"El vencedor es Dioniso": The Aesthetics of Balance in the Works of Roberto Bolaño

Johnson, Ryan, Spanish - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lagos, Maria-Ines, Department for Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, University of Virginia

Recent critical commentary on the works of Roberto Bolaño has addressed what has been called his “post-political” aesthetic from the standpoint of literary complicity with authoritarian violence, particularly in works such as Nocturno de Chile, Estrella distante and Amuleto. In some cases, critics have foregrounded the notion that the social marginalization of his writer-protagonists suggests the inability of literature to engage meaningfully with political reality as a vehicle of resistance. This study proposes a reading of Bolaño’s body of work that situates this interplay between the literary and the political in the broader context of the Nietzschean dialectic between Apollo and Dionysus, which may be used to explore more adequately a recurring tension between literature as potentially enlightening and humanizing, on one hand, and subject to corruption by larger ideological forces on the other.

The first chapter of this dissertation focuses on two short stories, “El gaucho insufrible” and “El viaje de Álvaro Rousselot,” and shows how Bolaño invokes the Apollo-Dionysus dialectic to challenge distinctions between civilization and barbarism in contemporary Argentine narrative and suggest an aesthetic vision that transcends questions of national identity. In the second chapter I explore Bolaño’s treatment of political engagement in Nocturno de Chile and Monsieur Pain, in which the protagonists’ attempts to sever literature from its sociopolitical context lead to varying states of madness, moral dissolution and aesthetic crisis. The third chapter addresses Bolaño’s use of laughter in Amuleto and El Tercer Reich; I draw from a range of theoretical approaches to show how laughter both exposes and collapses notions of authoritative distance and elevation, which are bound up in Apollonian suggestions of narrative control and formal unity. The fourth chapter explores the erotic subtext of 2666, which, I argue, is closely tied to a destabilizing neoliberal economic framework of unchecked consumerism. Ultimately, I show how the Apollo-Dionysus dialectic points to an aesthetic of balance, in which literary endeavor, often circumscribed by the rational connotations of the detective search, reconfigures political resistance as an act of enlightenment aimed at the transformation of individual consciousness.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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