Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Even apart from this last outburst of drivel - Leopoldo Lugones invents the Argentine Literature of Doom

When I came across Roberto Bolaño calling Argentine literature a “literature of doom,” I took it in part as a joke or as a way to emphasize the place of some specific Argentine writers like the prankster César Aira, at the time almost untranslated but now universally beloved, and the “excruciating” Osvaldo Lamborghini, still untranslated because, I assume, all decent English-language translators refuse to have anything to do with him.

But no, the more I have read in the literature, the more I have seen that Bolaño’s joke was of the “funny because true” variety.  Argentina has the most doom-laden, apocalyptic canon.  Esteban Echeverría’s “The Slaughterhouse” (1838/1871), Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), and José Hernández’s The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) all find themselves foundering in doom before they end.  And the tradition continues in Roberto Arlt, J. Rodolfo Wilcock, and Aira.  Much less so in Borges.

Thus the annual Argentinean Literature of Doom hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos, a connoisseur of literary doom.

This year I have finally read Leopoldo Lugones, specifically his Poe-like collection Strange Forces (1906), which I have been meaning to read in its Gilbert Alter-Gilbert translation since coming across, years ago, an enticing post at 50 Watts (and please see this interview with Alter-Gilbert).  Lugones is the key figure in Argentine Doom because he was the first writer to really see it, to pull the texts I mention above together as the central works of Argentine literature.  This was all long before he became a fascist and killed himself over a love affair.

He could see the strain of apocalypse because he shared it.  Strange Forces begins with the destruction of Gomorrah (“The Firestorm”) and ends with a scientist in an insane asylum.  If I am counting right, fully six of the twelve stories are about mad scientists, most of whom destroy themselves in their attempts to convert music into light, like Scriabin, or teach a chimpanzee to talk, or build a disintegration ray.  “What this extraordinary gardener wanted to create was a flower of death” (“Viola Acherontia”).

I guess it is an symptom of Doom – what other literature has such a high proportion of mad scientists?  They feature in Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen (1929), a novel that justifies its title, and Aira’s The Literary Conference (1997), just to pick a single example. J. Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Temple of Iconoclasts (1977) appears to contain an entire catalogue of mad scientists, making the mere six of Lugones look measly.

“I bought the ape at an auction of property from a bankrupt circus” (“Yzur”) – now that is a good first line.  The story cannot quite live up to it; none of Lugones’s scientific romances really do.  “[T]he resolution of any debate which the telling of this story may occasion will not rely, for its sole support, on my proficiency in the scientific arena” (“Psychon”), but in an all too authentically Poe-like gesture they mostly have too much science, too much scientistic gibberish.  “Even apart from this last outburst of drivel, the unbalanced personality of my interlocutor was evident to me…” (“Viola Acherontia”).  Lugones is in on the joke, although Alter-Gilbert argues that there is an esoteric side to the stories that the author meant entirely seriously.  All of that is invisible to me.

And anyways the six stories not about mad scientists are better, and less Poe-derivative, so who cares.  Tomorrow for those.


  1. Argentinian literature of doom - love it! Though I confess that not all the Argentinian lit I've read has been doomy - though it is dark....


  2. Borges is having too much fun to be a true exponent of Doom. Not everything can be apocalyptic, even in Argentina.

    The Invention of Morel belongs on the "mad scientist" list, doesn't it? As, perhaps, does Borges. No, there should be a separate "mad librarian" category.

  3. More Argentinean Doom? Ha, what a fun post idea! Have not read much Lugones to date although his place in the Southern Cone canon is pretty much just as you describe it and this work is the one I'll probably read by him first. P.S. You could/should probably count Horacio Quiroga, whom you've previously written about in a similarly lively fashion, as the other "key figure in Argentine Doom" of the early era given that he was really just as much Argentinean as Uruguayan in terms of where he lived out his tragedy-laden life. In any event, great post.

  4. There is a less doom-laden side as well. Borges's crony Xul Solar, for example, invented languages, religions, games and many other things. There's a 'pataphysical current in Argentina, too, that I'm curious about. Both Borges and Cortázar belonged to a 'pataphysical group started in 1957 by Juan Esteban Fassio, who also translated Alphonse Allais's "Captain Cap" (who I suppose qualifies as a mad scientist too, although a pretty sanguine one).

  5. What most struck me with Lugones besides the "doom" that marked nearly all of the tales in Strange Forces was the delight he seemed to take in conveying it. Reading him, I kept thinking of the Charles Addams cartoon that depicts a movie theater in which the whole audience is teary-eyed except for a single mischievous figure who's cackling with glee.

  6. I have a vague thesis that Borges at some point began deliberately working against the doom tendency. It was not his temperament - as Doug says, he was too playful, too joyful. Pataphysics was a better fit for his creative gnosticism.

    Of course, as Scott notes, there is a lot of glee - which is not necessarily the same as joy - in the apocalypses of Lugones and Aira. The later especially, but he comes so late he can have it both ways.

    I remember that cartoon. It was his Uncle Fester character.

    Quiroga seemed like a better prose writer than Lugones, more original and surprising. The writing of Lugones seems to have become diminished, in Argentine literature I mean - is that right? But he wrote so much, and I just have these scraps, what do I know.