23 June 2014

The healing powers of mediocre fiction

"'I'm thinking,' [Montano] said to me in a sensible and very thoughtful tone, 'that Walter Benjamin speculated about the possible relationship that exists between the art of storytelling and the healing of illnesses.'" The narrator of another of Enrique Vila-Matas's lecture novels thus shared his conversation with his son, Montano, in the novel of the same name (trans. Jonathan Dunne).

I was forced to confess the truth, namely that I had no idea about this curious relationship between narrative and healing. So Montano explained, in a sweet and friendly voice, that the connection between storytelling and curing illnesses had been suggested to Walter Benjamin by a German friend who told him about the healing powers of his wife's hands, saying that their movements were very expressive, but it was impossible to describe their expressiveness, because it was as if those hands were telling a story.

'In such a way,' said my son, 'in such a peculiar way, Walter Benjamin was reminded of an intimate scene: that of the boy who, when he falls ill, is sent to bed by his mother, who then comes and sits by his side and starts telling him stories. As a result of this memory, Walter Benjamin wondered whether narrative might not in fact be the most propitious atmosphere, the most favourable condition, for a large number of cures.'

This talk of healing, illness, and storytelling was a main concern of the novel. At the outset, the novel's speaker, who happens to be a literary critic, admitted that he is afflicted with "literature sickness", similar in symptoms to his son's disease, what he termed "Montano's malady", a kind of writer's block. We learned that Montano was the author of a "dangerous novel" about writers who were unable to put pen to paper.

The form of the novel was a lecture, although it was supposedly culled from diary or journal entries of the critic. We might as well say "speculative criticism" (an unfortunate term, considering that every criticism is some kind of speculation, and yet speculative fiction also suffers from the same terminological inadequacy), because the diarist's very literariness intruded on his writing. He was literature-sick because he analyzes every aspect of his life as if it was a text, as if every lifestyle was a writing style. He was "saturated with so many books and so many quotations" that it was impossible for him to escape the labyrinthine ways in which literary ideas connect and interconnect. While he was trying very hard to prevent his mind from making associations between texts and real life, his son was desperately trying to recapture his ability to string words together. Both were exhausted or fatigued by the same literariness.

This 'textual' intrusion of literature into life was of course not an unusual phenomenon, especially in writers. And the idea of storytelling having healing properties was already present in the myths and legends. The 'germ' of the novel as the very antibiotic, so to speak, against real and imagined ailments.

In Rene O. Villanueva's memoirs (Im)Personal: Gabay sa Panulat at Pagmamanunulat ((Im)Personal: Guide to Writing and the Writerly), the writer used as his primary metaphor for writing the idea of a magic cure from the epic of Ibong Adarna, the Adarna bird. The story was about how three princes set out to capture the mythical bird whose renowned beautiful song was the only (magical) antidote to the mysterious malady that afflicted their father king. For Villanueva, this epic about a bird's enchanted song was the very embodiment of storytelling's miraculous ability to cure individuals and nations of individual and societal ills. (César Aira, of course, had his own potent and playful concoction with his own miraculous cures.)

Let it be said that the assumed ability (or power) of storytelling to cure maladies was not monopolized by epics and legends or great modernist works such as those by Vila-Matas or Aira. Mediocre and genre fiction, insofar as we understand the terms 'mediocre' and 'genre' at face value, had their own special thing going. A case in point is Stephen King, whose own writing manual On Writing was proof of the storyteller's own belief in his own formulaic writing.

The first story I did actually publish was in a horror fanzine issued by Mike Garrett of Birmingham, Alabama (Mike is still around, and still in the biz). He published this novella under the title "In a Half-World of Terror," but I still like my title much better. Mine was "I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber." Super Duper! Pow!

I confess I was not able to finish the book due to its shallow prescriptions and self-justifications. King had only to describe his writing process and validate his own personal narrative style and literary preferences for the magic to appear on the page and his fans to applaud and be cured. Pow! Super!

A narrative can be said to have two poles—form and content—to be able to function as a story. But it requires a third element (substance) for discerning readers to be able to attach values and judgements, not value-judgements, in a work of fiction and to distinguish stories that matter from those that do not.

Consider another popular medicine—The Alchemist (1988) by Paulo Coelho. This unprecedented bestseller, with more than 65 million copies (and counting) sold in original Portuguese and in various translations, was also world record holder for being translated into the most number of languages (56 and counting). I came across a copy of its very recent translation, Ang Alkemista (Lampara Books, 2014), a Filipino version by Edgardo B. Maranan. The translator was a great poet and translator who contributed to the marvelous reconstruction of the epic version of the Palawan epic Kudaman (1991).

Ang Alkemista is a tale of a shepherd who exchanged his sheltered life in a seminary for a life on the road. It was a tale of adventures and various encounters with characters who are destined to define his nomadic existence.

I can't say I was not warned about Coelho. Roberto Bolaño called the Brazilian's prose poor "in terms of lexical richness", in terms of "richness of vocabulary", scoffing at the latter's induction to the Brazilian Academy of Letters. For Bolaño, no language was capable of withstanding any translation if it is in the first place written in pale prose. The whiff of this poorly contrived language may be hard to assess in translation. What could more obviously be detected was the philosophical richness (or impoverishment) of the translated text. Ang Alkemista lacked the complex and fertile ideas that would propel the novel beyond its fabulist intents. Coelho himself confessed in the introduction that the novel was meant to be symbolic and not realist.

Sa pamamagitan ng librong ito, ipinamamana ko ang lahat ng aking natutunan sa buhay. Sinikap ko ring parangalan ang mga dakilang manunulat na nakatuklas sa Unibersal na Lengguwahe—sina Hemingway, Blake, Borges (na gumamit rin ng kasaysayang Persiyano sa isa niyang kuwento), Malba, Tahan, at marami pang iba.

[With this book, I bequeathed everything I learned in life. I also tried to honor the great writers who discovered the Universal LanguageHemingway, Blake, Borges (who also used a Persian story in one of his tales), Malba, Tahan, and many others.]

The Universal Language that Coelho spoke of is the simplicity of his words, and yet it is not only language that clothes an entire novelistic enterprise. For the symbol or metaphor to work, it must still be grounded in reality. The substance of ideas and the way they are developed are what makes for a convincing tale. How Coelho brewed his own alchemical ideas, his manner of punctuating words and branding them and selling them as proper nouns, can be an insult to a reader's intelligence. Yet for some, no words of healing and redemption could be sweeter. The constant reference to the quest for one's "Personal Legend" (Sariling Alamat) is too farcical to be taken seriously.

"Sinasabi ng librong iyan ang parehong bagay na sinasabi ng halos lahat ng libro sa mundo," patuloy ng matanda. "Inilalarawan ang kawalan ng abilidad ng tao na piliin ang mga Sariling Alamat. At natapos yan na sinasabing lahat ay naniniwala sa pinakamalaking kasinungalingan sa mundo."

"Ano ang pinakamalaking kasinungalinan sa mundo?" tanong ng binata na gulat na gulat.

"Ito: na sa isang tiyak na panahon sa buhay natin, nawawalan tayo ng kontrol sa nangyayari sa atin, at ang buhay natin ay kontrolado ng tadhana. 'Yan ang pinakamalaking kasinungaliang sa mundo."

["That book tells you the same thing all books in the world tell," the old man continued. "It describes the people's lack of ability to chart their own Personal Legends. And it concludes that all men believe in the greatest lie in the world."

"What is the greatest lie in the world?" asked the very shocked young man.

"This: that at a certain moment in our lives, we lose control of the events around us, and our lives are at the mercy of destiny. That's the greatest lie in the world."]

This. The greatest lie in the world. Sealed in a case and delivered with utter solemnity. The greatest lie in the world. The underlining was implicitly supplied.

And what about the "mysterious energy" and the "one great truth in this planet"?

"Sa paglipas ng panahon, isang mahiwagang lakas ang mangungumbinsi sa kanila na imposible nang matupad ang kanilang Sariling Alamat."

Para sa binata, walang saysay ang sinasabi ng matanda. Ngunit nais niyang malaman kung ano ang "mahiwagang lakas"; hahanga sa kanya ang anak ng mangangalakal kapag sinabi niya ito!

"Isang tila negatibong lakas, ngunit sa totoo ay nagpapakita sa iyo kung paano makakamit ang Sariling Alamat. Ito ang naghahanda ng iyong kaluluwa at kalooban, dahil may isang dakilang katotohanan sa planetang ito: kahit sino ka man, at kung ano man ang iyong ginagawa, kapag talagang may hinahangad ka, ang pagnanais na iyon ay nagmumula sa kaluluwa ng uniberso. Iyon ang misyon mo sa lupa."

["With the passage of time, a mysterious energy will convince the people it is no longer possible to realize their own Personal Legends."

For the young man, the old man did not make any sense. But he wanted to know what this "mysterious energy" is; the merchant's daughter would admire him if he shared this idea with her.

"A kind of negative energy, but in truth you will see for yourself how to realize your own Personal Legend. It prepares your own soul and being, because there is one great truth in this planet: whoever you are, whatever you do, when you truly desire something, that desire emanates from the soul of the universe. That is your mission in life."]

The writer here was enamored by his own proselytization. If I've read this book at an impressionable age, fifteen, twenty years ago, I could have become one of this book's high priests. But the medicine was lost on me. Maybe I suffered enough of a bookish malady and became immune to a sincere dosage of planetary truths.

The works of writers like King and Coelho (and Murakami Haruki, in certain novels) were a brew of self-validation and legendary fabulism. The form and content are fantastical, even magical, but the ideas are depauperate. Their avid readers, if they read it in the right frame of mind and in the right context, get their fix in this kind of thing. To borrow a concept from medicine, this is the "placebo effect" of mediocre writing. Technically it is a false cure, but some readers are administered a tyranny of quasi-philosophical ideas and became all the better for it.

The deep, healing novel was repository of all things profound. The tried and tested genre remained a potent drug. Even Bolaño's bookish pharmacists who snorted at the "great, imperfect, torrential works" would go for the perfect cough syrup. Storytelling had never been so curative. Even if wisdom always cautioned that prevention is better than cure. Should that prevent us from pursuing our own Personal Legends?


  1. There seems a wide gulf between prescriptive works aimed at "healing" (or moralizing) and literature that refuses such facile solutions. I'm glad you mentioned Bolaño in this context, as he stands about as far away as one can stand from the soft pop psychology implied in Coehlo (at least in your quotations - I haven't actually read him). I'm reminded again of Susan Sontag's defense of putting on Waiting for Godot during the siege of Sarajavo, saying that there are some people who "feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art." Would Coehlo have worked there and then?

    1. I'm sure a play, or even a musical, based on The Alchemist will be as sincerely comic and devastating as the novel. So, like Beckett's play, a tragicomedy. I finished the book at midpoint, then browsed the rest, and read the ending. What a book! I'm still reeling from its premodernist tricks.

  2. Coelho is just another self-help guru full of wisdom to give fools the illusion of a way of dealing with their own unhappiness. Another Kardec, another Gibran, another Castaneda, full of solutions that will be regurgitated by someone else a generation from now so long as needy, vulnerable exist...

    1. ... needy, vulnerable people exist...

    2. I think I get now what RB meant by lack of lexical richness. The later part of the book talks about "true universal language" and the luminous simplicity of the prose was indeed supported by 100% universal drivel.

  3. Well, what do you expect from a man who goes after Ulysses: