Mexico and abroad, who launched investigations on this phenomenon, independently of the Mexican government’s own investigations. Neither the Mexican state nor its government has confronted the problem during its various stages in a manner congruent with their official responsibilities. There is no mystery about these murders beyond the failure of Mexican authorities to undertake an in-depth investigation of these crimes. A number of politicians and government officials have promised to carry out investigations, and they have even publicly vowed to request help from the United States to resolve the problem. None of these promises have been kept. The facts point to a situation that extends beyond Mexico’s borders.’
Bolaño writes towards a stability of weirdness, as if wanting to buckle his revelation of an abyss to the normativity of revealed truth. Miracles and magic are unstable and therefore breaches in nature.They are murderous. The causal order is not so much obscured in his writing but more or less absent. This is not inertia on his part but a question of finding the right shape for the object he creates. Macbeth’s identification of femicide as a breach, unstable, proves them evil. But there is something else about describing the breach as an abyss. Sartre in ‘Being and Nothingness’ describes angst as where ‘[f]ear is fear of being in the world whereas anguish is anguish before myself. Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over. A situation provokes fear if there is a possibility of my life being changed from without; my being provokes anguish to the extent that I distrust myself and my own reactions in that situation.’ Bolaño is a prophetic voice whose creation is his own silence in the face of the agony of standing before the abyss struggling against the urge to leap.
The serious distinction between prophecy and testimony is personified in the difference between the prophet Bolaño and the testimony of Roderiguez. Getting knowledge from testimony is subtle and delicate. Jennifer Lackey thinks we can know from a speaker even if the speaker doesn’t believe what they are saying. But naturally this is an issue that interconnects with the prophetic object. How we understand how a prophet communicates to her audience is dependent on what we think is required. Some think that because the method of prophecy is hard, so communicating it will be hard and therefore will be unsafe. Some think that this counts against prophecy. Others think it makes prophecy no different from anything that is difficult, like advanced math, or physics, or novels that are disguised prophetic objects like ‘2666’ or poems like ‘The Wasteland’.
In prophecy the imagination of the prophet produces the prophetic object. The prophet is then obliged to go through the object and figure out what kind of thing it is that the object depicts. There is a lack of safety in this mechanism. The prophet may mischaracterize the components of the object and interpretation based on such a misunderstanding will make any knowledge claims unsafe. Prophetic objects can lead us awry. The designated meaning is elusive. A compositional object is one made up of different components whose meaning is the correct understanding of how the components bind up. The text ‘2666’ is such an object. Does safety require infallibility? Tim Williamson says cases of knowledge need to be surrounded by truths. There needs to be no close possible worlds that could be different in relevant respects to what you take the prophet object to be depicting.
The methods for Williamson have to be very fine-grained. Coarse-grained methods won’t achieve knowledge. Perception, for instance, is too coarse-grained to guarantee knowledge. Take seeing an object. I can see it is red, for example, even in conditions that threaten my seeing that it is red. The fine-grained method has to be used and then the close worlds are used to tweak that fine-grained belief to ensure it is knowledge. Philosopher John Hawthorne thinks the method requires ‘super fine –grained’ methodology, to emphasise the feeling that Williamson’s theory of knowledge requires. His example of unsafe belief derived from too coarse a grained method is where we see the right colour but the wrong shape of an object. In this circumstance the issue becomes whether we know the object is red given that at that time we are wrong about the shape. So in a case where we have fused a false and true belief is knowledge about the colour safe? The safety of knowledge claims becomes pressurized.
The ‘method’ here is taking a suitably similar pathway and checking whether we’d have the correct beliefs. The prophet has a greater chance of epistemic safety if the fine-grained pathway or method is taken. Tweak the object in its details and see if even with the tweaking to close possible worlds we still end up with the belief about what propositions the object depicts. John Hawthorne notes that some prophets may be terrible. Prophets can make errors. Samuel in the Old Testament messed up at the start of his prophetic career. Spinoza has several examples of inept prophets. Disagreements between prophets abound as do examples of where prophets get the science wrong, get even the theology wrong. Hawthorne points out that perception is often faulty but nevertheless gives knowledge. The fine-grained method gives a prophet greater consistently safe beliefs than perception.
We suppose that ‘2666’ depicts a proposition that’s true in all closely similar possible worlds. The feature of the object is identified such that the relevant depiction relations obtain. It may be that the feature identified is one that couldn’t easily have failed to have been the case. The obvious way in which this might be the case is that there is no easy way in which the depicted object relations couldn’t have been the case. In such a circumstance the drawing of the apt understanding of the prophetic object is easy. But it is the case that there are objects such that the depicted object relations could easily not obtain. Obscurity, ambiguity, vagueness and such like are all cases where depicted object relations become difficult. When difficult then they become unsafe because it is more likely that mistakes will be made with difficult rather than simple depicted object relations.
Reportage and bearing witness are themselves plagued by obscurity and vagueness. Often this is deliberately orchestrated by forces opposed to luminosity. ‘A UN’s report lamented “the relative incapacity of the State to adequately solve these cases.” The true cause of such ineptitude resides in the efficacy of the femicide machine, whose functioning has evolved over time, incorporating judicial and political systems, to such an extent that Mexican authorities have sidetracked or blocked the investigations. This performance goes beyond the mere incompetence or negligence which some have cited to justify their own actions. Authorities have continually discredited those who oppose their official version of the truth: The crimes, they insist, are merely a product of domestic violence, or, more recently, the war on drug trafficking. They seek to discount the systematic and peculiar violence against women, a violence wherein organized crime and Juárez’s political and economic powers converge.
An FBI source affirmed: “Who’s behind the murders? At least one or more serial killers, a couple of drug dealers, two violent and sadistic gangs and a group of powerful men.” Mexican government intelligence officials have also sustained this view. Mexican authorities and their spokespeople have tried to minimize the events in Ciudad Juárez, seeking to shift public attention toward generalized misogynist violence throughout Mexico, ultimately confronting neither problem.’ Femicide reports the obscurity and even now criminals routinely kill journalists—more than 70 have been murdered since 2000—and the authorities are too incompetent to control or punish the perpetrators whilst at the same time the Mexican government declares that most of the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez have been solved. In Mexico, as long as the authorities accuse someone—with or without proof—a case is deemed “solved.” Families of the victims say ‘nothing has been resolved.’
It is possible then that a prophetic object is created that depicts an object of belief that can easily be missed. In these cases we may find that false beliefs about the prophetic object – perhaps beliefs held by the prophet that are imported into her prophetic creation and reading of the object – leads to false belief about what the prophetic object is actually depicting. By assuming separateness of object components – which has been assumed here – we may well be importing a merely conventional element about notation – such as breaks between words in the notation I’m using here, now, and which wasn’t the case in medieval times when there were not the break conventions now taken for granted – then perhaps the threat to the safety of prophetic objects and the relation to what they depict may rest on just a convention.
A fine grained depiction mechanism is less likely to be unsafe than a broad one. Is the method of interpretation obscure? Do we need Bolaño’s intention for ‘2666’ to determine what determines what. That might open the door to random depictions. Anything goes if anything goes in Bolaño’s intentions whilst creating his prophetic object. Are there constraints to this? Maimonides gives a role to the style of the prophetic author. So style is personalized and knowable and this constrains the possible depicted object relations. There are certain stock elements that emerge out of a style, figures that are recognizably of that particular prophet. Authorial style plus what the prophet reckons is accessible to others gives constraint. So for Maimonides ‘nations’ are ‘stars’. Once we know that we are buckled to a certain relation found in the prophetic object to the object depicted. Bolaño has to assume that people reading him would learn his style.
Prophets may tell you the embedded proposition, or give you the object and then the embedded proposition or else just the object. Maimonides points to the Torah stories and says they are just there. So all we have are the prophetic objects and we have to work out what the embedded proposition is for each. He thinks they have been radically misunderstood many times. Are prophetic objects like metaphors or allegories or do they require a different way of understanding them? So this is about readers’ relationship to the prophetic object. Some might say that there is no knowledge claim being made in prophecy. The prophetic object doesn’t embed a proposition. Propositions are either true or false but there is nothing propositional in the prophecy. The prophecy functions as something else, such as a conditional warning. Maimonides denies that a prophecy can function more than once.
Simplicity is a key notion in science. It links to safety. It links to abduction and abductive thinking might well be part of the method needed for prophetic epistemology. Goodman’s new puzzle of induction has made this familiar. Philosopher Tim Williamson gives an amusing example of how abductive thinking raises the issue of simplicity. As a schoolboy his headteacher asked a fellow student to continue a series of numbers 2, 4, 6, 8, 10… to which the student mused, ‘I think the numbers start going down at this point to 8 again.’ Well, why not? Simplicity is a psychological and subjective intuition that we have to explain in abductive reasoning. The puzzle around the connection between abductive reasoning and simplicity is not to justify it in the face of a skeptical challenge but rather to try and understand how it works.
Tim Williamson identifies a pragmatic strand to it. It is pragmatic to start searching for a lost object where light is shining rather than in darkness. That is the simplest option. But pragmatism doesn’t exhaust the explanation. Our confidence in simplicity is not just based in instrumentalism. Pragmatism is a sort of policy decision and often simplicity seems relevant to current preference for one theory over another even when we’re not envisioning new data or tests. Williamson summarises the current situation. He says that people are giving up the idea that there is a simple explanation to simplicity. They are dividing it into closely related problems that need slightly different solutions and treatments. One view is that simplicity of interpretation of data minimizes the number of times you have to change your mind. Another is that a simple theory has a better chance of being known. These can be complementary. Philosopher Elliot Sober agues that a simple theory will come out as more probable in a Bayesian setting. He also discusses the trade off between simplicity and fitting the data. Over-fitting is where absolute priority is given to fitting every new piece of data. Instability of theory is produced at each new measurement. You do better at getting convergence on a single hypothesis if you put great weight on simplicity. Williamson worries that philosophy, for example, constantly tweaks theories to fit new cases and theories consequently become too complicated.
Abduction isn’t about how we are to react to further evidence. We may already possess all the evidence there can be. A simple elegant interpretation is better than a weird grue-like complex one. We want it to be at a reasonably general level, at a pre-Bayesian level. Williamson asks why choosing the simplest of a range of theories that fits the evidence is any better than random choice, or choosing a theory because it is cool and exciting? But ‘cool’ and ‘exciting’ are fashion-indexed and tend to be unstable. Fashion changes. Simplicity is stable. This is the property that knowledge requires. Williamson concedes that there may be other stabilizing background features , such as ‘elegance’, which is a classical element.
Simplicity brings with it safety even when not made an explicit feature of safety. Being simple makes a theory more likely to be known and so safety conditions are maximized. Why is this talk of truth, safety and simplicity necessary? Faced with Bolaño’s silence there is pressure to understand whether his silence is true. Bolaño has created a prophetic object and refused to interpret it. His silence is his existential choice, a stance at the brink. His silence is the embedded proposition. The object, being impossible, can’t exist. It was published posthumously. It might have been five novels eventually. He has a book loving chemist write:
‘ … even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.’ Bolaño spooks out nothing that is less than an object of eternal ambiguity, lucidity, a kind of reality acquired by written deed. It duplicates the minimalism of a Borges on such a ridiculous scale that its multi-dimensionality and profundity are uneasily ungraspable and yet unerringly truthful. It is an accomplishment of such a quality that it is several orders of magnitude above that of other compilations. Its esoteric nature suggests that in the face of the horrors language is never adequate, but truth is nevertheless its realm.
What does the prophetic object mean? The prophet’s silence is the clue. In an earlier novel there’s a passage:
‘ Guerro, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child , bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.’ The true proposition embedded in the prophetic object is an unkowable secret. Bolaño faces the paradox of writing about something everyone has forgotten. He writes the unknowable. ‘2666’ knows more than its readers and more than Bolaño. Reading him made me think that Stephen Barber offers hints of the prophetic alongside the peened Sprachgefuhl of Dylan. The accurate paradox of Bolaño’s prophecy is of course right and fitting. There are centuries to come in this, and all the despair and dread of not having enough time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 2nd, 2014.