"Three billion people live on less than two dollars a day."
- La Jornada (Mexico City, February 17, 2000)
"Our possible truth must be invention" (Cortázar 1966, 384). So declares the narrator near one of the possible beginnings of Julio Cortázar's novel Hopscotch. In this essay I will argue, essentially, that our possible truth, today, must be invention as well. Or at least, that in reexamining Cortázar's notion of invention we would add a valuable tool to those we already have with which to think the possibilities of transformation in our time. In the pages that follow, I will develop this argument by first, elaborating Cortázar's notion of "invention", especially as it functions in a few of his literary works, second, examining its operation in his own political discourse, and finally, reflecting a bit on how the notion and practice of invention might engage not only the politics of our time, but some of the other conceptual tools we have to think about that politics.
"The poet," Cortázar once wrote, "if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars" (Cortázar 1996, 300). He wrote this around 1950 in a long study of the British Romantic poet John Keats that would not be published until after Cortázar's death. Cortázar was around 35 at the time, had yet to publish the first of his eight volumes of short stories or any of the novels that would secure his fame as a writer. But "invention" and its derivatives run like a subterranean vein throughout his works, never central to any of them, but never absent. Thus, at the end of his life, in a chronicle of a road trip he'd make with his wife Carol Dunlop, Cortázar expressed his hopes that the work "will have opened for you some doors too, and that in you germinates already the project of some parallel freeway of your own invention" (Cortázar and Dunlop, 44, my translation).
In that first passage, Cortázar identifies invention with the creative activity of the poet. The poet-inventor connects and in connecting constitutes new relationships among otherwise "solitary" elements of the given. Prior to the creative activity of the poet, the stars simply are. There may well be an intrinsic relationship among them and perhaps that is available to human understanding. But failing that availability - and its failure is the emphasized premise of the poet-inventor's creative activity - the poet must constitute new relations in a given field of elements. Here appear already the basic elements of Cortázar's notion of invention. Invention, throughout Cortázar's writing, comes to mean the process by which we can make something new -- a word, an experience, a world, a self -- by rearranging the elements and the relationships that constitute a particular, received situation: the night sky for example.
This may be illustrated with another example. If we think of a word as a situation, like the night sky, then we might see that this situation is made up of elements - like the "solitary stars" - called letters, configured in a given way according to certain rules. There would be, of course, many different ways of making a new word from that given word. We could subtract letters or add new letters. We could, at least for certain given words, reverse the order of the letters, as in a palindrome. But in Cortázar's fiction, the privileged way of making a new word is always the anagram, whereby the given letters are shuffled into new relationships, with nothing added and nothing subtracted in order to make something new. "The problem with palindromes," says Lozano, the protagonist of Cortázar's story "Tara," is that "you are left the way you started" (Cortázar 1995, 32). A palindrome, which offers you only the mirror image of the given, "has no strength because it doesn't teach you anything new." But anagrams are a different story. The young girl protagonist of "The Distances" makes an anagram of her name - "Alina Reyes es la reina y..." - and notes in her diary that it is beautiful because it "opens a path" (Cortázar 1968, 16).
As in the example of the star-gazing poet-inventor, the makers of anagrams create something new by constituting a new set of relations among given elements. In both of these examples, another critical facet of Cortázar's notion of invention comes to light: it works immanently. By this I mean simply that it does not depend upon the belief that something exists outside the given. If it is possible to transcend the given, it is not because of the secret existence of some element beyond the given that will alter it or redeem it. Rather, the given can only be transcended by the constitution of new relationships within the situation and this practice, in Cortázar's view, is always a creative, inventive practice.
In both these examples, we may also glimpse the emergence of another facet of Cortázar's invention: potency (Lozano referred to "strength"; Alina Reyes to the opening of "a new path"). This aspect of invention will be more apparent by taking a look at two brief examples from elsewhere in Cortázar's fiction. The young narrator of "Los venenos" ("The Poisons") has dreams of flying, but of course, he cannot really fly. He has dreams, that is to say, of possessing a power, a capacity, he does not, in his waking life, possess. So what can he do? "I ran down the alley with the cry of Sitting Bull, running in a way I had invented at that time and that was running without bending my knees, like kicking a ball. It didn't tire you and it was like flying" (Cortázar 1994c, 300, my translation). It might appear at first that this invention contradicts my previous examples since he runs "without" bending his knees and so that his invention seems to entail a subtraction. But I would argue that, upon further reflection, this "without bending" really just points to a reconfiguration of relationships. All the substantive elements of his running are still there: hips, femur, tibia, and a surface. But the situation called "running" usually involves femur and tibia in a specific relation: "bent". The narrator has invented a new relation within the given (and still present elements): "without bending" or, as he might have easily said, "straightening". And this gives him not the power to fly, which of course is impossible, but the feeling - the joy - of flying, which might, in this case anyway, really be the point of those dreams anyway. Perhaps this is what Henry Miller meant when he evoked, in Sexus, "the art of dreaming when wide-awake" (20).
This potency of invention appears also in Cortázar's story "Silvia." In the story, the narrator recalls a series of outdoor dinners among a group of friends: himself and two couples, each with two children. The children, we are told, have invented Silvia. The parents explain this to the narrator to dismiss her, to ward her off. But Silvia works, like the narrator straightening his legs, to produce real effects: "Silvia lifted him up to the sink, washed his bottom, and changed his clothes"; "Silvia washed off the bump"; "She plays with us"; "She takes care of Renaud"; she played "a little game to console him"; Silvia "emerged from the darkness and leaned between Graciela and Alvaro as if to help them cut their meat or take a bite" (Cortázar 1986c, 187, 190, 189, 191). Silvia enhances the powers of the children. She does for them, and hence they don't need their parents or other adults. They've invented Silvia and, in so doing, have invented autonomy, one's capacity to do for oneself, freely to direct oneself. Silvia herself, invention though she may be, "does what she wants, the same as us," the children explain (Cortázar 1986c, 191). As with the young boy in "Los venenos", the children desire a power or a capacity, but the world as it is can't or won't allow for it. Cortázar calls "invention" the process by which one may immanently reconfigure relations among the elements of the world as it is so as to produce the same effects as if one had that power; like hot-wiring a car to make it run as though you had the keys.
Lastly, in the story "Silvia" we see a final important facet of "invention": it is communicative. By this I mean that it is infectious or contagious. It does not communicate by representing itself or any power it might release. Rather, like a virus or a radio signal, it simply establishes a connection and passes itself on. In "Silvia," Alvaro has invented Silvia, but soon all the children have caught the fever so that we learn that she only comes when they are all four together. Alvaro's father calls his son's penchant for invention "mythomania" and thus diagnoses Alvaro, warning that "he contaminates everyone" (Cortázar 1986c, 190 [todo el mundo or, literally, "all the world"]). Even the adult narrator of the story falls victim, seeing and desiring Silvia; writing, in fact, as he admits, "with an absurd hope of conjuration, a sweet golem of words" (Cortázar 1986c, 186).
Thus from this brief survey of "invention" in Cortázar's early critical writing and short fiction we can come up with something like the following, provisional, definition of the practice: the potent and infectious process of generating something new, of transforming a received situation by immanently reconstituting the given relationships among the given elements so as to produce real effects. I want to turn now to look, through the lens of this working definition of invention, at Cortázar's most famous work, the 1963 novel Hopscotch and, within that novel, at its protagonist and sometimes narrator, Horacio Oliveira. In particular, I want to look at the way in which "invention" appears as a way of immanently generating potent, ultimately ethical transformations from within a field of given dichotomous abstractions that feel sterile or constrictive.2
Horacio has a dream - "the dream of a child," his friend calls it - in which a loaf of bread he has cut cries out in pain. "But the worst," he complains to his friend, "is not the dream. The worst is what they call waking up." He wonders: "Hasn't it ever happened to you that you've awakened sometimes with the exact feeling that at that moment a terrible mistake is beginning?" (Cortázar 1966, 450-2) Horacio's aware that there's something troubling about the transition from dreaming to waking, that there's some truth in the dream that slips away as you wake up and call what you were just thinking about "a dream." But, I would argue, he's not yet inventing. He's simply, at this point, proposing a reversal of the terms, dream and reality, and valorizing the "dream", in a way that leaves the boundary between them fully intact. If we were to think of the boundary between dreaming and waking as the space between letters in a word, then Horacio has created a palindrome, reversing the terms, which leaves him, as Lozano told us, with what he started. But a bit later he will come up with something that looks more like an anagram: "The real dream was located in an imprecise zone, next to waking but without his really being awake; he would have had to make use of other references to speak about it, eliminate rotund terms like dreaming and awake that didn't mean a thing, locate himself rather in that zone where once more his childhood house would be suggested." (Cortázar 1966, 490). Here Horacio establishes an inventive relationship to the given elements "dream" and "waking".
Horacio's struggles with his dreams are instructive because they are an instance of more general problems that dog him, problems for which invention could also serve as a solution. He wants to get to an "other side" of a "reality" that feels superficial, conventional, false, and limiting. So Horacio spends his time looking for passages, openings to a preexistent state he imagines as an other side. But his real problem, I would argue, stems from his perception of two distinct zones - like dreaming and being awake - with a rigid, wall-like boundary between them. When he imagines the wall as permeable, it still only permits a passage for himself. Only rarely and fleetingly can he actually imagine inventing: shuffling the stuff on either side of the "wall" back and forth so as to create a zone that could be called in-between, except that "wall" and so the terms on either side of it have dissolved, and with them, the paralyzing dualities in which Horacio is trapped.
Horacio himself poses this problem, and invention as a solution, when we first meet him. There, in Chapter 73, he's searching for "the other side of habit," but wonders whether even such a search is not itself a cliched literary commonplace, simply the obverse of the coin of stifling habit. He glumly concludes that, yes, everything is "merely" writing, merely a fable, before suddenly glimpsing the possibility - in the passage with which I began my essay -- that maybe in that case "Our possible truth must be invention, that is to say, scripture, literature, picture, sculpture, agriculture, pisciculture, all the tures in this world" (Cortázar 1966, 384).
And what follows is precisely writing, a fable, now borrowed from a book by Morelli, his favorite author,
about a Neapolitan who spent years sitting in the doorway of his house looking at a screw on the ground. At night he would gather it up and put it under his mattress. The screw was at first a laugh, a jest, communal irritation, a neighborhood council, a mark of civic duties unfulfilled, finally a shrugging of shoulders, peace, the screw was peace, no one could go along the street without looking out of the corner of his eye at the screw and feeling that it was peace. The fellow dropped dead one day of a stroke and the screw disappeared as soon as the neighbors got there. One of them has it; perhaps he takes it out secretly and looks at it, puts it away again and goes off to the factory feeling something that he does not understand, an obscure reproach. He only calms down when he takes out the screw and looks at it, stays looking at it until he hears footsteps and has to put it away quickly. Morelli thought that the screw must have been something else, a god or something like that. Too easy a solution. Perhaps the error was in accepting the fact that the object was a screw simply because it was shaped like a screw. Picasso takes a toy car and turns it into the chin of a baboon. The Neapolitan was most likely an idiot, but he also might have been the inventor of a world. (Cortázar 1966, 384)
The Neapolitan is an inventor because he rearranges the elements of a given situation, in this case, himself and the screw. By looking at it in a way that one would not if the screw were merely a piece of hardware, or of junk, he can make it act as though it is something more. It begins to provoke effects quite unusual in an ordinary screw. It is as though, through his invention, he has released other possibilities, manifested other dispositions and propensities in the screw. Horacio himself concludes, from this fable, that there can be no freedom - no "choice" - outside of, no "other side" beyond, the process of invention. For this process insinuates itself within the fixed, category-creating boundaries and works therein to blur them and create possible spaces of autonomy.
This is why Morelli offers an alternative to what he sees as a 20th century obsession with transcendent millenary kingdoms, Edens, nostalgias, and other worlds. He proposes instead invention as the activity of immanently transforming this disenchanted world into a magical place.
Maybe there is another world inside this one, but we will not find it cutting out its silhouette from the fabulous tumult of days and lives, we will not find it in either atrophy or hypertrophy. That world does not exist, one has to create it like a phoenix. The world exists in this one, but the way water exists in oxygen and hydrogen, or how pages 78, 457, 3, 271, 688, 75, 456 of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy have all that is needed for the writing of a hendecasyllable by Garcilaso. Let us say that the world is a figure, it has to be read. By read let us understand generated. Who cares about a dictionary as dictionary? If from delicate alchemies, osmoses, and mixtures of simples there finally does arise a Beatrice on the riverbank, why not have a marvelous hint of what could be born of her in turn? (Cortázar 1966, 379).
At another point, Horacio reads a page that Morelli has covered with the unpunctuated words "underneath it all he knew that one cannot go beyond because there isn't any". Horacio spies, however, a place where the word "any" is missing. Reading this page, Horacio knows that the words echo their meaning, forming a "wall behind which there is nothing." But he also feels that "a sensitive eye can discover the hole among the bricks, the light that shows through." (Cortázar 1966, 307) There's no saying for sure, but it's hard not to feel that the eye is hypersensitive, that Horacio has made too much of a typographical error, imbuing sheer contingency with a burdensome charge of secretly coded meaning. At the very least, we might argue that if there is a way to go beyond, to change things, to connect, then the lesson of the passage above - the lesson, in fact, of Cortázar's invention -- is that such a possibility lies in an alternative arrangement of the given and not in the opening of a hole through to a transcendent space. In other words, if Horacio perceives a "light" on the page, it's not shining "through a hole." Rather it is a light generated immanently by the page itself. Or, more precisely, generated from the productive energy that Morelli contains with his steadfast refusal of any beyond.
It's true that Morelli has created a surface, but not every surface is a wall. It could be a wall. We can't really say with certainty that it isn't. But we might ask Horacio what he gets by calling it a wall. Seeing a wall leads him, according to his tendency, to look for and find a hole in the wall. Even so, there's nothing wrong with this except that not much fits through the holes that Horacio finds in the walls he perceives. Not his lover, not his friends, not even all of him, which helps to explain why he so often is plagued by a feeling of solitude. And that may be why Cortázar always preferred (and so thus constructed the laws of his universe) the more modest, sustainable process of continual changes figured by the kaleidoscope.
Morelli rejects any idea of another world, another existence, outside of, or beyond, this one. For this common view leaves one with the task of conjuring, like Horacio, magical passageways or transportational devices by which to move from one side to the other. Morelli instead offers the reconfiguring activity of invention - which he equates with reading, notice - as the only means of generating, immanently, autonomy. Invention is the only solution to the dilemma because it takes as its point of departure not the problem of how to get from this side to the other, or vice-versa, but of how to generate multiple spaces from the space in which you find yourself.
Now, the divide that most persistently nags at Horacio is the one he believes separates him from his fellow human beings. A divide, we might say in other words, between "subject" and "object. In the prevailing trends of Western culture, the constructed gap between "subject" and "object" is taken as premise and from this fabricated conceptual gap flow many of the epistemological, ontological, and ethical dilemmas that characterize the Western philosophical tradition. To span this divide of our own making, we extend the two divergent bridges of rationality (philosophy or science) and anti-rationality (art, religion, madness). Horacio approaches the edge of this perceived chasm between his self and the world outside it, but spends all his time contemplating which bridge to take across. And though he seems aware that there's something wrong with this way of looking at it, he disdainfully (but secretly fearfully) dismisses the one faculty - compassion - which might lead him to invent an alternative arrangement of the terms self and other. All invention entails the risk of experimentation, of shattering certainty in the interests of something new, which might also be something better. And inventing with the self in this way may pose the biggest risk of all. Of course, it may also carry, at least in ethical terms, the biggest pay-off. Horacio sees this, for a moment, when he suspects that "true otherness" might be "made up of delicate contacts, marvelous adjustments with the world" and that "it could not be attained from just one point" but would require instead joining together in partnership of some kind, or community (Cortázar 1966, 99).
It might be worth seeing the events that unfold near the end of Horacio's story as a tentative experiment with invention of the self. Having physically closed himself off from others behind an elaborate web of threads, washbasins, and rulemans, Horacio's childhood friend Traveler comes to visit him in his room, as the staff of the asylum where they both work gathers in the courtyard beneath Horacio's open window and outside his bedroom door. Unsuccessful in convincing Horacio that he means him no harm, Traveler, leaving the room with tears in his eyes, advises Horacio to bolt the door behind him. By relinquishing his control over the events in the situation, even to the point of safeguarding Horacio's freedom to kill himself, Traveler offers his friend an example of genuine ethical compassion. A few moments later, as he looks down at Traveler and his wife Talita, standing arm in arm on the hopscotch board in the courtyard, Horacio regains a glimpse of Morelli's truth that the "other world" exists immanently in this one and can be realized, materialized, only through the act of invention. And so, with Cortázar's famous ambiguity - Horacio's thoughts, at least, seem to hurl him out the window - he will take the leap that figures, as dramatically as possible, the invention of the self in a non-bounded form. As if to confirm the value of this risky practice of invention, the next seven chapters show Horacio - injured - surrounded by friends caring for him with a simple, unspectacular love. And then, as if to emphasize the indefinite nature of invention, the altogether different time scale one enters when one enters the zone of experimentation, the novel drifts back and forth between Chapters 58 and 131, until you get tired or frustrated, or, maybe, until you realize that there is no end to invention and that the next step is to close the book and continue to invent a different relation between writing, and reading, and living. Ultimately, in Hopscotch, one may discover an extended parable of the kinds of autonomy that invention can yield.
But Cortázar does more than unfold such a parable before his reader's passive eyes. He also provokes his reader into an inventive reading. For Cortázar, writing already involved an inventive reading of what had already been said. And this, in turn, implies an inventive writing that blurred the boundaries between writing and living. In Hopscotch, Cortázar tries explicitly to draw readers into this process, believing, like the narrator of "Silvia," that invention, like a contagious illness, can be communicated. Thus, readers are invited to read the chapters comprising Hopscotch in more than one sequence, to treat the chapters of the novel like the letters of a word. In the process of doing so we follow Horacio in shuffling stuff (the chapters of the novel) across divides (the three parts - "From the Other Side," "From this Side," and "From Diverse Sides" - that make up the novel). In the process, also, we risk losing the satisfaction of a linear narrative, or the security of conclusive meaning, or of resolved tensions, scratched itches. In return, we gain the effect of softening a bit the wall separating our "subject" from the "object" of Cortázar and his novel.
This is not about an ideal of absolutely free participation on the part of a reader. Such an ideal, like the "absolutes" and "beyonds" to which Horacio mistakenly directs his vision, can never be realized. As Morelli cautions Horacio, "You've got to be careful, we're all chasing after purity . . . But watch out, my friends, what we call purity is probably..." (Cortázar 1966, 556) And invention is never pure. It always works with some given, with some restrictions, like the rules of a game. Effective Willie Stark explains this about "goodness" to the principled, but impotent Dr. Adam Stanton: "You got to make it, Doc. If you want it. And you got to make it out of badness. Badness. . . . Because there isn't anything else to make it out of." (Warren 257). In Hopscotch, we are invited, like Horacio - whom the ailing Morelli asks to arrange his loose-leaf papers for publication - to arrange the "simples" with which Cortázar provides us into our own novel; or rather, into a novel that a new entity of our invention - that combines in someway Cortázar and ourselves - has composed. Horacio might be afraid of messing things up in the process, but we need not be as Morelli reassuringly reminds us: "Who cares, you can read my book any way you want to. Liber Fulguralis, mantic pages, and that's how it goes. The most I do is set it up the way I would like to reread it. And in the worst of cases, if they do make a mistake, it might just turn out perfect." (Cortázar 1966, 56)
Cortázar consistently manifested an interest in the possibilities for human beings to change, affirmatively, their ways of life, both as individuals and as societies. He knew that individuals could be more free, less afraid, more adventurous, playful and humorous, and more cooperative. He knew that societies could thus become more peaceful, less rigid in separating work and play, less violent without the perceived need to enforce social hierarchies. It was evident enough to Cortázar that any changes in society that were sustainable would have to be comprised of changes in individuals communicating with each other. That is to say, I am suggesting, Cortázar conceived of social transformation as an essentially poetic act in which any one (or all) of us become star-gazing poet-inventors creating new constellations, new groupings, from the apparently solitary stars that so much in our world encourages us to see ourselves as being.
But Cortázar conceived this desirable change as possible only on two conditions. First, change should not come at the price of rejecting one's past. As John Dewey knew: "Only when the past ceases to trouble and anticipations of the future are not perturbing is a being wholly united with his environment and therefore alive." (Dewey 18) For Cortázar believed firmly in the tenacity and persistence of the past in the present, all the more so when the individual would deny or disavow that past. No durable change could depend upon a definitive transcendence of the past. The past, or elements of it at least, must come into the future with us as we change. Second, Cortázar won't allow change coming from outside: no saviors, no knights on white horses, no charismatic party leaders. The only stuff we have to work with as our raw materials for transformation is the stuff we already have. Hence the kaleidoscope over the hole in the wall. Hence, for Cortázar, the supreme importance of invention, the art of making something new just by rearranging the relationships among the things you already have. That's why any change would have to be understood and, if figured, figured in images of process, not rupture.
I would like, as I said at the outset, to argue that we might usefully plug the notion of invention, as I've drawn it forth from Cortázar's literary work, into the thinking we do today to try to come to grips with the politics of our time. But, in order to do so I think it will be useful to look at how Cortázar deployed the notion and the practice of invention to come to grips with the politics of his own time. His times were dominated by three interrelated questions: the question of third world revolution in the context of the Cold War, the question of counter-revolutionary dictatorship and of exile, and the question of the "responsibility" of the intellectual in these settings. Cortázar spoke to all of these questions at one time or another. And I think that the way he spoke of them, if we can allow ourselves to "invent" his sometimes dated-seeming vocabulary, can teach us, in turn, something about how to invent, as Cortázar might put it, the politics of our time.
"Let us invent, instead of accepting, the labels they stick on us." (Cortázar 1994a, 170) Cortázar was speaking on the subject of literature and exile. It was the late 1970s, a dark time indeed for Latin Americans and their writers. The youthful enthusiasm expressed in and sparked by the Cuban revolution of 1959 had given way to an awesome display of counter-revolutionary force, backed by the might of the US government, and fueled by the fearful and fearsome quiescence of many Latin Americans caught in the headlights of inconceivable brutalities. It would be easy, Cortázar said, to point fingers of blame at the generals, at the US government, at its corporate heads: "too easy and hypocritical," actually, are his exact words. Instead Cortázar marshaled the only weapon he had, he ever had: invention. He didn't make light of exile, or trivialize its attendant emotional traumas, he didn't make a silly game of it. But he did challenge his audience to make something new out of it, the way poets have always made something new of the elements at hand, the way life makes something by combining what's lying around, the way the star-gazer makes something out of a group of gleaming pins stuck in the cool cushion of the night sky.
The first step, as always for Cortázar in any process of invention, is to let your self go. In this case, speaking to his fellow exiled writers, it meant let go of the self you've identified as "innocent victim": it would be possible to invent in exile, out of the stuff of exile, he cautioned, only if the writers first "took a step backwards" "to see themselves newly, to see themselves new." Only then could a writer slip off the garment of names imposed upon her by the dictatorship and invent new names for herself. Only then could the exiled writer transform the imposed distance of exile into the adopted distance of balanced perspective and say "This banned or burned book wasn't altogether good: let us write now another better one." (Cortázar 1994a, 172).
What, Cortázar asks, if we then were able to see exile as positive, as an opportunity, refusing thus the exile's view that he had been victim of a grave trauma. How do we "free ourselves," Cortázar asks, from the "fact" (read: given situation) that "they have expelled us from our countries"? This is not precisely the world of "Silvia". It is not, of course, a fictional tale, and the exiled writers of the 1970s are not children faced with the benevolent dismissals of their parents. But the strategy Cortázar recommends is, nonetheless, remarkably similar. What emerges as the crucial theme in his speech is that the writers should not fall into the trap of thinking that the dictatorships have the power. Or rather, and more precisely, the writers should not fall into the trap of desiring the power that the dictatorships have because doing so can only lead them to ignore the power they have, a power that exceeds the rigid power of the dictators.
"Because our true efficacy lies in extracting the maximum advantage from exile . . . . The Latin American dictatorships do not have writers, but rather scribes: let us not convert ourselves into the scribes of bitterness, of resentment, or of melancholy. Let us be truly free, and to begin with let us free ourselves of the commiserating and tearful label that tends to show itself too frequently. Against self-pity it is better to hold up, as crazy as it might sound, that the true exiles are the fascist regimes of our continent, exiled from the authentic national reality, exiled from social justice, exiled from joy, exiled from peace. We are more free and we are more in our land than they. I've spoken of madness: it also, like humor, is one of the ways to break the molds and open a positive path that we will never find if we keep folding beneath the cold and sensible rules of the enemies' game." (Cortázar 1994a, 169)
So Cortázar calls for invention, beginning with the invention of the self that has been exiled and proceeding to an invention of the condition of exile. Notice that invention empowers, as it did the children in "Silvia," and that it does so, first of all, by putting a choice back in the hands of his audience, exactly when they identify themselves by the lack of a choice. Now, Cortázar reminds them that they have a choice, the choice of how as writers to write the story of their exile. From there, in choosing an affirmative route, they will be writing also the future story of the past which is to say writing the story of their present. And to write the story of one's present is already to begin to author one's own history, to compose one's own life. A dictator, who requires an obedient scribe, cannot bear to have a writer invent her own words, cannot bear to have anyone else write the story of the present.
Some years before, In December of 1969, Cortázar wrote an essay for the Uruguayan cultural periodical Marcha that prefigures the inventive strategy he would recommend to writers in exile a few years later. In this essay, he was invited to respond to Oscar Collazos, who in an earlier issue published his view that the authors of the Latin American so-called new novel (Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa, plus Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and José Donoso) had a neurotic, dependent relationship with European literature. And, moreover, that this relationship prompts them to imitate the technical innovations of their European heroes and thus keeps them from responding to their own Latin American reality; an assertion that would become an unquestioned commonplace in leftist criticism of the so-called Boom's (as if the authors collected in this name were identical) "liberal imagination" (Franco).
Cortázar replies that no novelist he knows worries about European writers. On the contrary, the very fact that they don't compare themselves with European writers (favorably or not) makes the Latin American novelist "capable of inventing, taking advantage of, or perfecting the most varied techniques totally naturally and authentically." (Cortázar 1977, 40) Cortázar's compatriot Jorge Luis Borges had already taken a similar stance, some forty years earlier, faced with critics who felt he was neglecting what they called "his reality." In that essay, "El escritor argentino y la tradición", Borges argued that the ease of appropriation of so-called foreign techniques (to which Cortázar also refers) derives from Argentina's eccentricity in relation to the European tradition and that this ease is common to any eccentric position (Borges). Thus the Irish, or the Jews, Borges writes, are able to approach traditional canons with inventive ease because those traditional canons (mainly the English and German in these cases) have never really belonged to them, at least not in the sense that these canons have rewarded an investment in them with any kind of cultural, let alone political power. Gilles Deleuze makes of this eccentricity (he calls it "becoming minor") the very essence of style. "A style is managing to stammer in one's own language. It is difficult, because there has to be a need for such stammering. . . . Being like a foreigner in one's own language." (Deleuze and Parnet 4) He's talking, like Borges, of writing within your language, but from the sidelines, or from underground, as if it were foreign, as if you were an alien, or alienated from the benefits of the native.
Cortázar here evokes the more general conditions from which emerges the constituent power of the writer-as-inventor. His remarks upon the potential of exile really simply describe a specific subset of these more general conditions of apparent eccentricity. "The good writer," he explains, "is that person who partially modifies a language. It is the case of Joyce modifying a certain way of writing in English" (Cortázar 1978a, 21; Cortázar 1979 66). Invention is at work, I would argue, in that the language is made new not because you actually go out and learn a new language, but simply by adjusting the relationships among elements (you, native tongue, native land).
Indeed, invention (employing whatever elements) always requires one to see the endless possible configurations and reconfigurations, the infinite set of possible relations, in a given array. And this always runs counter to the temptation, so common on the left, first, to reduce power, in any given situation, to the status quo of "those-in-power-over," and second, either to cling fiercely to that power if they have it or, if they do not, to desire it. Invention troubles this conventional relationship to power. Invention, in other words, might be seen as little more than one name for the process of seeing and acting in accordance with the truth that "those-in-power-over" always rest in an uneasy relationship to "those-with-power-to," to a force that upon which they depend but which, finally, they know they cannot control. Invention begins to rearrange the given relations in the received situation so as to free up the creative potency of "those-with-power-to"; even from the "those-in-power-over" within each of us.
This no doubt is why Cortázar also felt obliged to exclaim in 1981, "How little revolutionary the language of revolutionaries tends to be!" (Cortázar 1994b, 310) He addressed this to a group of revolutionaries gathered at the Casa de Las Americas publishing house in Havana, Cuba. It's part of speech fundamentally supportive of socialism and of revolutionary aims. But as always Cortázar seeks to go beyond shared ideals. He prefers his allies strong. The group he addressed was gathered to elaborate upon a brief statement that had been released (and signed by, among others, Julio Cortázar) calling for "sovereign and democratic rights for the people of our Americas." He certainly supported the call, but equally he sought to pull the rug out from under certain assumptions that he felt would actually block the achievement of the aim.
Cortázar questioned, to begin with, the "manichean" distinctions implied by the invocation of the "pueblos de nuestras Americas". To him, reality was too complex and potentially treacherous to treat with such blunt instruments as "our" and "their" or "the people." To suggest that the rights of Latin Americans, en masse, were constrained only by non Latin Americans, was not only too simple. It was dangerously impractical in overlooking the obvious fact that "our most oppressed peoples are so largely for fratricidal reasons." (Cortázar 1994b, 308). Cortázar wasn't looking to refine the picture for the sake of social scientific accuracy or the advance of knowledge. Nor of course, was he interested in letting the US government and multinational interests off the hook for their activities in Latin America. Rather, he aimed to improve the practical efficacy of the language used by revolutionaries.
Cortázar was interested in generating, from a deep and sober contact with realities, the language necessary to move suffering people, to infect them with an awareness of their own power to shed the burdens which oppress them, whether those burdens have come from the United States, their own government, their putatively revolutionary parties, or their own psyches. As Cortázar reminds his comrades, "revolutions have to be made in individuals so that, when the day arrives, the people can make them" (Cortázar 1994b, 310). And he doesn't mean other individuals. He directs this to his fellow intellectuals. He invites them to join him in the examination of the micro-fascisms within and on a journey of self-invention that would necessarily involve invention in language. It's in this spirit that Cortázar agreed "absolutely" with Ernesto González Bermejo's characterization during an interview of Manual for Manuel as "an attempt to demystify a monastic conception of revolution; to say that political events occur in human beings that do not cease to be such because they belong to such and such an organization and that they must, they should and it is inevitable that they combine political action with making love, with eating spaghetti or taking a walk on the Champs Elysées." (Cortázar 1979, 127)
Understanding this can help us to better make something of some of Cortázar's earlier political writings. Thus, for example, in that same 1969 response to Oscar Collazos, entitled "Literature in the Revolution and Revolution in Literature," Cortázar attempted to distinguish between the task of the writer in bourgeois societies - to which, he writes, "the good writer is almost invariably in opposition" - and that of the writer in revolutionary society: "within which the writer must situate himself constructively, criticizing to edify and not to lay low." (Cortázar 1977, 53) But already in that essay, already in 1969, Cortázar confessed that this differentiation of the writer's tasks had caused and would probably continue to cause him "no few conflicts." If so, maybe that was in part because those terms, plugged into that essay and following the prevailing vocabulary of the time, were already too neat and rotund, too abstracted from the particulars of daily life as experienced by human beings around the world -- whether the nation states of which they are citizens or residents call themselves "socialist" or "bourgeois", "free," "democratic," "capitalist," or "communist."
In 1973, when the original Spanish edition of his most explicitly political novel, A Manual for Manuel, was published, Cortázar wrote:
I believe more than ever that the struggle for socialism in Latin America should confront the daily horror with the only attitude that can bring it victory one day: a precious, careful watch over the capacity to live life as we want it to be for that future, with everything it presupposes of love, play and joy. . . . What counts, and what I have tried to recount is the affirmative sign that stands face to face with the rising steps of disdain and fear, that affirmation must be the most solar, the most vital part of man: his playful and erotic thirst, his freedom from taboos, his demand for a dignity shared by everybody in a land free at last of that daily horizon of fangs and dollars. (Cortázar 1978b, 4-5)
A ringing affirmation of socialism may well sound dated to our ears today. And indeed, it might well be dated had Cortázar not invented, in the sense that I have been elaborating, the word "socialism." In that case, the dynamic and vital forces of freedom which Cortázar designated with this word will seem dated only if we stop listening to him the moment we read that word. For is it really dated to call for an attitude of vigilance over "the capacity to live life as we want it to be"? Do we live now in a world where it is no longer necessary to affirm, "in the face of fear and disdain," the most vital part of man: his playful and erotic thirst, his freedom from taboos, his demand for a dignity shared by everyone"? Has this new century opened upon a planet in which all human beings can feel their lives driven by these vital forces, or even by simple dignity? Is this true even of those of us lucky enough not to worry over our next meal? What about for those three billion people - half the humans on the planet - who live on less than two dollars a day?
In a little book written 1958, one year before the Cuban revolution, the Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James, at the time living in Detroit, Michigan, was able to write the following: "In one department of a certain plant in the U.S. there is a worker who is physically incapable of carrying out his duties. . . . The workers in that department have organized their work so that for nearly ten years he has had practically nothing to do. . . .this is the socialist society." (James 1958, 33) Taking a brief detour from Cortázar's texts in order to look more closely at what James is here doing can serve to elaborate the political effects of invention, in the very sense that Cortázar tried to advance them. And it can also help to suggest an important continuity between Cortázar and his times, places, and vocabularies and those of our present.
See what James does to the term "socialist society." First he fills the term up with an ongoing process that pushes all the static "thingness" out of it. Then he sticks that process into the middle of the nation state, which perhaps epitomizes the anti-socialist society and thus drains "socialist society" of its connotations of all or nothing Manicheism. Perhaps the names and concepts Cortázar used obscure the actual facts of daily life that might contradict, or at least, complicate those names.
If so, this would be a problem of thought and discourse and vision. Yet as such, it parallels closely the problem of politics that C. L. R. James describes so plainly in Facing Reality. There too, abstract representations (unions claiming to represent worker desire, political parties claiming to represent popular will, states claiming to represent people), like the abstract representations "bourgeois" and "socialist" used by Cortázar, prevail over complex, dynamic processes far too rich in detail and variation to lend themselves to representation, at least by any of the representational devices available at that time.
Of course, James can still see that there are, by and large, two different kinds of society, two different ways of organizing the activities necessary for the production and reproduction of life. But he prefers narrative to theory, verbs to nouns. So, one way of organizing is characterized by authoritarian, top-down decision making structures, by manipulation and deceit, where brute force is necessary to ensure submission to the regimes dictated by those in power. This way of organizing is found, James points out, in the national governments of the world (however they may style themselves), in trade unions, official party organizations. The leaders or representatives in this regime, from shop foreman to US president, operate by abstracting themselves from the material processes of daily life, instead dictating to others upon whose freedom and autonomy they thereby encroach and the results of whose living labor they thereby poach. The other manner of organizing, that event that James calls socialist society, is present wherever we see cooperation and self-organization in the production of goods for use; it is present whenever we hear dialogue and witness experimentation; it is present in every affirmation of autonomy from abstract programs and dogmas.
In other words, for C. L. R. James, wherever you open your eyes, look deeply at a particular situation and see these values and forces operating there you have what ought to be called "socialist society." This event or process called "socialist society" bursts through the abstracting, regimenting forces of bourgeois society. In "socialist society," representational relationships are eluded in favor of more direct and immediate - to say nothing of practical - forms of organization, expression and activity. In the same way, James' vision, his thought and discourse elude the abstractions that briefly snared Cortázar preferring instead the narration of particulars, Cortázar's usual realm. Cortázar always said he knew nothing of politics. In this sense, he was right (though not in the sense usually intended by those observers who think that Cortázar's leftist sympathies are evidence that he knew nothing, and so, that he should have restricted himself to writing fantastic fiction).
For James, this was the new society, the "future in the present" as he called it evoking Morelli's image of the immanent generation of another world from the elements given within this one; "the struggle for happiness," as he elsewhere named this process. It was constant and in constant motion. You couldn't see it if you were looking through the lens of large, blocky, static and abstract concepts like nation-states, or "the" revolution. "Theories," Jane Jacobs advises, "are powerful tools only in the limited sense that the Greek mythological giant Anteaeus was powerful. When Antaeus was not in intimate contact with the earth, his strength rapidly ebbed." (Jacobs ix) James' "socialist society" resembles the roiling surface of boiling water: bubbles surface here, vanish, and reappear elsewhere, but there's always a bubble somewhere. It's hard to say with much certainty, even with an intimate knowledge of the depth and surface conditions, where or when the next bubble will appear. So the most we can do, James thought, was first, to be sure to notice and report the fact of the bubbles, and their attendant conditions, in all their complex, dynamic particularity and second, nourish the conditions for their proliferation in any given instant. Keep up the heat.
Maybe James' vision of a constant and fleeting and darting revolutionary process makes it easier to understand what Cortázar tries to express to Collazos (and elsewhere) about the politics of his writing, about what he tried to affirm in his writing. Cortázar's time and place and his own experiences didn't furnish him with a political vocabulary of sufficient subtlety. But he also wasn't satisfied, as many other writers of his generation would be, with simply turning his back on the situations that this vocabulary sought to understand and transform. So often in this period, Cortázar seems - especially to the aficionados of his rich, dynamic prose and of the complex ambiguities of the thought deposited there - like a clumsy, lumbering-if-well-meaning cloddish child, or worse, like an adolescent puppet stridently channeling the "extremist" voices of his time. But I suspect that Cortázar sensed, somewhat inarticulately, that the socialist society he committed himself to was exactly what C.L.R. James described. Maybe the difficulty of situating his life and writing in political terms stems, thus, from the untimeliness of his understanding relative to the available positions and vocabularies of his situation. (James too, for that matter, was eccentric to the left his entire life). If you doubt that Cortázar's vision of "socialist society" meshes with what James describes, then consider, as you read and reread his fiction, the ways in which the values put forth in James' vision come through and suffuse Cortázar's invented world. This world includes, of course, many kinds of processes, many kinds of characters, many attitudes. But I believe one can see that as a writer he almost invariably affirms autonomy, experimentation, and "self-realization, creativity" (James), and rejects (sometimes by satirizing and sometimes by dramatizing the violence, or sadness, or futility of) egotism, competition, authority, and conformity to external powers.
Cortázar turned up the heat on that pot of simmering water by practicing and encouraging others to practice "invention that is born, as the fabulous animals were born, from the faculty of creating new relations between elements that are dissociated in daily life" (Cortázar 1977, 55). Thus Cortázar describes the task of the revolutionary writer in relation to his or her reality in a way very similar to C. L. R. James. Both believed that task to be extending the socialist society by forging connections (in language and via other media) between otherwise isolated instances. Cortázar's term for this revolutionary rearrangement of the elements of the given, here and in many other places, was invention. In two other little texts on the subject - "Broken Doll" and "Glass with Rose" - Cortázar describes this idea of revolutionary invention as the genesis of 62: A Model Kit, the very novel that Collazos and other politically oriented critics lamented as an escapist, formalist turning point in Cortázar's work (Cortázar 1986a and 1986b).
Cortázar's political position, I mean the public stances he took on the political issues of his time were always rooted in a basic affirmation of this sort. He wrote in 1967 to Roberto Fernández Retamar, cultural eminence of the revolutionary government in Cuba, that the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and its first few years in power were to him "an incarnation of the cause of man as I had finally come to understand it and yearn for it. . . based on the essential facts of human existence, on the fundamental ethos - the simple yet inconceivably difficult principle that humanity will begin to be worthy of its name on the day in which the exploitation of man by man comes to an end." (Cortázar 1989, 78) Elsewhere in the letter, Cortázar made clear that he was affirming these values not as a Latin American, nor as an intellectual, nor even as a Marxist. He accepted this political stance as the only one that was consonant, given the present, with a deeper vision of the world and of the human being's place in it, and in turn this deeper vision was the one that also drove Cortázar to live his personal life as he lived it, to write his words down as he wrote them. This isn't to make of Cortázar some implausible ideal of perfect integrity. To be human, particularly to be a human being as Cortázar was, means to be in such sensitive contact with the world that I know that change, on one scale or another, is constant and inevitable. It is to know, consequently, that my vision can only ever be partial and always in relation to this or that contingent, local situation or event and this, of course, would entail change and growth, contradiction and revision. I'm holding only that his political positions were more consistent than not with the underlying way of seeing and being in the world that shaped his writing, and that these still have something useful to say to us today.
Cortázar pushed the work of imagination to the limit and found that its paths don't lead away from the world, from the life of the world and the people in it, but directly to the heart of the world, to a heart of the world throbbing still beneath the crust of party banners and platforms. He could say, and have earned the assertion in an honest engagement with his many and varied impulses, "In the most gratuitous thing I might write, there will always appear a will to make contact with the historical present of man, to share in his long march toward excellence as a collectivity and as humanity" (Cortázar 1989, 83).
This is the poem "Sílaba viva," or "Living Syllable":
"Qué vachaché, está ahí aunque no lo quieran,
está en la noche, está en la leche,
en cada coche y cada bache y cada boche
está, le largarán los perros y lo mismo estará
aunque lo acechen, lo buscarán a troche y moche
y él estará con el que luche y el que espiche
en todo el que se agrande y se repeche
él estará, me cachendió." (Cortázar 1969, 11)
I don't know how to translate this poem because it is literally about the sound "che" that appears in a number of words that might otherwise not be found together in the same piece of language: night (noche), milk (leche), car (coche), pothole (bache), brawl (boche), hunt (acechen), pell-mell (a troche y moche), fights (luche), speechifies (espiche), leans (repeche), goddamn it (me cachendió). All these words, in Spanish, have the syllable "che" in them. Cortázar tells us that this syllable is everywhere, even if you don't want it, even if you try to hunt it down, it will be there, in all these words. "Che" is also a kind of filler phrase common to Argentine Spanish, so common in fact that Argentines are sometimes known as "che's". Now Argentines have a famously vexed relationship with other Latin Americans, who feel, perhaps rightly, that Argentines consider themselves superior, more "European" than other Latin Americans. Maybe this poem is a little joke, by an Argentine, that says to other Spanish speakers: no matter how much you'd like to get rid of us, we will be everywhere.
Maybe it's also just nonsense, or, in the specialized vocabulary of literary studies, pure formalism: not about anything other than the language, the sound of the words themselves. Words usually work like paths to get you somewhere. Maybe to an intended idea, or an object in the world, or to an understanding with another person. You might consider the sensual qualities of the path only insofar as these help you get somewhere else or keep you from getting somewhere else; wherever you think you want to go. With this little poem, Cortázar offers you an opportunity to notice the sensual qualities of the path for their own sake, for the sake of the pleasure or irritation they provoke when they pop up in relief alongside and against the ordinary meanings of words. Maybe, then, it is a "living syllable" ("sílaba viva") because it appears to have a life of its own dancing in and out of the words we discover. And it is also a "living syllable" because it is free not only to participate in the conveying of meaning, but also to exist for its own sake, for the sake of the sound that it is and the sensate experience it delivers to you. In short, perhaps the syllable is "living" because, for it, work (meaning) and play (sound) are one.
It's a poem that suggests all this just by being about a syllable, "che". But by being about that particular syllable, the poem opens itself back out again into the world of things and people that are named by words. For the syllable "che" also names an individual, Che Guevara, the asthmatic Argentine physician who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution before resigning his position in Fidel's new government to take the revolution elsewhere. Che was killed in Bolivia in October, 1967. Cortázar wrote this poem not long after that. "Sílaba viva" - "Living Syllable." And now I will translate:
"Whatcha gonna do about it, he's there even if you don't want him,
he is in the night, he is in the milk,
in every car and every pothole and every brawl
he is, you will send the dogs after him and all the same he will be
though you hunt him, you search for him haphazardly
and he will be with whoever fights and makes speeches
and in everything that grows and leans
he will be, god damn it."
Cortázar certainly believed that Che Guevara fought and died to allow people to live, in just the sense that the syllable "che" was living. In paying homage to Guevara's effort, and in making "che" a living syllable, Cortázar also reveals the ways in which Che, the person, remains alive.
Now this poem stuns me because it contains and resolves perhaps the central tension that marked Cortázar's life as a writer. People who study Cortázar, even people who loved him, seem to fall into one of two parties: the party of literature and the party of politics. The party of literature says Cortázar was a great writer until around 1968, roughly the time he wrote this poem, because he respected the intrinsic power of literature and never mobilized it for extrinsic purposes like a political cause. The party of politics says Cortázar was a good playful writer until around 1968, roughly the time he wrote this poem, when he began to accept his responsibility as a writer and stopped goofing around to mobilize his skill for political purposes. I exaggerate only slightly. In this little poem, Cortázar, like the syllable and person he writes about, eludes those who would hunt him down and dismiss him with labels and judgments - and remember that "eluding", however deadly serious a game it might have been for Che, always bears the marks of its origins in the Latin word [ludere] that means "to play."
But Cortázar's poem notwithstanding, Che is, in fact, dead. The Latin American literary "Boom" that Cortázar helped in 1963 to inaugurate with Hopscotch is dead. The utopian aspirations of the 1960s and early 1970s that swept Latin America, and much of the world, and with which Cortázar and a number of other "Boom" authors identified their works are dead. And Julio Cortázar himself, of course, is dead. So it's fair to wonder whether all that I have elaborated in this essay is of purely historical interest, useful for understanding only the ways in which one writer tried to live, think, and write his time and place. It might seem reasonable to conclude first, that his time and place are simply too different from ours so that second, his ways of thinking that time and place and, particularly his notion of invention, simply have no point of contact with our own time and place. I will conclude here, however, by arguing that this is not the case for two principal reasons: first, because Cortázar, as we have seen, was never quite as at home in the vocabularies of his time and place as the collective, retrospective image of him among literary critics would have; and second, because his time and place might just as easily be seen as the beginning of our time and place rather than the last gasp of a misguided utopianism.
This last point, at least, echoes the way that the Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt read the last thirty-five or so years of history (Negri and Hart 1994; 2000; 2004). The usual rationale for seeing the upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s as the end of something is that around 1973 and in the years following capital undertook a series of transformations in its own operations and in relation to the state and to labor. "Late capitalism", "post-fordism", "flexible accumulation" are some of the terms that are given to this new configuration of capitalism in our time. And it is held therefore that a range of older vocabularies for thinking critically about capitalist societies and cultures no longer engage this new reality: with its global flows of virtual money, its dearticulation and globalization of the labor process to avoid the demands of organized labor, and its weakening of the social functions of the state. But Negri and Hardt see things differently. They view the new initiatives of capital and its states (whether nominally capitalist or communist) as a response dictated by the political forces unleashed during the 1960s and early 1970s.
This certainly helps us understand the history of Latin America from Cortázar's time to the present. Most observers of recent Latin American history agree that the region has undergone major and probably irreversible transformations over the past few decades (Williams, 2-8). The counter-revolutionary dictatorships that took power in much of the region in the 1970s cleared the social and political ground of the region for the implementation of neoliberal reforms that occurred on the watch of the formally democratic regimes that followed in the 1980s and that remain in place in most of the region. In the process, many of the social and economic responsibilities previously assumed by Latin American states have now been reassigned to the private sector; that is, to the global market. This process, now three decades in the making, began, in the most immediate terms, as the response to the growing threat of revolutionary socialism, initiated in 1959 with the victory of Fidel Castro in Cuba and spread in myriad forms throughout the 1960s to Nicaragua, Peru, Colombia Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, and El Salvador, to name just the most well-known instances.
In short, the period of widespread, utopian hopes of transformation - whether social or psychological - that marked the Latin American 60s, as they marked the 60s in so many parts of the world, provoked first, an astonishingly brutal backlash and then, the endless horizon of free-market reforms under the auspices of globalization and what one observer has termed "low intensity democracy". And certainly, in the process, the period of the 60s and early 70s has come to appear as either a best-forgotten period of subversive danger (from the extreme right), a best-forgotten period of idealistic, but misplaced, energies (among liberals), or a best-forgotten period of inspiring but now irredeemably outdated political and social visions and strategies (among those on the left).
The critical transformation, for those who feel that neoliberal globalization has rendered obsolete the political vocabularies and visions of Cortázar's time, is that the current configuration of capital seems both so extensive and so intensive that it no longer permits the credible assumption of any position outside of its operation. And, since so many of the political strategies of the 1960s inherited and reproduced a belief in the necessity of such a position - the vanguard faction in politics or in culture, the rural or urban guerrilla cell -- then they can no longer be of use to us today. Dreams of a radically pure leverage point outside of capital's operation from which an equally radically pure and total transformation of capitalist society into a utopian alternative simply don't hold up under the conditions of contemporary capitalism. In effect, what is argued is that the immanent surface of contemporary capital has disabled the transcendent revolutionary rhetoric and strategy of the 60s.
Stated in these terms, that argument seems reasonable enough. However, it rests on two assumptions that Negri, in my opinion, convincingly debunks. The first assumption concerns what we might call, simply, the priority of capitalist initiative. In the argument above, capital sets the term and the left can only respond. Within what Harry Cleaver has called "workerist" Marxism - of which C. L. R. James forms a major moment, as does Negri and the Italian political movement of Autonomia - the development of capital is dictated always be the initiatives of labor or, as Negri comes to term it more recently: "multitude" (Cleaver, 43-66). The second assumption entails a homogenization of the "60s" as a period of exclusively transcendental political rhetoric of total revolution. It may well be that this in fact is the retrospective, collective perception we have of that period. But a closer look at the cultural and political initiatives of the period might reveal more a more complex situation wherein, if indeed many political and cultural movements sought to leverage a total transformation of Western society from a privileged transcendent space immune to the effects of that society, other political and cultural movements conceived of transformation as a more immanent (and sometimes transitory) process of creating temporary autonomous zones out of the heterogeneous spaces and elements given in Western capitalist societies; something along the lines of what we have seen in C. L. R. James and Cortázar.
With these alternative assumptions in mind, we might construct a different version of the decades that have passed since the heyday of Cortázar's interventions. For example, in Hardt and Negri's version of events, to summarize briefly, capital - which he recasts as "Empire" in order to better take into account the essentially super- and extra-national nature of its dynamics -- responded to the significant worldwide insurrection of 1960s and 70s by diffusing itself; in a sense, by disassembling itself as an obvious target for and so eluding a political strategy that placed itself outside the terrain of capitalist operation (Hardt and Negri 2000, 260-79; Negri 2004, 59-72). But in doing so, capital (and for that matter, most of the Left) mistook the critical dimension of that insurrection. What really threatened capital in the movements of the 1960s and 70s was not the oppositional purity of the militants nor the total and transcendental scope of their aspirations for change, but precisely the opposite: the degree to which these movements mixed heterogeneous elements together -- the classroom, the home, the factory, the bedroom, the rock concert, the film - and identified all of them as sites for the release of creative energies they saw as deadened by the effects of capital; sites whose transformative value they steadfastly refused to gauge by their potential to revolutionize all of capitalist space, for once and for all. Capital, then, was already a step behind the multitude when it undertook its neoliberal reconfigurations. And in this sense, for Hardt and Negri, the response that the 1960s and early 70s provoked in capital and in its states and cultures did little more than underline the reality already perceived by the militants of that time and so fuel the fire and augment the sheer numbers of those feeling the weight of capitalist power upon their lives.
If Negri, for his part, is sensitive to this possibility and capable of producing best-selling descriptions of it, then that is probably because the Italian Autonomia movement of the 1960s and 1970s of which he was an integral part already was living that time and place in that way (Virno and Hardt; Cleaver, 51-66; Negri 1984, 19-30). The great strengths - and some on the Left would say weaknesses - of Autonomia lay in that that it did not prioritize spaces of revolutionary activity, that it refused to grant transcendent power to any single vision of what the outcome of revolutionary activity should be, and that it rejected any model of revolutionary activity that located transformative power anywhere other than in the self-valorizing activities of a heterogeneous group of individuals - housewives, students, professors, factory workers, etc. - engaged in the process of reconfiguring the relations that made up their daily lives - from the bedroom to the classroom, from the demonstration to the factory floor - so as to realize their creative potential (Agamben; Negri 1989; Negri 2004).
This in turn gives us a way to get a handle on Cortázar's own vexed relationship to the political vocabularies of his own time and indeed to the curious reception (or lack thereof) that his writing has received of late (see Alonso 1-3; Larsen 57-8). For we can now see that many of Cortázar's political interventions were made precisely to remind fellow travelers first, to be sensitive to and appreciative of the vital, transformative value of mixing heterogeneous elements and second, of where they were ceding power, even if only to their own ideals - revolution, socialism, engagement -- converted into transcendent norms that up wound disabling the inventive, constituent powers they'd been exercising. In his book on Spinoza, Negri elaborates the difference between Power ("the centralized, mediating, transcendental force of command" - potestas) and power ("the local, immediate, actual force of constitution" - potentia) (Negri 1991, xiii). In the later work Insurgencies Negri offers a history of the antagonism between these two forces, now renamed "constituted" and "constituent" power (Negri 1999, 303-313). It would not be too much to say that Cortázar mobilized invention - both the word and the activity - always in the service of constituent power (what I earlier called "those-with-power-to". This is why Cortázar would at times precisely antagonize his comrades on the Left whenever he believed that they were losing what we might call the internal battle with constituted power. Thus, in his own time, Cortázar was received as either too right or too left, not because he was in the middle, but rather because he was always moving with the current of constituent power. And thus also, with the homogenizing retrospective view that we have today of his times as a time of utopian, transcendental revolutionary energy, we cast away the baby of a constituent power that remains active and relevant today with the bathwater of the occasional over-strides of that power into constitution.
Hardt and Negri encourage us, in Empire and its companion volume Multitude as in all of Negri's earlier, more systematic and difficult writings in political philosophpy, to recognize that we have power and, indeed, that nothing could be a more obvious sign of that power than the responses of capitalism and its states and cultures to our last great exercise of that power. All of the concepts and practices of Autonomia (for Negri might best be seen simply as the participant in Autonomia who, for various reasons, has gained a voice in the United States) suggest that what was most significant for our time in the struggles of the 1960s and early 70s was the emphasis on revolutionary activity as the immanent, creative reconfiguration of the relations making up the fabric of our lives and our society in such a way as would free up the true potency of the human subject. It is in this sense that I began by suggesting that our possible truth, like Cortázar's, must be invention. And it is in this sense that I believe further understanding invention and its possible relevance to our time could supply us with yet another critical tool with which to think - and invent - another possible present from among the elements of the one we have.
In this light, Cortázar's "Silaba viva", the poem that so playfully animated "Che", brings to mind a name, at once more contemporary and much older than Che's: "multitude", Negri's more recent term - drawn still, however, from Spinoza - for the agent of constituent power. Multitude, in this sense, need not designate any actual population. Rather, it is the name that points to and connects together any manifestation of the affirmative, constitutive force that strains or even blows through the forces that would command, would name, would narrow our being to any particular facet or function. Che, the multitude, works whenever we assert that we are more than any name Power would impose upon us, more than any categorized social function it would command us to fulfill. In this sense, we constitute Che, we constitute the multitude wherever and whenever we insist we are "more than...": more than foreign, more than exiles, more than socialist, more than citizens, more than intellectuals, more than artists, more than organisms mining coal for profit, more than hungry, more than productive, more than critical, more than rich, more than resisting, more than human.
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