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The failure of language in Ernesto Sabato's El tunel.

Puedo hablar hasta el cansancio y a gritos delante de una asamblea de cien mil rusos: nadie me entenderia. ?Se dan cuenta de lo que quiero decir? Existio una persona que podria entenderme. Pero fue, precisamente, la persona que mate.

Sabato, El tunel (15)

UTTERED by Juan Pablo Castel in the opening pages of Ernesto Sabato's novel El tunel (1948), these words bring to light two very important details regarding the protagonist's ensuing confession. First, he immediately and directly informs readers that he has committed a murder, an act that Albert Fuss credits with effectively inverting the structure of the traditional detective novel (326). Secondly, given the fact that Castel describes his victim as the only individual who could actually understand him, readers obtain a characterization of this protagonist that depends largely on his perceived inability to communicate, which prompts an internal personal trauma. From the onset, Castel underscores his intense, often obsessive desire to adequately communicate with others. Curiously, this desire is quite paradoxical, as a self-proclaimed loather of humanity like Castel might be inclined to avoid establishing a profound human connection based on fluent communication and mutual understanding. (1) But for this particular individual, communication is not achieved merely through praxis--that is, through his own speaking or verbal expression--but by way of an illusory ability to perceive a more intimate, spiritual connection with another human being. In accordance with the central role of communication within the novel, this essay will explore the constant, acute obsession with language and linguistic subtleties that is continuously manifested throughout the extensive rationalizations and anxieties characterizing Castel's confession. As a result of this analysis, if will become clear that Castel in fact rejects language and speech as adequate means for communication, favoring instead a more ineffable transfer of thought based on the expression of vital impulses.

Before delving into these issues in Sabato's novel, I will frame my analysis on pertinent observations made by Alexander Spirkin in his theorizing of dialectical materialism. Spirkin characterizes the relationship between consciousness and speech not simply as one of coexistence and mutual influence, but rather as a "relationship of unity in which consciousness plays the decisive role" (187). (2) As such, Spirkin posits that consciousness is a "reflection of reality" that "dictates the laws of its own existence," becoming expressed through speech (187). Consequently, "if there is a thought in our consciousness, it is always contained in a word, although it may not be the word that best expresses that particular thought" (187). As Spirkin understands it, however, there is frequently a division, or an inconsistency, which occurs between one's consciousness, and the verbal representation or linguistic manifestation with which the specific thoughts of this consciousness must be expressed. This remark echoes Karl Marx's observations of the way in which language "burdens" the spirit: "From the start the 'spirit' is afflicted with the curse of being 'burdened' with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in sort, of language" (158).

In El tunel, Castel's impassioned awareness of (and frustration with) this immense disparity between the immaterial nature of thought and the material language with which he is expected to communicate in a modern, civil society, is the driving force which provokes his existential crisis of communication. (3) Upon close textual examination, the cause of this crisis can be traced not only to his desire to satisfy a personal void with an intimate human relationship, but also to his very specific obsession with language as a inadequate means of communication. This is true not only throughout the novel as a whole, which represents a written record of Castel's confession, but also in his recounting of several events which occurred as his relationship with Maria progressed. In El tunel, verbal speech and language, despite being the preferred mode of communication in modern society--what Spirkin calls the "highest form of thought expression" (183)--are insufficient and ultimately burdening for this protagonist. This fact largely explains his chosen career as a painter, a profession affording him access to an artistic form of communication which, following Friedrich Nietzsche's comments on art, has its roots in vital instincts rather than intellect (White 187). (4) Thus, Castel suffers as a result of his failure to adequately convey the details of his own consciousness to another person using traditional intellectual thought, the expression of which is so intimately connected to what he perceives to be unstable verbal registers of speech and language.

In the early chapters of the novel, careful readers will notice the way in which Castel openly attempts to resist connecting his personal consciousness to language in the form of thought. As a painter, he denies "thinking" (pensar) when creating his works, insisting rather that he creates them by "feeling" (sentir). In fact, throughout his narration, he conscientiously distinguishes between what it means to think (pensar) and to feel (sentir). This distinction is crucial for understanding the nature of his relationship with Maria. When she asks what he thinks of his painting, he explains: "?No le digo que no se lo que pienso? Si pudiera decir con palabras claras lo que siento, seria casi como pensar claro. ?No es cierto?" (42). His response is reminiscent of the Nietzschean interpretation of art, which affirms that "the effect of works of art is the excitation of the state which creates art, or aesthetic intoxication" (Nietzsche 15: 263). Castel believes that his art represents his vital impulses and feelings. For him, traditional thought processes are insufficient forms of communication due to their dependency on speech and tangible, ambiguous linguistic elements. In contrast, feeling, based on immaterial sentiment, more adequately conforms to Castel's ideas. It is important to note how he initially \ insists that Maria thinks exactly as he does; however, unable to explain exactly what it is he himself thinks, he resorts again to his preferred verb: "Mejor podria decirle que usted siente como yo" (41). As their relationship progresses, Castel never loses sight of the ineffable connection he feels with Maria: "Bastaba que nos miraramos para saber que estabamos pensando o, mejor dicho, sintiendo lo mismo" (67).

After demonstrating an indissoluble unity between consciousness and speech in his aforementioned analysis of language and consciousness, Spirkin posits the following question: "Is thought possible without speech?... If it were possible to express everything in words, why should there be expressive movements, the plastic arts, painting, music?" (189). Indeed, this is a pertinent question that torments Castel in his futile attempts to communicate, both to individuals in his past, and to the potential future readers of his confession. As Spirkin observes, "[t]he expression of consciousness in words is often an extremely complex problem and not every speech formulation of thoughts is the best possible one" (190). Clearly, Castel is aware of this complication, as much in his own verbal production as in the language chosen by others. Typical of his overanalytical nature, Castel obsesses over the minutest of details. Readers become aware of complex internal and external editing processes that both fascinate and torment the protagonist. This is apparent from the first page of the novel, as Castel confirms his desire for an editor (13). Furthermore, as he attempts to communicate to Maria in a letter, he constantly doubts the ability of his chosen words to adequately convey his desires:

Comence a escribir una carta a Maria. Primero escribi que deseaba darle una explicacion por mi fuga de la estancia (tache "fuga" y puse "ida"). Agregue que apreciaba mucho el interes que ella se habia tomado por mi (tache "por mi" y puse "por mi persona"...pero que, como ella podia imaginar (tache "imaginar" y puse "calcular") no era suficiente para mantener o probar un amor. (109)

His careful attention to the most subtle connotations of the words he produces further underscores the lack of confidence he places in language and speech as appropriate means of communication.

Perhaps as a way of compensating for what he perceives to be the weaknesses and limitations of the written and spoken word, Castel's confession exhibits a very unique style, littered with visual manipulations of the words he puts on paper. Even the most passive of readers will notice the peculiar way in which many words, phrases, and sentences are expressed in El tunel. Nearly every page contains italicized segments, and on several occasions capital letters are used where they are neither necessary nor appropriate. It appears that in the process of communicating the story of his crime through a verbal register in which he is inept, and of which he is skeptical, Castel is acutely aware of the multiplicity of meanings which can be attributed to given phrases. For this reason, he imbues his confession with a very specific style. According to Nietzsche, it is not the medium, but rather the style that communicates passion, that "compel[s] one's inner chaos to assume form" (Nietzsche 277). Michael White reminds us that such stylistic plurality can be considered "a means of achieving a nonsystematic, nondiscursive type of philosophizing" (189). By highlighting and manipulating select words in his written text, Castel's unique style not only beckons readers to consider the possibility of varied meanings, but it actively gives those words multiple, fluid interpretations. Thus Castel creates a certain degree of ambiguity. This is especially noteworthy upon considering the frequently italicized phrases and terms: no, nunca, tampoco, seguramente, en concreto, todo, solo, en general, algo. The fact that negative and totalizing words are repeatedly manipulated calls into question their supposedly unambiguous, objective purposes and meanings.

Another example of Castel's stylistic plurality can be seen in the use of capital letters. This plurality is first observed when he expresses his hope for his text: "me anima la debil esperanza de que alguna persona llegue a entenderme. AUNQUE SEA UNA SOLA PERSONA" (14). Later, he complains of, and belittles, "los criticos", describing them throughout the text as una plaga, absurdos, cretinos, charlatanes (22, 41). Again in a deprecating manner, he complains of the frivolous and superficial Mimi and Hunter, two of Maria's acquaintances: "Gente asi no puede producir en Maria mas que un sentimiento de soledad. GENTE ASI NO PUEDE SER RIVAL. Y sin embargo no lograba ponerme alegre" (92). Ana Paula Ferreira has suggested that the protagonist's appropriation of capital letters functions as a way of convincing himself of something that deep down he actually doubts; thus Mimi and Hunter are subconsciously considered rivals, and Castel struggles to convince himself otherwise on paper (97). (5) However in light of the importance placed on questions of style in the transmission of feelings and sentiment through artistic writing, it is likely that, rather than convincing himself, Castel aims to produce a stylistically specific text that will manage to communicate his true feelings to others, even if it is only to one individual reader. He mocks the terminology used by critics, or as he labels them, "charlatanes": "esas pavadas que los criticos escribian sobre mi cada vez que habia una exposicion: 'solido', etcetera" (88). Castel is skeptical and highly critical of individuals like Mimi, Hunter, and art critics in general. His reservations regarding the communicative capacity of language lead him to believe that they merely produce words incessantly and without careful attention to their meaning(s). This dismissive attitude further reflects Castel's skepticism of speech as an adequate means of reflecting consciousness. As Spirkin reminds us: "Speaking is not yet thinking. This is a platitude and it is only too frequently confirmed by life. If the mere act of speaking indicated thought ... the greatest chatterers would be the greatest thinkers" (188).

We can ascertain from the preceding examples that Castel's communicative ineptitude is largely based on his disdain for the limitations of language, which he rejects as a sufficient means of expressing his personal ideas and feelings. Interestingly, the ambiguous and often deceptive connections between consciousness and speech can be observed by noting the complexity of the thousands of human languages in existence. Such a multiplicity proves that speech is not merely a "mirror reflection of the structure of the world of things, their properties and relations, [but] it is also a reflection of the individual's intellectual world" (Spirkin 186). Castel clearly struggles to accept speech and language as adequate and appropriate representations of his own relationship with the world. This is true even in his subconscious. In his psychoanalytical interpretation of Castel's dreams following Freudian and Jungian theory, Jose Ortega has emphasized the way in which the unconscious manifests itself in dreams, pointing to both personal and social circumstances (129). This social aspect is most relevant when considering Castel's second dream, which critics have suggested centers on his inability to communicate. (6) In this dream, Castel describes how he has physically transformed into a large bird, and desperately tries to communicate to his friends. However, he is unable to clearly articulate his words: "la frase que queria pronunciar salio convertida en un aspero chillido de pajaro, un chillido desesperado y extrano" (82). Worse yet, his attempts at communication, and even his absurd physical appearance, go entirely unnoticed: "mis amigos no oyeron esos chillidos, como no habian visto mi cuerpo de gran pajaro; por el contrario, parecian oir mi voz habitual diciendo cosas habituales, porque en ningun momento mostraron el menor asombro. Me calle, espantado" (82-83). While Agustin F. Segui suggests that the bird's "chillidos" in the dream symbolize Castel's silent need for understanding (78), I believe that they more explicitly function as parallel representations of the "palabras" with which Castel struggles to negotiate on a daily basis. He lets certain words slip out, changes others, takes some back and, in sum, obsesses over the production of each linguistic element, often to the point of regret.

Finally, in his quest for human understanding and empathy, Castel centers his desire on the feeling of love (amor) that he experiences in Maria's presence. This too, however, is a concept which he is unable to adequately communicate. He questions Maria on the nature of her love for him, again employing italicized language in order to emphasize the urgency and even ambiguity behind his words: "Hay muchas maneras de querer. Se puede querer a un perro, a un chico. Yo quiero decir amor, verdadero amor, ?entendes?" (63). He even confesses later that he does not know how to adequately define what he calls "[un] amor verdadero," elaborating on the multiplicity of meanings which can be deduced from this phrase: "Debo confesar que yo mismo no se lo que quiero decir con eso del "amor verdadero"...?Que queria decir? ?Un amor que incluyera la pasion fisica?" (67). Furthermore, he recalls: "Amaba desesperadamente a Maria y no obstante la palabra amor no se habia pronunciado entre nosotros" (61). For Castel, his feelings and his love for Maria are not contingent on their ability to be expressed or categorized by language, but rather on the way in which they can be communicated without language: "Yo tenia la certeza de que, en ciertas ocasiones lograbamos comunicarnos, pero en forma tan sutil, tan pasajera, tan tenue" (67). Once again, readers cannot help but notice Castel's rejection of language and speech, and his preference instead for a more ineffable communication originating in the expression of the most vital impulses.

Ironically, however, Castel's greatest challenge with language is ongoing, as he struggles to narrate the events of his crime to a multitude of readers. Yet his narrative inadvertently warns against judgment and potentially erroneous conclusions, as he himself fell victim to the facetious nature of speech and language in his fatal attempt to succeed in the linguistic realm of human communication. Before arriving at his final assumption about Maria, he describes an obsession with five words: "rumana, Maria, prostituta, placer, simulacion" (120). He tries to rationalize these words, but his final deduction serves as a prime example of the slippery nature of meaning within language. With these five words, he comes to a dramatic conclusion which is entirely illogical to most readers. Castel writes, again using italics: "Hice repetidos esfuerzos para colocarlas en el orden debido, hasta que logre formular la idea en esta forma terrible, pero indudable: Maria y la prostituta han tendido una expresion semejante; la prostituta simulaba placer; Maria, pues, simulaba placer; Maria es una prostituta" (120). Considering Castel's frustrated attempts to make sense of and communicate with language in the past, readers must begin their own process of self-inquiry; perhaps they should reconsider how they have interpreted this protagonist's written confession. In this sense, rather than evaluating the protagonist's crisis as one characterized by his journey into a deepening, perhaps endless, existential tunnel of loneliness and isolation, it may be more appropriate to consider his overall experience in a different way. That is, Juan Pablo Castel is not advancing blindly into a dark tunnel, but rather attempting to climb out, or escape, by continuously--and futilely--pulling himself along the endless chain of signifiers that characterizes human language.



Ferreira, Ana Paula. "El tunel de Ernesto Sabato en busca del origen." Revista Iberoamericana 58.158 (1992): 91-103.

Fuss, Albert. "El tunel, Universo de incomunicacion." Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 391-393 (1983): 324-39.

Marx, Karl. The German Ideology. Ed. C. J. Arthur. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1970.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. Anthony M. Ludovici. 18 vols. New York: Gordon, 1974.

Ortega, Jose. "Las tres obsesiones de Sabato." Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 391-393 (1983): 125-51.

Sabato, Ernesto. El tunel. Barcelona: Biblioteca de Bolsillo, 1993.

Segui, Agustin F. "Los cuatros suenos de Castel en El tunel de Ernesto Sabato." Revista Iberoamericana 58.158 (1992): 69-80.

Spirkin, Aleksandr [Alexander] Georgievich. Dialectical Materialism. Trans. Robert Daglish. Moscow: Progress, 1983.

White, Michael. "Nietzsche and the Artist." A Companion to Art Theory. Eds. Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002. 183-95.

(1) Castel explains one of his worst defects: "Siempre he mirado con antipatia y hasta con asco a la gente, sobre todo a la gente amontonada...en general, la humanidad me parecio siempre detestable" (47).

(2) For extensive theorizing of the relationship between language and consciousness, see Spirkin 178-91.

(3) For an excellent overview of critical studies regarding the existential nature of Castel's need for communication, see Fuss 324-25.

(4) White discusses Nietzsche's statement that "art reminds us of states of animal vigour," which has led many critics to create the image of the Nietzschean artist as "the incarnation of a virile force of nature" (187).

(5) Ferreira states: "Como sus demas resortes para convencerse a si mismo en un punto debil o dudoso en su espiritu, las palabras [las mayusculas] traducen su sentimiento real" (97).

(6) Segui terms it, "el tema de la incomunicacion," and provides an exceptional summary of critical work regarding this issue in Castel's second dream (72-73).
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Author:Bender, Rebecca M.
Publication:Romance Notes
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:May 1, 2012
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