"Continuidad de los parques" ("Continuity of Parks")

this isn't exactly reading notes, but rather Chapter 9 of my book ms. Living Invention, or, The Way of Julio Cortazar. But it does offer my reading of "Continuity of Parks"


9.   Reading to Die in "Continuity of Parks"

"Words! Theywl move things you know theywl do things. Thewl fetch."

Owen Goodparley, Riddley Walker

            The businessman on the way to his country home has resumed reading a novel that had been interrupted by "some urgent business conferences."   He's in control: "he permitted himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the characterizations."   He takes care of some final business when he arrives at the estate and then settles in a moment of tranquility into "his favorite armchair, its back toward the door," so that the businessman faces a window, looking onto "the park with its oaks."   "Even the possibility of an intrusion would have irritated him had he thought of it."   I can understand that.   He's a businessman and he's worked hard and now he wants to relax.   "He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the things around him. . . . Word by word, licked up by the sordid dilemma of the hero and the heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin."

            From there, "The Continuity of Parks" - the shortest story Julio Cortázar ever wrote - dovetails with the "final encounter in the mountain cabin" in the novel the businessman is reading.   The hero, a man, meets his lover in the cabin to go over the details of their plan to murder the woman's husband and from there runs to the nearby home where husband unwittingly waits to be murdered, while the woman heads off to their predetermined rendezvous point.   They have plotted ahead of time, and everything, the hero reflects as he steals into the couple's home, follows their plot perfectly:   all the way to the final lines in which he approaches, knife upraised, "the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel."   Now the loop has closed back on itself, snake swallowing its own tail, Godel, Escher, Bach and Borges and John Malkovich being John Malkovich too.   The man reading the novel at the beginning of Julio's story appears now as the victim character in the novel he reads.   Or the novel a man reads turns out to be the story of his own fate, consummated at the very moment that he reads of its consummation.   What does this little story do?

            Do you see the power of a certain kind of writing to pull us subtly into its universe or, equally, to project itself out and organize our universe according to its plot?   To this extent, one way to describe what the "Continuity of Parks" does would be to say that it portrays and provokes a dynamic mixing of the boundaries between worlds.   But what about the lethal sweetness of the experience for the businessman in the story?   He pays with his life for his absorption.   Why?   Perhaps because for the businessman reading works like a secret room, "disengaged" from his life, like an affair, or a hidden gambling addiction but apparently more innocuous.   It is leisure time, and in sharp contrast with the active, commanding stance he assumes in his work, his leisure time posture is passive and fiercely protected (the very thought of an intrusion would irritate him).   The world of fiction, which he has kept pressed back firmly behind the sturdy door separating work from pleasure, now reasserts itself aggressively, literally bursting through that door to make its claim on his life [ Ù 6, 44, 46].   I sometimes read the way the businessman does.   I sometimes read to shut myself off from the world.   I sometimes read to gain what feels like refuge in another world, one whose influences on me I believe I can control more easily than those of the world I live in.

            When we view art as an "escape" or a "release" from reality, John Dewey believed, we implicitly suppose that "freedom can be found only when personal activity is liberated from control by objective factors."   We implicitly take what Dewey called "experience" - the ceaseless exchange of matter and energy of a live creature growing in and with its surroundings - and split it into two opposed and mutually exclusive halves.   On one side: the live creature, which we call a "subject" or "our self," together with our desires; on the other side, the surroundings including other subjects, which we call "objects" or "others," together with the limitations we perceive these surroundings impose on us.   Therefore in viewing art as an escape from reality we implicitly pretend to isolate - perhaps we seek to protect - our "self" from everything that we perceive as "outside" it.   "Play" then becomes the name for what we can do when we suppose ourselves to be free of objective limitations.   "Work," by contrast, becomes the name for what we do the rest of the time, when we numbly or sullenly submit to those limitations.

            But for Dewey, "the very existence of a work of art is evidence that there is no such opposition between the spontaneity of the self and objective order and law."   True, Dewey admitted, "the contrast between free and externally enforced activity is an empirical fact."   However, he added, "it is largely produced by social conditions and it is something to be eliminated as far as possible."   It is a sad mistake to see this social and historical condition as natural and immutable.   After all, as Dewey points out, "children are not conscious of any opposition between play and work."   Art, he thought with Julio, invites us to participate in and experience as integrated what have become for most of us two mutually exclusive ways of engaging the world around us [ Ù 7].

            Dewey teaches me that the view separating art from reality is another version of the view separating work from play and that this is another version of the view separating our "self" from the world around us.   He also spells out why all these putative separations are deadly.   For Dewey grounds his theory of art in his understanding of the essential processes of life.   Today, long after Dewey wrote, scientists have begun to describe "living systems" in terms very close to his.   The living system, explains Fritjof Capra is " organizationally closed , even though it is open with regard to the flow of energy and matter.   This organizational closure implies that a living system is self-organizing in the sense that its order and behavior are not imposed by the environment but are established by the system itself.   In other words, living systems are autonomous.   This does not mean that they are isolated from their environment.   On the contrary, they interact with the environment through a continual exchange of energy and matter."   Or, in slightly different terms, "the living system is both open and closed - it is structurally open, but organizationally closed.   Matter continually flows through it, but the system maintains a stable form, and it does so autonomously through self-organization."   Reading as the businessman wishes to do it works like a completely closed system.   He shuts reading off from the environment of other living activities that ought to feed it and feed off it and in so doing sets reading against the basic forces of life.   Is it an accident that this should have fatal consequences?   "Continuity of parks": this title could point also in the direction of the continuity of the life process.   It could caution us against believing in the stability of the compartments we have set up.

            As far as the work play separation goes, I am lucky.   I am lucky that I get paid to read.   I get paid to do what I'd like to be doing anyway.   So, in fact, I'm not usually in the businessman's stance when I read, at least not in thinking that my reading is a break from "work."   Usually, when I read, I forget whether I am reading something for work or for pleasure.   In fact, most of the time it is not that I forget, it is that I don't and can't know.   Nevertheless, it is worthwhile reminding myself to keep life and work, work and pleasure, undifferentiated.   To work at such things and in such ways that work is as much a pleasure as the things I don't get paid to do.   To do the things I do for free with the same sense of responsibility and attention as I do my job; to make my job what I would do even if I didn't make a living doing it.   In this way, the exchange relationship is less dominant, money has less control.   In this way, I have greater freedom because my activities manifest themselves as chosen.   In this way, I can experience and appreciate each unfolding present moment of my life - just because it is life and regardless of whether or not I'm loving writing the tenure casebook -- and avoid saying things like, "I can't wait until I'm done with the tenure casebook, the Spring semester, the revisions on the manuscript," never realizing that if I string together enough of those statements I'm really saying "I can't wait until I die."    The businessman learned otherwise long ago, perhaps when he came home from school, slung his books on the table and plopped down in front of the television, just as now, his work done, he plops down in front of a novel.

            So maybe my reading blurs the line between work and play.   But Dewey shows me that whenever I read to inhabit a world in which I can feel safe from the claims and altering influences of others and the world around me then also I assume the deadly stance of the businessman.   These reminders in relation to work and play may begin to help me position myself healthily in relation to the larger issues of self and world to which work and play are connected.   But it takes more than those reminders.   I need also to make myself aware in body and mind of the various qualities of feeling accompanying reading when it is put to its various purposes.   At those times when like the businessman, it feels as though "the very thought of an intrusion" would irritate me, then maybe it's time to put the book down.   If I'm short with my kids when they approach me reading, it's definitely time to the put the book down.   Whenever tension and anxiety arise in response to some perceived threat to my reading, I'm clinging to literature, clinging to play, clinging to so-called free time, clinging to my self.   Even if I read fewer of the books on my endlessly growing list, I'd rather cultivate a suppleness of self necessary to maintain harmony with the ceaseless flows on which life depends.   I'd rather enjoy that feeling of fullness and connection with the world.   For, among other discoveries, I have at those times found that my reading experience, though less extensive, is more intensive.   I feel that fullness and connection when I read too.

            It's important, too, for me not to give up trying to do this in little ways just because I suspect that I won't ever achieve it fully, or because I don't always do it well.   As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds me, "If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north.   That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star.   I just want to go in that direction."   His reminder is important to because the giving-up of a perfectionist who knows he has failed really expresses only a kind of inverted pride.   Conversely, to know that one will fail to some degree and to accept this failure and get on with the undertaking anyway: that could mark humility.   Humility, in turn, matters because it is what allows me to let down my guard, to accept help, to acknowledge vulnerability, and so to let others - to let the world - in, to stay engaging and engaged.

            The way of reading described in "The Continuity of Parks" will kill us.   It kills the businessman, just as I believe it could slowly kill me, sucking away my life by severing the connections:   the web of world and others to which I must remain vulnerable and open if I am to live, to thrive, to experience freedom, peace, and joy.   It can suck away my life even as it numbs my ability to notice.   Sometimes I become aware of this when I am traveling abroad and I see twenty-something backpackers and feel a kind of disdainful resentment towards them.   Sometimes it takes only a fourteen year old skateboarder with baggy jeans and green hair in Ann Arbor, Michigan to give me this feeling.    This feeling says nothing about them.   After all, what do I know of them and their lives?   I feel this because I see in them a person I might have been at a similar point in my life but was too afraid to become.   That person would have been more open to the potentially self transforming effects of adventure and chance, or just of mere contact with the world outside his self.   Afraid of such transformations, afraid perhaps also that they might bring me pain or solitude, I froze that person out at the time.   I went to graduate school, got my Ph.D. in four years, and tenure four years after that.   Since then life has thrown me a number of serious breaking pitches that have shattered much - though by no means all - of the false sense of security that I had gained from my aversion to risk.   When I see the backpackers now I still feel some of that petty resentment.   But the feeling usually becomes gratitude and wonder because I recall that life will never stop, for even a moment, presenting me with second chances, with new opportunities to throw myself on the sharp point that is my fear of openness, to feel the tightness flowing from what I thought would be a lethal wound but turned out to be an open door [ Ù 18, 49, 72, 79].

            Julio's work - I emphasize the word - arms me against the initially painful (but ultimately insidiously numbing) process whereby I can lose touch with the joy of living.   Julio's work keeps me immersed in this vital ebb and flow of stuff to, from, and through me.   In this story, he arms me by inoculation: I can experience the businessman's sad condition without getting really, terminally sick.   In other places, he will turn his pen over to me, inviting a collaboration - harmonious or antagonistic, pleasurable or frustrating - that, at the very least, requires me to make my passivity the result of a conscious, informed choice.   In the best of cases, this invited collaboration provokes me to mindfully purposive activity that culminates in some product.   In those cases, though, I feel wiser if I can think of that product as a temporary crystallization, or as a node or a knot, or simply a pause, and not as the settling at some final destination.   For both the activity and the temporary product at which it arrives in turn feed a continuation of this endless process at ever-richer levels.   In this way, Julio gently opens my white knuckles to release the vanishing lump of tightly bounded self to which I fearfully cling.   In this way, Julio shows me the pen I didn't realize I had in my hand so that I can plot my own stories, compose my own piece of life.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (New York: Knopf, 1980), p. 122.

Julio Cortázar, "The Continuity of Parks," Blow-Up and Other Stories ,trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Collier, 1968), pp. 55-56.   In Spanish: "La continuidad de los parques," Final del juego, 2a ed. [1964] Cuentos Completos/1 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), pp. 291-2.

For an introductory scholarly reading of the story, see Terry J. Peavler, Julio Cortázar (Boston: Twayne, 1990), p. 43.   For a fine, more developed view linking the tale to theories of Morelli, the fictional author character in Hopscotch , see Santiago-Juan Navarro, "79 ó 99/Modelos para desarmar:   Claves para una lectura Morelliana de 'Continuidad de los parques' de Julio Cortázar," Hispanic Journal 13.2 (Fall, 1992), pp. 241-9.   Finally, for a brief, but unusual reading of the story as theory, see A.J. Greimas, "Una mano, una mejilla," Revista de occidente 85 (June, 1988), pp. 31-7.

John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigree, 1980), pp. 279-280.

Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1996), pp. 167-169.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (Berkeley: Parallax, 1990), p. 98.


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