Image: Harry Ranson Center, The University of Texas at Austin
Perhaps that is the price to be paid for access to the writing process — the sterilization of a relationship that had been possible through empathy. From the author’s mind to mine.
By Diana Silveira Leite
Entering the exhibition Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer feels like arriving at the wake of a long-lost relative. A tropical wake. The body is not embalmed, but already disintegrating, it smells of warmth, wet grass and the perfume of jasmines. This is not my first dead. The wake is as tragic, surreal and joyous as the sea burial in the Colombian writer’s 1968 crónica “El ahogado más hermoso del mundo,” a wake with a promise of return. But an exhibition is a burial in glass. There is no intimacy there.
In «El ahogado», children play with the body of the drowned man, “enterrándolo y desenterrándolo en la arena.” The villagers of the small pueblo who found the corpse made him a part of their family, although he did not look like them, and was too large to fit in their houses and their clothes, because he “pesaba más que todos los muertos conocidos, casi tanto como un caballo.” They named him Esteban and chose a father and a mother for him among their best people, and other villagers made themselves their brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, until all in the pueblo became related.
Like the villagers in García Márquez’s crónica, I entered the exhibition opening at the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research center in The University of Texas at Austin, ready to hold the hand of the deceased. I had made myself his relative. That is the work of literature, to build a feeling of intimacy between the creator and their audience. This intimacy becomes the foundation of the affect of empathy, someone thinks like I think or someone has named that which I had felt for a long time. I use this word in the context of Cognitive Cultural Studies, a field in literary criticism that employs discoveries from neuroscience and cognitive linguistics. As defined by Suzanne Keen in the 2006 article “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” empathy is the “spontaneous sharing of affect” that “can be provoked by witnessing another’s emotional state, by hearing about another’s condition, or even by reading” (208).
But the author is rarely present at his own exhibition. Much like wakes, which are more about those left behind than the departed, exhibitions are not made for an author. I have seen most of the exhibited objects once before, when I worked as a Graduate Research Associate at the Ransom Center. When I saw them in the stacks in a moment of intimacy, catalogued but not curated, they felt modest and alive with the vibrations of connection. The person that had owned the machines and written on the pages was gone, and yet every object — the typewriters, the old computers, the stamped passports, the heaps of papers — felt imbued with life, they were the remnants of a life lived, not unlike the objects left behind by a long dead family member.
The reflection here is that an exhibition is not a living thing, unlike the ties between the living and the dead in a Latin-American family. Like the ties between Esteban, the handsomest drowned man in the world, and the people in his pueblo in a Caribbean island.
The physical proximity of the objects creates the distance. It transforms an object of affection —that could be touched, smelled, felt — into artefact. Family history becomes anthropology. We, the visitors, are separated from the author by sheets of glass. The distancing is quite literal. Perhaps that is the price to be paid for access to the writing process — the sterilization of a relationship that had been possible through empathy. From the author’s mind to mine.
The goal of any exhibition is to harness the “aura of the work of art,” as described by Walter Benjamin in the 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” – the mystical power of the materiality of writing – of the creative process that is most elusive and mysterious. In order to create this “aura,” to dress the author in the robe of mystique and ancient history, a distance must be artificially created. Benjamin describes the “aura” of a work of art as “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be” (52).
Yet, unlike a painting or sculpture, which is created to be unique, literature thrives in reproduction. Each reader holds his copy of the book, which is not unique. This intimacy between the reader and the text is generative. It creates empathy between the reader and the author and between other readers. An exhibition, in order to harness the aura, to inspire awe and novelty, must break this bond.
Álvaro Santana-Acuña, assistant professor of sociology at Whitman College, curated an exhibition that is politically daring, centering García Márquez’s friendship with Fidel Castro and other supporters of Latin American communism. The challenge is to visually represent a process that is not visual.
In this exhibition, the writing process is displayed through pictures of the author, his family and close friends, his writing implements, typewriters and computers, and versions of his work, but the matter of the writing is out of reach. The books are closed or opened in a single page. The facts of García Márquez’s life are compellingly arranged; his notable relations, friends and readers are highlighted. But the connection between the author, Gabriel García Márquez, and me, the reader, is missing.
García Márquez’s “Origins,” as told in the exhibition labels, attempts to ground the author’s life and work in the fantastic: “His grandmother told him stories about ghostly appearances and other marvelous events. For years, the shy boy lived in a world where the read and the fantastic occupied different rooms of the house.” But there is some whisper of a joke that seems lost beyond the glass display cases. After all, it was the reality of life in Latin America that Gabriel García Márquez attempted to represent in literature, as he explained in his 1982 Nobel lecture: “Poetas y mendigos, músicos y profetas, guerreros y malandrines, todas las criaturas de aquella realidad desaforada hemos tenido que pedirle muy poco a la imaginación, porque el desafío mayor para nosotros ha sido la insuficiencia de los recursos convencionales para hacer creíble nuestra vida. Este es, amigos, el nudo de nuestra soledad.”
**The bilingual exhibition «Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer» is on view at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin from February 1 to July 19, 2020. The exhibition will then open in fall of the same year at the Modern Museum of Art in Mexico City. This is the first exhibition of selections from the archive of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014), curated by Álvaro Santana-Acuña. Santana-Acuña is an assistant professor of sociology at Whitman College, and his book Ascent to Glory: How One Hundred Years of Solitude Was Written and Became a Global Classic is forthcoming at Columbia University Press. For more information about the exhibition, click here.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Edited and with an introd. by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. [1st ed.]. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
García Márquez, Gabriel. “El ahogado más hermoso del mundo.” La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada, Primera edición, Mondadori, 1987, pp. 43–52.
—. “Nobel Lecture: The Solitude of Latin America.” Nobel Prize, 1982, https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1982/marquez-lecture.html.
Keen, Suzanne. “A Theory of Narrative Empathy.” Narrative, vol. 14, no. 3, 2006, pp. 207–36. Crossref, doi:10.1353/nar.2006.0015.