A House Devastated After a Hurricane: The Antimodern Writing of María Negroni
A house devastated after a hurricane: the structures still stand, no one can say for sure whether the house will collapse, but at least for the moment we can be confident that it will not be so. Broken glass, smashed furniture all over the place. Clothes scattered as if after a brawl between madmen. The roof falling to pieces, the masonry revealing that the previous month’s repairs were not lasting. No one would want to live here: there’s no electricity, no water, no gas. It’s an absolute ruin. But it’s your house. Your house, no one else’s. And there’s no way to go anywhere else. Years and years spent building, years and years repairing, upholstering, buying furniture and utensils that were like your own. Among the ruins you find, all of a sudden, a beloved object: an old photograph or a watch that was your grandfather’s. Or, perhaps, a glass that survived intact and that now, under the open sky, is a luxury to celebrate, to lift spirits. From one side of the house to the other, scraps of beautifully framed pictures are the reminder of a time that was meant to be better. But today, these same scraps, more than exposing the status of an imaginary past, are in the present a warm shelter from that same open sky that returns again and again to look you in the face. And this look meets our eyes, tenacious. This is how we read literature, perhaps all literature. And this is how, more than likely, the writing of María Negroni looks upon us when her house—our house—falls to pieces, but we know that we must live in it regardless because we have built it, year after year, so as to challenge the elements.
I don’t know if other readers of this Argentine poet and writer will think the same thing, but I have always imagined her literature, her writing, like a vast, original, and contemporary variation on that foundational and unique book of our continent’s letters: Los raros [The strange ones] by Rubén Darío. I don’t say this out of the critical eagerness that adheres to any modern poet—or postmodern poet, at this point—in Baudelaire’s wake, nor in the sense of effecting a “revival” of self-conscious critical gestures in a time like ours, so outside of itself in this type of manifestations that end up becoming an “intellectual” cliché. Not at all. I see it more as a variation that takes place in the constructive recreation of the references to which she turns, an impassioned search for their ultimate reasons. Perhaps their justification for speaking, much less for requesting some special historical privilege. Maybe that’s why, in the wide and varied plot of her writing, Negroni’s essays appear to me not as erudite studies or eccentric inquiries to reveal some sensibility that must bow down to “the present,” that totem that consumes the contemporary sacrifices of so many innocents. Not at all: when this writer captures, with the elegance of her prose, the true imaginative catalogue she makes of Edgar Allan Poe, Dracula, The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, Raymond Chandler, Captain Nemo, and Dr. Jekyll, for example, references to a passion for reading and visual arts that leads us to dark labyrinths, it is not so much the weight of a passé, sweetened romanticism she puts in play, but more so a way of trying to say, at the same time, in the style of a shadow dance, that she takes a dim view of the clarity of an enlightened reason broken into pieces, and of the fact that our literature has always craved examination, social scanning, diagnostics of permanent crises. In this gesture, perhaps she settles on a mode of reading, a mode of glimpsing, within our Spanish American orphanhood, the contact with alternate traditions that undermine the modernity to which we have always owed a debt. On the one hand, Negroni’s interest in these central, but eccentric figures —Walser, Benjamin, Dickinson, for example— is the ideal counterpoint for the dark doorways of Film Noir or the fascinating wax museums that crop up in her poetry and much of her prose. A counterpoint that does not hesitate to make us see the opposite side of appearance, destroying in its path the obverse of what we see as the present: pure phantasmagoria that founds its own emptiness, but that is also, at the same time, that which was left behind when the train of modernity left the station. And, seemingly, when this train rolled into its final destination—which could have been the old Finland Station, but from which all utopias fled—does not cease to be highly exemplary of the mode in which the seclusion of Dickinson, to mention one case, is for Negroni less an aspect of her biography that seduces us in its peculiarity than a gesture of writing, a retreat from the scene in order to establish her own meaning. Or when she comments on Walser and shows him to us more as a traveling companion on the pathways of dreams than as a proponent of those categorical principles of “engaged” writing that, at present, like a zombie that was never eliminated, return to claim their privileges. In Negroni’s winks and updates there lives that eagerness to pause the machine and go back to say: “let’s try again”. This is why it is more probable that her allusions to febrile nocturnality, appealing to Novalis and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as her turns of the screw in the spectral vindication of Marosa Di Giorgio, Horacio Quiroga, or a certain Octavio Paz—the Paz of Rappaccini's Daughter who reminds us so much of E.T.A. Hoffmann—show us a writer who reads and invites us to read the reverse side of a clogged-up modernity. The worm-eaten face of progress in the somnambulism of film noir, like in the monsters of fantasy via Mary Shelley or Ridley Scott or in the vampires that only long to be mortal, disdaining the infinite, and, of course, the philosophers of miniatures who longed, with the most fertile reflexive fatality, for the melancholy gaze of their marzipan figurines, are the counterdiscourse to a modernity that we never had and that opens up to its own dissolution in the aesthetic aspect of its own horror. In this way, Negroni makes a leap and takes a chance: in the wake of Darío, Huidobro, Pitol, Paz, and Borges, our writer prefers a thousand times over to make a significant register of the ruins of the old promise rather than swallowing the asepsis of a postmodernity that is becoming ever more moralizing. Negroni makes the dictum of her beloved Susan Sontag her own: “To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.” And so, the Argentine writer places before us a challenge of “recognition,” not so much of the “new,” but rather of that which was left behind in the inkwell before the press closed down, and must now be grasped in light of the pack of vociferous dogs that the Internet has set loose. Perhaps for this reason, Negroni directs us to the less known Huidobro, the Huidobro of Cagliostro, indicating that, in a technological era, magic is not extinguished, just as she inquires into the infantile labyrinths of Verne in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to show that this very technology is nothing but a melancholy detritus. Without a doubt, these conjunctions—hazardous, provocative, variable—are less reliquary and more exploration of possible meanings. This is the “rarity” of this Argentine writer, a “rarity” as a descendant of Darío, not out of musical tastes, but in order to create mosaics that we love as we identify them with our scattered postmodern un/identity and that we see as light, puerile, but, more than anything, alert in their playful lucidity.
A Chilean literary critic probably forgotten today, Ricardo Latchman, wrote studies in the mid-twentieth century to examine the influence of Balzac and Zola on Spanish American narrative. The fact that these studies still tell us something is a subject I’ll leave on the table, but the fact that they show us a common passion for our letters is tangible: that longing to make of literature a pristine complement to social conflict, almost as a dialectical proposal, and one that implies addressing or understanding literature as a sort of antithesis, necessary in its aesthetic aspect, but also a preliminary step for a perhaps greater synthesis of the same emancipatory discourses of the political and the social that would be demanded in future socio-historical phases, hoisting their flags of liberation. But always, before such consensuses, there have existed those writers and poets among us who, with no disdain for such a cultural challenge, effect a diagonal journey for the sake of taking a place in the rearguard of a modernity that has not always been happy, much less pleasant, for us. I believe Negroni’s gesture of “strangeness” goes in this direction: as a reader, I find myself seduced by the sinister beauties it evokes, by the dark references it attracts, by the games of seductive imagination it proposes. Finally, in the entrance hall of an unhinged modernity, a writer like Negroni occupies that position among us that was so well described by Antoine Compagnon: “antimodern.” Could that be possible? Or is this a mere provocation in an age so keen to detect, denounce, and discredit the emergence of any discourse that it deems suspicious that it does not conform to the myth of progress and morality circumscribed within it? In a historical moment like our own, which has borne witness to the questioning of the achievements of this long period of imaginative self-complacency, like the liberal century after the end of the Second World War, a literature like Negroni’s, once the Victorian resentments of censorial puritanism have fallen, grows rampantly in the idea of its own game of forms, in its own crossroads between pleasure, fantasy, and darkness. This type of narrative, this type of essay, this type of poetry, disconnected from the suffocating morality of the “ought to be,” is what, in our modest opinion, has made Negroni so seductive: a journey through the dark side of existence that possesses its own quota of criticism, whether cultural or political, and that is not insignificant in its aesthetic appearances of phantasmagoric intensity. Negroni’s literature has undertaken a journey that is not inoffensive, in spite of the desire to identify it with the eccentric, the marginal, or the erudition of the gothic or neo-romantic imagination. Because Negroni, unlike others, does not read in Benjamin the philosopher of history who invokes the angel to open for him an interstice for the promised Messiah under the cloak of the social vindication of whatever may be. No, Negroni is more fascinated with the philosopher who admires dolls and trinkets, and who wanders hand-in-hand with Baudelaire through the nooks and crannies of the big city. The same as Walser, the same as Chandler, the same as Hawthorne, the same as Pizarnik: figures, wakes, instants, images that are in no way conventional in which madness, tedium, suffocation, and alienation take on their proper place with the eyes of a misty rain outside a local cinema, as we hear about in those noir stories that thrill us so. In this act, there is no economy. There is symbolic waste, without capitalization: pure excess without mediation, catastrophe, and pure obliquity.
The house has not yet fallen even though the storm has not let up. Among its ruins, we take shelter, but not feeling foreign, evidently, to the elements—as always—without the anguish of not knowing where we are. In the meantime, while we know no help will come, we pick up the debris and read. We can’t stop reading.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Ismael Gavilán Muñoz (Valparaíso, 1973) is a poet, essayist, and literary critic. He has published the verse collections Llamas de quien duerme en nuestro sueño (1996), Fabulaciones del aire de otros reynos (1999 and 2002), and Raíz del aire (2008), as well as the book of literary criticism Pensamiento y creación por el lenguaje: Acercamiento a la obra poética de Eduardo Anguita (2010). He is the director of Analecta, the humanities journal of Universidad Viña del Mar, and he also oversees the Poetry Workshop and Poetic Reflection Seminar at the La Sebastiana cultural center of the Pablo Neruda Foundation.
Arthur Dixon works as a translator and as Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. His translation of Andrés Felipe Solano’s “The Nameless Saints” (WLT, Sept. 2014) was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize, and his most recent project is a book-length translation of Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza’s Cuidados intensivos (see WLT, Sept. 2016).
In our tenth issue, we question the values of literature and journalism in the post-truth age through the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro and we explore new territories of digital literature in a dossier curated by Scott Weintraub. We also feature memories of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre told through graphic narrative, new perspectives on the translation of Shakespeare into Spanish with an essay from Braulio Fernández Biggs, and Wayuu literature from the Venezuelan side of the border than runs through their ancestral lands.