A Fool for Love
There is an amusing moment in the Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato's novella The Tunnel, where the obsessive, central character and first person narrator talks of acting like a madman in a moment funny because of the superfluous simile. He is a madman, and yet he is also a lucid figure capable of making sense of the real world. The problem starts when he has to interact with that world, and especially when he does so emotionally and ethically. When early in the book he talks of Leon Bloy, "who defended himself against accusations of arrogance by arguing he had spent a lifetime serving people who did not deserve to lick his boots", he sees vanity within self-sacrifice. "Even a man like Christ - whether real of symbolic - a being for whom I have always felt, indeed, still do, the deepest reverence, spoke words that were motivated by vanity - or at least by arrogance." Yet when he insists, "that you will see I am sincere when I say that I am not better than any other man", this comes after telling us he has killed someone. As with the misplaced simile, there is a sense of misplaced moral self-justification here too. He has a perspective on things, but not a sense of perspective.
In a short essay called 'Evil and Literature' from The Writer in the Age of Our Catastrophe, Sabato talks of Diderot's Rameau's Nephew: "This novel is thus one of the most curious manifestations of the existential dialectic between light and darkness. And the almost didactic contrast between progressive thinker and possessed man was not to recur in such an extreme manner until the advent of another French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre." Is The Tunnel part of this tradition? Central to the novella's pleasure is the intelligence of its asides, even if the thrust of the book comes from the absurdity of the character's obsession. When the narrator Juan Pablo says, "my brain is in constant ferment, and, when I get nervous, ideas roil in a giddy ballet. In spite of that - perhaps because of it - I have learned to control my ideas and arrange them in strict order. If I could not do that, I would soon go mad", again there seems to be a misplaced assumption here. This is a man writing his memoirs after being locked up for killing a woman he was infatuated with: he surely hasn't been that good at controlling his ideas. Yet he is also capable of clear thinking, so any irony is contained by the fact the book we are reading is a coherent account of an obsessive figure.
In another essay from The Writer in the Age of our Catastrophe, Sabato (who was born in 1911 and died at the age of 99) insists on the variants of the irrational in the novel. "In Kafka, the judgements have syntactic rigor, there is coherence between subject and predicate. But the coherence does not go beyond the sentence..." "In Joyce irrationalism reaches as far as judgement itself, since, at times, agreement between subject and predicate disappears: asyntactic language succeeds logical language." Then he sees in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury that in exploring the mind of a character who is an 'idiot' what is required are the techniques to explore a "being whose universe is a melange of odors, fleeting visions, and tastes - a chaotic and contingent universe." ('Aspects of Irrationalism in the Novel') If the narrator in The Tunnel is an obsessive and crazy figure, he isn't a syntactically inadequate one, and much of the identificatory tension in the book comes from the rational man at one remove, and the obsessive figure when put into actual situations.
Near the end of the book, after Juan Pablo's killed the object of his love, Maria, he arrives at the house she shared with her husband Allende and announces that Maria was another man's lover. Allende calls him a "fool" and an "imbecile". The closing mini-chapter of the book has Juan Pablo going over and over in his mind the husband's claim that he was a fool, an imbecile, an idiot. Perhaps Juan Pablo does so because, taking into account Sabato's essay on the rational and irrational, he thinks this is unfair: that he is not at all the idiot Benjy happens to be in The Sound and the Fury, capable only of a chaotic vision of the world. In The Tunnel Juan Pablo is instead of course offering a tunnel vision. He is less an idiot than a monomaniac, and his irrationalism comes out of a misplaced sense of certitude. He is not a fool because he doesn't understand the world, but that he instead projects too strongly on an aspect of it. He is perhaps nothing more nor less than the practitioner of l'amour fou, a mad love not because he is crazy, but because he is projectively obsessive. Whether it is Swann in Swann's Way, Moreau in Sentimental Education, or the central character in Stefan Zweig's Letter from an Unknown Woman, these are characters that needn't at all lose their lucidity, no matter how often they might see themselves as fools. They all share what Gilles Deleuze explores in Proust and Signs, and this is the Platonically rational. As Deleuze says, "We have seen how Proust revived the Platonic equivalent of creating/remembering. But this is because memory and creation are no more than two aspects of the same production: "interpreting", "deciphering" and "translating", being here the process of production itself."
The central figures in The Tunnel, Sentimental Education, Swann's Way and Letter from an Unknown Woman are all emotional detectives, using the means of induction and deduction to comprehend the love object. They will spy on the other person, infer information from a gesture, and create elaborate theories of behaviour based on what they see as logical systems. As Juan Pablo says: "I had arranged them in this terrible but irrefutable syllogism: Maria and the prostitute had the same expression: the prostitute was feigning pleasure. Maria, then was also feigning pleasure. Maria was a prostitute."
However we cannot read The Tunnel without thinking of the Absurd; that for all Juan Pablo's reasoning faculties, he also has a few irrational faculties too. In an essay called 'Pure Ideas and Incarnated ideas' Sabato says, "Tolstoy at his most authentic is not the moralizer of his essay on art but the tortuous and bedevilled Tolstoy we sense in the Memoirs of a Madman." In another essay, 'Art and Society', he believes, "the pre-eminence Nietzsche gave life has already been mentioned. The anthropocentric revolution of our time is synthesized in that election. That center will no longer be the object nor the transcendental subject but the concrete person, with a new awareness of the body that sustains it." Juan Pablo is capable of a few rational thoughts, but this doesn't mean he can function on the basis of them, and part of both the humour and the shifting sense of identification with Juan Pablo resides in the gap. At one moment he says, "people who donate to charities are generally considered to be better, more generous, than those who do not", and adds that he has "enormous contempt for this simplistic notion", "all it does is solve the psychological problems of the man buying a reputation and peace of mind for practically nothing". Here he offers some lucid thought. But he also says elsewhere, of course, "that his brain is in constant ferment".
Here is a man who knows how to think but doesn't quite know how to live, and we might wonder to what degree this is a problem of convention, convention in the sense that to think freely is one thing but to act freely is something else. It is not that one cannot act out what one thinks, but a rational mind is unlikely to confuse one with the other. It is fair enough to argue that in certain circumstances violence is acceptable, but hardly so if you throw a punch because you have your own, unexpressed reason for believing you can. If there are moments, in Sabato's novel that feel Dostoyevskian, they partly rest on this problem. When at the end of the novella Juan Pablo tells the husband about Maria's affair with another man, Juan Pablo offers it with all the inevitability of a carefully constructed argument, but of course it is dropped into the situation like a hastily drawn conclusion with no prior evidence.
Indeed the whole book is a little like a thorough going self-justification after the event, an inversion of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, of course, where Raskolnikov writes an essay about justifying certain acts that might seem heinous, and then murders an old woman to test out his ideas. But in each instance, in Crime and Punishment and The Tunnel, the gap resides in the thought and the deed, as if the action initself, without the bolstering of subjectivity, passes for the inexplicable. When Sabato says in 'The Novel and Phenomenology' "man was not, in the final analysis, either pure and simple reason or mere instinct. Both attributes had to be integrated with the supreme spiritual values that distinguish man from the animals", it is as if Juan Pablo exemplifies this failure, but he's also a figure that is a clear example of the attempt. Like Raskolnikov, he is an existential failure through the inability to integrate reason with instinct; failures that lead to murderous deeds.
Yet the absurd aspect lies in the ineptitude of the attempt at this integration, without the novel at all deriding the significance of it. We can acknowledge the importance of the union between Maria and Juan Pablo and despair at the mode in which Juan Pablo tries to cement it. Maria admits the role a particular Juan Pablo painting has had on her life, saying that the picture "is never out of my mind", but Juan Pablo is not a character for slowly cementing a relationship when he thinks he can glue it together with the most powerful of instant adhesives. "'Look I told you that I have done nothing but think of you', I said. 'But you didn't say that you've thought about me.'" Juan Pablo has undeniably found in Maria the love of his life as perceptual soul mate, but he can't accept the social codes that he is still expected to abide by as he woos her. As they talk on their first meeting after she witnessed the painting months before, so Juan Pablo says that an element of the painting, "the scene on the beach frightens me", and, "following this long silence", adds, "although I know that is something more profound than mere fear. No I think what I'm trying to say is that it says something more profound about me...I mean...Now I think I've hit on the key, The message is still unclear, but it says something about me." Here Juan Pablo offers the egocentric but at least refrains from the eccentric, giving Maria the space to occupy her half of the burgeoning relationship as she asks him "and do you think a message of despair is commendable?" Maria says what matters here isn't what is commendable but that it is truthful.
But where the art work need not be commendable but needs to be truthful, what about the un-commendable in life? Many of Juan Pablo's gestures are truthful but not commendable: they express his feelings but don't always respect those of others. When he says to Maria later in the book "I asked you whether you love Allende now, and you told me yes. But I seem to remember that not too long ago, at the port, you told me I was the first person you ever loved," here his insistence on truth is no longer expressive but instead interrogative, no longer merely egocentric but eccentric: eccentric in the sense that something has lost its centre. At least in the art work Juan Pablo can hold his centre as he hopes that there might be others who see the world as he sees it. But when he falls for Maria his behaviour becomes increasingly uncommendable until, finally, his smothering egocentricity and eccentricity leads to murder.
When Raskolnikov writes his essay he is offering it as the truth and seeks not approval but recognition. Art's purpose is not to seek approval but receive acknowledgment, and this is exactly what Crime and Punishment achieves as so many writers and thinkers accept that Dostoyevsky brought a new sensibility into literature. Perhaps this is what Juan Pablo's art manages to do also, but in his life the egocentricity he requires for the singularity of creation, becomes the manifold eccentricity as he falls for Maria. For all the incompetence he has shown over women in the past, it at least seemed containable. "I had admired certain traits in a woman I knew, but when I met one of her sisters I was depressed and ashamed for days: the very traits I had found so desirable seemed exaggerated and distorted in the sister...the vaguely distorted vision of the first woman that I saw in her sister, beside the impression I described, made me feel ashamed..." "Perhaps, he admits, "I see these things because I am a painter." To utilise this notion of perception creatively is aesthetically useful, but to apply it to one's daily life troublesome. The subtlety of observation becomes behavioural eccentricity if one follows through on it. Imagine if Juan Pablo had dated the woman whose traits he admired, and then saw the sister and broke it off because of a feeling of shame in the wake of seeing the sister. The creatively productive would have becomes the socially disastrous.
But of course meeting Maria it is much more troublesome as Juan becomes not so much blindly jealous, as partially but specifically jealous and hence tunnel-visioned. He moves from the imaginatively productive artist to the socially reductive man in society, and while the projective impulse of the artist is often necessary as they shape the world in accordance with their own perceptions, is to do likewise in the social sphere to flirt with madness and arrive at the solipsistic?
"Style makes the man, the individual, the one-of-a kind: his way of seeing and feeling the universe, his way of "thinking" reality, that is, blending his thoughts with his emotions and sentiments, his type of sensibility, his prejudices, his manias his tics." So Sabato says in 'Scientific Universality and Artistic Individuality', before adding, "science can and should disregard the individual, art cannot." But what about man in society, should he seek to absorb himself into universal notions or try to express the individual voice? Perhaps he needs to do no more, generally, than accept, though not necessarily conform to, social convention. Juan Pablo refuses to abide by these conventions because he cannot believe easily in the notion of mankind that leads to them. "I scorn all humankind; people around me seem vile, sordid, stupid, greedy, gross, niggardly." But the consequence of this refusal of social conventions, whilst at the same trying to apply the individuality of art to the relationship with another human being, leads, to a 'mini-dystopia'. This is an inversion of philosopher Gilles Deleuze's notion of a mini-utopia, and perhaps more emotionally centred, where instead of finding like-minded others who help us to resist the clichs and expectations of the world, one person instead, out of this potential intimacy and closeness, ends up destroying the other.
One reason why Sabato would react so vociferously to the work of someone like the nouveau roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet and why he questions the formal assumptions behind a novel thematically similar to his own, Jealousy, is because he cannot believe a character like the one in Robbe-Grillet's book would be objectively able to accept his role as a cuckold. "Whoever heard of a person, jealous or not, and particularly when he is jealous, who does not reason interminably, mull over his suspicions, ponder what he sees or surmises?" ('Robbe-Grillet's Claims') It is as though for Sabato Robbe-Grillet hasn't acknowledged the necessary tension in the problem, and instead used the problem to explore a formal fascination to the detriment of the subject. The sort of tension between the rational and irrational forces are ignored and the book becomes, for Sabato, a sterile account, and worse, philosophically inconsistent. "The characters of these narrations only see and feel. But man is something more than a sensory object: he has will power, organizes, and abstracts his experiences, always ending by elevating himself to the level of ideas." For Sabato, Robbe-Grillet's work lacks the dialectical force of the rational and the irrational, life and art. When Sabato invokes the pragmatic fact that it is very unlikely in life that man would have such an objective relationship with jealousy, he is doing so to point out that life feeds into art and art into life. Where Robbe-Grillet can claim "the true writer has nothing to say" (Towards a New Novel), Sabato would be closer to Henry James: "the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life." (The Art of Fiction)
Indeed it is the interaction of art and life that gives the book its inner dynamic: with Juan Pablo the artist searching out a strong perceptual originality in the work that leads to the obsessively projective in his social existence. It is perhaps a preoccupation Sabato would be interested in more than most, since unlike his fellow and loosely contemporary compatriot, Jorge Luis Borges, he believed the political, the personal and the aesthetic couldn't easily be separated, falling out with Borges over the latter's anti-Peronist stance. Sabato, who from his early twenties had been politically involved, saw art more for life's sake than for art's, and a book like The Tunnel, whilst barely political, nevertheless explores the aesthetic problem through the human, social one. In his intro to a recent edition, Colm Toibin notes that "Sabato is not only a central figure in the literary life of Argentina in the twentieth century, but in the political and civil life as well." Where many writers were corrupted by the events in Argentina in the late sixties and seventies, where the military government silenced many an intellectual and executed its young radicals (known as the 'disappeared'), Sabato's reputation as a figure of conscience led to the writer being "chosen to chair the commission to investigate the crimes against human rights committed during [the military government's] reign".
This of course doesn't make him a better writer than others of his era (Cortazar, Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo) but it is as if his refusal to see art outwith the context of life led him to be the socio-political conscience of his nation. It is perhaps best summed up in his remark (in 'Art Crisis or Crisis Art'), "for me, as for other writers of today, literature is not a pastime nor an evasion but a form - perhaps the most complete and profound - of examining the human condition." The Tunnel might be tunnel-visioned in its narrative focus, but it alludes to a wider vista.
© Tony McKibbin