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Translating the Abyss

A guide to the void.

I used to keep a list of books in which “the abyss” appeared — the physical-metaphorical-metaphysical-condition-of-the-bottomless-existence-of-our-darkest-nightmares-realized abyss. The Biblical abyss of formlessness, darkness, apocalypse, and hell; the ordinary abyss that is our “daily routine,” as Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos saw it in Silvina Ocampo’s poems; “the salutary sense of the abyss that yawns for everyone who has embraced the literary profession,” as Canadian poet John Glassco puts it.

In September 1866, Emerson writes in his journal, “There may be two or three or four steps, according to the genius of each, but for every seeing soul there are two absorbing facts, — I and the Abyss.” In the Rig Veda, the circa twelfth century BC collection of Sanskrit hymns that is scripture for Hindus, one refrain is translated by Wendy Doniger as: “Sky and earth, guard us from the monstrous abyss.” In this prayer, sky and earth are deities and understood as either two sister goddesses or as father and mother of the sun, which in a different verse is called “the poet of space.” The Sanskrit word translated as “abyss” Doniger notes as abhvam, “a dark, formless, enormous and terrifying abyss, particularly associated with night and the underworld, and hence opposed to the light of the worlds of sky and earth.” Abhvam is also one name for the rift that forms the Sunda Strait between the islands of  Java and Sumatra. Deep in the abysses of the sea, the cephalopod Vampyroteuthis infernalis dwells in its umwelt, so that Vilém Flusser can write, as translated by Valentine A. Pakis, “The vampyroteuthis has forsaken the protection of a shell and can hold itself upright thanks only to the pressure at the bottom of the sea. The price that humans had to pay is the protection bestowed by the ground, by the floor; its price is banishment into the abyss, to be pressed against the deepest floor of all. We are estranged from the earth, and it from the sky. Analogous alienations.”

Sky and earth, guard us from the monstrous abyss.

My list of the abyss grew and grew, until I eventually grew tired of it in the realization that the abyss was everywhere (at the edge of nowhere). I decided to leave it to memory to trigger and filter what 
I would remember of my literary abysses, like Old MacDonald on his farm, with a Baudelaire here and a Nietzsche there, here an Ungaretti, there a Saint Teresa, everywhere a Kafka    ...    I even lost the list (not deliberately), and yet certain entries burned even brighter in my mind, like Edmond Jabès writing through Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation: “You will follow the book, whose every page is an abyss where the wing shines with the name.” Such lines breathe the air and light.

Sky and earth, guard us from the monstrous abyss.

I recall that a large chunk of my lost list yawned across great swathes of Latin America — the Chilean Roberto Bolaño being particularly abyssian. For a dozen years I’ve worked as an editor at his first us publisher, and I’ve read each of his books as they came to press, or often before. This was one reason why he figured so prominently on my list, and why a genius like the schizophrenic Cuban, Guillermo Rosales, who disappeared into the halfway houses of Miami, appeared (and could be cross-referenced with a different, very long, and, alas, also lost list of writers who immigrated to America and committed suicide, like the Hungarian Sándor Márai, who shot himself in the head in his apartment near the San Diego Zoo. In his novel The Rebels, Márai says through George Szirtes:And if you write something down, is it then lost, does it have nothing to do with you any more, is there only a memory, an ache, left behind, as if you had been found guilty of something, something for which, sooner or later, you would have to answer?”). And yet one can say that the labyrinth is to Borges what the abyss is to Bolaño — a radiating depth that verges on a cliche. Bolaño must have felt the abyss in the marrow of his bones, to the point of obsession, or perhaps of possession. For him, another word for “abyss” could be “hell,” sometimes “Latin America,” or “poetry,” or “literature,” or rather the “abyss of literature,” or more specifically, as he writes in Distant Star, “literature’s bottomless cesspools.” At one moment in his novel, translated by Chris Andrews and which Bolaño describes elsewhere as a “modest approximation of absolute evil,” the narrator, arrested for his anti-Pinochet activities, watches from a prison courtyard as the fascist poet Carlos Wieder sky-writes in a Messerschmitt 109 fighter plane the opening lines of Genesis in Latin, “IN PRINCIPIO    ...     CREAVIT DEUS    ...     cælum et terram....    ET TENEBRAE   ...     SUPER FACIEM ABYSSI    ...,” ending with “ET DIVISIT    ...    LUCEM AC TENEBRAS    ...    learn". The abyss, Bolaño reminds us, has existed from the beginning; it is in every beginning — with emptiness and the Spirit moving across the waters of the earth — before light, before dawn.

Sky and earth, guard us from the monstrous abyss.

Two essays in Bolaño’s Between Parentheses, translated by Natasha Wimmer, are titled “Our Guide to the Abyss” and “A Stroll Through the Abyss”: the first is about Huckleberry Finn, the second about Rodrigo Fresán’s novel Mantra, part of which is arranged “like a 
dictionary of Mexico City or a dictionary of the abyss.”In his acceptance speech for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1999 (Bolaño would die of liver failure four years later), he said, “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to peer into the darkness, to leap into the void, to know that literature is basically a dangerous undertaking. The ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces 
you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food. And the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier 
than the stones over the graves of all dead writers. Literature, as an Andalusian folk singer would put it, is danger.” The facets and 
designs of this danger, its depths and madness and aesthetic ends, is what Bolaño’s books gravitate toward. He is like a surgeon searching for a warm heart in a corpse that can be transplanted into the open chest of a reader. The apocalyptic in his books is the apocalypse of our times (the one we’re in or the one ahead we’re causing) but paradoxically, or not, it’s an apocalypse where there are survivors. What saves them isn’t a spaceship or a bomb shelter, but a pathetic dinghy called literature floating on the seas of existence — they even emerge from the abyss smiling, the abyss that expands as Distant Star is an expansion of the last chapter of his Nazi Literature in the Americas. “After all,” Bolaño writes, “literature doesn’t exist anymore, only the example of it.” And one hears floating up within the fathomless rift an echo of  laughter...    

Originally Published: March 1st, 2013

Jeffrey Yang is the author of the poetry collections Hey, Marfa (2018), Vanishing-Line (2011), and An Aquarium (2008), winner of the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. He is the translator of Ahmatjan Osman’s Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile (with the author), Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies, Su Shi’s East Slope, and Bei Dao’s...

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  1. March 15, 2013
     Jonathan Sanders

    I don't want to just pan your work, but the verse about
    'Biblical abyss; hell, apocalypse, darkness' was very
    trite. The rolling-free-form-hyphen-madness-pancake-word
    at the start already had me put off. Not that I don't
    like your poetry, it just illustrates whats
    stylistically wrong about contemporary poetry. You know,
    its stuffy and contrived. What does Apocalypse have to
    do with the abyss other than being mentioned in
    Apocalypse? If anything, Apocalypse is one of the books
    where abyss is mentioned.

    But, then, maybe that was a pun I'm not getting because
    I'm too stuck up right now. You have an interesting
    sense of rhyme. Don't mind the grump too much.

  2. March 15, 2013
     Jonathan Sanders

    Oh, that wasn't a poem? I must be traumatized by
    contemporary poetry, I'm seeing it everywhere!

  3. March 20, 2013
     Jody McKinnon

    I was taken into the waves and swept into the sky with
    that that piece of work. He is amazing!!!! Thank you for

  4. April 1, 2013
     Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    Why to afraid abyss that one is part and parcel of human destiny.We are born to die,that is our unchangeable destiny.Artists only disclose it but unconsciously we are carrying it from our birth to death passionately.We must remember death only give meaning to our life.Other meaning searched by sagas are illusion to run from abyss.Celebrate every day is last day of our life this motto offer pure joy and self-satisfaction.This is a highest aim of our life

  5. April 1, 2013
     Mysti Easterwood

    I made a bet with my fairy goddaughter, Hannah, and she won. The payoff would be that I climb up over the fairgrounds with her in the Sudden Drop machine. Up, up, up we went, me verging on panic the whole time - 100 feet, 150, 200. And then the Fall. It didn't take even a second for fear to convert to exhilaration to transcendental emptiness. The Abyss would be even better. Never landing? Sign me up!

  6. April 2, 2013
     Steve Meikle

    This is the depravity and perversity of the Romantic (or perhaps in this instance, the post romantic).

    We want to creep up to the edge of the abyss and peer in.

    And having been a Romantic myself I have done this.

    Then I fell in one or more of them. Be assured it was no fun at all, and romantic play acting concerning them is simple folly.

    I now seek neither heights nor depths, nor abysses nor firmaments. I am at home with the earth under my feet and the sky above me, but my head no longer in the clouds

  7. April 2, 2013


  8. April 3, 2013
     Rob T.

    In reply to Steven Meikle:

    "We must beware of imposters who claim to be disenchanted and are really unenchanted: mere 'natural' men who have never risen so high as to be in danger of the generous illusions they claim to have escaped from. [...] They talk like sages who have passed through the half-truths of [...] romantic passion, while in fact they are clods who have never yet advanced so far."

    -C.S. Lewis (no naive Romantic, he!)