San Francisco State University
The Saussurean tenet that
the connection between signifier and signified, which together constitute the simple linguistic sign, is a fundamentally arbitrary connection, at first may be taken for granted (Keele 69). It may seem obvious that the word
tree is arbitrarily used to signify that object and an infinite variety of other signs could be used instead. The concept that meaning bears an arbitrary connection to the system by which human beings communicate it to one another, however, brings into question how we know what we know and what processes may be at work constructing our systems of understanding. Our sense of the world is a mediated understanding after all, filtering first through our physical selves and then through the interpretive prism of our mental faculties. How far of a leap is it then, from the arbitrariness of the sign, to considering the entirety of our understanding of existence as arbitrarily informed, or at the very least arbitrarily constructed from an infinite variety of variables?
The purpose of this project is to consider how literature contributes to the construction and the expansion of the human understanding of existence, i.e., how we incorporate the new into our realm of possibility. I propose that the catalyst for this expansion is the experience of literary wonder. In a receptive reader, literature produces literary wonder, which makes that reader's realm of possibility permeable by forcing her to reconsider the boundaries of the possible and the impossible. This then allows the incorporation of new possibilities, and the reader's system of understanding expands as a result of the aesthetic experience. This experience is not only just the mind at play, but it is also a necessary and valuable component of the human capacity to adapt. To simplify, one valuable function of literature is to generate literary wonder in a receptive reader and aid the expansion of her realm of possibility.
Before turning to the writing of Bruno Schulz and Juan Rulfo as exemplars that generate literary wonder, it is necessary to explain both the specifics of literary wonder and how an aesthetic experience, a subjective feeling, can be argued as proof of anything. Although there are many theories about the nature and function of aesthetic experience, and have been for centuries, the ongoing dialogue at the very least shows that there is an experience to be argued about. The argument that the feeling of aesthetic experience not only exists but can also be instructive is laid out by Jeffrey Petts in
Aesthetic Experience and the Revelation of Value. In it he asks and answers the question:
How is a particular kind of human felt response to the world, an aesthetic experience, helpful to us in our attempts to know something of that world?(63). Petts proposes that integral to the aesthetic experience is the practice of criticism and that criticism
establishes that aesthetic experience is not simply a phenomenologically distinct experience, but one that is axiologically distinct, also, since it is the basic human need to evaluate surroundings in a public discourse that establishes the 'movement' and 'consummation' that distinguishes the aesthetic from the ordinary (63).
consummation in this context are related to the aesthetic theories of John Dewey. Movement in aesthetic experience is a basic process of adjustment to one's environment, and consummation is then a feeling of harmony or that things are
just so after adjustments are made (Petts 62). The aesthetic experience of consummation suggests that
people do encounter the environment in such a way that powerful experiences emerge that are marked out and valued, positively or negatively (Petts 65). Per Petts, aesthetic experience
can be said to be revelatory of real value because it marks an adaptive felt response of humans to their environment (69).
Although Petts is focused on aesthetic experience that is a confrontation with the physical world, the experience of literary wonder is similarly grounded in a human need for adaptability. It is necessary that human beings have an understanding of their surroundings in order to function. This understanding is made up of layers of real experiences and imaginary constructions. Concepts such as nationality and international boundaries, for example, are constructed, but they are imaginary constructs that the majority of the world's population uses at least in part to navigate the physical world. A physical fence may mark the border between two countries, but the idea of what it means to transgress an international border can certainly be just as real and have as much of an impact on those people who might cross it.
Both the real and the imaginary layers making up an individual's realm of possibilities are valuable. New experiences or repetitive experiences that reinforce what is already known, in a real physical sense, occur daily. The aesthetic experience of literary wonder performs the same function and holds similar value. Each contributes to the construction and expansion of an individual's realm of possibility, and this in turn contributes to an individual's ability to adapt. Our realm of possibility is necessarily permeable to incorporate new experiences, but also to allow for the formation of new ideas, without which human beings could not adapt and, therefore, could not progress.
Whereas confrontation with the physical world creates an instantaneous need for adjustment, literary wonder makes permeable the boundaries of a receptive reader's realm of possibility in order to incorporate a little of the
impossible into her system of understanding. More specifically, literary wonder is valuable because the aesthetic experience of literature opens up the receptive reader to creativity and belief formation. Although not perfectly parallel, the relationship between creativity and movement, and between consummation and belief formation is clear. Howard L. Parsons succinctly states that
wonder is the spark of excitation leaping across the gap between man and the world (85). I would argue that literature contributes to making the leap. In other words, literature performs a valuable function in the real world by aiding the creativity and belief formation needed to construct an individual's system of understanding.
In order to clearly define literary wonder, I will use a two-part definition borrowed from Parsons and R.W Hepburn. First, wonder is
a breach in the membrane of awareness, a sudden opening in a man's system of established and expected meanings, as described by Parsons (85). Secondly, paraphrasing Hepburn, wonder describes a perceptual strangeness that is sustained when casual explanation is not enough to condition or to make common perceptions (7). In a receptive reader, literature generates both eruptions of unexpected meaning as well as a tool for absorbing the force of these eruptions. The term
literary wonder requires careful explanation because the meaning of
wonder changes depending on the context of its use, and the use of it in this project is very specific.
To give an example, in the context of literature's ability to generate wonder, wonder is not miraculous. Literary wonder is not miraculous because it does not, in this case, signify the experience of a miraculous event, an event that is deviant, supernatural or divine in origin (Parsons 85). In fact, although
the Latin word mirari means to wonder and marvel at, and the Latin translation of miraculum into the Greek New Testament translates in part to
anything wonderful, this use of wonder was associated with the
spectacular in nature and the supernatural acts of sages and prophets (Parsons 84)1. As human beings better understand the phenomenal world around them they also become more familiar with the origins of formerly miraculous events. As the workings of nature are better understood, nature becomes less miraculous and more a source of admiration. The first definition of wonder, a breach in understanding, is then clearly separate from the meanings of wonder associated with the divine or with admiration for the natural world.
Another important and necessary distinction required for an understanding of literary wonder is the difference between wonder and curiosity. Curiosity is connected to novelty, whereas wonder survives causality. Hepburn sites Kant as distinguishing between astonishment
which fades as a sense of novelty diminishes, and wonder
that is steady and unthreatened (3). Hepburn makes the distinction between curiosity and wonder by pointing out that curiosity sees the object of its interest and is satisfied where wonder is not (4). In Hepburn's estimation, an accounting for wonder requires a more stable explanation than a curious interest that can be sated (2-3). Otherwise, wonder, like natural phenomenon originally viewed as supernatural events, would be threatened by knowledge. In other words, human beings could become so very knowledgeable as to no longer wonder at all. If, as Hepburn states, wonder is an important human experience (1), and as Parsons argues, wonder is an essential human characteristic (84), then wonder requires stability not found in mere curiosity.
How then does literary wonder survive causality? The answer lies in the fact that literature is a method of communication. The object of wonder is the meaning of the text, not the mechanism of communication. The form of the text, how it is structured, may contribute to wonder, but it is not the actual process of reading that generates wonder. When reading is a new skill to the reader, it may be an object of curiosity or novelty, but as stated previously, neither of those categories are synonymous with literary wonder. Similarly, when a speaker enthralls a crowd, it is more logical to deduce that the crowd is enthralled with the content of the speech than it is to think that the vibration of the speaker's vocal cords and the expelling of carbon monoxide from the speaker's lungs hold the crowd's attention. To put it another way, the point of a wrapped present is not the colorful paper on the outside, although that may be pleasing, but rather the contents. Literary wonder generated in a receptive reader then is not the sensation of novelty or curiosity, and therefore it is not threatened by causality.
Under the restrictions of these characteristics, how then does literature produce wonder? Wonder comes into existence when a reader's mind fights to decipher meaning. Literature generates wonder when it successfully commandeers the senses, warps context indicators and plays with absolutes. Wonder generating literature replaces the tools by which a reader knows what she knows, meaning it presents the reader with a reality that the reader has not or cannot physically sense, or it presents what is a commonplace experience in such a way that it is barely recognizable to the reader. Literary works such as those of Bruno Schulz and Juan Rulfo bend indicators of context such as time and space, creating for the reader an uncanny world where there is no linear progression by which to determine place or movement. They also plays with absolutes, such as sentience or death, both disorientating the reader's sense of progress and disrupting the distinction between the
real and the
imaginary within the text itself. The tension caused by this bending creates a confrontation with the infinite, as in infinite time, infinite space and an infinite realm of possibility. This confrontation and the ensuing fight for meaning in a receptive reader's mind not only makes the realm of possibilities permeable, but also allows the reader to generate within herself new meaning to incorporate into her system of understanding.
The argument here, that the boundaries of the realm of possibility are permeable, is not that conceivability is possibility, but rather that under specific conditions the receptive reader allows for some amount of authorial authority in determining those boundaries. For example, when Stephen Yablo states that
to conceive a proposition [. . .] is to imagine acquiring evidence that justifies you believing it (22–25), he is careful to distinguish between the imaginary and real selves by concluding that we may imagine believing propositions justifiably without imagining that we believe them truly. A reader need not believe truly what the author proposes in order to imagine the proposition is justified. How much authority the author has is due to both the quality of her writing and the receptivity of the reader. If the quality of writing is such that a receptive reader is convinced of the author's authority, she will buy into the logic of the text. Or in other words, the quality of the text is such that the conditions of the text become
truth to the reader, within the context of the literary work.
As already mentioned, when literature generates wonder, the boundary of what is possible to the reader is opened up to the incorporation of some of the impossible. Not only is the idea of the possible changed, but the receptive reader also goes through a radical change of position. In order to understand what it feels like for Arthur Dent when he is ejected into the vacuum of space in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the reader must put herself in the position of the character and
feel what Arthur Dent would feel. The receptive reader does not pause to address the impossibility of Arthur Dent's predicament or stop reading to determine if the probability that another ship will pick him up is in fact,
two to the power of two hundred and seventy–six thousand, seven hundred and nine to one against, as the text claims (Adams 54). The probability of being picked up and then ejected from the Vogon Constructor Fleet is not addressed from that part of the reader's system of understanding that is constructed from real physical experience, but instead from an imaginary experience constructed within the reader through literary wonder. A receptive reader subscribes to the logic of the text and has, therefore, incorporated the impossible into their realm of possibilities, even if the plausibility only survives within the world of the text.
Clearly then, literary wonder is a quality of experience generated by the text but internal to the reader. Just as the sublime
consists in its being a feeling, accompanying an object, of displeasure about our aesthetic power of judging, yet of a displeasure that we present at the same time as purposive, and
the subject's own inability uncovers in him the consciousness of an unlimited ability which is also his, and that the mind can judge this ability aesthetically only by that inability (Kant 116), when the mind of the reader fights to decipher meaning,
it proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense (Kant 106). In other words, through her imagination, a reader's sensible experiences can be surpassed and augmented by those found in literature. Confronted with an experience that surpasses the sensible, the reader experiences literary wonder. Returning to Pett's characteristics of aesthetic experience, the feeling of wonder involves movement or creative adaptation and consummation or belief formation, where the logic of the text is incorporated by the reader into her system of understanding, thus proving that the imagination can assimilate data that the reader is incapable of experiencing in a physical sense. Perhaps it would be clearer to simply state that the human faculty of imagination that can generate texts that warp reality is also capable of integrating warped reality into its system of understanding.
In terms of warping reality, few texts perform the alienation or subversion of the senses necessary for literary wonder as blatantly, and yet with such skill, as do those of Bruno Schulz and Juan Rulfo. Turning first to the works of Schulz, several theorists, among them Dorota Glowacka in
Sublime Trash and the Simulacrum: Bruno Schulz in the Postmodern Neighborhood and Andreas Schonle in
Of Sublimity, Shrinkage, and Selfhood in the Works of Bruno Schulz, have specifically connected the supersensible component of the sublime with the works of Bruno Schulz. Schonle discusses the sublime as a field of study that addresses
the relationship between the self, its perceptual faculties, and the world, and sets the work of Bruno Schulz within that tradition (467). Glowacka, on the other hand,
proposes that the postmodern sublime signals the radical occurrence of the unpresentable by overturning that classical distinction between essences and appearances, originals and copies (80). Both of these theories address the replacement of an inconceivable object with a metaphor, specifically, the ability of Bruno's works to use the perceptual faculties and to subvert them.
The writing of Bruno Schulz is so disorienting that a common symbol no longer contains its common meaning. In Schulz's literary world of wonder, the symbol is empty not because it is meaningless, but because it can mean anything. The most boring, grayest, lifeless object in Schulz's work is the complete object. A completed form is a dead form. Only gestating, fermenting forms have color and life in them. In his texts, Schulz uses one narrative voice, Joseph, who observes with frightening sensory detail the continually metamorphosizing world around him. At the center of that world is his father Jacob, who exclaims,
Less matter, more form! (30). Schulz has created a literary space within which the arbitrariness of the sign is celebrated. There is no boundary to demarcate the self, and far from being
unrepresentable, there is no limit to the ways in which essences may be presented.
In the works of Bruno Schulz, wonder is generated by an upheaval of the sensible world. In his descriptions of even the simplest occurrence, the world vibrates with aesthetic content. As Glowacka observes,
Schulz's text, saturated with language almost to the point of spilling into nonsense, is obsessed with images of excess, overgrowth and proliferation (81). Take for example this description of a shopping trip for groceries in Schulz's short story
On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of the day, spilling from her basket the colorful beauty of the sun-the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious black morellos that smelled so much better than they tasted, apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons. And next to that pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids-the raw material of meals with yet undefined taste, the vegetative and terrestrial ingredients of dinner, exuding a wild rustic smell.(3)
There is no sense left untouched in this passage. The simple shopping trip has been turned by Bruno Schulz into a kind of performance piece with poetry, music and the arrival of a goddess. The flames from which the servant emerges, the texture of transparent liquid–filled cherries, the taste of mushrooms that do not meet the quality of their smell, the image of ribs like piano keys and the
pure poetry of fruit confound sensory experience, and create the experience of wonder.
August, Schulz is essentially rewriting the world, or rather, the rules by which the senses can experience the world. Summer days are an
enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing in sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears (3). Describing shades being drawn, Schulz writes,
all colors immediately fell an octave lower, the room filled with shadows, as if it had sunk to the bottom of the sea and light was reflected in mirrors of green water (4). Nature is described as not just alive, but almost human in its expression, such as when a
golden field of stubble shouted in the sun like tawny cloud of locusts; in the thick rain of fire the crickets screamed; seed pods exploded softly like grasshoppers (6). In an elderly woman's house,
as if taking advantage of her sleep, the silence talked, the yellow, bright, evil silence delivered its monologue, argued, and loudly spoke its vulgar maniacal soliloquy (7). The reader, if receptive, must now add summer days that are books, living rooms that are sunk to the bottom of the ocean, crickets screaming in a rain of fire and the vulgar soliloquy of silence arguing with itself to their system of meaning.
In contrast to the explosion of the sensual that Bruno Schulz creates, Juan Rulfo boils the world down to descriptions of its bare essence. There are little common sensory details with which readers can orient themselves in Rulfo's text. If Schulz's literary world is a banquet, Rulfo's is the memory of that banquet seen through a dense fog. As Lanin A. Gyurko states, in Rulfo's writing,
Character is stripped of external appearance and splintered into existential shards; plot is inconsequential or nonexistent; action decelerates into stasis [. . .] Man is reduced to a voice and sometimes a mere echo (451). Rulfo provides sparse tactile details and only the faint sketch of a plot. In Rulfo's novel Pedro Páramo, Juan Preciado has been asked by his mother on her deathbed to travel to Comala to find Juan's father, Pedro Páramo. This quest then degenerates into a lurching nightmare told in half–remembered reminiscences and pieced together personal histories from beyond the grave. The text switches narrators, tenses and perspective without introduction or explanation. Conversation is often depicted without clarifying who is speaking and to whom. The experiences of the characters in Rulfo's writing are reduced down to their imprints, the memory of sense rather than the sense itself.
The literary world of Juan Rulfo is then
one of reduction and denial (Gyurko 451). The result is writing that is reduced in the culinary sense, concentrated and powerful, but whose integral parts can no longer easily be determined. Take for instance one of the few scenes of daily life found in the novel Pedro Páramo, that of the afternoon just before it tilts towards evening. Rulfo writes:
Era la hora en que los niños juegan en las calles de todos los pueblos, llenado con sus gritos la tarde. Cuando aún las paredes negras reflejan la luz amarilla del sol.
Al menos eso había visto en Sayula, todavía ayer, a esta misma hora. Y había visto también el vuelo de las palomas rompiendo el aire quieto, sacudiendo sus alas como si se desprendieran del día. Volaban y caían sobre los tejados, mientras los gritos de los niños revoloteaban y parecían teñirse de azul en el cielo del atardecer. (69)
(It was that hour of the day when in every little village children come out to play in the streets, filling the afternoon with their cries. The time when dark walls still reflect pale yellow sunlight.
At least that was what I had seen in Sayula, just yesterday at this hour. I'd seen the still air shattered by the flight of doves flapping their wings as if pulling themselves free of the day. They swooped and plummeted above the tile rooftops, while the children's screams whirled and seemed to turn blue in the sky. )2
In this passage we see how Rulfo subverts the reader's ability to determine meaning by obscuring references to the sensual experience of the physical world. The transgression of the senses is subtle. The screams of children seem to be turning blue in the sky, and the doves flap their wings as if they are pulling free of the day. However, the narrator sees air shattering. The blue screams and the day pulling doves are colorful descriptions, but the shattered air is a stated fact.
The sense of sound is often used by Rulfo to describe his literary world to the reader, and it is, therefore, the most distorted. The sound of Juan Preciado's dead mother's voice is somehow louder to him in Comala. Most of the conversations take place in a shout, a murmur or a whisper. In comparison to the distillation of sound and movement in the town of Sayula, Comala is described as abandoned, overgrown with weeds and bushes that take over a house as soon as it is empty. Comala is muted, gagged by abandonment and decay. Everywhere is the sound of a murmuring crowd and yet the sound is accompanied by an absence of townspeople. Juan Preciado is lured to the plaza by voices and explains:
Vi que no había nadie, aunque seguía oyendo el murmullo como de mucha gente en día de mercado. Un rumor parejo, sin ton ni son [. . .] Ya no di un paso más. Comencé a sentir que se me acercaba y daba vueltas a mi alrededor aquel bisbiseo apretado como un enjambre, hasta que alancé a distinguir unas palabras casi vacías de ruido: «Ruega a Dios por nosotros.» Eso oí que me decían. (110)
Rulfo relies on scraps of conversation to push the narrative along, and at the same time he undermines its typical significance. The sounds of voices, disembodied as they are in Rulfo's text, are a sign of the absence of life, rather than the proof of it.
(I saw that no one was there, even though I could still hear the murmuring of voices, like a crowd on market day. A steady sound with no words to it [. . .] I couldn't take another step. I began to sense that whispering drawing nearer, circling around me, a constant buzzing like a swarm of bees, until finally I could hear the almost soundless words 'Pray for us.' I could hear that's what they were saying to me. )
Although Rulfo is engaged in an internment of the senses and Schulz with overwhelming them, literary wonder is not merely the result of the saturation or obstruction of the reader's experience via aesthetic adjectives. A reworking of space, time and matter also produces it. In Rulfo's work, every experience by which a reader could interpret the temporal and physical context of the text is warped. In Schulz's peculiar literary space, things do not seem uncanny and strange; they are uncanny and strange. In Pedro Páramo, Rulfo pushes the reader backwards and forwards in time through the memories of the novel's characters, while disrupting any sense of linear progression by continually fluctuating the narrative between the past that was and a past that is somehow still ongoing in Comala. Without the framework of linear progress or physical movement, a reader must entrust their navigation of the text's plot to the unique perception of the author.
Stumps Folded Into a Fist: Extra Time, Chance, and Virtual Reality in Bruno Schulz, Sven Spiker argues that
One of the hallmarks of Schulz's extra time is the absence of any corresponding system of signs (calendar, clocks) that could measure movement and gives it adequate representation. Schulzian extra time is semiotically empty (285). Recordable and verifiable time means almost nothing, because it is represented as if it is physical, capable of being manipulated and capable of manipulating. The extent to which Schulz distorts time is most clear in the short story
Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Schulz's short stories do not typically have structured plots. There is very little sense of cause and effect. Instead, the narrator Joseph sets the stage, and then scene after scene is described at a hectic pace. The plot–like theme of this short story is that Joseph's father Jacob has died. In death, his family has sent Jacob to a sanatorium where they hope he may recover. When Joseph meets the attending doctor, the doctor explains,
Here we are always late by a certain interval of time of which we cannot define the length. The whole thing is a matter of simple relativity. Here your father's death, the death that has already struck him in your country, has not occurred yet (244). They are holding back death in the sanatorium by using secondhand time, scraps of time that they use to buffer the patients long enough for them to regain their health.
Eventually the distortion of time appears to be transforming the entire village. Within the village that the sanatorium is placed it is always a grey day, undifferentiated from any other. Faced with this, Joseph revolts, saying:
No wonder. It is time, as it were, regurgitated—if I may be forgiven this expression: secondhand time. God help us all!
Joseph, betraying the effects of secondhand time, continually falls asleep only to wake up in the middle of a half–carried out action or completely unable to understand how he arrived at his location at all. Mirrors do not provide reflections. People begin showing up in more than one place simultaneously. As Schulz describes in terms suggesting sexual transgression, the inviolability of time has been breached. Transformation runs wild with no temporality to contain it.
And then there is the matter of the highly improper manipulation of time. The shameful tricks, the penetration of time's mechanism from behind, the hazardous fingering of its secrets! Sometimes one feels like banging the table and exclaiming,
Enough of this! Keep off time, time is untouchable, one must not provoke it! Isn't it enough for you to have space? Space is for human beings, you can swing about in space, turn somersaults, fall down, jump from star to star, but for goodness' sake, don't tamper with time! (259)
The context indicators of time and space are similarly warped in Rulfo's work, but it results in stasis rather than uncontrolled transformation. Other than the arrival of Juan Preciado, nothing has changed in the town in years. Homes and possessions have been abandoned. The streets are empty. Each time Juan interacts with a townsperson, he becomes weaker, more confused and inert. He awakes next to a woman who has fed him and allowed him to sleep in her bed, but she is described as if she is long dead, or rather, has been living her dying moment for an age. Her body is
hecho de tierra, envuelto en costras de tierra, se desbarataba como si estuviera derritiéndose en un charco de lodo (116) (
made of earth, layered in crusts of earth [. . .] crumbling, melting into a pool of mud ), and yet she is also described as sleeping with a bubbling death rattle in her throat.
Further warping the reader's understanding of linear progression, Juan's corporal form fades away the further one reads. But in Comala, even death does not bring change. Juan Preciado appears to suffocate, unable to breathe the stock–still air in Comala:
Y es que no había aire; solo la noche entorpecida y quieta, acalorada por la canícula de agosto.
Comala is solidly held in time and space,
No había aire. Tuve que sorber el mismo aire que salía de mi boca, deteniéndolo con las manos antes de que se fuera. Lo sentía ir y venir, cada vez menos; hasta que se hizo tan delgado que se filtró entre mis dedos para siempre. Digo para siempre. (117)
(There was no air; only the dead, still night fired by the dog days of August.
Not a breath. I had to suck in the same air I exhaled, cupping it in my hands before it escaped. I felt it, in and out, less each time . . . until it was so thin it slipped through my fingers forever. I mean, forever. )
fired into a hard and fast form that allows for Juan and the townspeople no prospect for change, hope or escape. After his suffocation, Juan is next presented as deep in conversation with a woman named Dorotea. She confides to Juan,
me rogó que me levantara y que siguiera arrastrando la vida [. . .] «Aquí se acaba el camino»—le dije— [. . .] Y abrí la boca para que se fuera. Y se fue. Sentí cuando cayó en mis manos el hilito de sangre con que estaba amarrada a mi corazón (125) (
my soul prayed for me to get up and drag on with my life [. . .] 'This is the end of the road,' I told it [. . .] I opened my mouth to let it escape. And it went. I knew when I felt the little thread of blood that bound it to my heart drip into my hands ). To add further strangeness to this play between life and death, even though her soul has left her, she does not find rest. Dorotea even supposes that her blemished soul is still wandering around looking for someone to pray for the absolution of Dorotea's sins.
In this case, the dialogue takes place not just from the grave but also from within it. Pedro Páramo includes instances of murder, rape, incest, phantasms and dementia, and yet this is one of the most subversive moments in the text. Juan has suffocated in the open air. Dorotea, who seems to be an earthbound spirit, has climbed into his grave to be buried with him. She tells Juan,
Ya déjate de miedos. Nadie te puede dar ya miedo. Haz por pensar en cosas agradables porque vamos a estar mucho tiempo enterrados (120) (
You don't have to be afraid. No one can scare you now. Try to think nice thoughts, because we're going to be a long time here in the ground ). And they are not the only chatty corpses. Juan can hear other voices underground and Dorotea counsels him that the damp stirs up and wakes the long dead. There is no differentiation between the dead and the living in Comala; everyone suffers. That is what is horrifically uncanny in Rulfo's text and one of the main sources of the literary wonder it produces in the reader. Life is not a blessing and neither is death a release. Juan lies under ground, sentient, with a long dead woman in his arms, and he cannot differentiate death from life.
Where the uncanny in Pedro Páramo erupts from regression and the repudiation of growth, Schulz creates a similar effect by giving all matter a fermenting, manically self–generating life. The horror of death is present only in static forms. Wallpaper, out of boredom, becomes
engrossed in the monotony of bitter monologues and chandeliers hang
dejected and ill tempered (Shulz 26).
There is no dead matter exclaims Jacob,
lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life (30). Human beings themselves are as fluid as time and space have been shown to be. In
August, Joseph describes his cousin Emil as
clothes that had been thrown, crumpled and empty, over a chair with a face
like the breath of a face—a smudge which an unknown passerby had left in the air (10). In
Visitation, Jacob is described as a
loosened knot, a
small shroud, a
handful of nonsensical oddities, and a
gray heap of rubbish swept into a corner waiting to be taken to the dump (17). Joseph's uncle pays a call on the family and finds himself molded into an electric doorbell, which his wife and child like to push when visiting.
The result, as in Rulfo's text, is an endless open narrative without a true beginning or end, in short, a literary sideways glance at an infinite realm of possibility. The reader is confronted with an incalculable variation of life forms in Schulz's reconstructed reality and an uncanny eternal unrest in Rulfo's. Faced with infinite variety and warped reality, the reader experiences literary wonder. The response to literary wonder is an expansion of the reader's system of understanding in order to deal with it. To cope with a world whose forms are so impermanent, as Schonle explains:
The only attitude that can be envisioned in order to stem the fluidity of the real is that of creating our own, attempting to gain some leverage over the world by rearranging our environment and thus staying a step ahead of the principle of transformation at work in the universe. (480)
real that Schonle is addressing here is that which is in the text, but just as the reader must adapt in order to follow the logic of the text, the attitude required to deal with progress in the physical world is one that can cope with an unstable reality that is constantly transforming itself. Wonder then is an experience through which human beings can grasp the fluidity of change, not halting it, but instead being carried along with it.
These samples of Schulz's and Rulfo's prose are clearly engaged in producing literary wonder, creating
a sudden opening in a man's system of established and expected meanings (Parsons 85) and a perceptual strangeness that survives causality (Hepburn 7). Although I do not argue that a writer is required to understand or always consciously attempts to enact this breach, Schulz wrote of a compelling interest in the
bankruptcy of the real (Ficowski 82). He wrote that artistic creation was
a sacral rite and a
short circuit between words, a sudden regeneration of the primeval myths (Ficowski 80). In his essay
The Mythologizing of Reality, Schulz explains:
knowledge is nothing more than the construction of a myth about the world [. . .] Poetry reaches the meaning of the world intuitively, deductively, with large, daring shortcuts and approximations. Knowledge seeks the same meaning inductively, methodically, taking into account all the materials of experience. Fundamentally, one and the other are bound for the same goal. (Ficowski 76)
We are, therefore, through both poetry and knowledge, attempting to explain the world to ourselves, but whereas knowledge is the confirmation of data (materials of experience), poetry reaches for meaning. For Schulz, this required a
short circuit between words. I believe that Schulz is describing the eruption that causes Parsons'
breach. The leap
across the gap between man and the world is therefore the reader taking in the newly constructed reality and adding its data to her system of meaning (85).
Literary works, such as those of Schulz and Rulfo, initiate the experience of wonder in the receptive reader because the reader has an attitude of openness. This openness is part and parcel to any claim towards the value of literature's wonder–generating power. In his essay
Literature and Evolution, Paul Hernadi reminds us that the
requisite cognitive process involves what Sartre, referring to the reading of novels, called 'directed creation': the reader's voluntary granting of his or her mental resources to figments of someone else's imagination (56). A literary text that dumbfounds the reader's perceptions, one that does not allow the reader to substitute their own aesthetic experiences to contextualize the text, ruptures the reader's system of meaning and allows new concepts to be integrated into it. But this only occurs in a receptive reader.
Although Hernadi claims that the pleasure of literature is
biologically advantageous, I only argue here that literary wonder is one factor within a larger field of knowledge by which human beings attempt to understand their world (56). If the claim that aesthetic experience is a valuable adaptive process seems overly simplistic, let me clarify that this is only one facet of aesthetic experience, and the focus on literary wonder that is necessary for the purpose of this project in no way means that literature alone has a claim to this adaptive process. Literary wonder is not the only wonderful experience out there. Science and mathematics make necessary wonderful leaps, generating and exploring theories about objects so tiny or so expansive that new systems of language and thought must be constructed to even discuss them. String theory, for example, employs mathematical formulas for examining subatomic particles that suggest the existence of other dimensions that we do not yet have the tools to detect (Wallace–Wells 33).
Many theories have been proposed to account for the products of internal aesthetic experience in the external physical world. Jacques Rancière sees in aesthetic experience the promise of
art replacing politics as a configuration of the sensible world (151). Albert William Levi proposes that the play between appearance and reality found in literature has a crucial link to philosophy and metaphysics (20). And as Descartes argues,
wonder is a valuable passion because it leads us to learn and remember (La Caze 2). Literary wonder is not generated by every text, nor does every reader feel it. However, where an author does manage to create a work with this effect and literary wonder is produced in a receptive reader, the aesthetic experience is as valuable in a real world sense as the wonder that propelled Einstein to examine the properties of light or Darwin to consider the possibility of natural selection.