“POTLATCH WRITING”: THE JOYCE OF CARLOS FUENTES, by David Vichnar*

*Paper  presented at the 2019 North American James Joyce Symposium, “Joyce Without Borders”, 14 June 2019, at the CASUL, Ciudad de Mexico.

1. In one of the more telling self-directed comments regarding the composition of Ulysses, Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver that after finishing each episode, his mind went “into a state of blank apathy,” the progress of the book likened to a “progress of some sandblast” where “each successive episode, dealing with some province of artistic culture […] leaves behind it a burnt-up field”.[1] Then a month later, in July 1919, after completing the “Sirens” episode, Joyce claims he “finds it impossible to listen to music of any kind” since he can “see through all of its tricks.”[2]

What Hugh Kenner famously called Joyce’s supreme comedic gesture of “exhausting the inventory” is felt throughout Ulysses, from the process of its composition to the finished product. Writing “in the economy of the print,” for Joyce, meant first of all that his “longest day in fiction” was to be reconstructed out of the archive of the hundreds of printed documents left in the wake of 16 June 1904:

As days die, in the modern world, they pass into records, not merely,as did Homer's days, 
into memory. A certain day exists eternally at the point where the City Directory is 
intersected by the newspaper, the Gregorian and Liturgical calendars, the rac results, 
the weather bureau statistics, the police blotter, and a million letters, diaries, 
cancelled checks, account books, betting tickets, laundry lists, birth certificates 
and cemetery registers.[3]

The “dead day” of June 16, 1904, is of course also a day in a city, itself a system of superimposed structures, laid out into streets and blocks, districts and zones, thoroughfares of communication, strata of history. A city which just as Joyce’s page functions as a palimpsest of information: it has been written on with data and signs. A city which can be represented by a map or a directory, in a book which should—according to Joyce’s famous boast—contain both its map and its people to such a degree of precision that Dublin should be re-constructible out of Ulysses, a book of lists mapped and indexed as extensively as the Holy Scripture. Joyce was the perfect post-Kantian artist viewing man as a symbolic animal and constructing the universe of Ulysses out of all the various symbolic systems available to him, including language, art, science, history, religion and myth, forging these systems into the one supersystem of what he termed in the Wake “his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles” (FW 179.26).

The ultimate list in this book of Ulistess is that of the dictionary – and its exhaustion consists in Joyce’s careful stratification of the vocabulary of the various episodes, using in the funeral section a thousand deadly turns of phrase, in the lunchtime passage as many casual expressions of the culinary extraction as he can collect, or in his library episode, allusions to all of Shakespeare’s plays.

Joyce’s writing was always adherent to an “economy of excess”, expansion, addition. In a reversal of the Renaissance ideal of chiselling away the superfluous material, Joyce’s way is that of hammering in as much material as he could possibly make confluent. A point clearly even truer of the Wake than of Ulysses, where even the last limitations of realism and verisimilitude Ulysses confined itself within could have been sacrificed at the “altar’s ego” (FW 463.7) of language that is the Wake.

 

2. Writing in the mid-1950s on “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” Georges Bataille made a passing reference to Joyce’s writing in discussing “sacrifice” as constitutive of the human, and its “gay anguish, anguished gaiety” vis-à-vis death. Bataille starts his essay by quoting the famous “man is the night, that empty Nothingness” passage from Hegel’s Jena Lectures as access to his “disconcerting world” of humanity predicated on negativity:

The human being is this Night, this empty nothing which contains everything in its 
simplicity – a wealth of infinitely many representations, images, none of which occur 
to it directly, and none of which are not present. This [is] the Night, the interior of 
[human] nature, existing here […and] in phantasmagoric representations it is night 
everywhere: here a bloody head suddenly shoots up and there another white shape, only to 
disappear as suddenly. We see this Night when we look a human being in the eye, looking 
into a Night which turns terrifying. [For from his eyes] the night of the world hangs out 
toward us.[4]

This is a negativity that, in the form of death, is both an unknowable limit, an outside, and the essentially human dimension, the very inside, of existence. The problem, for Bataille, is Hegel’s dead seriousness when contemplating death: in his response to death, Hegel “is less opposed to those who ‘recoil’ than to those who say: ‘it is nothing.’” And in a passage both rich and appropriate for the Mexican setting of this talk, Bataille mentions as examples of the “response to the desire to deny the existence of death” both “the Irish and Welsh custom of the ‘wake’” which forms the “subject of Joyce’s last work” whose reading he finds “difficult at best” and, in the same breath, the “Mexico” of Sergei Eisenstein’s documentary ¡Que Viva México!, where “death is commonly envisaged on the same level as the amusements that can be found at festivals: skeleton puppets, skeleton candies, skeleton merry-go-rounds.”[5]

Bataille here follows the train of thought outlined in The Accursed Share. There, he famously postulated a theory of consumption based on an excessive and irrecuperable basis of economy, which must either be expended lavishly and consciously without any profit (Bataille’s examples include the arts, spectacles, monuments, as well as non-procreative sexuality), or it needs to be spent in a disastrous outburst of giving and sacrifice, which he designates—in a word he borrows from ethnography—as a potlatch.

Indeed, in his essay on Bataille’s relationship to Hegel’s dialectic, Jacques Derrida—for whom Joyce was famously “the most Hegelian of writers”[6]—alludes to this off-hand reference to Finnegans Wake and to the topic of the communal event that is performed comically in the face of the singular “event” of death. Derrida’s “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve” retells Bataille’s story of the corpse erected in its coffin and placed in the centre of the merry funereal company, who—instead of expelling the dead body as per dictates of usefulness—subject the deceased who is both gone and yet strangely present to a “roast”.

In particular Derrida discusses the effects of Bataille’s use of potlatch, linking it to a destruction of discourse, which is not an “erasing neutralization” but rather a “multiplication,” an “endless, baseless substitution”:

The destruction of discourse is not simply an erasing neutralization. It multiplies 
words, precipitates them one against the other, engulfs them too, in an endless and 
baseless substitution whose only rule is the sovereign affirmation of the play outside 
of meaning. [...] Not a reserve or a withdrawal, not the infinite murmur of a blank 
speech erasing the traces of classical discourse, but a kind of potlatch of signs that 
burns, consumes and wastes words in the gay affirmation of death: a sacrifice and a challenge.[7]

Derrida’s “potlatch of signs that burn” that is both “a sacrifice and a challenge,” then, speaks both to Bataille’s theory of economy and Joyce’s practice of writing.

 

3. This Derrida passage on Bataille in Writing and Difference bears remarkable similarity to Carlos Fuentes’s discussion of Joyce’s writing at the end of his book-length essay Cervantes, or the Critique of Reading from 1976. At the start, Fuentes credits Joyce as “an inventor of a new way of writing”, paralleling Cervantes’ “invention of a new way of reading”:

Both draw support for their monumental works from epics of the past. And both, the author 
who opens and the author who closes the adventure of the modem European novel—Cervantes 
Alpha and Joyce Omega—are highly charged with the fruitful doubts and contradictions of 
their eccentric societies.[8]

And in the conclusion of the essay, Fuentes writes of Joyce’s “perverted literary activity” and conceives of Ulysses and the Wake as, among other things, “crepuscular epics of stupidity and auroral epics of a new logos,” invested in the practice of “potlach-writing”:

Fiesta, spectacle, duel, battle, ceremony, perverted literary activity, violation of all previous culture, of  the traditional subject, of the distinctions between exteriority and interiority, good and evil, idea and nature, crepuscular epic of stupidity and auroral epic of a new logos, Dedalus and Bloom‘s circular exile in the labyrinths of the fallen city, Finnegan‘s dream without beginning or end,  Joyce’s writing is a potlach, which breaks the traditional regime of narration and modifies the avaricious norm of the exchange between writer and reader.[9]

Discussing Fuentes’ own Bataillean heritage, critic Michael Abeyta has shown how the “economy of excess” in both Fuentes’ and Joyce’s writing means that “celebration is valued over work, and wealth is neither exchanged, circulated, nor simply accumulated; instead, it is consumed, destroyed, wasted—an economy of loss and expenditure.”[10] Such excessiveness is everywhere at work in Ulysses, but nowhere quite as clearly on display as in “Cyclops”, a chapter listed in “Ithaca” as “holocaust” (U 17.2051), whose literary technique is “gigantism,” which transforms something as trifling as the hurtling of a biscuit tin into a “terrific catastrophe” of “seismic waves accompanied by a violent atmospheric perturbation of cyclonic character” (U 12.1858-68). Sacrifice performs a function akin to this as both a sumptuous spending, as in the case of burnt offerings, and also as the momentary performance of a duty, a repayment of debt. As when in “Lestrygonians”, the episode of all-pervasive hunger and devouring, Bloom reflects: “God wants blood victim. Birth, hymen, martyr, war, foundation of a building, sacrifice, kidney burnt-offering, druids’ altars. Elijah is coming” (U 8.10-4). Or when later contemplating a sandwich, Bloom reflects on “ham and his descendants bred and mustered here,” a fleshly Biblical association that leads his mind to the morbid image of “Dignam’s potted meat” and from there to the “white missionaries too salty” for the cannibals (U 8.740-8).

According to Fuentes, Joyce defies the reader to give up the “lazy, passive and linear reading” and to participate in the rewriting of narration: “Melés, telés and noslés, Joyce says to the reader, I offer you a potlach, an excremental property of words, I melt your verbal gold ingots and I throw them into the sea and I challenge you to make me a gift superior to mine, which is the gift assimilated to loss.”[11] As can be seen, the exchange between reader and writer, “melés y teleo” (“you read me and I read you”) which is disrupted by the potlatch, is here expressed as both a chiastic and reciprocal relation. By combining the pronouns in “melés, telés y noslés,” Fuentes is performing the Joycean neologistic operation that in turn demands of the reader to participate more actively in the process of decoding the text. In Fuentes’s plotting, Joyce’s writing attacks literal meanings, proliferating ambiguities and double meanings instead and thereby defying the reader to present their own countergift of r multiple identities and cultural values. Abeyta concludes that Fuentes’ “Melés, telés y noslés” implies “an elliptic, uneven challenge in a discourse where identities and subject positions are not simply exchanged, but enter into contiguous relations” in which “self and other are obliged to occupy the same cultural space.”[12]

 

4. Fuentes is on record stating that “[t]hrough Joyce we came into our tradition; how wonderful to discover we have a tradition. Joyce perceived truths which were latent also in our culture, but which we had to learn to see for ourselves.”[13] In his novel Terra Nostra (1975), the question of Spain’s legacy as both burden and endowment is a primary dilemma, complemented by a principle of reinvention and the promise of a future difference. Fuentes’s novel is, as Milan Kundera says in his afterword, “the spreading out of the novel, the exploration of its possibilities, the voyage to the edge of what only a novelist can see and say,”[14] and its 800 pages cover nothing less than the history of Spain and of South America, the principle paradoxes of Christianity and the faded glory of the Indian Gods, as well as such Viconian themes as the birth, the rise, the fall and the resurrection of civilizations,

Indeed, the entire project of Fuentes’s most ambitious novel is predicated on the renovation of an inherited heterogeneous legacy: that of Spain, and by extension the Mediterranean, and of the indigenous Americas. Divided into three sections, “The Old World,” “The New World,” and “The Next World,” and spanning no fewer than 20 centuries of Spain’s and Latin America’s history, Terra Nostra is a vast allegorical dreamscape. It is replete with mystical symbols and structured by means of numerology, its theology is as full of hereticism as it is of eroticism. Just as in the Wake, the linear historical time is discarded in Terra Nostra in favour of the mythological circular, the finite curve of human life substituted with an infinite recycling of recurrence. As Pollo and Celestine, the novel’s lover/rival couple, realise towards the end, “a life is not sufficient. Several existences are needed to make up a person.”[15]

The many Wakean coincidentiae oppositorum of existence can be found at the very beginning, following an epigraph from Yeats that “a terrible beauty is born”:

Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrae 
that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still 
normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. 
Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first 
loincloth. (TN, 9)

The adjectives “incredible”, “monstrous” and “astounding” introduce the paradoxes of creation, history, and faith: in creating one cannot but destroy; in conquering others one faces one’s own subjugation; in one’s most exalted piety often lies one’s summit of arrogance and corruption. The rest of the novel is a sustained examination of the nature that has caused conquest and domination, and the multifaceted moral difficulties brought about by colonialism, in which the rise of some is paid for by the fall of many, and in which there is no such thing as a free “telephone call” and all “boiling water” comes at a price,

 

5. Terra Nostra shifts unpredictably between the sixteenth century and the twentieth, tracing the roots of contemporary Latin American society in the struggle between the conquistadors and indigenous Americans. From the start, time and space are turned inside out when the narrator views the 20th century with primitive eyes and his protagonist Pollo Febo falls into the river Seine in the year 1999, only to emerge in 16th-century Spain. At the novel’s apocalyptic end, Celestina and Pollo (who, like Cervantes, possesses only one arm) are the last survivors of humanity. Celestina has the capacity of transmitting memory through a kiss, and she thus transports Pollo into the memory theatre, and the novel’s narrative becomes his own, the same anew:

[…] history has had its second chance, Spain’s past was revived in order to choose again, 
a few places changed, a few names, three personas were fused into two, and two into one, 
but that was all: differences in shading, unimportant distinctions, history repeated 
itself, history was the same, its axis the necropolis, its root madness, its result 
crime, its salvation… a few beautiful buildings and a few elusive words.”  (TN, 774-5)

Terra Nostra’s main narrative technique consists in a perpetual and inexhaustible recombination of its characters, often played out through the familial structures present in the novel and in the exchanges between traditional literary characters, such as Don Juan, Don Quijote and Guzmán de Alfarache, and the historically-based characters: Hieronymus Bosch, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Felipe I and Juana La Loca, thinly disguised as “El Señor” and “La Señora”, thus gaining in archetypical dimensions.

The exchange of existences taking place throughout entails less the metempsychotic one-for-one transmigration of Ulysses than the Wakean interchangeability in a myriad of possible recombinations. Also Wakean is how Fuentes repeatedly runs the primal story-telling formula backwards: “This is my story. I want you to hear my story. Listen. Listen. Netsil. Netsil. Yrots ym raeh ot uoy tnaw I. Yrots ym is siht” (TN, 31). Thus, Fuentes’ Don Quijote recognizes that he is both different than and the same as Don Juan, following the general scheme of retrieving and reinventing the images and events involving the principal characters through their reiterations and recombinations.

In this respect, Fuentes continues Joyce’s assault on the romantic myth of authorial originality. His many narrators continually disappear behind each other. The question of Joyce’s “influence” on Fuentes can be productively conceptualised through that ambivalent concept of “herencia”, “heritage” which in Spanish is always very close to “heresy”, or the Wakean “hearsay” (FW 263.R4), in which Terra Nostra simply abounds. As Abeyta has argued, the concept of herencia, in this regard, conveys “the sense of debt and obligation, of gift-counter-gift, the play between memory and forgetting and, above all, the possibility of renovation and reinvention through the conjectural genealogy of fiction”[16] after Joyce.

 

6. Following Stephen Dedalus’ Aristotelian musings in “Nestor,” Terra Nostra posits, but also questions, the many possibilities that were available in the past before ousted by its actuality, and in doing so reconfigures the identities of the novel’s characters through their recombination and inter-exchange. In addition, there are two other thematic concerns with which Fuentes riffs on the Joycean “potlatch writing” in Terra Nostra.

The first is the bodily grotesque verging on the morbid, as when El Señor’s gory and dark death scene features baroque descriptions of the worms that crawl through his body and the basins and basins of pus he excretes, or when the dwarf Barbarica makes love to an entombed cadaver, or when La Señora welcomes the nibbling mouse between her legs after the dead El Señor has abandoned her (the so-called Mus, perhaps a bizarre counter-gift to Marcel Mauss). A constantly recurring theme is that of futility of love resulting in death, but death itself is conceived as exuberant fertile matrix for life to grow out of again; as when Felipe I’s cadaver gets dragged around Spain, as the construction of the Escorial palace in which to inter him awaits its completion.

The other Joycean trait is an historical repetition and recycling: as in Celestina and Pollo’s concluding hierogamy whose union transforms them into a single androgynous being making love to itself; or with history as eternal conflict not to be abolished, repeating itself with “differences in shading […], its axis the necropolis, its root madness, its result crime, its salvation… a few beautiful buildings and a few elusive words.” (TN, 775).

Both of these traits, ultimately, find their formal expression in the “list,” the “catalogue” and the “inventory” – of the seven phases of the night in Ancient Rome, of historical heresies and orthodoxies, of the geographical provinces of Spain, and of the mythical rulers of Mexico:

CREPUSCULUM
FAX – “the moment at which the torches are lighted”
CONCUBIUM – “the hour of sleep”
NOX INTEMPESTA – “the time when all activity is suspended”
GALLICINIUM – “the cock’s crow”
CONTICINIUM – “silence”
AURORA (TN, 252)

Vésperes – evening; Vísperas – eve; Víspero – evening star; Héspero – Venus; Hesperia – 
the western land; Hespérides – daughter of the west; España, Spain; España/ Hespaña/ 
Vespaña, name of the of the double star, twin of itself, constant dusk and dawn, silver 
stele that joins the old and the new worlds and carried me from one to the other borne 
on her fiery train, star of evening, star of dawn, Plumed Serpent, my name in the new 
world was the name of the old world; Quetzalcoatl, Venus, Herperia, Spain, identical 
stars, dawn and dusk,mysterious union, indecipherable enigma, but cipher for two bodies, 
two lands, cipher for a terrible encounter. (TN, 485)

All exhausted and spent in Fuentes’ own version of potlatch writing, 800 pages of formal, stylistic and narrative exuberance and excess, conceived of as a challenge with disruptive consequences for the exchange that takes place between reader and writer.

Most importantly, Fuentes’ Terra Nostra (1975) performs a post-Wakean critique of the discourse of the West as “the rational, individualistic and ultimately absolutist discourse of the universal subject,” in which language has undergone increased abstraction from what Fuentes regards as Europe’s true reality: “the radical heterogeneity of its peoples and cultures”[17] – what the Wake suggests in its rendering of European as “earopen” (FW419.14). The ultimate Joycean lesson of Terra Nostra is that of superimposed systems of meaning “communicating” with each other:

[…] the secret communication of all waters, sub-aquatic tunnels, the passageways beneath 
the earth where flow all the liquid channels of the world […]: the liquid corridors from 
the Seine to the Cantabria, from the Nile to the Orinoco, from the Cabo de los Desastres 
to the Usumacinta, from the Liffey to Lake Ontario, from a deep sacrificial pool in 
Yucatan to the Dead Sea in Palestine: atl, the root of water, Atlas, Atlantis, Atlantic, 
Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent that returns along the routes of the great waters.
[…] Maps of initiation; charts of the initiated. There is a banal inscription written 
in the left-hand margin of this map, in Spanish: “The nature of waters is always to 
communicate with one another and to reach a common level. And this is their mystery.” 
An amphora filled with sand. (TN, 766)

As emblematised in the secret of the last of the imaginary maps contemplated, featuring the leap of fancy from “the Liffey” of James Joyce “to Lake Ontario” of the potlatch-practicing North-American indigenous peoples, illustrating how “the nature of waters is to always communicate with each other, and to reach a common level.”

 

7. The creation of a multiplicity of textual voices is what Fuentes himself considers Joyce’s prime contribution to modern literature.[18] As he argues in his Cervantes essay, the “Joycification” (“Joyce-ización”) of language lies in its “de-I-ification” (“des-yo-ización”), the abolition of the single narrative voice and its univocal text:

Joyce’s critique of writing is a critique of individual writing, as Cervantes’ critique 
of reading broke up unique and hierarchical reading, epic reading. And the novelty 
of ”Joyceización” (“Joycification”) is that it inscribes “desyoización” (“de-I-fication”) 
in the total process of the economy of language.[19]

Joyce is seen as annulling the subject that wishes to be “an author, an ego” by producing “books written by one/plural, by everyone and by Joyce, by Joyce who is everyone and by everyone who is Joyce, Everyman.”[20]

Positing the past itself as open to constant reinterpretation and reinvention, Terra Nostra in turn destabilises any essentialist or singular notions of identity for both the present and the past of Spain and Latin America. Only such a deconstruction of Latin America’s cultural history can enable one to overcome the fear and humiliation that lie in the heart of its colonial legacy. Fuentes’ Terra Nostra thus does to character identity what Finnegans Wake does to linguistic morphology: it “abnihilat[es] its etym” (FW 353.22). By breaking down its atomistic determinants and insisting on the radical openness and plurality of every reader’s subjectivity, Terra Nostra calls upon its reader to reinvent herself, to become unafraid to turn into an “other”.

[1] James Joyce, Letters I, 128-9.

[2] Joyce, Letters I, 129.

[3] Hugh Kenner, Flaubert, Joyce & Beckett: The Stoic Comedians (Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1962) 50-1.

[4] Georges Bataille, “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” Yale French Studies, No. 78 (1990): 9.

[5] Bataille, “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” 25.

[6] Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 227-8.

[7] Derrida, “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve,” Writing and Difference,  274.

[8] Carlos Fuentes, Cervantes o la crítica de la lectura (México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1976) 90.

[9] Fuentes, Cervantes, 108-9.

[10] Michael Abeyta, “The Farce of Lordship and Sovereignty in Terra Nostra”, The Reptant Eagle – Essays on Carlos Fuentes and the Art of the Novel, ed. Roberto Cantú (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2015) 118.

[11] Fuentes, Cervantes, 109.

[12] Abeyta, “The Farce of Lordship,” 118.

[13] Morton P. Levitt, “Joyce and Fuentes: Not Influence but Aura” (Comparative Literature Studies, 1982) 256.

[14] Milan Kundera, “Afterword,” Terra Nostra, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) 785.

[15] Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra, trans. Margaret S. Peden (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) 744. All further in-text references are to this edition.

[16] Abeyta, “The Face of Lordship,” 104.

[17] Abeyta, “The Farce of Lordship and Sovereignty,” 117.

[18] For more see Wendy B. Faris, “Ulysses in Mexico: Carlos Fuentes”, Comparative Literature Studies 19.2 (Summer 1982): 236-253, as well as Wendy B. Faris, “‘Desyoizacion’: Joyce/Cixous/Fuentes and the Multi-Vocal Text”, Latin American Literary Review 9.19 (Fall-Winter, 1981): 31-9.

[19] Fuentes, Cervantes, 107.

[20] Ibid.

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