"Musak": The Office and the Language of Madness

Carmen Tisnado, Franklin & Marshall College, Pennsylvania

There are certain works of fiction that one repeatedly revisits. I, for instance, find myself constantly going back to the short stories of Mario Benedetti (Uruguay, 1920). What fascinates me about Benedetti's short fiction is the way he manages to include the uncanny and unusual in situations that appear to be common and ordinary. Routine seems undisturbed in Benedetti's fictional worlds, even when it is immersed in a sort of enigmatic horror.

Such routine is depicted in Benedetti's story "Musak" (1965). In this story, readers are presented with the perils of monotonous life in an office. This is, no doubt, "an old tale." Yet the deceptive simplicity of "Musak" conceals several other layers of interpretation. Through his unreliable narrator, Benedetti invites his readers to consider, among other things, the boundaries that supposedly separate the sane from the mad, the language that we use, the way we decode the language of our interlocutors, and the lack of awareness that we may have about our own condition. In this paper, through a close reading of the story, I explore the different layers of interpretation that "Musak" entails, and I suggest that, after nearly forty years, Benedetti's pondering remains insistently current.

Mario Benedetti is one of the most productive writers in the Spanish-speaking literary world. He has published essays, plays, poems, novels, and short stories. He actually excels in the short story, most likely because he isas he describes himself"a poet who writes short stories."1

In his several collections of short fiction, Benedetti portrays the middle-class montevideanos, either in their cityMontevideoor in exile in a foreign country. Throughout his literary works, Benedetti has created a fictional Uruguay in which characters and stories offer a vivid representation of the overwhelming changes in Uruguayan history during the last five decades.2 As in the real Uruguay, in Benedetti's Uruguay, characters adopt different idiosyncrasies and behaviors, and they have different hopes, expectations, fears, and anxieties.

What has not changed is Benedetti's choice to write about the middle-class montevideano. A space that is shared by the middle classes in all cities is the office. Accordingly, the office is a common location for the action in several of Benedetti's works of fiction. This has also been a major theme in his essays, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, when he was an earnest critic of life in the public office. Office work, Benedetti claims, provides for a safe and secure future, but oficinistas (office workers) pay a high cost, for the office has the power to deplete the minds of those who work in it to the extent that their thoughts and emotions are consumed. They lose their freedom and lack the energy to regain it. What is worse, Benedetti states, is that they are completely unaware of their own condition.3 As Corina Mathieu points out, several of Benedetti's characters end up being victims of the office. 4

"Musak" illustrates the victimization to which Mathieu refers. Benedetti, in this short story, warns us that an office in a newspaper is, after all, still an office. Workers here run the same risks and face the same dangers as those in any other office. In other words, work in an office alienates individuals from themselves and from each other to the point of making them oblivious to reality. Even worse, people may lose all capacity to be critical and therefore may end up gladly accepting whatever situation arises, either favorable, or, more likely, damaging. Yet, "Musak" suggests much more than that, as I have previously stated. Before undertaking any interpretation, though, I prefer to offer a summary of the story.

The action in "Musak" takes place in the office of a daily newspaper where reporters work listening to "musak." It is apparent that they have no choice over what music is played or whether or not to turn it off altogether. The anonymous narrator is a reporter responsible for the Crime Section. The whole text of "Musak" represents his uninterrupted speech when he addresses a retired colleaguealso anonymouswho is visiting the office and who remains a silent interlocutor throughout the story. In his speech, the narrator intends to tell how Oribe, a reporter he has known for fifteen years, went mad. The narrator's story focuses on the moment Oribe's madness manifests itself, when he, in a seemingly manic state, cannot stop uttering a meaningless and absurd phrase: a la porra y gangrena, to hell and gangrene.5 Other reporters and some office clerks try to help him regain control of his speech, but Oribe does not respond. In fact, his body shakes and he starts perspiring as if he were ill. His colleagues take him to the infirmary but no one can help him there. Oribe never returns to work.

Everybody in the office is shocked at the news of Oribe's madness. One of the reporters, Recoba, ardently hates the musak, and blames it for Oribe's mental condition. The narrator rejects this hypothesis. In his opinion Oribe has gone mad because of his many Marxist readings. As if he were passing on dangerous information, he asks his interlocutor if he knew Oribe was a leftist: "Did you know he is a Bolshevik?"(95). He is so absorbed in his act of telling, though, that he is not interested in his colleague's answer. The narrator believes that any expression of Oribe's leftist tendencies is proof that his mind was already not working adequately.

At first the narrator's speech focuses on Oribe and his madness. When he approaches the end of his narrative, he, also in what appears to be a manic state, consistently interrupts his telling in order to comment on the musak being played at the moment. His first remark seems appropriate because the musak has just begun to play: "Listen, listen. Now musak began. Today, do you notice, it is excellent. What violins, buddy, what violins" (5859). He goes back to his narrative for only five phrases, and then refers to the musak again: "The musak is smoother than ever. It must be in your honor" (59). Once more, he returns to his narrative, but he can hold it for only two phrases, as if he needs validation: "Notice that rhythm. How can music be the cause of the disturbance? Listen to the clarinet" (59). Finally the narrator begins an endless repetition of Oribe's phrase.

In "Musak," Benedetti toys with the opposition reason/madness, as pointed out by Michel Foucault.6 Following Foucault's arguments, the concept of "madness" is based upon the principles of "exclusion" and "confinement." The mad have been excluded from all discursive practices that are considered reliable. In other words, the mad have been excluded from language, the language that is shared and thus bonds people in a community. If discourse is the structure within which people function, those who are unable to function within that structure are outcasts. The mad are, then, on the margins of society. As Shoshana Felman explains, "in the very acquisition of its specificity, madness, according to Foucault, is still excluded, still a prisoner, bound now by the chains of objectification, still forbidden the possibility of appearing in its own right, still prevented from speaking for itself, in a language of its own."7

The exclusion of the mad, proposes Foucault, creates the need for their confinement. Both conceptsexclusion and confinementare at the origin of the opposition between sane and mad, similar to that between we and other. The latter can be clearly seen in "Musak." Oribe, as soon as he speaks "the language of madness," is confined to the infirmary. Oribe represents "otherness" even for the narrator, who, ironically, ends up speaking Oribe's language.

"Musak," thus, shakes up our assumptions regarding the sanity of our interlocutors. Unless told otherwise, when we engage in any act of verbal communication we generally, if not always, take for granted that our interlocutor is sane. After all, we are compelled to act by the opposition of we (the sane) and others (the mad).8 We enter into communication with the presumption that the other party's perception of the world, however dissimilar from ours, remains within the boundaries of what we consider "reality." If we know we are talking to a person who is not sane we act differently, and we tend to invalidate her or his discourse because we assume it does not refer to "the real world." In other words, in order to involve ourselves in a sincere verbal exchange we need to assume people's sanity.9

The actions that take place in the act of talking also occur in the act of reading. When we read a fictional text we never open its pages with the assumption that the narrative voice is the voice of the mad. If we did, we would not know how to read it. The text would not be legible to us for in our culture we are trained to dismiss the discourse of the mad as illegible, indecipherable, that is, not intelligible. This is not to say that a narrator cannot indeed be insane, but the reader comes to this realization during her or his process of reading, and as soon as this happens, the separation of the reader from the narrator starts taking place. The reader, then, may understand the whole narrative as the author's attempt to imitate the discourse of the mad.

We, then, start reading "Musak" with the assumption that the narrator is sane and, in that sense, reliable. At the beginning the narrator does nothing but confirm this assumption, according to which only the sane would have certain authority to talk about the mad. Foucault describes how the medical discourse about madness has accentuated the "otherness" of the mad. After all, if an institution as respected as medicine speaks "about" madness, the only alternative lay people have is to speak "about" it also. Yet, as Felman states in Writing and Madness, "the rhetoric of madness always turns out to be mystified and mystifying. To talk about madness is always, in fact, to deny it. However one represents madness to oneself or others, to represent madness is always, consciously or unconsciously, to play out the scene of the denial of one's own madness."10

The narrator's simple act of telling, therefore, supports the belief in his sanity, for if he were not sane he would be unable to talk "about" Oribe's madness. But when we reach the end of the story we face the narrator's madness, and accepting it implies the invalidation of our presumption of our interlocutors' sanity. We have to conclude that the narrator is in permanent denial of his own madness.

The narrator witnesses the moment in which Oribe goes mad the same way the narrator's interlocutor and the reader witness the moment the narrator goes mad. The question that remains, however, is whether Oribe and the narrator become mad or simply start to manifest their latent madness. Each moment is carefully and clearly differentiated. The narrator's insanity becomes externally evident when he is talking about Oribe's madness. The narrator's madness, in a different way from Oribe's, is not told but shown in his own discourse. The narrator speaks "the language of madness," and this, retrospectively, invalidates his whole speech.

The narrator presents himself and his colleagues as those who belong to the world of the sane. Oribe is "the crazy other." The narrator, in an attempt to substantiate Oribe's "otherness," tells of the many reactions Oribe's state evokes: one of the office workers throws up when he hears about it. The receptionist bursts into tears, and the narrator loses his appetite. These, the narrator seems to imply, are typical reactions to such news. The whole narrative consists of an insistence on Oribe's uniqueness. He is the only one in the office to go mad: "it is not the first time that a newspaper coworker becomes sick. Of course not. That happens every day.... But [what happened to Oribe] is something that never has happened, at least that I know about" (5556).

By telling the story of somebody else's insanity, the narrator creates alliances with both his interlocutor and the reader: We all belong to the world of sanity, and we can all be shocked, we can feel distress or concern, or even pity, at somebody else's madness. Yet it is the madness of the other, the narrator implies. And in our reading, before reaching the end of the story, we seem to respond: "You are right. It is not our madness."

Madness is obviously not part of the narrator's conscious world. Madness feels alien to him: He may judge it, observe it, be compassionate towards it, but he is immune to it. Yet he does become mad. For obvious reasons, the narrator is incapable of reflecting on or even mentioning his insanity. He simply shows it when he persists in the continuous utterance of Oribe's phrase.

At first the fact that the narrator repeats Oribe's words does not catch the reader's attention, and I took it as the representation of the narrator turning mad. Indeed that is the case, but why would the narrator utter Oribe's a la porra y gangrena as an expression of his own madness? It would be extremely unlikely for two people, even under the same circumstances, to go mad pronouncing the very same words. Thus, in "Musak," Oribe's phrase creates a linguistic code of madness.

Oribe's phrase is formed by the uncanny combination of a colloquialisma la porra, best translated as "to hell"and the word for gangrene. The phrase does not make any sense at all, and it is precisely this senselessness that makes it a perfect example for what is believed to be the language of the mad. At the end of the story Benedetti creates a situation in which the first part of the phrase could make some sense. The narrator emphasizes that he is a fanatic of musak. He challenges his interlocutor to admit that he does not like it. Although we do not hear the interlocutor's response, we can infer it is negative. This is the moment the narrator sends his former colleague "to hell," which could be interpreted as an expression of anger at somebody for not reinforcing his own taste: "What do you know, I am a fanatic of musak, yes, sir ... A fanatic of musak. How about you? Aren't you a fanatic? Ah, no? Then do you want me to tell you something? Listen, listen to how it reverberates. To tell you something? Go to hell. That's it: to hell" (60). Until this moment the narrator's speech seems fairly grounded in "reality." It is only when he utters the first y gangrena that we realize he is pronouncing Oribe's phrase. Only now can we see signs of madness in his last sentences, when his speech is disorderly and tends to unnecessarily repeat words or phrases.

What is Benedetti implying by having Oribe and the narrator utter the very same words? The repetition of that same phrase suggests two meanings, the first of which suggests a generic treatment of both characters. Neither Oribe nor the narrator is presented with individuality. There should be no reason for us not to expect individuality among the mad the same way we expect it among the sane. Individuality is a central characteristic of identity. Thus, by lacking individuality, Oribe and the narrator are being deprived of their identity. In other words, they have ended up as Recoba anticipates people end up after they spend so much time listening to musak: "Recoba says that that constant melody, not nearby, not faraway, doesn't let him work because he has the impression that it is like a very subtle, somniferous drug, whose purpose isn't exactly to lull a being to sleep but to deaden mental reactions, the capacity to rebel, the pursuit of liberty, what do I know?" (56). Indeed, both Oribe and the narrator have lost their "mental reactions." Moreover, readers know Oribe's name only because the narrator talks about him using his last name. The narrator's anonymity represents his position of being unable to describe himself, to be aware of himself, to recognize himself. It conveys his loss of identity. It also implies that what is happening to him can, in fact, happen to anyone.

The musak, according to Recoba's predictions, has succeeded. Recoba is the lucid character. He represents those who realize the dangers of subjecting themselves to purposeless and capricious impositions. The narrator, on the other hand, is the oblivious character, portraying those who accept anything without questioning it, taking only into account the immediate satisfaction they might get without considering the long-term consequences.

The narrator's condition is such that he now needs to hear the musak in order to work. To him, the musak has a calming effect. He gives examples of how it soothes him: "there are days on which I come to the newspaper office with my head like a drum, full of problems ... and nevertheless, I get composed in front of the desk and within few minutes of listening to that music ... I feel myself a little less than euphoric, my problems forgotten, and I work, work, work, like a robot, nothing more, nothing less" (57). The narrator's discourse here resembles that of a drug addict with regard to the effect of the drug he or she takes. Ironically, through his defense of the musak the narrator indirectly acknowledges Recoba's point of view, and proves it right. The narrator admits that the musak makes him forget some aspects of his lifehe works like a robotand he claims that he needs it in order to feel that he works in peace. The musak is evidently his drug. He reacts with denial, just as a drug addict behaves regarding his or her addiction. Only those who can see the addict are aware of his or her situation. Only his interlocutor, and the readers, can witness the narrator's madness.

On the one hand, "Musak" emphasizes the opposition sane/mad or we/others. On the other hand, the short story implies that no one is safe from madness. At the end, what "Musak" implies is that the boundary between us (the sane) and the others (the mad) is illusory. Madness, thus, begins to occupy a common place in our contemporary culture. In this regard, Shoshana Felman posits a question that shakes our beliefs regarding this topic: "To be sure, as a commonplace, madness has ceased to seem strange to us. But isn't this very loss of the sense of the strangeness of madness precisely what is most strange, most mad in contemporary discourse?"11

If madness occupies a common place in our culture, so does confinement. Confinement is no longer to be understood as exclusively pertinent to specific institutions such as the prison, the mental asylum, or the hospital. The whole of society has institutionalized itself as a space that confines its individuals. Therefore, the workplace, the household, even the open-air recreational areas are all sites of confinement in that they do not promoteor worse, do not allowthe freedom to think. The office in "Musak" certainly confines its workers and creates madness.

My second thought regarding the repetition of Oribe's utterance is based upon the placement the phrase has in the text. A la porra y gangrena is both the first and the last sentence in the short story. At the very beginning, the narrator quotes Oribe's phrase. At the end of the story, though, the narrator himself utters Oribe's phrase. The phrase is thus no longer only Oribe's; it is also the narrator's. By having both characters repeat the same words, and having those words as the initial and ending statements in the story, Benedetti creates a circle into which the characters have been trapped. The last statement sends us back to the first one, as if the characters were in a roulette wheel that keeps spinning. The short story does not have a proper circular structure, yet it sets into motion a new sort of repetition. The phrase that Oribe and the narrator keep saying is not the only repetition presented in "Musak." Another repetition is the implied inevitability that there will be others in the office like Oribe and the narrator. It is just a matter of waiting to see whose turn it will be next.

Irony is one of the most salient features in this story. The narrator defends the musak with the same arguments Recoba makes against it. He praises the fact that it helps him work like a robot, that is, without thinkingRecoba's most prominent criticism. Recoba describes the dangerous effects of the musak as his most forceful detractor, and the narrator, through his madness, exhibits them directly.

Irony appears on three levels of fictionalization. On one level, it is presented in the trap that is set for the narrator. He falls preysimilar to Oribe and, presumably, other reporters in the futureto the attraction of the musak, without knowing that its soothing effect will later become essential for him to function.

On a second level, the narrator is seen as trapped by routine. Curiously enough, neither the narrator nor Oribe is an office clerk. They are both reporters who write for a daily newspaper. Their job entails, even if it is only in theory, an independent and creative use of language. They have to be original in order to produce attractive headlines that will engage the interest of their potential readers. This alone suggests that they are not, or at least should not be, enmeshed in the monotony of an office. But the narrator proves that they actually are. When he, for example, refers to his specific work writing the Crime Section, he says: "you don't have to think a lot. A crime is always a crime" (57). The behavioral pattern of the public office, as described by Benedetti, has invaded the newspaper. Monotony, boredom, indifference, neglect are its main characteristics. Benedetti is hinting at the fact that "the office," that scary monster, invades all aspects of life. The trap of a useless routine, with its consequences of mediocrity, passivity, and hopelessness, is, then, set for everyone. No one escapes it.

On a third level, the narrator is trapped by society. "Musak" is an allegory of a society that absorbs all personal traits from its members, making them into automatons that blindly follow regulations and accept what is imposed on them. This society brainwashes its members, denying them their right to individuality until they succumb to authority, or rather, to power, as do the narrator and Oribe. All are vulnerable to this kind of power, regardless of their beliefs. For instance, Oribe and the narrator have opposite ideological views: Oribe is a leftist and the narrator is obviously not, but both are affected by the musak in the same way. There is a basic pessimism underlying the whole story. Despite Recoba's awareness, the musak keeps inflicting harm, and even Recoba could become its victim. What Benedetti seems to suggest is that awareness is not enough. Action of a sort is necessary in order to have significant changes either within the office or in society at large.

Like much of Benedetti's work, "Musak," invites its readers to reflect on several issues. The story provides insight on the alienation that routine and monotony produce. The apparent division between sanity and madness turns out to be rather fragile. Also, arguments that sustain people's opinions are sometimes groundless, something of which many are often unaware. Benedetti shows how language reveals so much about the speaker while she or he may have no realization of the effect of the words she or he enunciates.

In "Musak" readers are forced to face "the language of madness." What is initially presented as the language of exclusion turns out not so much later to include the speaker, who, despite his claims of belonging to the world of the sane, speaks "the language of madness." If we are in agreement that Benedetti crafts a sort of complicity between reader and narrator, we also have to agree that the notion of sanity has to be questioned by the reader. As a result, "the language of madness" loses its boundaries of exclusion. It is no longer only "theirs," but, scarily, also "ours."

Felman, in Writing and Madness, voices what Foucault's hypothesis on madness may mean to us. She postulates that "The aim, the challenge, the ambitious wager of Foucault's endeavor is thus to say madness itself, to open our ears to 'all those words deprived of language'forgotten words on whose omission the Western world is founded."12 And, intentionally or not, this is what Benedetti does with "Musak," for among other things, the short story proposes that "the language of the mad" is not, or cannot be, omitted or excluded from our current discourse.

This short story, unlike some of Benedetti's later works, does not deal directly with any political events. However, we cannot say that "Musak" does not allude to politics. By obliquely making reference to the confinement of the mad, "Musak," in a metaphorical way, suggests that the whole society is a confining institution. Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, in their book on Michel Foucault, explain Foucault's ideas on the social needs for confinement: "Foucault lists the imperatives which made possible and necessary the appearance of the houses of confinement. First was the necessity of labor as both a moral and a social imperative."13 Until the French Revolution, criminals and the mad were confined together in a single space. Yet the criminals demanded that they be separated from the mad. Later on, the masses became, in Dreyfus's and Rabinow's words, "a potential component of the nation's wealth,"14 which translated into the detrimental effects that formal confinement may have to society. The mad were thus interned for their recovery, and institutions of welfare were created so that the poor, while remaining in poverty, would have their most basic needs met in order to be able to contribute to the cycle of production.

The office workers in "Musak" are not much different from the poor to which Foucault refers. The newspaper administration, through the playing of musak, attempt to appease them so that they will continue "producing" articles, without thinking of anything else, especially of their own condition.

The ideological nuances suggested through the whole story present a warning against the power that claims to satisfy the needs of people, when people are not ready to acknowledge what their real needs are. "Musak" invites the reader to reflect on the importance of clarity and awareness, not only about the self, but also about the several communities to which one belongs.


1. Mario Benedetti, Interview with El Clarn, Directora: Ernestina Herrera de Noble © Copyright 19962000 Clarin.com (http://ar.clarin.com/diario/especiales/benedetti/nota1.htm ).
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2. For a thorough summary of Uruguayan history in the 1970s and early 1980s, see Servicio Paz y Justicia, Uruguay Nunca Ms. Human Rights Violations, 19721985, trans. Elizabeth Hampsten (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).
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3. For a more detailed idea on Benedetti's position about the office, see his El pas de la cola de paja (Montevideo: Asir, 1960).
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4. Corina Mathieu, Los cuentos de Mario Benedetti (New York: Lang, 1966) 19; my translation.
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5. For all quotations of "Musak," I will use Anita Louise Williams's MA thesis, Death and Other Surprises by Mario Benedetti (Kutztown State College, 1982), which consists of a full translation of Death and Other Stories by Mario Benedetti. "Musak" is one of the stories in the collection. I have changed one word in the original translation of Oribe's phrase. Williams's word for porra is "sledgehammer," the literal meaning. The expression a la porra, however, best fits with "to hell."
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6. For a complete idea on his hypothesis on madness, see Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, trans. Richard Howard (London: Tavistock, 1979).
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7. Shoshana Felman, Writing and Madness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985) 40.
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8. We, because of our ability to "function," feel entitled to claim our condition of sanity. When using I, I refer to myself as a reader and critic.
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9. I am using "sincere" according to J. L. Austin's definition. See How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).
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10. Felman 252; original emphasis.
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11. Felman 14; original emphasis.
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12. Felman 41.
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13. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) 6.
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14. Dreyfus and Rabinow 8.
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