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Dreaming Valparaíso: The Obscene Bird of Night

Anne Dalke's picture
According to a 19th century Argentine visitor, Valparaíso was “the Europe that had just landed and thrown herself disheveled onto the beach.” According to a contemporary writer, Valparaíso will always border on “magic realism.” You only get there “with dream logic.”

My dreams on this trip have been intense and very very wild, a mixture of our explorations and my fears, our experiences in real life and in the movies, the conversations I´m having and the books I´m reading, the present-day and all sorts of past memories. Yesterday, for instance, I woke from a dream that I was one of the many stray dogs on the streets of Valparaíso, dreaming (in Spanish) the poem the dog was dreaming. This morning I was dreaming that I needed to order an item (in Spanish) in five dimensions—and I only knew three!

I wake up each morning, in other words, feeling as though I am climbing out of a vortex, a swirl of chaos, and I that I have to try and re-build the world, to create some sort of order or box to make sense of things again. The storytelling I do on this blog is one form that creation takes. My need to “write to everyone” (including the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Chile, about all the mistakes in the book) is another. The intensity with which I engage my teachers is another.

In my first venture onto Serendip (and the web), some six years ago, I wrote in a forum of College Seminar teachers about the weird sort of language that is poetry: aiming less to communicate than to evoke, less to instruct than to raise questions, less to have the "final word" than to continue a conversation about the complexity of the world.

I´ve been thinking a lot about that conversation during the past few weeks, since Arturo Morales, one of our teachers here in Valparaíso, is a poet. We´ve spent a number of classes attending intensely to poetry (his, Neruda´s, and some others) and many others talking about the work that poetry does, how it differs (for instance), from the edicts of Pinochet. How much power do words have, really, to change the reality of the world? Pinochet´s edicts worked in the double way that some of George Bush´s pronouncements about terrorism work: an attempt, on the one hand, to mystify, and on the other, to make something seem true by declaring it so.

The papers have of course been full over the past week with all sorts of retrospectives on Pinochet. Working my way through them, I came upon one of Pinochet´s most infamous quotes: “muerte la perra, se acaba la leva” (or, if you kill the bitch,you kill the pack of males who surround her, wanting to reproduce—or, as our teacher said, “if you kill the Marxists, you can erase the problem”). This quote put me in mind of a similar saying by Rios Montt´s that fueled the war in Guatemala: "To kill the fish, you must take out the water"(that is, to destroy the guerillas, you must wipe out the villages which support them).

Pinochet advocated the destruction of the core, in order to destroy all that depends on it. Montt advocated the destruction of the supportive environment, in order to destroy the core. Although each (dreadful) phrase begins @ a different point, each is an act of simplification, of reduction, an expression that a complex web of supportive and interactive relationships might easily be destroyed by removing one of them. And both sayings, in their simplified description of a means of “correction,” are very far indeed from poetic expression, which invites multiplicity instead.

I was deep in this sort of multiplicity last week, as I was finishing José Donoso´s great novel, The Obscene Bird of Night. Donoso takes his title from a letter Henry James Sr. wrote to his two oldest sons, in which he said that "the natural inheritance of any one who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters." It´s an apt title for the book, in which memory is annihilated by imagination, in which a single narrator drifts through a succession of personae, and multiple characters are responsible for single actions. As Donoso said in an interview, “all men carry inside them a lot of other men, a lot of possibilities.” (Hm…also an apt description of my own nightmares!)

Figuring out what to do with all this wealth of possibility in which we swim, and which is available for our use, is another matter. This past weekend, as we made our way into the Andes, I was put in mind of something Emerson said in his 1836 essay on “Nature”: “We are like travellers using the cinders of a volcano to roast their eggs.¨ We had stopped first in a town in the foothills called Los Andes. When I asked @ the hotel where I could see “the vista,” the clerk looked puzzled. “Well,….you could rent a room on the third floor.” We did--and the next day we went on to Portillo, a renowned resort where a number of the Olympic ski teams practice. But this was the off-season, and all that was there to greet us was those mountains. My God, what mountains! I´ve never encountered anything like them before: the immensity silenced us --and all other human activity. And so I thought of this passage from Emerson, which suggests that we have all the power of the world at our disposal--and we fritter it away, using it for small activities, for silly things.