Friday, December 6, 2013

2013 in Shit: The Childhood of Jesus

The dialogue around The Childhood of Jesus so far insists on a few things; namely, allegory, socialism, and the enigma of the title. The middle term seems, from what I have read, to be a shorthand not for a mode of production but for some vague notion of what its incidental effects might entail; namely, hard labor, dietary restrictions, bureaucracy, and an emphasis on goodwill over desire. This is a dull usage of the term, and not worth dwelling on.

What seems to be absent from the discourse are the concrete and abstract cores of the novel; both respectively and irrespectively, language and the family. The former, of course, being, in the first instance, and excepting the materials like paper and ink and binding, what the novel is concretely made of, and the latter what that language, in the form of the novel, struggles with thematically; but from within the inverse holds true, as the concrete experience of constructing and navigating and maintaining a family is abstracted into struggles with language.

Family, in Childhood, is an idealist construction. The novel opens with Simón and David, recent immigrants into a land without history or memory, entering the town of Novilla with less than fluent Spanish and no money, recently come from a camp where they were taken after a shipwreck, on a quest to find David's mother. Simón insists that the two will know her on sight, and that he is merely the child's guardian (although he accepts the roles of uncle, padrillo and godfather throughout the course of the novel explicitly). They settle in to Novilla, with Simón finding work as a stevedore, and eventually find a woman who Simón insists is David's mother. Inés agrees that David is her son and takes charge of him. They have some tribulations and, ultimately, through the apparatus of the school in which David is enrolled, come into a sort of conflict with the state. They flee, finally constituting (with the anomalous and otherwise pointless appearance of a hitchhiker) an ideal nuclear family unit; a(n absent) father, a mother, two sons, and a potentially vicious Alsatian.

Simón is the focal character of the novel, with the narrative voice sticking very close to his own. So while the title in its misdirection suggests otherwise (at least on an initial reading), the story's primarily one not about childhood, but Simón's own embodiment of the absence of the father. He himself suggests throughout that it is maternity which is natural, necessary, and sufficient, all on transparently (due to the contrivances of novelistic circumstance) bullshit grounds, and all while pointedly refusing to accept the mantle of paternity that the other characters seem (due to the contrivances of novelistic circumstance) to be singularly-mindedly thrusting on him, whether directly or obliquely. Whether in the constant mistaken assumptions about the relationship between Simón and David or in the heated discussions of sexual difference and appetite, or conditions of labor, or the essential chairness of chairs, Childhood is always concerned with Simón's status as a particular kind of not-a-father.

In Novilla, it is quickly established that the residents primary affective register is one of goodwill, against which Simón clings to desire. This manifests in both direct interpersonal interaction, as when Simón considers his own sexual appetite (or lack thereof) in regards to every woman he encounters, and in broader, politicized strokes, as he argues for modernization of labor in the form of machines on the basis of a progressive faith in history. In an early discussion with Ana, a woman who works at the transitional housing complex that Simón and David first arrive at, Simón insists that his appetites are natural and good and deserve to be fed; Ana cuts through his bullshit about "Beefsteaks dripping in meat sauce" and calls him out on his desire to fuck her. There is a reading of this that allegorizes each participant into a mode of production, I'm sure, and I suspect that reading the novel at that level of abstraction could produce interesting objects. But it seems to me that it would necessarily miss an important aspect of what is going on here: that Simón is a gross old dude trying to wheedle his way into a younger woman's pants.

If family is the ideal abstraction that the text constantly advances toward, and unfatherhood is the particular dramatic means by which this is accomplished, the gross old dude aspect of the exchange is important for how it begins the process of decoupling the ideal from the good; Simón's grossness is as much about the family as a coercive institution as it is about his own personal character. The reading of the novel as utopian (or occasionally dystopian) is as bizarre, in the context of what actually happens in the story, as the readings that insist on its socialism, and almost certainly lean too heavily on the presumption that the it is still clever to note that utopia means "no place" rather than (or in addition to) “good place.” Given that this critique of the family remains a constant undercurrent throughout the novel, its near-total abstraction of the spatial through its use of language is almost certainly not pointing towards the goodness (or badness) of the place, but to the way that naturalized social structures overdetermine and usurp geography in the process of their own creation.

There is a moment in the novel when Simón, convinced by his comrade Eugenio, attends the first few minutes of a philosophy class. It reads, initially, as hypocritically unself-aware; Simón abandons a discussion on Platonist essences out of boredom, and the writing uncritically reflects his smugness in doing so. Up to this point the novel has paid minute attention to all the pseudophilosophical bullshit that Simón has been spewing; why, then, does it think it can trust the reader to suddenly side with Simón against philosophy in the context of a school?

The answer comes when Simón runs into Ana, for the final time, in the hallway outside the class. She informs him that she is rushing off to model for the Life Drawing class; he is immediately interested, and then, once he finds out the class is full, loses all interest in the school whatsoever. The real crime of talking about the essential qualities of chairness isn't that it's inherently any more boring than the monologues he constantly goes off on, it's that it provided him no opportunity to consolidate or purposefully abdicate power over a child or a woman. The philosophy teacher's unattractiveness to Simón is pointed out immediately; Simón's attraction to Ana is established. His brief spark of interest in the school is predicated solely on his seeing a way to use it for his own satiation: while it is never explicitly mentioned that Ana is doing nude modelling for the course, one imagines this is the case (and even if it is not, it is an opportunity for him to objectify her with no possible repercussions). When this is taken from him, he eats the school's spaghetti, complains about the lack of spices in the sauce, and returns home, never to think of the school again.

Simón's constant reduction of everything to his desire is predicated on his paternalistic denial of paternity; the figure of the absent father is invoked by him multiple times to argue on the essential abstraction of fatherhood and the attendant biological essentialism of motherhood, often through syllogisms as profound as “Inés is your mother. She is a true mother to you. She is your true mother.” That both are roles of social, not biological, reproduction is inconvenient to his need to predicate his actions on a fundamental absence. His inability to leverage the Institute's structure against that gap ends quickly in his total disinterest for the school. But when David, later, shows a similar disinterest in his own schooling — and for reasons that closely mirror Simón's own, in their inability to accommodate to his own perceived gap in the abstract structures of language and math — Simón immediately performs an about face, recognizing the way that the particular absence that he desires, to be a father both present and in absentia, can be made much more simple by the school's own task of social reproduction.

Most of the latter portion of the novel revolves around David's schooling. At first championed by Simón, it soon becomes a mixed experience, as he vacillates between the dictates of the school officials and his own love for David. Underlying both his contrary positions is his own desire, in his unfatherhood, to maintain full power over the child from an arbitrary distance. Again and again, Simón monologues both for and against the suggestions of the school, until the school enlists the arm of the state to attempt to enforce a division in the quasi-family that Simón has so painstakingly created, using precisely the gap he has insisted on for legitimacy; his own refusal to accept legal paternity. Rather than jeopardize the unstable edifice he has built toward his own valorization, of course, Simón flees with David and Inés to a new town, where he can continue to facilitate his own little autocracy.

Being a novel, the whole of this is mediated through language; and, being a Literary novel, this mediation itself forms a key object of reflection. Throughout the novel, most often in the form of David's expression of his hatred for the language, the reader is reminded that the sole language of this new land is Spanish. In David's occasional outbursts of "I hate Spanish," and in the praise that Simón receives on occasion for his increasing felicity with the language, the reader is also reminded that the novel's two main characters are not native speakers. The unspoken assumption, in a book read in English, is that the occasional marked forays outside of Spanish — when a word or phrase is being translated, for instance — occurs in the language of the text. It is, of course, not so simple.

In a brief scene, David shows off his singing with the opening stanza of Goethe's "Der Erlkönig" in the original German before insisting that he has been singing in English. Simón doesn't dispute this; when David asks what it means, Simón claims only that he does not know English. This seems to suggest that either the characters’ non-Spanish language is not English, against the readers probable assumption, or that it they are speaking English, only they do not recognize it as such, even enough to be convinced that German is called English.

Whether the characters are not speaking English or simply don't recognize that the language they are speaking is also the language they know as English, the text insists on translating the occasional words actually rendered in Spanish, almost universally, immediately into English. This question of where the language that constitutes the novel interfaces with the contents of the novel is suddenly shifted; while it hangs from the first moment this dialogue heavy novel tells us that we are reading it in translation, it takes on new epistemological weight with the revelation that the characters themselves are, in one way or another, alienated concretely from the words out of which they are formed.

The two scenes which embed this question of translation most effectively are, not incidentally, the same as two of the scenes in which Simón's desires are most effectively challenged; in the argument with Ana and in the last ditch attempt to reconcile David with the ordinary school.

In the first case, the foregrounding of translation is plausibly mimetic; Ana calls Simón's desires "Una tontería," and Simón has to ask what this means. It has been well established by this point that Simón's Spanish isn't great, and the text to this point has hewn closely to his perspective (despite a third person point of view), and so it makes representational sense that the dialogue is not purely objective, but filtered, at least to some extent, through Simón's subjectivity. As soon as we get the hint of this, however, he asks for clarification, and the argument effectively ends, the thread lost. Ana's reply of "Nonsense, rubbish," can be read not as an actual act of translation, then, but her using synonyms in the original Spanish. Regardless of the probable diegetic explanation, however, the reader engages with the text at the level of the text first, and for her what has happened is that a Spanish phrase has been translated to English.

As the act of (non)translation shifts the dialogue away from an attack on Simón's desire, it effectively signals the end of his attempts to argue his way into Ana's pants, as well. This, ultimately, fits perfectly with his goal, leaving him an object of desire over whom he can imply dominance without having to be put in a position where it might be challenged.

The second case has no mimetic reading that doesn't require serious work on the part of the reader. In the school that David is being kicked out of, he, in a last ditch effort to avoid the reformatory, is told to “[w]rite, Conviene que yo diga la verdad, I must tell the truth" on the blackboard. Instead, after having succeeded at following the rest of the teacher’s instructions, David writes “Yo soy la verdad, I am the truth." Both the Spanish and the English translations are within quotation marks, seemingly indicating that Señor Leon is translating as he speaks. But the mimetic reading of the conversation with Ana makes no sense here; Leon is a teacher instructing a student to write a specific phrase. He wouldn’t then say a synonymous phrase, much less translate it into whatever language Simón and David (presumably) share outside of the classroom. And the idea that David, whether he does this out of spiteful rebellion or because he has processing issues (this possibility is suggested throughout the book, but left vague), would in either case translate his own inaccurate rendering of the teacher's edict seems incredibly unlikely.

These acts of translation are the literary bed on which the claims of abstraction (and allegory) rest, even if they are unspoken. And, as the latter example makes clear, they do ultimately suggest a thematic rather than narrative consistency. But their placement, in two of the most narratively charged scenes in the novel, is not incidental.

As language is thematized within a context of structured language, it must necessarily double in on itself, creating an ironic distance. This distance, rather than provoke humor, mirrors the distance that Simón creates between himself and the fatherhood he refuses to completely occupy, in order that he can more completely control those with less access to power around him. In his lessons with David before the child goes to school, this is made clear: Simón asserts that he “can look at the page and move [his] lips and make up stories in [his] head, but that is not reading. For real reading [he has] to submit to what is written on the page. [He has] to give up [his] own fantasies.”

David’s response operates at the level of the symbolic. He begins “whipping furiously through the pages,” and, when pressed as to why, claims that,
“‘Because. Because if I don’t hurry a hole will open.’
‘Open up where?’
‘Between the pages.’”
These are not the actions of an allegorical Christ; they are the only recourse of a child denied even the symbolic, ersatz power provided by the traditional structured familial relationship allowed under capital. It is no grand, distant, theological abstraction that animates these actions, but a sensitivity to the methods that the adults around him use to structure his existence. When this is done through tightly controlled gaps in naturalized systemic roles, there is not much David can do; but in gaps in translation, he can revolt.

And in the end, as Simón takes them to a new land to reassert his autocratic desire, he can invite in the hitchhiker, and have a real family.

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