Play First

 The simple, straight line of the Interstate yields to a smooth surface. Upon this surface, thin blue lines--back roads--scamper crazily in all directions, colliding like bumblebees in flight. Folding themselves around towns, river bends, factories, mountains, cemeteries, farms. Small town main streets force slow-downs. Intersections distract me. I stop thinking in terms of hundreds of miles. I stop thinking in terms of hours to destination. I start to think smaller. I start to think more deeply. I start to think more concretely. The smell of cherry pie in that diner. That tree next to the slide, bent over like an old weaver's hands. The strange sign up on the right after the stoplight. The restless look in that teenager's eyes. Almost naturally I begin to sprout little tendrils holding me in place. I am on the road with no destinations, on the road where everyplace is the destination, every forgotten corner of the country redeemed in this way. There are so many ways to get to there from here, and the most satisfying ones sometimes are those that pull the there out from under me so often and so abruptly that there is always here. Then I've crumpled space and time. My trip is over (since I'm always already there), and yet my trip has not begun (since I'm always only here). So I never move, and I never stop moving, infinite possibilities unceasingly open before me with every passing block and intersection. This is the generous universe. This is radical freedom.

* * *

I begin, again, now with an epigraph. This comes from a little book in which the twentieth-century Trappist monk, hermit, and poet, Thomas Merton, collects his rendering of what he called The Wisdom of the Desert:

The word to emphasize is experience. The few short phrases collected in this volume have little or no value merely as information. It would be futile to skip through these pages and lightly take note of the fact that the Fathers said this and this. What good will it do us to know merely that such things were once said? The important thing is that they were lived. (11)

This is reading to live.

2. Constellation

"The world," Julio Cortázar once wrote, "is a badly resolved problem if it does not contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others" (Imagen de John Keats 301; my translation). The poet, he continued, "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." Invention appears so frequently in Julio's works, at every stage of his career. That was an early example, from around 1950. Now listen to him over thirty years later, expressing the hope that he and his wife's chronicle of life on the road "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). Invention, throughout Julio'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. Think of a word as a situation. That situation is made up of elements called letters, configured in a given way according to certain rules. Now how can you make something new of that word? Consider the difference between a palindrome and anagram. "The problem with palindromes," says Lozano, the protagonist of Cortázar's story "Tara," is that "you are left the way you started" (32). A palindrome, which offers you a mirror image of a word, "has no strength because it doesn't teach you anything new" ("Tara" 32).1 But anagrams are a different story. The young girl from "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." She'll follow it until she's invented a new self for her self (Blow-Up and Other Stories 16).2 Anagrams make something new. The inventor of an anagram takes the hard fast frozen relations between letters that make up the given word and softens and melts them until the letters can dance around experimentally before plopping back down in unexpected new relations of proximity and distance.

Notice too that "es la reina y . . ." lies immanently in "Alina Reyes." Remember? When we were kids? There were these small puzzle toys: a little flat square piece of plastic with a slightly raised edge. Within this square, arrayed in a three by three grid, lay eight small plastic tiles, each stamped with a letter, together with one empty square. We slid the tiles around, making use of the empty square while constrained by the hard-raised edge of the toy, until we came up with words. That's invention. It takes an inventor to believe that something new lies unseen within the status quo. And it takes an inventor to play with the given relationships until she comes upon something new. Etymologically, remember, "invention" refers to the process of discovery, of "coming upon." From this example you can see one of the fundamental aspects of invention: it always works immanently. Nothing gets added from outside the given situation, and the original, given situation remains, now embedded, within the new one. No saviors other than those we can conjure up from whatever is lying around, outside and inside of us.

This sense of invention makes Julio himself a star in a constellation that includes the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who can help direct that sense of invention to the heart of the world in which we live. In a lecture written just before his death, Calvino noted that the Roman poet Lucretius saw letters as "atoms in continual motion, creating the most diverse words and sounds by means of their permutations" (26) so that "in the combinatoria of the alphabet" Lucretius "saw a model of the impalpable atomic structure of matter" (44-45). Lucretius shines now all the more brightly in this constellation I'm here inventing for he has of late become a hero to scientists interested in the behavior of systems, such as living systems, that exist far from equilibrium.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers summarize the pertinent Lucretian view: "Sometimes . . . at uncertain times and places, the eternal, universal fall of the atoms is disturbed by a very slight deviation--the 'clinamen.' The resulting vortex gives rise to the world, to all natural things" (141). This Lucretian hypothesis of a generative swerve closely resembles current beliefs among theorists of living systems concerning the disturbance or "disorder" out of which living things arise: "If the vertical fall were not disturbed 'without reason' by the clinamen, which leads to encounters and associations between uniformly falling atoms, no nature could be created" (303).3

Thinkers like stars. She invents the constellation. Atoms like letters. Atoms swerve out of barren, conventional flows into unpredictable encounters with each other. From these kinds of encounters spring all that is new. Letters like atoms. Julio begins with letters too and knocks them just slightly out of line in order to produce new words. "It is the ability of different organisms to exchange 'genetic information' with each other, the process the geneticist calls recombination, more popularly known as sex" (Mayr 18). Or making love. With atoms, like letters, like thinkers, like lovers, like stories, everything depends on what you can make of them. Can we make this story true? Can we make it live? Can we live with it?

Invention is the name that Julio gives to the process of creating something new by rearranging the relations comprising something old. Its versatile applicability to generative processes ranging from the physical to the intellectual, from the spiritual to the emotional, from the social to the artistic partly explains the vital urgency with which Horacio Oliveira, at one of the possible beginnings of Julio's most famous novel Hopscotch, announces that in "an age in which we run toward deception through infallible equations and conformity machines," "our possible truth must be invention" ["nuestra verdad posible tiene que ser invención]" (383-84).4

94. Bunnies

"Letter to a Young Lady in Paris" is a suicide note. Its author is a man who has been staying in the empty Buenos Aires apartment of his friend Andrea, who lives in Paris. He's only stayed there for a few weeks. It seems to be a nice apartment. So what drives him to destroy himself?

Is it the live bunnies that, as he explains to his friend, it occurs to him from time to time to vomit?5 But that's never been a big deal before. "It's no reason," for example, "not to live in whatever house, it's no reason for one to blush and isolate oneself and to walk around keeping one's mouth shut" ("Letter" 37). After all, it only happens every four to six weeks, he can keep them on the terrace of his apartment, where he grows clover, and then give them to his landlady who merely thinks of rabbit breeding as an odd habit. Even when he first arrives at the apartment, as he's climbing the staircase, and he vomits a little bunny, he doesn't see a problem. He's got things under control, bunny vomiting and all. As he explains, "Habits . . . are concrete forms of rhythm, they are that portion of rhythm which helps to keep us alive. Vomiting bunnies wasn't so bad once one had gotten into the unvarying cycle, into the method" (38).

But the cycle is variable, and in fact, it does vary. After that first one on the stairs of her apartment, that very night he vomits another, "And two days later another white one. And the fourth night a tiny gray one" (39). Before long there are ten of them. He keeps them in the wardrobe. The housekeeper suspects nothing because he spends every minute of his waking hours putting things back in order. "Andrea, I don't know how I stand up under it. You remember that I came to your place for some rest. It's not my fault if I vomit a bunny from time to time" (41). But he consoles himself that there are ten and no more, that after the first flurry he's gone fifteen days with no more bunnies. "Only ten, think of that little happiness I have in the middle of it all, the growing calm . . ." (43). He has begun to adjust.

But the cycle is variable, and in fact, it does vary. He finishes his letter the next day. "I've written this because it's important to me to let you know that I was not all that responsible for the unavoidable and helpless destruction of your home . . . I'm not so much to blame, you'll see when you get here that I've repaired a lot of the things that were broken with the cement I bought in the English shop, I did what I could to keep from being a nuisance" (43-44). It seems that one more has come, and his confidence in the invariability of the new cycle is shattered beyond what he can repair with the cement he bought in the English shop. "Ten was fine, with a wardrobe, clover, and hope, so many things could happen for the better. But not with eleven, because to say eleven is already to say twelve for sure, and Andrea, twelve would be thirteen" (44). So it is the bunnies--or rather, their uncontrollable proliferation--that drive him to kill himself. But the question now is: what drives the acceleration of his bunny production?

Here it is important to resist the temptation to ignore the bunnies, to see through them and assign them some kind of purely symbolic or representational function.6 The bunnies are not poems. The bunnies do not stand for anything. If we are listening faithfully to the narrator, we ought to be as matter-of-fact about the bunnies as he is. There's nothing extraordinary here, nothing to be ashamed of, as he says. He just vomits bunnies from time to time. Some people have irritating laughs, other people have irrepressible gas. So the question is not what the bunnies are nor what they mean. They are bunnies, and they don't mean anything. We might get further by asking: what do they do? And how do they work? That might be a way to look at it: this man is a rabbit-producing machine, the machine has gone into overproduction. What does it do? "They've nibbled away a little at the books on the lowest shelf, you'll find the backs repasted, which I did so that Sara [the housekeeper] wouldn't notice it. That lamp with the porcelain belly full of butterflies and old cowboys, do you like that very much?" (41). That's what it does: the rabbit-producing machine that this man has become destroys his friend's apartment.

But why? Or better yet, for what purpose? He keeps insisting toward the end of the letter that it's not his fault, not his fault that he vomits bunnies, not his fault that the apartment will be a mess. He keeps insisting because it "offends" him "to intrude on a compact order, built even to the finest nets of air, networks that in your environment conserve the music in the lavender, the heavy fluff of the powder puff in the talcum, the play between the violin and the viola in Ravel's quartet" (35). It "hurts" him "to come into an ambience where someone who lives beautifully has arranged everything like a visible affirmation of her soul, here the books (Spanish on one side, French and English on the other), the large green cushions there, the crystal ashtray that looks like a soap-bubble that's been cut open on this exact spot on the little table, and always a perfume, a sound, a sprouting of plants, a photograph of the dead friend, the ritual of tea trays and sugar tongs" (35).

Now, why again? Why is it so painful and offensive to him even to enter, let alone tamper with, a closed order? Listen to him again:

How much at fault one feels taking a small metal tray and putting it at the far end of the table, setting it there simply because one has brought one's English dictionaries and it's at this end, within easy reach of the hand, that they ought to be. To move that tray is the equivalent of an unexpected horrible crimson in the middle of one of Ozenfant's painterly cadences, as if suddenly the strings of all the double basses snapped at the same time with the same dreadful whiplash at the most hushed instant in a Mozart symphony. Moving that tray alters the play of relationships in the whole house, of each object with another, of each moment of their soul with the soul of the house and its absent inhabitant. And I cannot bring my fingers close to a book, hardly change a lamp's cone of light, open the piano bench, without a feeling of rivalry and offense swinging before my eyes like a flock of sparrows. (35-36)

"Alters the play of relationships in the whole house." What's at issue here is invention, Julio's word for the alteration of the play of relationships in any system. He enters a closed order, with the relationships fixed, and it is intolerable to him to invent. But this would not be a problem for anyone unless that someone, like our narrator here, wants to invent, desires invention. That's the problem. He desires invention (wants to move the tray, the book, the lampshade, the piano bench), but he fears it or its consequences and so disavows his desire.

Now the functioning of this rabbit production grows clearer. It is nothing more than the narrator's desire for invention. What do the rabbits he vomits do? They "alter the play of relationships in the whole house." Where do they come from? Himself. He can say it's not his fault. He can say that he did his best to control the damage. And that is true insofar as it goes, insofar as it is a question of ego. But that's not very far. To the degree that his excuse fails to embrace--or even to take responsibility for--the production of his own desire, his denials are not only false, but a reproduction of the mistake that got the whole machine started in the first place: the disavowal of desire. He can say he didn't want to come to the apartment at all. He can say he didn't mean to mess it up, but everything happens as though he did. Yet to his last moment he persists in the fatal flaw of disavowing his desire and its effects. Indeed, with his last words, in which he describes the results of his suicide precisely in terms of an alteration of an established order, he worries mainly about the mess: "I don't think it will be difficult to pick up eleven small rabbits splattered over the pavement, perhaps they won't even be noticed, people will be too occupied with the other body, it would be more proper to remove it quickly before the early students pass through on their way to school" ("Letter" 44).

Understanding that he is unable to take responsibility for this desire for invention and its effects, and believing that desire will produce effects, one way or the other, that it will always find a way to work, we can now see more easily why the man becomes intolerable to himself. He has turned into a machine for producing the materialization of his own worst fears: invention. Then, instead of accepting the marvelous expression of his own desire for invention, instead of surfing the wave or riding the thermal of this productive force, he grows ashamed and is everywhere trying to cover it up: to erase the effects of what he has done, even as he is claiming that he didn't know he was doing it. Until, ultimately, he must erase himself.

26. Shadows

Thirty years ago, probably in the late summer of 1968, Cortázar was in southern France, at his farmhouse outside the village of Saignon, near the city of Apt in Provence. It was evening. As his friends prepared a meal, he walked slowly down the path from the village, where he had gone to empty the trash, to the house. He thought of a cloud that he used to see from this vantage point in summers past, a cloud he called "the Magritte cloud." But it did not appear that evening. Nor, he reflected, would Rene Magritte himself, who died in 1967, shortly before Cortázar took this evening stroll, ever appear again. Nor, he thought, would Che Guevara, killed in October of 1967, nor Victor Brauner. Nor, Cortázar might as easily have also thought, would Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Steinbeck, or Carson McCullers, all of whom had died or would die around the time of his walk. Nor, for that matter, hundreds of citizens of Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, or Prague; nor thousands of Israelis and Arabs, nor tens of thousands of young Americans and Vietnamese. As he left behind the vista of his valley, chilled now by the creeping shadows of the setting sun, Cortázar thought sadly of death and of how its work had impoverished the world, but he also affirmed a vital, inventive strategy for overcoming it: "only defense: to play with death ironically, to kill it learning and teaching to live better" ("Uno de tantos días en Saignon" 23; my translation).

He dwelled on death, and then he paused. To live better is to elude the shadows of death when they creep into life: to elude fear, selfishness, numb routine, violence. What a lesson for me. Death I fear because it is unknown, and because it presents me with a word for the loss of self, the complete loss of self. This basic confrontation--me in the face of uncertainty and the loss of self--comes up many times in my life, in many forms. These are the moments when to play with death means acknowledging its presence, smiling at the fear, at the tightening of my grip, the impulse to control or to dominate, smiling at these before eluding them ("elude" comes from the Latin word for playing) with a great leap or dive into uncertainty, experiment, and exploration. The unknown, the present moment: "the trick" says Zen master Pema Chödrön, "is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That's what we thought" (5). This is a root sense of invention: to discover or to come upon. As in what happens when you set out on the back roads sinrumbo, without a destination. So invention comes in again as one name for "learning and teaching to live better" in the face of that ultimate limit, the big rule, called death.

Then it seems to me that the basic situation of Julio in his world becomes even clearer. Twentieth-century technologies--inventions, in short--take in life at one end and turn out death at the other. Julio takes up this death, runs it through the mill of his invention, and turns out life.

25. The Tenth

Lao Tzu explains that "Between birth and death, / Three in ten are followers of life, / Three in ten are followers of death, / And men just passing from birth to death also number three in ten / . . . / because they live their lives on the gross level." What about the tenth? "He who knows how to live can walk abroad / without fear of rhinoceros or tiger. / He will not be wounded in battle. / For in him rhinoceros can find no place to thrust their horn, / Tigers no place to use their claws, / And weapons no place to pierce. / . . . / Because he has no place for death to enter" (Tao Te Ching, poem 50).

She has the ability to walk abroad, to expose herself to the foreign, without fear. The ability to venture forth, to take risks or what seem like risks to the rest of us. Because she knows how to live, because she has no place for death to enter, she can travel, she can wander among the unfamiliar, the strange, the unknown, she can be an alien, or she can be--it is the same--at home everywhere, like the snail, Julio's favorite animal. Safe always because safety has ceased to be an obsession. "To know how to live" is "to have no place for death to enter" is to have no fear, is to have no attachments. How did she get that way? She is not a follower of life. She is not a follower of death. She is not just passing through. She doesn't live her life on the gross level. She lives instead among particulars, where the microscopic grows rapidly large with attention. This is to know how tolive (a verb in the infinitive, overflowing the abstract nouns "life" or "death," and bursting beyond numbly "just passing through"). "Life" and "death" become words and concepts from the gross level when they are cut into standards to be followed. She ducks beneath these banners, turns her back, eludes them, noticing not the words, but the weave of the threads, the curious fleeting play of light and dark off a fold bent by the gusting wind. "Life" reveals itself to her as concrete process. She lives, knowing how to live here, now, in a thicket of jostling molecules, always present, never taking flight to a future (fear or hope), never slipping back, slimy, into the past (regret or satisfaction); she moves here and now, where living ceaselessly unfolds and the doors of death dissolve magically. Fearlessly, she experiments and plays with the unknown before her slow, open eyes.

20. Twilight

In Spanish the book is called Salvo el crepúsculo. In English it's called Save Twilight. The title comes from a poem by the seventeenth-century Zen poet Basho. The poem goes like this: "This road / nobody's traveling it / save twilight." What is the road that nobody travels save twilight? But maybe there, with that question, I've made a little mistake. It's not a unique road. It's just an ordinary road, an extraordinary road. I see a Van Gogh road, lying flat and straight and dirt and roaring colors right through the country fields. Nobody is on this road, and the sun is shooting long light and long shadows from over the top of the horizon, setting the wheat ablaze. Twilight is a time in the middle, a tricky time of grays tinged with fading sunshine. Hard things melt into the background. Twilight is uncertainty. It calls for what John Keats called "Negative Capability, that is when men are capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact&reason" (The Letters of John Keats 43).7 Maybe this poem calls for it also. It is a mystery and also not a mystery because there is nothing to solve. And maybe the mystery begins to fade into my self, and my self begins, when I stop trying to solve the mystery, to fade into the stark play of sunlight and shadows on the road.

Basho took his name from a banana tree planted on the grounds of a hermitage built for him. He loved the banana tree "for its very uselessness." And he described his own poetry this way: "like a stove in summer or a fan in winter. It runs against the popular tastes and has no practical use" (The Roaring Stream 305). Perfect inutility. Is it hard to settle there? Maybe Basho can help. "Go to the pine," he says, "if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one--when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural--if the object and yourself are separate--then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit" (The Roaring Stream 305-06).

When I leave my striving self behind, the self that wants to solve and know, then I can begin to learn. Which is to say also that I can begin to play the chameleon. Finally, Basho sent his body forth to materialize this aimless wandering intimacy: "I've worn out my body in journeys as aimless as those of the winds and clouds, expending my feelings on flowers and birds" (306).

Julio, for his part, begins with a question, a long poetic question entitled "To Be Read in the Interrogative":

Have you seen

have you truly seen

the snow the stars the felt steps of the breeze

Have you touched

really have you touched

the plate the bread the face of that woman you love

so much

Have you lived

like a blow to the head

the flash the gasp the fall the flight

Have you known

known in every pore of your skin

how your eyes your hands your sex your soft heart

must be thrown away

must be wept away

must be invented all over again (2-3)8

It's just a question. But notice the movement in it: from "seen" to "touched" to "lived" to "known." At each point, I am asked to test the depths I've reached. When it comes to knowing, the test is whether I have known my own perishability ("your eyes your hands your sex your soft heart / must be wept away") and this knowledge is equated with invention ("must be invented all over again").

Invented all over again. A continual invention: moment by moment, from each to the next, my shifting cloud self must be rearranged. Now the poem runs itself backward before my eyes. Now to know the truth deeply, to know the inevitability of my mutation, to know that invention, ceaseless invention, is the only response; to know all this, to know all this with my body is to be driven to live the instant, and to be driven to live the instant is really to touch and really to see what is in front of me. So the poem should be read as a question. But if I read it backwards, it feels like a response to itself: if I know my own perishability, myself as nothing more than a continuous invention, then I will live each moment fully connected to the world. And this response seems to me to echo the poetic wisdom of Basho and Keats, who counseled also to leave behind "the subjective preoccupation with the self" (Basho 306) and the "irritable grasping after fact&reason" (Keats 43) and just let the world invade me, let my self go.

63. Finding Something to Say

Intently, I searched for the house of invention this morning, or searched, rather, for its blueprints. I was looking for the master plan so that I could find Julio's room. The life of my own house--my kids and their overnight guest reading and playing, the two tiny refugee kittens curled up safe in the file box behind me, all of this--went on around me almost unnoticed and certainly not engaged. I even passed up, so focused was I upon the object of my search, a trip to Sunday market in Etla.

It was just then that the wind blew across my path a remarkable book (a book I'd read already once without noticing) by Gerald Bruns called Inventions. He wants, as he begins by saying,

to give an example of a criticism that has no greater ambition than to discover [Gk. heuresis, Lat. inventio--Eureka!] what can be said in any given case. Such a criticism may be called rhetorical, because it is more concerned with finding than with proving, is more speculative than analytical, more heuristic than polemical, the more so as it requires a discourse that proceeds thoughtfully [he might have said "mindfully"], even copiously, but not necessarily with great method or system. (1)

"Method in criticism," Bruns reminds me, "is an alternative to invention," which is "the art of finding things to say, and saying them, for whatever purpose." He's talking about what I've been doing here: wandering around in the labyrinth, in the forest of Julio's words, stumbling into a fragment, picking it up, saying what I have found to say about it, before putting it down to continue my wandering. "It will appear to many," Bruns warns me, "that such criticism fails by desiring no results, only talk, when results are what we need, for they are the index of our proceedings and the assurance we are getting somewhere. But the rhetorician does not desire to get anywhere [autonautadelacriticopista?]: this is a primary meaning of his disregard of method" (2). So wander on the backroads. So play first. Beware the impulses that would restrain invention:

The philosopher is naturally defined by a position, the rhetorician by an occasion [like catching this passage on a breeze] . . . The desire to reduce things to their natures, or to remove their contingencies and local identities, is a philosophical desire, nor is anything more admirable than to yield to philosophy, thus perhaps to arrive at a conclusion, or to render a judgment, as on the best textual evidence, or according to an undeceptious method. For the rhetorician, however, nothing textual is ever evidentiary, and nothing methodical is very eloquent. What is evidentiary and what is methodical are often alike in being censorious. (2)

Beware, too, the intellectual tendencies prevailing in our shared profession, in 1982 as today:

Somewhere someone is no doubt thinking advanced thoughts about a theory of criticism raised on the principle of an open and complaisant delight in the discovery of things to say, but for my part I hope it never happens . . . a theory of the kind of criticism I have called rhetorical would be a vain expense of the spirit, especially since such a criticism would naturally hope to flourish--and would prevail in any case--outside or between the systematic constraints that normally hold the mind fast to theoretical positions or to linear and developing programs of thinking. To journey outside any sort of system is, of course, by turns dangerous and impossible, but it has always seemed to me that literary study remains virtuous in rough proportion as it is unassuming and un-confined. (Bruns 3-4).

Sure his opposition between the philosopher/theorist and the rhetorician is overstated. Sure it depends, anyway, on a limited definition of the philosopher. But if we keep in mind John Dewey's definition of the philosopher--I paraphrase--as someone who knows from the inside, and "theory's" etymological roots as a "way of seeing," we can accept his caution without needing to defend the territory of the philosopher or theorist. The names aren't the important thing anyway. The stance--and the effects--is what matters.

Finally, Professor Bruns (I use the title with the respect of a student for a master) offers an introductory primer in the art of criticism as invention, spinning his own words from the twin threads of "allegory" and "satire," over the course of seven very learned pages before abruptly ceasing: "Here is a good place to break off these reflections, for it is beyond my purpose or ability to get carried away by invention, which is often what happens, however [think of the infectious quality of Julio's inventions], because invention is meditative rather than systematic: it proceeds topically rather than methodically, follows courses of learning rather than of logic, and thus it is apt simply to stop rather than to end" (11-12).

Now, for some reason, when he here stops his eulogy to the art of finding something to say, this talker's way of doing criticism, I think of what Lao Tzu might find to say on this occasion, in the one passage of the Tao te Ching that truly vexes me and disturbs my peace: "Those who know do not talk. / Those who talk do not know" (poem 56).

96. Bow and Arrow

Julio would like to have been a hunter of sunsets, but what he would film tells much of his own writing and why we might want to read it. "I know that a good sunset doesn't last more than twenty minutes between climax and anticlimax, two things I would eliminate in order to leave only its slow internal play, its kaleidoscope of imperceptible mutations" ("Sunset Hunter" 101).9 Like so much in his writing, what matters in his sunsets are not those things called "beginning" and "end." The problem with the beginning and the end, the climax and the anticlimax, has to do with our conditioning. I'm talking about our habit of drawing straight lines with arrows pointing in only one direction whenever someone hands us two dots. When the dots-turned-endpoints-of-line stretch and curve into parentheses wrapped around something beautiful or vital or joyful, something separated from our workaday life. When that happens, that's when the habit of taking our sunsets or our art like medicine (whether we choke it down or lap it up) becomes life-threatening. That's the sign that perhaps we need less medicine and much more of what the medicine produces, just spread throughout our lives.

Julio's attention to the middle helps to disable those habits of attention (or lack thereof). It helps redirect our attention to process. With just about everything in Julio's universe--erotic couplings, moonlight, visions of harmony, walking the streets, whatever--there is constant movement. Things in motion can only be glimpsed. They can never be grasped whole (beginning to end), any more than those entities we call "selves" or "others" can be grasped whole and analyzed. Simply glimpsed, a glimpse then registered and sagely passed on (communicated like a virus) in other terms like a twist in a spiral. The kairos, in Greek, was "the right moment" or "the opportune." "In archery . . . an opening or 'opportunity' . . . a long tunnel-like aperture through which the archer's arrow has to pass." This requires timing and force. In weaving it is "the 'critical time' (the opening in time?) when the weaver must draw the yarn through a gap that momentarily opens in the warp of the cloth being woven" (White 13).

Eric Charles White turns kairos into a guidepost for invention: "kairos therefore counsels thought to act always, as it were, on the spur of the moment. Such an activity of invention would renew itself and be transformed from moment to moment as it evolves and adapts itself to newly emergent contexts. The fluid and relative moments of the immediate situation would be constitutively involved in the invention process, which would become an improvisational one, a more or less successful attempt to "make do" with whatever is conveniently at hand. Kairos thus establishes the living present as point of departure or inspiration for a purely circumstantial activity of 'invention.'" It's the art of good jazz, of good comedy, of good boxing, of good life--hence, perhaps, Julio's passion for these things.

All of it, all this attention, and skill in glimpsing, dexterity in improvisation, say, with a sunset, is vital, I mean vital, not because it "recharges our batteries" so we can totter mindlessly along behind the Energizer Bunny, but because it is the creation of moments "when, perhaps, we see ourselves a little more naked . . . and it's painful and useful; maybe others can make use of it too, you never know" ("Sunset Hunter" 102). Down here in Oaxaca, I know the sun is setting, not by looking West, but by what happens to the light lying upon the mountains to the East. Blinding, washed-out brightness of overhead sun yields to aura, glow of dusty green somehow passing into golds and reds and browns, before turning finally, just after my birds rise and take flight and . . . "maybe others can make use of it too, you never know."

"A true author," Julio once observed, "is one who stretches his bow to its full extent while writing, and afterwards hangs it on a nail and goes to drink wine with his friends. The arrow speeds through the air and will hit the target or not, as the case may be, only imbeciles will try to alter its course and give it extra shoves" (Guibert 295). Never try to grab a speeding arrow. That's good advice. But once the arrow has come to rest, once you come upon it, remember that for Nietzsche, a thinker is "an arrow shot by Nature that another thinker picks up where it has fallen so that he can shoot it somewhere else" (Deleuze ix).

8. Flying

Play is a thing by itself. The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness.

Johan Huizinga, HomoLudens (45)

What should I do if I want to fly? If I dream of flying, like the narrator of "The Poisons," but reality happens and I find I really can't? I might invent a new way of running: "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" ("Los venenos" 300; my translation). A little lesson in invention, as simple as making three by subtracting one from four. Running without bending my knees is like flying. I've not added any new ingredients to the situation. I've just imagined a new set of relations among the existing elements. I've always run, everyone runs, with bended knees. That's how it's done. But if I want a new running, if I want to invent a running that gives me the feeling of flying, like in my dreams, then I experiment, I rearrange the relations between tibia and femur, straightening what ought to be bent. I've also invented a new function for the muscles and joints of my legs and hips. It's still the same old junk, it's still called running. It's the same, but different; old, but new. And then I can run in my new way. In my new way, running dissolves the wall between your dreams and your reality. Henry Miller called this, in Sexus, "the art of dreaming when wide awake" (20).

This sort of childhood invention appears also in Julio's story "Silvia," and there it starts to look and work much like writing.10 The children, we are told, have invented Silvia. The grown-ups explain this to dismiss her, to ward her off. But make no mistake, Silvia works, like straightening your legs, to produce real effects: "Silvia lifted him up to the sink, washed his bottom, and changed his clothes" (187) "Silvia washed off the bump," "She plays with us," "She takes care of Renaud" (190), she played "a little game to console him" (189), Silvia "emerged from the darkness and leaned between Graciela and Alvaro as if to help them cut their meat or take a bite" (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, the capacity to do for yourself, freely to direct yourself. Silvia herself, invention though she may be, "does what she wants, the same as us," the children explain. It works much like inventing a new way of running. You desire a power or a capacity, but the world as it is can't or won't allow for it, so you invent a means to produce the same effects as if you had that power.11

Invention, beware, has the power to infect other areas of life. Alvaro may have 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" ([190] todoelmundo 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" (186). Childhood, then, is when we invent. This does not mean that we invent only when we are young in years. It means that when we invent, whenever we invent, there is childhood; there and then we partake of a flowing force which we may call childhood. It may be true that this force flows freely, on the surface of life, only in youth and that it then pursues its course underground, a subterranean river that will erupt from time to time, via certain individuals or groups, through fissures in the hard, crusty earth that is the adult-world of reason and renunciation, of exchange and obligation. But we're sadly mistaken if we believe that childhood happens only to children, or, if I might put it this way, that only children childhood. It could happen to you. It could happen to me. Before we know it, we might be dreaming when wide awake.

69. Dinosaurs

To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child's soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man's wisdom for the child's. 

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (119)

Here in Oaxaca, every evening just before sundown, as I practice my banjo in the living room window, a flock of pure white birds rises in sparse groups and flutters southward, reflecting young moonlight on many wings. Every morning just as the sun begins to glow over the same eastern mountains, as we've finished sitting and the coffee maker dripping in the dark kitchen is the only sound in the house, the same flock returns.

The other night I pointed them out to my eight year old son when we were up on the roof watching the full moon rise over mountains he calls "the sleeping dinosaurs." He said, "They look like flower petals blown by the wind." His eyes, his words transformed birds flying over mountainsides into flower petals blown across the bodies of giant sleeping dinosaurs. And I will never see them the same way again.

1. Rain is a Festival

I am sitting alone when the miracle happens and the toys begin to fall all around me in a gentle shower, falling slowly like snowflakes. They don't hurt. They aren't hard or sharp until they've splashed softly to the ground and then sprung back into the shape of an animal, a car, a balloon, a drum. I'm rolling in them and playing with them all at once somehow. Somehow I'm splashing crazily in this soft ocean that is each unique toy and all of them together all at the same time, and the rain of toys keeps falling warmly on my face, and the waves of toys are growing and crashing into me, knocking me down, laughing, into the sliding surf of toys, and the salty drops of toy go up my nose and down my throat, and I can feel the toy flowing inside and outside of me all at the same time. I stand on shaky legs, excited to share this wonder with my friends, smiles happy when they see that it is raining and toys and the ocean of toy and the toy inside you. I begin to gather the toy together as if it were an ordinary pile of toys, as if there were such a thing as an ordinary pile of toys. I'm already forgetting the magic. I begin to gather them together like ordinary toys, still happy but growing tense now, impatient to get these toys to my friends, they aren't so much fun now that they are more like the stupid old toys in my room, but I move my sweating little hands faster and faster clutching and grasping more and more, pulling them into my arms I am sweating, and as I try to stand with my arms full, the ball slips out of my arms and bounces into the ebbing tide of toys, I bend over to grab it back up again and a soldier falls to the ground followed by the clatter of a train engine. Stupid toys and my teeth hard against each other my eyes burning I will get you still I am stubborn pick you up little soldier in my arms and train engine and ball and take you to my friends at once while the mast of a sailing ship stabs me in the arm when I turn and everything clatters to the ground my legs do too so that I'm sitting burning eyes on the hard basement floor and there's no rain and the ocean seems so far away I can't see it and there's just stupid toys and the huge sobs, that ocean inside me, huge sobs exploding out of me, tossing me onto the concrete where the waves were, pounding my arms against the floor, huge, and my breath is coming in short, great hiccoughs, and then in a bit the huge sobs have passed through me and I am tired and lying on my side, and the little soldier is lying, tiny like my pinky next to me on the ground, propped up on his elbows, he's trying to get to my arm to crawl up to hide in the crevice of my elbow because he has to hide because otherwise the ball that's rolling now on its own toward him will crush him and flatten the bones in his legs but the ball will be stopped even if he can't get to my arm in time by his friends who are coming in the covered wagon drawn by snorting horses galloping madly like me with dust around them I think they will make it and stop the ball from flattening their friend come on come on my little soldier friend keeps bumping along on his elbows trying to make it but the ball is roaring like an ocean now come on little friend you can do it and then my friends big and little at the same time have leaped out of the covered wagon just before the ball roaring crashes into it just as the soldier makes it up onto my arm and the quiet whispering roar is the tide of the toy ocean laughing galloping up to grab my friends in a foamy finger and to toss us all into the air with the soldier and the wagon and the ball and I fall back on my back, scraping sand and salt in the scrape, but it doesn't hurt except my stomach from laughing and swallowing so many toys and they are falling again, plunking in fat toy drops down into the swelling waves of toys.

29. Writing Ocean Love

Here, on this tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand, writing seems almost to wither away. Almost. There is this, after all. But I fill up with this ocean, the sound of the waves fills me, the coconut trees lining the ridge across Thong Nai Pan Bay, inclined like me, toward that water. I fill up with the gentle drumming of the sea breeze in my ear, the intermittent rattling of coconut fronds above my head, the steadier rhythms of the waves--at this time of morning--just sliding up and softly slapping the beach before slipping back, folding into the water. I fill up even with the doing nothing (which is not, is never really nothing): eating, talking, looking, walking, sleeping, reading, blinking, breathing. And so filled, filled beyond my self, I don't feel much hunger for writing.

I see something clearly for a moment. The roots of a frustration I'd felt earlier. I had felt a general, vague impulse to write, but also somehow prevented from writing. Now I can see that I felt prevented because I didn't want, for the moment, to write a walk through Julio's writing. I didn't want to open his book, to look down, so overwhelmed am I, to the point of daily tears, by the flood of this place into my senses. But the mistake was thinking that a walk through his writing necessarily entails reading his words on a particular page of a book bearing his name. In fact, the most thrilling experience of Cortázar comes when I close the book, and still under the spell, newborn, turn instead into the breeze--it's picking up now, rippling waves into the surface of this cup of coffee--into that magical heaving light green water that moves me so deeply that I know with my flesh and blood and salty tears that I am somehow part of it and it of me. How can I feel anything but gratitude for the generosity of a writing, like Julio's, that lovingly, out of open hands, sends me, smiling and beaming and porous through and through, into the world outside his book. The raft is the raft, but it is not the other shore; the pointing finger is the pointing finger, but it is not the moon.12

In this respect, reading Julio works like a healthy love. Like what Nietzsche, at one moment, calls--contrasting it with the egoistic avarice of sexual love--"friendship": "Here and there on earth we may encounter a kind of continuation of love in which this possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for possession--a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them. But who knows such love? Who has experienced it? Its right name is friendship" (Nietzsche 89).13

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor


1 In Spanish, "Satarsa," Cuentos completos / 2 (443-53).

2 In Spanish, "Lejana (Diario de Alina Reyes)," Bestiario [1951]. Cuentos Completos / 1 (119-25).

3 Prigogine, in turn, owes his reading of Lucretius to the attentive and inspired, but somewhat less accessible, account given by Michel Serres, for example, in "Lucretius: Science and Religion," Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (98-124).

4 Hopscotch, trans. Gregory Rabassa. In Spanish, Rayuela [1963]: 438-39.

5 In Spanish, "Carta a una señorita en Paris," Bestiario [1951]. Cuentos Completos / 1 (112-18).

6 Though the highly respected Cortázar scholar Jaime Alazraki seems to see them as such in his "Introduction" to Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar (12).

7 "To George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 December 1817" (43).

8 In Spanish, "Para leer en forma interrogativa," Salvo el crepúsculo [1985] (60).

9 In Spanish, "Cazador de crepúsculos," Un tal Lucas [1979]. Cuentos Completos / 2 (284-85).

10 In Spanish, "Silvia," Ultimo round (81-92).

11 For scholarly readings of these two stories, see Terry J. Peavler, Julio Cortázar (27, 65-66) and Sarah King, "Julio Cortázar: The Fantastic Child" in Alazraki, ed.,Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar  (115-32).

12 I paraphrase words attributed to the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh in his fictionalized biography of Siddhartha Gautama entitled Old Path, White Clouds (197 and 218-19).

13 Jaime Alazraki, perhaps the preeminent academic critic on Cortázar, makes this point beautifully in the brief epilogue--"La literatura como amistad" ["Literature as Friendship"]--to his book Hacia Cortázar: aproximaciones a su obra (368).

Works Cited

Alazraki, Jaime. "La literatura como amistad." Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999. 367-69.

------. Hacia Cortázar: aproximaciones a su obra. Barcelona: Anthropos, 1994.

Berry, Wendell. Collected Poems, 1957-1982. San Francisco: North Point P, 1984.

Bruns, Gerald L. Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Understanding in Literary History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982.

Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Trans. Patrick Creagh. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Chödrön, Pema. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Boston: Shambhala, Random House, 1997.

Cortázar, Julio. Around the Day in Eighty Worlds. Trans. Thomas Christenson. San Francisco: North Point P, 1986.

------. "Carta a una señorita en Paris." Cuentos completos. Vol. 1. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994. 112-18.

------. A Certain Lucas. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Knopf, 1984.

------. "Cazador de crepúsculos." Cuentos completos. Vol. 2. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994. 284-85.

------. "The Distances." Blow-up, and Other Stories. New York: Collier Books, 1968. 15-24.

------. Hopscotch. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Random House, 1966.

------. Imagen de John Keats. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996.

------. "Lejana (Diario de Alina Reyes)." Cuentos completos. Vol. 2. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994. 119-25.

------. "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris." Blow-up, and Other Stories. New York: Collier Books, 1968. 35-44.

------. "Los venenos." Cuentos completos. Vol. 1. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994. 300-09.

------. "Para leer en forma interrogativa." Salvo el crepúsculo. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994. 60.

------. Rayuela. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984.

------. "Satarsa." Cuentos completos. Vol. 2. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994. 443-53.

------. "Silvia." Around the Day in Eighty Worlds. Trans. Thomas Christenson. San Francisco: North Point, 1986. 186-95.

------. "Silvia." Ultimo round. México: Siglo Veintiuno, 1969. 81-92.

------. "Sunset Hunter." A Certain Lucas. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Knopf, 1984. 100-02.

------. "Tara." Unreasonable Hours. Trans. Alberto Manguel. Toronto: Coach House P, 1995. 27-46.

------. "To be read in the interrogative." Save Twilight. Trans. Stephen Kessler. San Francisco: City Lights, 1997. 2-3.

------. Ultimo round. México: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1969.

------. "Uno de tantos días en Saignon." Ultimo Round. México: Siglo Veintiuno, 1969. 15-27.

Cortázar, Julio and Carol Dunlop. Los autonautas de la cosmopista. Madrid: Buenos Aires, 1996.

Cortázar, Julio, and Stephen Kessler. "To Be Read in the Interrogative." Save Twilight. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997. 2-3.

Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.

Foster, Nelson, and Jack Shoemaker. The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader. Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco P, 1996.

Guibert, Rita. "Julio Cortazar." Seven Voices; Seven Latin American Writers Talk to Rita Guibert. New York: Knopf, 1973. 277-302.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon P, 1955.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970.

King, Sarah. "Julio Cortázar: The Fantastic Child." Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar. Ed. Jaime Alazraki. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999. 115-32.

Mayr, Ernst. Evolution and the Diversity of Life: Selected Essays. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1997.

Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1970.

Miller, Henry. Sexus. New York: Grove P, 1965.

Nhât Hanh, Thích. Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. Berkeley: Parallax P, 1991.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.

Peavler, Terry J. Julio Cortázar. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. Order out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature. London: Heinemann, 1984.

Serres, Michel. "Lucretius: Science and Religion." Ed. Michel Serres, Josué V. Harari, and David F. Bell. Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983. 98-124.

Tzu, Lao. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

White, Eric Charles. Kaironomia: On the Will-to-Invent. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.


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