"Literature is a Society without a State": An Interview of Ricardo Piglia
We can only approach Ricardo Piglia with difficulty, with the timidity and contemplative distance imposed by an almost excessive sense of veneration. It’s been years since I reread his work, but I’ve never ceased to be surprised by the phrases with which he constructs his prose, his tone that sounds like spoken language and, at the same time, is denatured, as if pulled out from within the page, his enigmatic phrases, skillfully placed like explosives: literature is nowhere to be found as an essence, it is an effect; psychoanalysis is the melodrama of the middle class; in a sense, a writer writes in order to know what literature is; criticism is one of the modern forms of autobiography; literature is a battlefield; criticism is a variant of detective fiction; the ideal reader is the one produced by the work itself; history is written by the winners and told by the losers. And so on.
Piglia’s critical texts, in the form of enigmas, decoys, and traps, do not offer immediate answers or concrete interpretations of themselves, but rather a sort of prolific resonance and a displacement, a disconcert, a dis-ease, and a game that inhabits the phrase despite the phrase, or despite ourselves: the perplexity of the critic faced with the observed object also becomes, in this case, perplexity faced with the phrase that should certify and soothe, to a certain degree, the experience of reading. One cannot deny that the critical works of Ricardo Piglia are equally indispensable, inseparable (and sometimes indiscernible) from his narrative works.
In this sense, his receipt of the Rómulo Gallegos prize, which he was awarded last year for his novel Blanco nocturno [Target in the Night] (2010), was an ideal occasion on which to investigate the paths of literary criticism according to Ricardo Piglia, their relationship with fiction, and the spaces shared by these discourses, and to receive, in passing, some advice from this essential figure of contemporary Latin American literature.
Oriele Benavides: How did you get started with literary criticism? In which spaces did you begin?
Ricardo Piglia: The first thing I wrote, in the year 1968, I think, was an essay over Manuel Puig, because I really liked La traición de Rita Hayworth [Betrayed by Rita Hayworth], Puig’s first novel, which I read before it was published. A friend gave it to me, and it really caught my interest because it’s a novel that produces an effect of transformation: it’s a coming-of-age novel connected to film. I wrote a review that I published in a journal we had back then. And you could say that my work as a critic is linked to the fact that I, between 1963, when I was a student, and 1983, was always connected to literary journals. I was an editor back then, I formed part of the editorial or directory boards of various important journals that were published in Buenos Aires, so you could say that I got my start in journals, in parallel to working with fiction; I started to intervene writing essays, writing criticism.
Later, I studied history. I wasn’t educated as a critic in the most classical sense. I was very interested in reflections on literature, more than in critical reflection. So those were my beginnings.
OB: So it was in journals where you started to try to “intervene,” as you say, in the Argentine literary scene of the day?
RP: The first journal I was involved with was called El Escarabajo de Oro [The golden scarab]. It was a very interesting journal where we published short stories by young writers, and I had won one of their contests. Later we had a journal called Los Libros [The books] that was dedicated to reviewing all the books published per month in Buenos Aires. That was the initial idea. But our real project was to criticize the critics from the media, from the magazines, from the papers, the ones who were forming public opinion about literature. We put them in an awkward position. The critics weren’t used to seeing their own writing analyzed for a change. And they got nervous. And we began to change criticism in Buenos Aires, we renovated the critical space of Argentina. We began to incorporate elements of psychoanalysis, elements of marxism, elements of linguistics into critical reading. Those were the years of structuralism. We moved in and out of those hypotheses, and we told the critics from the papers that they had better start reading, that they were writing based only on their personal opinions of books, and that they had no proper criteria. And, in a way, looking back with historical perspective, we felt that we made some real changes in the way criticism was done in Argentina.
OB: And did academic spaces and universities play some role in the literary world in which you were trying to impose new ways of reading?
RP: Another really important aspect of those beginnings was that the universities were subject to intervention from the military regime. That was an important circumstance for my generation, because we were doing what the universities should have done but weren’t doing. We were part of a new generation that, perhaps, would have taught in traditional academic spaces and, perhaps, would have been creative based on different circles and modes of thought if the universities had carried on their previous course, but that couldn’t be done in practice because the military leaders had appointed all their own faculty. Journals were a way to create an alternative to conventional university thought, which, obviously, was very reactionary.
OB: You often insist upon the possibility of criticism as a deviant form of fiction, with other intentions, and even upon the importance of highlighting the critical discourse that comes from artists themselves, in place of what is written by professional critics.
RP: This is something from before, a field of investigation that I don’t believe has yet been addressed. I think that in the history of criticism, you talk about Auerbach, Bakhtin, Benjamin, so many critics. But you don’t talk about writers as critics. Like Borges, who is a great critic, and Eliot, and Auden, and Bertolt Brecht, who is an extraordinary critic and had a lot of influence on Benjamin. So, due to a professional technicality, critics don’t take into account a critical tradition that has very relevant importance because it represents a way to think about literature outside of the typical relationships established by critics.
OB: What is the difference between a writer who does criticism and a true critic? Does it come from a different establishment of their relationship with the truth (of the text, or of criticism itself)? Or from the place of enunciation that conditions the unfolding of their discourse?
RP: I hold the classical critical tradition in high regard, I don’t think it’s antagonistic to the tradition of the writer’s own perspective on literature. But I think the writer’s perspective on books is something different. Let’s see. An initial issue is the type of criticism that’s written by writers who talk about literature, about the processes of writing, and even about the discourses that surround them. They write prologues, they make their critical opinions known through interviews. Sometimes they don’t publish many of their critical notes. We have to reconstruct what they say, which is dispersed in notebooks, personal diaries, conferences. They don’t necessarily write books of criticism. And when they write books of criticism, they always do so in a manner that is not the typical manner of the books of criticism of the classical tradition.
As far as what you mentioned about the place of enunciation, I should say that certain critics have exceeded the academic world, like Susan Sontag or Raymond Wilson: writers who have intervened in newspapers, who are very good critics and who, although they have no university degrees to speak of and they don’t write from a position within the university, do form a part of the great critical tradition. The writings and reflections of writers do not feature in that tradition, but I think they should.
OB: But apart from that, is there a level of fictionalization adopted by some critics who are more connected to literature in order to construct critical hypotheses?
RP: What would the fictional voice consist of within critical discourse? I think the fictional voice, or what we call fiction within criticism, comes from the fact that one always works with examples. The example could be an entire book, or it could be a moment from a book. That’s the base upon which the critical hypothesis is built. Think of any famous name from criticism, like Bakhtin, who uses Dostoevsky. Later, Bakhtin starts to elaborate upon his hypothesis, but he has Dostoevsky as the nucleus of his concrete investigation. Dostoevsky’s work serves as the material around which he assembles his investigation.
And, well, we writers sometimes invent our examples, we don’t only work with real-world cases. Imagine I wrote a book about readers and I took examples from novels, and I chose the example of Guevara, and sometimes I put together hypotheses and said, “let’s imagine a reader who is alone on a desert island.” So I’m not a critic in the classical sense because I didn’t do any research over reading in society; I didn’t write a work, let’s say, about how reading is discussed in critical texts. The book also has the peculiarity of being more narrative, because it works with examples that come from novels, like Anna Karenina providing illumination for her reading with a lamp on the train. That seems to me like an important element in relation to my own criticism.
OB: Could the concept of metaliterature be reversed in the fictional construction of a critical voice?
RP: Some stories are more linear and some stories include reflection. Critics invented the concept of metaliterature so they wouldn’t have to resign themselves to saying that truly literary criticism also exists, and they put such stories in a space they call “metaliterature.” But what about the Quixote? In the Quixote, there are constant discussions of literature, discussions that form part of life. So, it seems very clear to me that in the great novelistic tradition there are always discussions about literature, about life, about love, about all sorts of things. Novels cannot help but include interior reflections. Wherever someone is thinking of a novel, we can find implicit criticism. Would it be possible for a novel to exist in which one didn’t say something about an issue, like, for example, what’s happening in Venezuelan literature? There is always a discussion: two characters go to a restaurant and start talking about literature. And those ideas are sometimes very productive.
I say jokingly that the critic chases the author, which is true to some extent; just as the detective chases the criminal and tries to find his fault, to find the crime he has committed, if he has stolen something, if the idea is his own. There is an attitude in the very function of criticism that tends to follow the clues and prints of the writer. But, on the other hand, critics have played an extremely important role in the history of culture because they have allowed many books to be read, or to be read in a different way.
OB: In many cases, nonetheless, criticism tries to establish itself as a discourse of authority, or to hold itself up as a force founded in judgment.
RP: Literature has a virtue, and that is that literature is a society without a State. We have to know that. No one can force someone else to say he likes Tolstoy and no one can tell someone, “Don’t read that book.” Literature has no place for a law that can say this text is good, that text is bad, like the State does in society. And who thinks they can create such an order? Critics. But that power is always unstable. Because you can write that the best writer in the world is Clarice Lispector, or Virginia Woolf, that a woman is better than Shakespeare. And you can prove it, and nobody can tell you yes or no, or that you’re committing some sort of crime. Since there is no established law, the ways in which literature can be discussed are much more fluid. So there are arguments. There are critics who have prestige and can therefore influence readers’ opinions more decisively. But readers will always end up deciding for themselves, even if they allow themselves to be oriented by critical texts. You won’t find the same dynamic you find in society itself, it’s very difficult to do that with literature. It’s very difficult to force someone to read in a predetermined way. The academy tries to, and one might think that institutions such as literary prizes are an attempt to organize literature: to say that one novel is better than another, which always comes across as somewhat arbitrary and uncertain. There is not one single way to give structure to literature or the literary field, and that, I believe, implies a very interesting cultural dynamic.
OB: Certain traces of Walter Benjamin, who always maintained an ambiguous position on the philosophical and academic discourse of his time, and who maintained a sense of tension between the careful aestheticism of his prose and his politicization or explicative ambitions, seem to be present in the way you construct your “critical stories.”
RP: I read Benjamin because there is always an argument in Benjamin. There’s the Marxist Benjamin, the Benjamin influenced by Brecht, and there’s the mystic Benjamin, influenced by Scholem: his two great friends. In the middle is Adorno and the Frankfurt School, which tried to pull the Marxism out from under Benjamin. The extraordinary thing about Benjamin is that he conserves the two ideas at the same time, and that’s why he’s a great critic. He’s a Marxist and a mystic at the same time, and that produces an extraordinary effect. I’ve always read him in conjunction with Brecht, since the two are always thinking about the same things. And what’s the idea there, what are they trying to see? They’re seeking the material conditions of literature, the matter of Marxist reflection: where literature comes from, because it doesn’t come only from its creator; what are the social conditions that literature brings into play. And in that sense, Benjamin made a great contribution to Marxist criticism, which has generally been more schematic. Because, instead of asking about the operation of literature as praxis, Marxist critics have turned their reflections toward the content of the works. They focus on whether or not there are workers in the work rather than the mode in which literature intervenes in social life: opening new paths and utilizing techniques what will later be used in journalism, for example. That is Benjamin’s position, which interests me very much, as does Gramsci’s. They were the two great Marxist critics who did what Marx couldn’t do, or didn’t have time to do: think up a theory of superstructure, a theory of what happens in culture, in ideas.
OB: Is it possible to teach criticism?
RP: I teach what I write, I’ve been teaching for many years and now I’m almost retired. And I’ve always taught and discussed these things. I’ve given seminars over these problems: the writer as critic, paranoid fiction, how to read detective literature. And I think that teaching literature must be linked to producing critical investigators who have their own thought.
OB: In your acceptance speech for the Rómulo Gallegos prize, you made a sort of analogy between the mythical figures of Ulysses and Oedipus, suggesting that there are two essential types of storyteller. Would you say that the first corresponds to the archetype of the classical narrator and the second corresponds to the archetype of the critic, if such a thing exists?
RP: Ulysses is the one who travels, moves through other places and tells about what he saw there. Oedipus is the one who constructs a story in the form of an investigation. But the critic, in that case, would be Freud.
OB: And what makes a good critic?
RP: A good critic transmits passion for literature, because without passion nothing can happen. It could be a political, literary, or sentimental passion. I think that’s an element that is generally left out, because it’s more difficult to analyze due to the effects it produces and the meaning of the effects it produces. So, when I say passion, I mean something that is not exclusively rational. That’s what I’m talking about, that’s what I try to transmit when I point out the critics I admire: those who transmit interest in literature and who see literature as an element to awaken interest in culture.
Translated from the Spanish by Arthur Dixon
Oriele Benavides (Caracas, 1983) earned her undergraduate degree in Letters from the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). She completed a Program of Superior Studies in Psychoanalysis at the Nueva Escuela Lacaniana (based in Caracas) and a Master's in Latin American Literature at the Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB). She currently teaches as part of the same faculty (Department of Languages and Literature), where she is working on a thesis on the contemporary Latin American novel. She has participated in conferences within and outside Venezuela on Latin American literature. She is the author of the comic book adaptation of La tienda de muñecos [The doll store] by Julio Garmendia (2016).