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The Magnanimous Cuckold

February 17, 2010 6 comments

Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynk wrote a play entitled The Magnanimous Cuckold (sometimes translated The Magnificent Cuckold). Its protagonist (if it can be said to have one; let’s call him an antagonist in a play with no real protagonist) suspects his wife of cuckoldry and, through mounting paranoia and a bizarre need to confirm his suspicions, forces his innocent wife into cuckolding him with not only his brother (I believe it was his brother) but with the whole village, including himself in disguise. On a side note, the staging for Meyerhold’s 1922 production of the play bears some resemblance to certain elements of Duchamp’s machine céibataire, whose topic is at least obliquely (perhaps inversely) related to the idea of a cuckolding.

Having set myself up last week to establish a seating in literary tradition or convention (e.g. comedy for the first section of the book) and with Crommelynk’s play in mind, I latched onto Amalfitano’s cuckolding. It’s not exactly a convention, but it is certainly a recurring theme in literature. And for lack of anything more solid to latch onto, I decided to explore the topic a little more deeply.

Before I go on, I’m going to posit that there’s a relationship between the way a man feels about his daughter’s purity and his wife’s fidelity. The disturbing phenomenon of the purity ball takes the idea rather to the extreme, but it’s really no coincidence that we joke about shotgun weddings or polishing the (phallic, by the way) shotgun when dear daughter’s boyfriend comes to pick her up for a date. The deflowering of a man’s daughter is often taken as an assault on the man’s honor (of his property, really, I suppose), and so it seems to me like a variant of cuckolding.

That Amalfitano is raising a nubile daughter in an environment saturated with the fear of sex crimes perpetrated on young women makes him doubly and justifiably afraid of a filial cuckolding. We learn on page 198 that he feels spied on. On page 196, he asks himself why he brought his daughter to this horrible place. On the next page, he confides in Pérez that he’s a nervous wreck with fear for his daughter. Later, the voice in his head tells him to do something useful for his daughter. On page 202, we’re told that the wind is slipping into Rosa’s underpants.

But there are other significant things that are more suggestive of a fear of infidelity (of a sort) on the daughter’s part that goes beyond typical fatherly hand-wringing. Imma reads for the poet Lola is chasing a poem about Ariadne lost in a labyrinth. Ariadne, recall, was the daughter of King Minos, who kept a horned beast in his labyrinth. She betrayed her father first by helping Theseus kill the beast and second by eloping with the same lad. Ariadne’s name is figured by some to come from a word meaning “utterly pure.”

Later, after Amalfitano has learned to embrace the voice he hears, Bolaño tells us he feels like a nightingale. Oscar Wilde wrote a story (perhaps informed by Persian literature, which tells of the nightingale’s love for the rose?) entitled “The Nightingale and the Rose” (remember that Amalfitano’s daughter’s name is Rosa) about a professor’s daughter’s refusal to dance with a student and subsequent faithlessness to the student once he offers her the rose she requires. She opts instead to favor a man who sens her some jewels, ruining the notion of true love for the student and abandoning frivolously what we can assume must have been the sort of true love one would expect a father to want for his daughter.

Even the separation of Amalfitano from his daughter in airports because of their different citizenships points to a sort of infidelity (if not one she’s really culpable for), as he goes through one line while his daughter is frisked by strange men (one can imagine) in another.

And then there’s the voice’s repeated exhortation for Amalfitano to do something useful for his daughter. He is essentially telling Amalfitano to snap out of it and be a man, a reasonable enough suggestion for a character who displays nothing of manhood anywhere so far in the book. Professor Pérez all but throws herself at him (dressed like a ’70s movie star, caressing his face, touching his thigh, taking his arm as if they’re lovers), but he’s ever a cold fish. Several times, he considers planting a tree in his yard, an act that would produce fruit and demonstrate fertility and a lapse the voice reminds him of, but he never follows through, with telling symbolism.

I believe it’s even worth considering whether or not Rosa is Amalfitano’s child. The origin of of the word “cuckold” lies in the habit of the cuckoo of laying its eggs in another bird’s nest. Lola expresses a desire to carry the poet’s child, and at some point she has her son Benoît. Having left a child in Amalfitano’s nest before running off to seek the poet, has Lola in fact left behind Amalfitano’s child or the child of another with whom she’s cuckolded him? (“Lola” is a diminutive form of dolores, meaning “sorrows.” On pages 204 and 210, we see references to “birds of sorrow” and to “tiny little eggs.” Is it reasonable to put these things together to give weight to the Lola-as-cuckoo and Rosa as bastard conceits?) The lack of anything like passion in descriptions of their interactions or their history certainly leaves the possibility open.

Yet Amalfitano takes his matrimonial cuckolding in very gracious stride. Lola writes to him of her experiences with the poet, but he doesn’t seem angry. It’s clear that he loves her (that beautiful image he has of her typing him a letter, reflected in the sky outside an office window), and after her long-overdue return, he sends her away with most of his savings when she leaves. He is the very definition of a magnanimous cuckold.

Much has been made over whether or not Amalfitano is gay, and whether Guerra is gay. (Incidentally, back on the matter of the cuckold as a man with horns, I had trouble not imagining the Guerra of page 218, decked out like a cowboy and jumping out to sort of attack Amalfitano, as a man in conquest of a bull.) Although he seems passionless, I don’t think of Amalfitano as gay. He’s more sexless, something of a bachelor (remember Pelletier’s meditation on the machines célibataires as he himself contemplated aging and the search for fulfillment?) unsure of his relation to the women in his life. Or, for that matter, to the men. Amalfitano seems to me like Prufrock without the yearning.

I can’t quite find a way to bring this to a tidy conclusion. The cuckold is usually a comic figure, and yet Amalfitano is, to me, a sad, sympathetic man. Maria may have it right that Bolaño is saying something, with Amalfitano, about how alien homosexuality is to a virile Hispanic man. But this seems an awfully heavy section of the book for describing what seems to me to wind up being a pretty shallow cultural artifact. In a follow-up comment, Maria says “We do know that it’s men, not women, who are abducting a ton of girls and then torturing and killing them in that strange, sad border town. And this is a real thing that is really happening, in a real border town, to this day.” And maybe that is what really lies at the heart of the Amalfitano section. He’s more or less as helpless to do something useful for his daughter as he is to keep his wife from abandoning him and screwing around on him. What does it mean to be a man in a world in which men are so powerless to hold onto and protect those they would cling to?

Underground

It’s probably coincidence that something of an underworld scene in Infinite Jest happens to start on page 666. But here we have the young male E.T.A. students “punitively remanded below ground” to clear the tunnels in preparation for the inflation of the lung. It’s been a good long time since I’ve read The Inferno (when I did, it was Pinsky’s translation in terza rima, and I thought it was so good that I sat in my dorm room and read the whole thing aloud to myself in one sitting), but I wonder if one might not find a reference or two within this section. Certainly, reminders of sins past abound — the “sweet stale burny smell none of them can place” (668) a node to Hal’s lonely indulgence; “a bulky old doorless microwave oven” (670) possibly the microwave JOI used to eliminate his map (Dante’s representation of Hell itself, if I recall correctly, something of a map). When the boys find the awful refrigerator, one says “This is Death. Woe unto those that gazeth on Death. The Bible” (673).

Avril makes her way from place to place underground as well, calling to mind for me the myth of Demeter (like Coatlicue, a mother goddess) and Persephone (with underground Hal as a sort of Persephone, Avril as Demeter with a real green thumb as far as her Green Babies go but ultimately batshit toxic and stifling to her kids). Although I can’t find it now, I thought I had read a description in this passage of what seemed disembodied (not literally) heads, and it made me think of Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparation of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough

There are variations on the punctuation of the the poem, but the idea is that the heads of people lined up somewhat haphazardly waiting for the subway train resemble petals (I think of cherry blossoms, probably because the poem has kind of a haiku feel to it) lined up on a branch. “The metro” thrown through a European filter can read as “De Metro,” and it’s just one hop from there to Demeter, who prowled around looking for her daughter who was underground, meanwhile affecting the seasons and the earth’s fertility (e.g. flowers).

I am not suggesting that Wallace was making an oblique reference to Pound (he’d be more likely to point to Larkin). I’m not even sure I’d defend too steadfastly the notion that this scene is an underworld scene (though epics tend to have those) in the literary sense. These are just associations that came to mind.

I can’t do those two standout nearly-blank pages 664 and 665 and the just fantastic note 269 anything resembling justice, but gosh are they ever good.

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