Friday, June 11, 2010

We're discoverers who have only a vague idea of the direction we're heading in - Restless writers

Of which I am one, sitting in a library, dithering, restlessly thinking about restlessness, not an activity that leads to repose or, I fear, clear thinking.

That title is from the very end of Roberto Arlt’s Seven Madmen (1929), a novel that is as jittery as they come.  No one in the novel can sit still, although they can be drugged or stunned or clubbed on the head.  Everyone is full of schemes – inventions, secret societies, plans to conquer Argentina with brothels and poison gas (the brothels will finance the poison gas), the usual.  Everyone is more or less nuts, as the title warns, but insanity is insufficient.  Everyone is restless, including, most importantly, the author, who flits about, unwilling to stitch all of his pieces together.

So many of the early proto- or pre-Modernists are preternaturally restless.  I mean something other than energetic.  Honoré de Balzac or Anthony Trollope obviously had reserves of energy that stagger me, but they could plant themselves at their desks and write.  Charles Baudelaire wrote plenty, really, but his restlessness is part of his art.  He must have sat still often enough, but the rest of the time, he’s out in Paris, wandering about, with no purpose other than being there.

The protagonist of Arlt’s Mad Toy (1926) names two personal heroes, the men he wants to be when he grows up: Charles Baudelaire and Rocambole, a fictional bandit and adventurer.  Isidore Ducasse emulated Baudelaire, and in Maldoror (1869) also invokes Rocambole, as a sort of heroic evil-doer.  Arlt can’t have known Ducasse, can he?  Ah, who cares.

I suspect that part of what we find modern in characters like Don Quixote, or Hamlet, or Moll Flanders, is their restlessness, their dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and their psychological need for change.  I wonder how to link the idea to Modernism, though.  It was Dante, after all, in the 14th century, who sent Odysseus off on one final adventure.  Perhaps the difference in the 19th century is the pace of change, the certainty that the world is shifting out from under our feet. 

Arlt is a real Buenos Aires writer, just as Baudelaire and Ducasse were Paris writers. Not that urbanism explains everything.  Who was more of a city writer than Charles Dickens, and who was more energetic?  But his novels generally end with the promise of rest, a new steady state.

All I have done here is wander into Pascal’s insight that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”*  Pascal got that right.  And now, somehow, I was quiet enough, and still enough, to have written something, and will restlessly move on.  For the next few weeks, healthful and pure books, exclusively.

* p. 48, Modern Library edition, 1941, trans. W. F. Trotter.


  1. "For the next few weeks, healthful and pure books, exclusively."

    Now, this I have to see. [g]

  2. I just finished this last night myself, Amateur Reader, and am trying to put my restless thoughts together enough for a post of my own. Am curious, though, whether you preferred Arlt's Seven Madmen or Mad Toy and whether you saw any Dostoevsky damage in Arlt? For now, all I'll say is that I loved those crackpot speeches here...

  3. Fred - yes, easier said than done. I just started reading another unhealthy and impure novel, French, of course.

    Next week's posts, though, will be healthy and edifying.

    Now, Mad Toy versus Seven Madmen. I don't really know. I guess I preferred the relative coherence or focus of Mad Toy, but the greater variety of Seven Madmen has its own virtues - the vision of Christ in the asylum, for example, or the footnotes.

    I thought about mentioning Dostoevsky, since Seven Madmen has so many structural similarities to Karamazov. But I haven't read the key Dostoevsky novel, The Devils or whatvever it's being called now, so I let that go.

  4. _Devils_, _Demons_, _The Possessed_

    Take your pick.

  5. Great essay! And you hit me me where I live. I seem to have the attention of a parakeet these days.

  6. The Seven Madmen floored me when I read it. The Astrologist's plot is delicious.

    Recently, I read some ingenious crime short-stories by Arlt, one with a vindictive pet monkey that would have made Poe proud.

  7. English could use more Arlt. Crime stories about monkeys, yes, more please.