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Dismemberment

A couple of months ago, I wrote about disembodiment. Tonight, I’ll give brief consideration to dismemberment, of which there is no shortage in 2666 without even counting all the severed nipples in the fourth part. First, a brief list taken from this week’s reading (some of these aren’t dismemberment precisely, but they’re disfigurings, at any rate, or catastrophic disabilities):

  • Reiter is shot in the throat and loses his voice for a while.
  • Ansky meets a soldier missing an eye and an arm (709)
  • A hunter is described whose sex organs have been torn off. He goes searching for them until at last he marries, at which point, having aged thirty years after being unmanned, he ages in reverse to get the thirty years back. Is there something of the Actaeon myth here?
  • There’s a curious episode with some indigenous people whom the Europeans believe to be cannibals but who actually take the European habit of shaking hands and making eye-contact to be a sort of threat of soul-rape. This isn’t exactly dismemberment, but gosh there sure does seem to be a threat of it, and it just feels related to me.
  • Reiter returns to his war buddies to find that Kruse now speaks as if he’s been castrated (738)
  • Reiter’s mother is blind in one eye.
  • Reiter’s father lost a leg and has some interaction with a sergeant who has also lost a leg.
  • Here’s a real stretch: There’s lots of talk of masturbation in this week’s reading. Can masturbation be construed to be a sort of almost imagined dismemberment of another person?

Some dismemberment  is to be expected, I suppose. It’s war time during this section, after all.

Still, some other body-wholeness or health issues occur to me.

Bolaño was dying as he wrote 2666 and in fact didn’t actually finish writing and editing the book (there’s supposedly a sixth part floating around somewhere). His terminal illness surely must have informed some of his impressions about death. Can it also have led him to focus on body/health issues, or do you suppose that was part of his project to begin with?

Bolaño writes a bit about art and body as well. We can’t forget Edwin Johns and his lost hand, of course, and what to me remains an open question regarding his real motivation for chopping off his hand. And then there’s Archimboldi’s namesake, Arcimboldo, about whom I wrote earlier with an eye toward the critics as a sort of composite character. As Arcimboldo composes some of his pictures as bodies made up of bodies, so Bolaño has made two big piles of bodies (at least two — the biggest or most explicit or pronounced being those of the Jews mid-century and of Mexican women late-century). And then there’s the matter of Bolaño’s health — perhaps worsened by the vagabond artist’s lifestyle he indulged in for much of his life? — and his own decision to switch gears in 1990 to write fiction rather than his beloved poetry, a decision fueled by a perception that he needed to be able to support his family, which he couldn’t do with poetry. Was Johns telling the truth after all, and betraying Bolaño’s own sense of having somehow sold out?

The final section of 2666 feels very mythological to me. It’s almost like a folk tale in tone and content at times. It tells the creation story of the man whose elusiveness set the opening part of the book in motion. Reiter is described as a giant many times, has a strange, counter-intuitive resistance to gunfire in spite of his height, and in fact has a mythology built up around him by the critics. He travels the world on adventures, is stripped of powers (speech) that he later regains, and even has something of an experience, in Castle Dracula, that one might liken to a trip into a labyrinthine underworld complete with a view of a chanting devil. He is awarded the medals of a hero.

As I contemplated the idea of Reiter/Archimboldi as a mythological figure, I tried to think of mythological figures who had been somehow disfigured. Cyclops with his one eye was, I suppose, born that way, but he bears mentioning because of all the one-eyedness in this section and before (blind justice, the mural of the winking saint). Another one-eyed figure were the Graeae, a set of crones (sisters to the Gorgons) who shared one eye and one tooth and whom Perseus outwitted. Prometheus had his liver perpetually torn out by eagles. Medusa, who has made a couple of appearances in Bolaño’s book, was ultimately decapitated, her head used as a weapon in future adventures. There are probably lots that I’m missing.

But the one that seems most relevant to me is Orpheus.  He was the son of a river god, and it’s hard for me to put aside the strange water associations Bolaño assigns to Reiter. Orpheus was linked more to community and to his disciples than to any one race or family; similarly, Reiter/Archimboldi, with his mixed-nationality name and his multi-national appeal, transcends boundaries of country and race. Orpheus was a great singer (and by extension poet) famous for his trip to the underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice. After failing to rescue her (he looked back into Hades before she had emerged and thus broke the deal), he became so despondent that he forsook all gods but Apollo, and when he went one morning to the oracle of Dionysus and began to praise Apollo, the female followers of Dionysus ripped him limb from limb. As his head and lyre bobbed down the river, he continued singing. Archimboldi’s final book (at the time of the story’s action, at least) will be called The Head, though I don’t think we know what it’s about. It’s an interesting title, given these little similarities between Orpheus and Reiter and the occurrences of art and disfigurement or dismemberment.

Consider also the story of Medusa. There are different renderings of the myth, but a couple of them suggest that she was actually very beautiful until she faced the wrath of Athena for defiling her temple by having sex in it. In one of the accounts, Poseidon desired Medusa, which angered Athena, who then allowed Poseidon to rape Medusa in her (Athena’s) temple, whereupon Athena punished Medusa for the defilement with the famous head of snakes and stony glance. I think it’s interesting to think of this story — relevant in a way to the murders in St. Teresa — with its ultimate beheading of a snake-haired head alongside that of Orpheus and his own decapitation: dismemberment of a woman for her uninvited sex set up next to dismemberment and subsequent immortalization of a poet for love of his wife, who died at the fangs of a snake.

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