From the Library Stacks: Between Parentheses…
I am enjoying this Labor Day 2020 with a day off work, yay, and some reading (alongside drinking coffee) – as well as attempting to de-clutter my bookshelves a bit (maybe with a goal of considering the ‘idol of books’ and its impact on my life).
I came to the works of Roberto Bolaño, at some point in the past, working my way through the labyrinth of Latin and South American authors – mostly inspired by reading Jorge Luis Borges. I have read most of Bolaño’s novels, minus, ironically, his most famous, Savage Detectives (I tell myself I will one day). On this day, today, I opened his posthumously published, Between Parentheses, Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003 (Bolaño died in 2003), published by New Directions in 2004 and was caught by a couple things: 1. a speech on the ‘exile’ in literature, and 2. a comment about looking for the grave of Jorges Luis Borges in Geneva where he is buried.
In the speech, “Exiles,” possibly presented on 13 August 1997 at a festival in Chile, Bolaño discusses the life of writers, the normative exilic adaptation to all times and places, and that writers are always writing, no matter their locale (he references such folks as William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick). He opens this little piece with mention of, who he says might be the first exiles in the books, Adam & Eve. This is true of course from the biblical worldview. He writes this important question,
“Probably the first exiles on record were Adam and Eve. This is indisputable and it raises a few questions: Can it be that we’re all exiles? Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands” (Bolaño, Exiles, 49).
I do not know if Bolaño was a believer in Jesus Christ or not, there is no mention of his faith, or lack thereof, in his Wikipedia entry. But the question he asks, whether tongue-in-cheek or in serious-ness, is worthy of response. In Genesis, we read,
The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2: 16-17, 2).
As we read further through the book of Genesis, we find that Adam & Eve do eat of the fruit of which they are commanded to not eat.
“…therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3: 23-24, 3).
At this point, God sends Adam & Eve (in fact, all human beings) out of Eden and blocks their way from returning. He does so with a curse we can read about earlier in chapter 3 of Genesis. The rest is, actually, history…all the way to this very moment. But what does it mean to be kicked out of Eden, which we understand to be a very good place with no death or sin? We know there is death and sin as we see it all around us each day in one form or another. In this reading, relative to Bolaño’s bringing up Adam & Eve as exiles, we are to understand that exilic life, that of being forced out of Eden, as being thrust, 1. from Eden, and 2. from the presence of God. This is what it means to be kicked out of Eden and to thus live in exile – Adam & Eve, as well as all their progeny (all of us humans).
To go a bit further, this dying, as described in Genesis 2 mentioned above, is defined later in the Bible, in the book of Romans.
“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12, 1046).
This quote, following the flow and order of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, delineates an universal indictment of sin upon all members of the human race – no matter where they live or who they call their people. This sin results in death and judgment from God. In fact, we are to understand that each human is eternally dead and exiled from God by that sin committed by Adam. This is not a small thing, and that this exile is referenced by Bolaño, comes from the book of Genesis, the book of beginnings, we can realize that in the book of beginnings, the human race has sinned, fallen from grace, died, and is exiled from the presence of God. Again, irrespective of Bolaño’s status as a believer or not, his musings on authors as exiles is very interesting – especially if we consider that the human race itself is lost as a whole. This is how we can think about humanity’s exilic state on this planet – a much more serious exile than experienced by an author who lives in some country or other that may or may not be a ‘home’ state of said author (as discussed by Bolaño).
I am aware that ‘exile’ is not a purely correct theological term, but I am running with it here because Bolaño brought it up in his speech. This is why I took the further steps to connect that being forced out of Eden, as described by Paul, is really another result of dying when going against what God commanded us not to do (as referenced above in Genesis chapter 2) – resulting then in the fall as described in chapter 3. Paul’s writing in the letter to the Romans lets us know that Adam is our representative. He ate and died, thus, representationally, we ate and died.
But what does it take to be reconciled back to God, to have hope of getting into paradise?
Well, in the same section of Romans, in which Paul writes about Adam in chapter 5.
“So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5: 18-21, 1046)
This means that it is in Jesus Christ and Christ alone can one have hope of eternal life and life with God eternally. Adam & Eve sinned, sin and death came; Christ, living under the law, did not sin. In fact, he became sin on the cross to reconcile us back to God. Paul writes in one of the letters to the church in Corinth,
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5: 20-21, 1072)
In the gospel of John, Jesus says,
“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6, 998)
Paul also writes to the church in Ephesus,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2: 8-9, 1084.
All this means is that in Adam, all fell, and in Christ alone, through faith, the many might be saved, reconciled to God to be no longer thought of, in the ultimate sense anyway, as ‘exiles.’ Ironically, this brings up another point – that in fact for Christians, our kingdom and our home, as stated by Jesus, is really not of his world (the NASB also translates that as ‘realm) (John 18: 36). It is in fact in heaven. But that is a sub-point in this post and fits nicely – even if it takes us much farther into a theological point for another time.
The cool thing in this is that as the Bolaño speech in “Exiles” sparked my theological thinking, that all have sinned and need a savior found only in Jesus Christ, there is another Bolaño essay, “Borges and the Ravens” in Between Parentheses, in which Bolaño writes about his visiting the grave of Jorge Luis Borges in Geneva, Switzerland. Anyone who knows Borges’ work must acknowledge his joy and pleasure in reading Edgar Allen Poe (and writing about his work). I bring up Poe because of this line from the short article, right after he describes resting a bit upon finding Borges’ grave,
“And then I sit on a bench facing the grave and a raven says something in a croak, a few steps from me. A raven! As if instead of being in Geneva I were in a poem by Poe. Only then do I realize that the cemetery is full of ravens, enormous black ravens that hop up on the gravestones or the branches of the old trees or run through the clipped grass of the Plainpalais [the cemetery of the narrative]” (Bolaño, Borges…, 156).
Two comments: 1. This is simply fun found in reading an author, who read another author, who read another author who is famous for a writing about ravens. Ha-ha, I acknowledge a mix of literary allusion and literary biography. And 2. The line or two right after this realization of the ravens all about the cemetery is the real loops us back to theology – or, rather, to a theologian.
“And then I feel like walking, looking at more graves, maybe if I’m lucky I’ll find [John] Calvin’s, and that’s what I do…” (Bolaño, Borges…, 156). [insertion by me]
Yes, the theologian John Calvin is buried in the same cemetery. interesting. But the theological allusion, even if unintentional by Bolaño, is the use of the word “luckily” when suggesting he finds the Calvin grave. The reason for this is that Calvin is the most popular theologian on predestination – which would mean, as maybe a theology joke, that it is not actually ‘luck’ that Bolaño would either be in the cemetery finding ravens, referencing Poe while looking for Borges’ grave, but that he was ‘supposed’ to be there. I am NOT making a real theological point here about the truth or falsity of Calvin’s theology, but having fun or another type by, finding another essay in this collection by Bolaño, for another allusion to authors such as Borges – but for Calvin.
I am not saying that Bolaño WAS there by “luck” or “predestined” to be there – but I am saying that I feel Bolaño is making another type of allusion in a short narrative in which allusion and reference is a significant part. When I saw that, rather than adding another post, I decided to describe a readerly aspect of looking at my bookshelves, make connections to authors for which Bolaño and I both have affinities, and draw out a theological point and some possible theology allusions.
I hope you have enjoyed this little thought-journey as much as I have.
Bolaño, Roberto. 2004. “Exiles” in Between Parentheses, Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003. New York, New York: New Directions. pages 49-45. (a talk, given in 13 August 1997 in Chile). (LCCN: 2011002586)
Bolaño, Roberto. 2004. “Borges and the Ravens” in Between Parentheses, Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003. New York, New York: New Directions. pages 155-156. (LCCN: 2011002586)
All Bible verses quoted from the New American Standard Bible (page numbers in the references in the body of the post):
New American Standard Bible, NASB Thinline Bible Large Print. 1995. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan (LCCN: 2019945220)
Another of my ‘From the Library Stacks’ is here.