Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Machismo vs. Machismo

A couple of people recently have jumped into a discussion I also have been holding off on, trying to figure out what I think of it: Bolaño’s representation of homosexuality (or, more often, homophobia) in 2666.  Jeff Anderson has a good post on the relation of the homophobia in the text to the misogyny and general culture of machismo that frequently come up in the plot.  Dan Summers has decided he is ready to fully dismiss Bolaño himself as homophobic—not just pointing it out but engaging in it. 

I’m disappointed to say I mostly agree with Dan.  I could equivocate on the example that sent him over the edge: the “faggot” sea anemones are called that by a fisherman, not the narrator, and could potentially be just another example of the pervasiveness of homophobia in everyday life (647).  And there is a moment near the end of the book, which I will point out when we get there, that I think offers the biggest contrast to the novel’s norms for addressing homosexuality and thus a possible way to distance Bolaño from his characters.  But overall in contrast to misogyny I have to confess that Bolaño seems at best indifferent to homophobia and quite possibly thinks it is just funny.

Maybe it is worth listing some of the key moments where characters have voiced homophobia or their homophobic thoughts are narrated to us.  It struck me that each of the first four sections of the novel had at least one very prominent moment of homophobic reaction.  Notably several of them happen with regard to characters that are otherwise not very likeable anyway, and yet their general hatefulness does not seem to fully explain their homophobia.  At least for me, the uncertainty I had felt about the tonal relation to the homophobia comes from this sense of its excessiveness beyond explanations via character.  Anyway, here are the moments that struck me most directly.

The Part about the Critics: Norton, Espinoza, and Pelletier temporarily worry that Amalfitano might be gay and in a relationship with Dean Guerra’s son.  They are relieved when they decide the relationship is just Socratic “since the three of them had grown inexplicably fond of Amalfitano” (128, 130).

The Part about Amalfitano: The voice in Amalfitano’s head keeps asking him if he is queer (among other variations, most of which are more insulting), taunting him.  (201 for the first time the voice appears; 207 for the beginning of the taunting over sexuality)

The Part about Fate: Fate watches a daytime talk show (a la Jerry Springer) in his hotel room, and thinks the man among the three people being interviewed “was clearly a faggot” (257).  This is noticeable mostly because it feels so out-of-the-blue and gets dropped as soon as it is mentioned.  Later, when Fate proposes he cover the Santa Teresa murders, his editor, sent into a rage by Fate’s use of a single French word (important given the U.S. context—it links up with the homophobia), rants that Fate “want[s] to coucher avec moi [fuck me], but you’ve forgotten the voulez-vous [please], which in this case ought to have been your first move” (295).  In response, Fate tells his editor he can “stick Count Pickett up [his] black faggot ass.”

The Part about the Crimes: Klaus Haas considers at length his disgust with sex among men in prison, including his feeling that raping and killing women would be preferable to having sex with a man (488).

The second moment in The Part about Fate suggests that Bolaño is well aware of how homophobia can be tied to anti-intellectualism (the editor’s refusal of the story, and tied to it in this conversation the gay/French stereotype which is left implied).  And in general he seems to me aware that it is tied to the misogyny the book otherwise seems to deplore.  This is why it is especially frustrating to think that he might nonetheless endorse it.

I think Amalfitano’s voice is the clincher for me, actually, although I was open to there being some other explanation when I read that section.  The conversation between Amalfitano and his voice with regards to the insinuation Amalfitano is gay revolves in part around his masculinity, whether he will “run away” (208) from the voice and the violence around him.  And in that sense it is very much about Amalfitano living in the midst of a city experiencing horrible violence, doing nothing, and feeling inadequate about that.  And it seems to me (and I’m open to other opinions on this) that Bolaño endorses the idea that there is a problem with his inaction—a problem that his actions at the end of the Fate section perhaps redeem (sending Rosa away, but also serving as a delay by going out to talk to the men in the black Peregrino).  This critique of inaction might not be a problem in and of itself, but Amalfitano’s mode of regret and subsequent redemption, if it is that, suggest that the voice’s homophobic taunting was a necessary strategy to be “man enough” to do the right thing.

And this is a problem, because it suggests that Bolaño’s solution for combating machismo and the culture of violence it perpetuates is another kind of machismo.


  1. Dan. Excellent post. Sorry for the ultra-lengthy comment, but since no one else has weighed in, I thought I'd go for it.

    It seems to me there are three questions here a) Is the book homophobic? b) Is Bolano homophobic? c) What's the role of homophobia in the overall "argument" of the book?

    Clearly THE BOOK is homophobic. The examples you site are just the tip of the iceberg. The book is obsessed with homosexuality, gay sex, and "faggotry." While this hasn't gone completely unnoticed in commentary on the novel, its been pretty much ignored in most mainstream reviews of the book. But the fact is it's a large and pervasive presence in the book (and Savage Detectives as well), and one that needs examining.

    As you note, 2666 is also obsessed with misogyny, and seems to be critiquing it, and as I've argued there is a way to see the misogyny and the homophobia as two components of the same toxic stew of misanthropy pervading Santa Teresa. But I'm not by any means married to this idea. And as Jeff notes, there's an organic connection between misogyny and homophobia, and it's possible to see homophobia as a species of misogyny--on the one hand a kind of transference onto gay men of negative attitudes about women, and also a more disturbing (to homophobes) rupturing of the prevailing script of gender relations. But, ultimately, homophobia can't be reduced to misogyny and it seems pretty clear to me that the homophobia in 2666 has a role independent of its connection to misogyny.

    As to whether or not Bolano himself is a homophobe, it's hardly beyond belief. I'm reluctant to say definitively yes he is, just because a) the book is so inscrutable in so many ways that I'm hesitant to assume I know definitively what he's up to at any one time b) I'm still unsure just who is narrating the book, though I do argue in my latest post that the book is a kind of memoir--a highly sublimated record of Bolano's struggle with his own terminal illness; it could also be a vehicle for airing his homophobia c) there's a least a little counter-evidence, both inside and outside the text. For example there are not unsympathetically drawn gay characters in both 2666 (Reinaldo and his circle) and Savage Detectives (Luscious Skin). I won't necessarily say skillfully drawn; A quote from an interview in Bomb Magazine where he says that in his younger days being a poet meant being a revolutionary which meant being "completely open to all cultural manifestations, all sexual expressions, being open to every experience with drugs." The fact that he was apparently a big admirer of Pedro Lemebel, "an openly gay Chilean essayist, chronicler and novelist" [Wikipedia] (His book My Tender Matador can be sampled on Google Books--the word "faggot" pops up on page 2). But look, all of these things are compatible with homophobia, especially for someone steeping themselves in the psychology of a culture steeped in machismo, of which homophobia is a prominent element.

    The interesting question you raise is what is the role of homophobia in the overall "argument" of the book. I think the idea that Bolano "just thinks its funny" is a little too simplistic, but admittedly there are still remnants of the old infrarealist tendency to do whatever it takes to freak out the squares in Bolano's writing, so maybe its not completely off base. I've monopolized too much of your comments section already, so I'll just say that I hadn't quite thought about one issue you raise quite this way: how does one stop the violence without endorsing the culture of machismo? I hadn't quite considered the idea that homophobia as fear of that which is (stereotypically) womanly in man might be tied to the revulsion at the passivity of most Santa Teresan's in the face of the seemingly unstoppable climate of violence. I suspect most readers are hoping for some kind of macho response as well.

  2. Just for the record, I'm not endorsing the use of the term "faggotry" to describe stereotypically effeminate behavior by men, gay or straight, just noting that it seems a fair description of how 2666 conceives of it.

  3. David: Thanks for the comment. And no worries in regards to your second comment--I follow your meaning.

    I certainly agree that it is a good idea to try to keep some distinction between specific representations in the book and Bolaño himself, and then the role those representations play in the book's politics. Indeed, it is quite possible that Bolaño's attitudes were inconsistent. While I certainly don't think I can pin down his attitudes exactly, what I wrote in the post is largely an account of why I feel like, coming out of 2666, we hit some limit in Bolaño's thinking through the issue in a way that does impact what the book then ends up doing with it.

    One reason I was drawn to the problem was because I had felt a similar ambiguity surrounding the attitude to homosexuality in my reading of Savage Detectives, although in that case I ultimately felt it worked well as a representation of that revolutionary avant-garde moment noted in the Bomb interview (which I hadn't seen, so thanks for the reference). In 2666 I haven't been as able to resolve it as much.