Reading Notes for "La autopista del sur" ("The Southern Thruway")
this isn't exactly reading notes, but rather Chapter 49 of my book ms. Living Invention, or, The Way of Julio Cortazar. But it does offer my reading of "The Southern Thruway."
When we begin Julio Cortázar's short story "The Southern Thruway" the characters are stuck in traffic. The traffic jam seems an ordinary one, predictable even. And the characters we meet react predictably enough. They check their watches, move a few inches each time they get the chance, tell themselves contradictory stories about what has caused the jam, and wait expectantly for an authority to clear things up. And this might suffice if this were an ordinary traffic jam. But as we read, hours turn into days and then, somehow, seasons begin to change and the traffic has moved no more than a few hundred yards. The characters form groups, formulate plans. They turn their attention from how to get out of the traffic jam to how to cope with it. We know that the group has for all practical purposes accepted the new circumstances when they begin to make love and death. Those are the markers that they've settled in, that they believe the situation is here to stay. And that's when the traffic starts moving again. There's much excitement and hope and Julio does a beautiful job - "even though you couldn't go to third yet, just moving like that, in second, but moving" - sweeping us and his characters up in a wave that cranks up the engines, pulls us forward along the road and makes us forget everything else. Forget, that is, for a moment. By the time the motorists get into third gear the lanes of traffic move at different speeds and the tight little group of eight cars has drifted apart forever. The engineer through whose eyes we get the story clings briefly to the absurd hope that the group would form again and then resigns himself to "give in to the pace, adapt mechanically to the speed of the cars around, and not think [ Ù 13]."
I was in an extraordinary jam once also. Back in the Fall of 1996, my troubled first marriage ended with much pain and humiliation and rage on my part. Around the same time, I joylessly set myself to return to work after a sabbatical during which time I had managed to produce only the thought that my vocation and my profession had parted ways somewhere along the thruway to tenure. I didn't know how to do anything else and I was too scared to try. I had what I imagined I'd never have: a job I dreaded and resented because it took time away from the things I really loved to do. It was in that same Fall of 1996 that I reread "The Southern Thruway" in preparation for a class. I had read the story before many times. I knew that it was a good teaching story, but it had never really gotten under my skin. But that Fall, when I was in my own jam, the story spoke forcefully to me. I don't think, looking back, that I knew exactly what it was saying. I'm certainly not sure that I know now. Although I do know that it keeps speaking to me every time I read it. And I know that when I read it then it moved me powerfully enough to want to read more.
Now I think that "The Southern Thruway" spoke so powerfully to me because it spoke of things breaking down, and of the adjustments one is capable of making. That basic situation is all over the place in Julio's writing: his stories, his novels, his political writings. Like the characters in the story, I was in a situation whose enormity was unprecedented, a crisis whose severity seemed so complete as to veer, just at times, into the comic. I'd never imagined it possible. Like the characters in his story, like Petrone [ Ù 44], my first responses were treat the blockage like an ordinary jam: check the watches, wait for the cops so that I could get on with my life. In other words, I clung naively and then perhaps stubbornly and then certainly desperately to old habits, impulses, and resources ill-suited to my changed circumstances.
I can't really say how it happened precisely. Maybe I just wore my head out on the brick wall I'd been banging it into. Whatever the cause, I began to let go, and to cope, like the characters in the story when they first elect a group leader to help coordinate the activities necessary for survival until the crisis clears.
Then I began to learn things. The more I let go, the more I forgave, the more I coped, the better and stronger and healthier I felt. In fact, I felt like some kind of god. I had, I was convinced, faced the ultimate test, experienced the realization of my worst fears, and I was coming through it. I grew new attitudes and habits that gradually wore away the old ones. My friends admired my heroism. Days somehow passed into seasons and I settled in. At work, I reshaped my persona from the professionalist rising star that had gotten me tenure, to the fly in the ointment of all that I thought was wrong with literary studies in higher education. I initially conceived this book as a way of passing on to others the lessons I'd learned about adapting to the extraordinary and about reading as a process of practicing such adaptations. I became comfortable in the new circumstances. I thought I was done. I didn't see it at the time - in fact I didn't see it until very, very recently - but I'd become attached to my new identity. I was proud.
Maybe it's fitting that it turned out to be my ex-wife (the first one, I mean [ Ù 22]) who helped get traffic moving again. Reading a version of this book, she told me that it was "too didactic"; too much about what I thought other people needed to learn to do, too much about what I thought other people feared. Meanwhile, she thought, the "I" who was writing the book seemed safely tucked away at a distance from the difficult lessons to be learned. Just as in the story, only the movement of traffic again could reveal how attached I'd become to my sense of accomplishment. The simple mechanical revision of changing the "you's" in the book to "I's" had the startling effect of revealing that the window I thought I'd been looking through was in fact a mirror. I wasn't done.
Physician: heal thyself. Yes, I had learned how to hit a breaking pitch, or rather, yes, I had managed to hit one breaking pitch. But I hadn't seen how proud I'd grown of that ability. I hadn't seen that fueling this pride was a fierce attachment to my self and that beneath this attachment was a deep fear of being vulnerable. If I'd adapted so smoothly to crisis perhaps it was because the feeling of being in crisis was so fundamentally intolerable to me. Now I could see lots of other areas of my life where a feeling of peace and being done protected me from staying open to life and others in a way that would require more adaptations. These might not be as dramatic as what I'd gone through in the Fall of 1996, but they would be far more thoroughgoing in that they would touch nearly every aspect of my life, nearly every day. Apparently, I'd spent years thinking about and writing a four hundred page book just as a rather indirect way of discovering that I'd just begun.
More revisions followed.
Now "The Southern Thruway" says more to me. Until now, every time the traffic in the story begins to move and the engineer jumps in his car and begins to drive, thinking of how he and the woman he's fallen in love with during the traffic jam will soon be making love amid clean sheets in her Paris apartment; every time I read this I wanted to shout to him "Stop! Stop! Don't you see that it was letting go of those desires and impulses that made this beautiful love available to you? Don't you see that you are destroying it?" I felt so bad for the engineer who realizes only too late that he's lost this beautiful thing. Now I feel that I was as naively clinging as the engineer. Obviously traffic was going to start moving and it's a good thing too or the engineer and his love and all the other characters would die. Now I'm with the engineer, in the passenger's seat. Our foolishness lies not in moving with the flow of traffic, but in identifying our joyful experience with the particular crisis of the traffic jam. Maybe he won't ever meet the woman he loved again. That is sad. But the real sadness is that we seem to think that only a dramatic interruption of ordinary life can yield joy [ Ù 45]. The real sadness is that we don't see that life constantly puts before us opportunities to renew our contact with others and the world; that our attachment to self causes us to construct a hard wall between dull ordinary life and spectacular, exhilarating crisis. The truth is that nothing prevents us from living our ordinary lives the way we lived it during the traffic jam. And this should be a welcome truth because life in a traffic jam is not sustainable. To make ordinary life produce the effects of a crisis we need only embrace our vulnerability, recognizing that it is precisely in those moments when our strong sense of self slips away that we most fully enter the stream of life.
Now that's one way, among the many possible, to tell the story of the book you are reading. But it doesn't explain why this book looks the way that it does. I always wanted this book to be different from the kind of thing I'd written before, the stuff that had followed more obediently the stylistic and intellectual conventions of my profession. It's not that I thought those were bad in and of themselves. It's just that I knew - though perhaps not precisely - that this was much more to me than an intellectual adventure. So I knew that I needed a different style, something less formal and detached. Or, maybe I didn't know that I needed a different style so much as a different style is the only one that would come out. Moreover, as I began actually try to write, a different structure gradually imposed itself upon me.
Normally, I'm pretty good at making arguments in the traditional expository form. But somehow this material kept eluding my attempts to do so. I thought that it was Julio's writing and I still think that is part of it. Julio's writing is certainly very intellectual, and in that sense it lends itself to conventional scholarly treatment. But there's something else at the heart of it that always gets away from such treatments, however rewarding they may be at an intellectual level. There are so many high quality intellectual studies of Julio's work that I didn't want to add my own to the list. Moreover, my connection to his writing was more to that practical heart of his work: that place in his life and writing that enables him to teach me to adjust, to keep adjusting, to never grow complacent and proud and attached to the sense that I am done (per-fect) and thus invulnerable [ Ù 1, 98].
So I gave up trying to get away from these feelings, gave up trying to achieve a distance from which I could calmly organize my thoughts about his writing into an arborescent argument with a main thesis, related sub-theses and supporting evidence. I gave in to the need to simply chronicle the experience of reading Julio as I lived my life. I was in Paris trying to soak up the material vestiges of his life when the solution hit me. I bought several notebooks. Each day, I would take a book of Julio's off the shelf, more or less at random, and start to read in it, more or less at random. As I read, I would begin to record the thoughts and feelings that this reading provoked. If the reading sent me in the direction of another writer, or another story from my own life, I would follow it. When I got tired, I would draw three little stars in the notebook, put the book back on the shelf and get another and start again. That's how the vast majority of this book was written. Of course, I typed these sections into the computer, revising as I went and, as you know, I revised further as others responded to the typescript. Later I included in footnotes - and sometimes here and there in the text itself -- for your information references to relevant interviews with and articles about Julio and his writing. But the core of this book is what I came to call these walking meditations through Julio's writings [ Ù 14].
Now I can see that it wasn't only Julio's writing and my emotional connection to it that dictated this unusual form. I think now that some part of me knew - though obviously not consciously - that there would be something dishonest about standing back, invulnerable, holding up an irrefutable argument and the definitive account of Julio Cortázar. I certainly don't view this as a definitive work on Julio Cortázar, partly because I don't think any such work could ever exist and partly because this isn't, finally, about Julio Cortázar or his writing. I would say, rather, that this book is the record of a reading experience in which one reader takes pleasure in discovering the ways in which reading works just like living.
Julio Cortázar, "The Southern Thruway," All Fires the Fires , Trans. Suzanne Jill Levine (New York: Pantheon, 1973), p. 28. In Spanish: "La autopista del sur," Todos los fuegos el fuego  Cuentos Completos/1 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), p. 522.