Enfermario by Gabriela Torres Olivares, translated by Jennifer Donovan / Les Figues Press / June 2017 / 978-1-934254-65-3 / 144 pages / softcover
The level of degradation to which Gabriela Torres Olivares’ characters sink may be so grotesque, daresay unspeakable, that to put a name to their collective experience undoubtedly required a new word. Thus we get the title of Olivares’ recently translated collection of short stories, Enfermario, a portmanteau of enfermería (infirmary) and bestiario (bestiary). These two words—one referring to a space of sickness, the other to a catalogue of real or mythical animals—seem to encapsulate the lives of these characters, setting up their precarious existence beyond the limits of both “normal” bodily expression (the so-called material dimension of experience) and categorization (the so-called linguistic).
Perhaps a fruitful comparison can be drawn between Enfermario and Beckett’s The Unnamable. In the latter appears the well-known final words “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” which, at least when taken in isolation, certainly lend themselves to an existentialist reading of the text. Unknown to those who take such a view, however, is that the protagonist of The Unnamable is forced to speak: “…it is I who speak…since I can’t do otherwise” (emphasis mine). Furthermore, unnamable, in the context of the novel, can be said to have a triple meaning: the protagonist is unnamable, the force which compels the protagonist to speak is unnamable, and the task to which the unnamable protagonist has been set is to name everything (thereby arriving, through a sustained process of subtraction, to that which is supposedly unnamable.) This point of unamiability is, of course, never reached, as the protagonist acknowledges with his final words.
In much the same way, Enfermario can be read as a text in which the characters (victims of rape, incest, mutilation) confront the meaningless of existence in all if its barbarity. That is to say, it can be read existentially. I might caution one against such a reading, however, as I believe that Olivares, like Beckett, is working towards a much more radical understanding of identity, one that eschews any sort of reliance on preformulated relationships between individuals and an absurd universe; there is no internalization of this absurdity, no moment in which an Übermensch, after staring into the abyss, asserts his or her will to “go on.” Rather, this radicality hinges on something that goes beyond mere synthesis, instead centering on a process of naming and unnaming, with no foreseeable end. A rapid deterritorialization and reterritorialization of identity, not a dialectic.
It seems as if the characters within Enfermario, whether they speak in the first person or are being described in detail by an omniscient narrator, are forced to name—name the aliments of others, name themselves. And, as Beckett’s protagonist comes to realize, the project of naming is endless: “There is just one thing that doesn’t exist. Oblivion. Dismemberment. Detachment. Fragmentary minutia. It wanted to be oblivion, but oblivion doesn’t exist…Nonexistence exists when it is named.” Implicit in such a statement is that language, like materiality, should be counted as a privileged plane of existence, which isn’t to say that it takes precedence over materiality, but rather that both are intertwined in ways that threaten the artificial barrier we have constructed between the two.
Enfermario proposes something at once terrifying and liberatory: the encyclopedia is an open-ended experiment, and language itself can be as limitless as the matter of our infinite universe. Thus it can also be said to attack a false dichotomy forwarded by many on the political left, one which would have us choose either a materialist or identitarian (that is language-focused) model of political engagement. Olivares responds: why not both? Where Beckett perhaps views this continual process of naming as a cause of human misery, an inescapable ontological trap into which we’ve been flung, Olivares may instead view it as something inherently generative, a force that can be harnessed for progressive politics.
With this new conception of identity comes a new ethics, and this is perhaps where Enfermario is at its most radical. Of course, an articulation of a new ethics is helped along by the articulation of an older ethics, a task to which Olivares sets herself to almost immediately; we see in the first story of Enfermario, “Thirteen Point Two,” the following “truth,” which quite succinctly sums up most of Western ethics as it has been previously construed: “I am neither myself, nor another, but rather a reflection. What I am is inside of me. The light is in me; therefore I, and I alone, can attain my own enlightenment.” This is a (one might say existential) form of ethical engagement, in which the “goodness” of one’s actions is tied to an ahistorical, singular self. (Existentialism may have killed metaphysics, but its only deepened the West’s infatuation with the individual.)
This proves to be an ironic statement, however; the same character later adds that “this philosophical truth lacks a sense of otherness.” In short, what is missing from Western ethics is an attempt to name that which is wholly other. One may refuse to name for all sorts of reasons—because to recognize someone with a name may undercut the foundations of one’s own identity, because to view naming as a never-ending process may cast doubt on the supposed “necessity” of any and all identities, because to name is to accept that one will inevitably fail to name anything (at least in a final, totalizing way).
Enfermario recasts ethics as a science of failure. This is not “failure” in the sense that one fails to adhere to an already existing identity or norm, as discussed in the work of someone like Judith/Jack Halberstam. Failure in these scenarios—at least as it’s been taken up in artistic and literary circles— seems to be more about making a mockery of norms, an ironic posturing that disregards the generative power of naming. Rather, Olivares would have us envision ethics as both the call to name and the failure to name. Its first maxim: bestiaries, yes, but only tentative ones.