Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Julieta Campos and the “ephemeral eternity of an instant”

I’ve been reading a lot of crazy books for my “Readings in Global Fact and Fiction” class at Johns Hopkins University this semester. One of the books I struggled with most was Julieta Campos’ The Fear of Losing Eurydice. I had to submit an essay before coming back from spring break, so I chose to write about this book because I like a challenge… and I like writing about things that frustrate me. The essay might be a little wonky, but here it is…
I have no idea why these dancers are on the cover. 
As a foray into the inner caverns of consciousness, The Fear of Losing Eurydice is not an easy book to follow. While navigating my way through this literary labyrinth I found myself asking lots of questions: Who’s speaking? Where in the world are we? Do physical laws apply here? What time is it? Does time exist in any meaningful sense? Wait, who’s speaking again?

The Fear of Losing Eurydice is not an artistic interpretation of the world as Campos knows it. Rather, this “novel” is a unique blend of the literary, the philosophical, the surrealist and the avant-garde. Campos, a lifelong student of all things literary, uses an array of established forms and mechanisms to shape her own anti-form. But the resulting literary construct, however it’s ultimately defined or categorized, is of little importance. This book is about getting consumed in a maze of love, desire and the voyeurism of writing.

This text is deeply philosophical but by no means dry. Campos frequently gets lost in the expanse of her own descriptions, leading the reader into a state of sensual and intellectual overload. Here is Campos describing what I believe is a scene from a dream: “Excessive, obsessed, proliferating mirrors, which will multiply gestures many times and play with the ghosts of other presences, witnesses who will imitate the gestures of still others.” Here she is describing a Caribbean street that may or may not function as a time-space vortex as well: “The pavement, softened by the heat, gives off a light vapor that slows the speed of bodies and retards timepieces as if an invisible apparatus were projecting something that, outside of its own space and its own time, must have been happening elsewhere and in another temporal sequence.”

Identifying and deciphering a specific narrative point of view is nearly impossible — which is what I think Campos was trying to accomplish. One of the reasons it’s so difficult to understand who is speaking is because Campos bestows consciousness upon everything, persons and inanimate objects alike. To follow Campos’ language is to enter a dream-like state of mind where individual consciousness cedes way to a collective consciousness. Like the raucous combination of cheers before a headlining band takes the stage, this mass voice simultaneously drowns out and amplifies the individual voice.

Campos doesn’t try to tell a single story, but a series of stories that, taken together, attempt to encompass even more. “To tell the story of the couple is to tell the story of another couple which is another story, but it is the same one,” Campos writes. However, this expansive approach, coupled with Campos’ highly stylized language, makes it hard to ascertain what, if anything, is actually happening. Cause and effect have little to no meaning in Campos’ narrative. Desire rules all. Physical actions stemming from this desire are less important.

Monsieur N. is the only real “character” in this novel. An aloof French professor, he sits at the Minos Palace café somewhere in the Caribbean, talking to himself, imagining things, grading his students’ papers (which are translations of writings by Jules Verne). One actual “event” that occurs in this story is when Monsieur N. draws a picture of an island on a cocktail napkin. This simple act of bored creation opens up a rabbit hole through which Monsieur N. and the reader fall into alternate worlds. A love story takes shape alongside the story of people shipwrecked á la Robinson Crusoe. It’s all thoroughly ridiculous.

About halfway through the novel, Campos gives the reader a little more explanation of what is physically happening in this story. Monsieur N., stepping out of his imaginative love world for a moment, talks about what he’s actually doing in the “real” world and how it relates to his fantasies: “And I write as if I were dreaming. Or dream as if I were writing. I finally discover that no other manner of saying it would matter. The story of love is a dream that is writing me. There is a lake, an island, a couple, and some survivors from a shipwreck all crowding quite naturally into the dream without seeming intrusive, because the coherence of dreams owes very little to the logic of day. The island is suggested in a sketch on a white napkin… Because once subject to the dream and a participant in the game, it only remains for me to sink into the one, which is to give in blindly to the euphoria of the other.”

Cuban-Mexican author Julieta Campos (1932-2007).
In the next entry from the “real” world, we find out that Monsieur N. has actually fallen asleep, at least for some portion of time, at the café where he was scribbling on his cocktail napkin: “And Monsieur N. probably would have gone on dreaming placidly if the waiter had not come to shake him, letting him know discreetly that some of the customers were beginning to complain about his snoring.” Monsieur N, “without being bothered in the least,” says of his dream: “that dreamed voyage had communicated a deeper wisdom than that of his books.” It makes sense that Monsieur N. writes the following in his journal: “Man is the lord of all.” Monsieur N. is actively participating in the creation of different levels of consciousness simply by thinking them up, writing about them, playing with thoughts and characters and stories. But really he’s just falling asleep like a drunken old man.

Campos places little emphasis on setting. Physical place means far less to Campos than some other writers whose works I’ve read this year, Roberto Bolano or Amos Oz for example, who weave character and place together and harness the complexities of both. Campos refers to Monsieur N. being in the Caribbean as he writes on his napkin, and there are several notes about the island’s humidity and the sea breeze, but the essence of the place remains elusive. Again, I think this is all part of Campos’ plan to remove the writer from the comfort zone of physical reality. Venice comes up during Monsieur N.’s imagining: “Isn’t the whole city, after all, the most undisguised and lavish stage set ever?” Yes, there’s the desert island with the stranded people, but not much ever happens there. For the most part, characters do not interact with their environment. To Campos, what matters is not the physical attributes of a place, or what activities one conducts in that place. What matters is the mind’s ability to create its own place and time, an amorphous state free from any of the rules or limitations of physical place.

Monsieur N., his students, the love story in his head, the shipwrecked souls, Campos tries to weave all of these threads together. It’s up to each individual reader to determine whether the result is a stronger cord of story or whether the threads get knotted up in a big mess. (I’m leaning toward the mess.) Campos’ eclecticism is even more obvious in her use of marginalia, where she quotes from various prose, poetic and historical texts. The continuous referencing of J.L. Borges highlights Campos’ ideas about the universality of story and the interrelation of consciousness and literature. But, like Borges, Campos’ extensive knowledge of literary, historical and philosophical texts, means her frame of reference far exceeds that of the average reader. And her specific references in the margins tend toward the highbrow and obscure.

Given Campos’ love for the theoretical, it makes sense that she challenges the concrete nature of time in this book: “There is always the incessant melody of time: time that is extinguished, time that is reborn. In a brief lapse between birth and death, every human fulfills his or her destiny — or attempts to refute it.” Time, rather than dictating the narrative process, is practically useless. Instead, the focus is on “the ephemeral eternity of an instant,” which is the ultimate arbiter of experience.

Near the end of the book, Monsieur N. is engaged in one of his mental masturbation sessions when a first-person narrator sneaks in. Functioning as part of this collective consciousness, the narrator offers this idea about the relationship between time and story: “I believe I have forgotten to mention that anything can be told under the pretense of reproducing a real, concrete, quotidian event; it can be related as a fantasy of those who are living it, or as a dream of the one telling it. The story that I had wished to relate and that I have told might also have been told in some other way.”

This idea permeates the entire book: that each story, despite its unique attributes, is ultimately arbitrary. [This] could have happened [that] way. [That] could have happened [thusly]. The road you travel may be a windy one, but any other road would’ve brought you to the same place.

In an entry from the love story in Monsieur N.’s head, a woman bids her lover goodbye and offers him a piece of parting advice. I think this quote sums up what Campos is saying about the arbitrary nature of story: “Don’t remember too much about anything. Not even this encounter. It doesn’t happen every day, but it’s not extraordinary either. Learn to practice forgetfulness. It’s only the other side of memory. You mustn’t be afraid of it. Yield to forgetfulness, the same way you have yielded to me — with passion.”

In Fear, Campos is always wondering what it means to be a writer. Diane E. Marting, in her book Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio- Bibliographical Source Book, argues that Campos’s “narrative works are simultaneously a theoretical insight into the writing process and a praxis of those theories.” With the divergent storylines, the long-winded riffs on intangible ideas, what keeps this book together is Campos’ focus on the process of writing and what motivates one to create an alternate reality.

In an interview with Bomb Magazine, Campos says, “I had explored, almost obsessively, the motives of the desire to write. I yearned to observe myself in the process of gestation that leads to a book’s birth.” This comment struck me as very relevant to Fear. While reading this book, I get this constant sense that I am reading something as it is being written.

Near the end of the book, the reader gets a whole lot of meaty stuff about the process of writing and what it means to write, what drives someone to engage in this absurd activity. The writer, exemplified through Monsieur N., is, “someone who is always and forever an outsider; a scene that condemns one to voyeurism and establishes the model of the triangle? Or an allusion to the image of God proffering the world his discourse? Because it is then that the curtain really rises and the action begins, and attempting to tell a story is to mimic unsuccessfully that desire of God — a mimicry that is always pathetic and that every story segregates, like the suspicion of the untranslatable, in the space where it is displayed.”

If a writer continues walking down this path, where does it lead? Well, for Monsieur N., it leads to a kind of literary limbo, a state of mind in which he is always writing but never satisfied, always moving but never arriving anywhere. By the end of the book, it becomes clear that Monsieur N. isn’t just eccentric and imaginative — he acts like an insane person. He stops people on the street and raves to them about his imaginary islands and whatnot. He has been spending so much time reading and writing that it has physically harmed him: “The fervor of reading not only upsets his spirit but ravages his body too: Monsieur N. has begun to lose weight, visibly.”

Near the end of the love story in his head, the woman tells her lover yet again to learn to forget. Then, in the “real” story, Monsieur N. says to himself, “I have forgotten all the rest, but I am at peace.” I’m not so sure I’d call his state of mind peaceful. But, then again, if he thinks it, doesn’t that make it real? At least that’s what Campos asks us to consider.

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