Department of Romance Languages and Literatures
4108 Modern Languages Building
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1275
For my teachers
1. A Start.............................................................................................................................. 8
2. Julio’s Invention............................................................................................................. 13
3. Julio in the 20th Century................................................................................................. 18
4. Julio’s Invention in the 20th Century.............................................................................. 24
5. Surface.......................................................................................................................... 31
6. Choosing Your Final Round............................................................................................ 32
7. Art, Politics, and Life in “Living Syllable”..................................................................... 34
8. Childhood, Invention and Infection in “The Poisons” and “Silvia”................................ 38
9. Reading to Die in “Continuity of Parks”........................................................................ 41
10. The Time Machine in “The Treasury of Youth”........................................................... 50
11. The Useless Inventions of Cronopios and Famas.............................................................. 54
12. Time............................................................................................................................ 57
13. Slowing Down in The Autonauts of the Cosmoway............................................................. 58
14. Grass........................................................................................................................... 67
15. Dogshit........................................................................................................................ 69
16. Citation, Relations, and Life in Image of John Keats......................................................... 70
17. Horacio Getting Lost in Hopscotch................................................................................. 75
18. Life and the Fractal Storyline of “Lucas, His Shopping”.............................................. 77
19. Roadtrip...................................................................................................................... 81
20. Uncertainty in Save Twilight........................................................................................... 85
21. Backroads.................................................................................................................... 90
22. Breathing..................................................................................................................... 91
23. Humility and Creativity in Julio, Henry Miller, and Gilles Deleuze.............................. 96
24. Gifts.......................................................................................................................... 102
25. The Tenth.................................................................................................................. 103
26. Playing with Death in “One Day Among Many in Saignon”....................................... 105
27. Inventing Horacio’s Existential Impasses in Hopscotch................................................. 108
28. The Ethics of “Marvelous Adjustments” in Hopscotch.................................................. 117
29. Ocean........................................................................................................................ 122
30. Friendship................................................................................................................. 125
31. Participation and Knowing in Image of John Keats......................................................... 127
32. Health........................................................................................................................ 133
33. Stars........................................................................................................................... 134
34. Influence, Improvisation, and Life in Julio’s Invention.............................................. 139
35. Invention and Life in 62: A Model Kit....................................................................... 142
36. Passive and Active Invention in 62: A Model Kit........................................................ 148
37. Inventing Without Subjects and Objects in “Axolotl”................................................. 151
38. Language Without Subjects or Objects in “Don’t Blame Anyone”.............................. 155
39. The Reality of Fiction................................................................................................ 159
40. Style Without Selves and Others in “The Distances”.................................................. 164
41. Fight.......................................................................................................................... 167
42. The Politics of Julio’s Fantastic.................................................................................. 169
43. The Winners and Ethical Typology............................................................................... 171
44. Opening (Or Not) “The Condemned Door” to Ethical Engagement........................... 173
45. Julio and the Style of Routine.................................................................................... 178
46. “House Taken Over” By Life..................................................................................... 182
47. Julio’s Art of Getting Over Your Self......................................................................... 186
48. Getting Over Your Self (And Not) in A Certain Lucas................................................. 189
49. “The Southern Thruway,” Adaptation, and Method................................................... 191
50. Hopscotch and the Politics of Naming........................................................................... 199
51. Millennium Eve......................................................................................................... 205
52. Poverty...................................................................................................................... 208
53. Julio and the Invention of Politics.............................................................................. 209
54. Julio’s Inventive Socialism and C. L. R. James........................................................... 212
55. Revolutionary Style in A Certain Lucas....................................................................... 219
56. Détournement, Radical Change, and Invention.............................................................. 222
57. The Immanence of Transformation in Hopscotch.......................................................... 224
58. Julio and Exile........................................................................................................... 226
59. Julio and the Language of Revolution........................................................................ 229
60. Julio, Autonomy, and the Politics of Our Time.......................................................... 232
61. What is to be Done?................................................................................................... 240
62. Detention................................................................................................................... 244
63. Invention, The Art of Finding Something to Say, and Criticism................................. 246
64. Silence....................................................................................................................... 249
65. Stillness and Invention................................................................................................ 251
66. Impatience................................................................................................................. 253
67. Morelli’s Theory of Communication as Infection in Hopscotch..................................... 254
68. Communication and Love in “The Pursuer” and Hopscotch......................................... 257
69. Dinosaurs.................................................................................................................. 260
70. Communication, Awkwardness, and Distance............................................................ 262
71. Style, Communication and Love in “Nurse Cora”...................................................... 264
72. Serendipity and Love in Julio’s City........................................................................... 267
73. Experimentation and Surprise in Art and Science...................................................... 273
74. To Error.................................................................................................................... 277
75. Style and Movement in 62: A Model Kit...................................................................... 279
76. A Short History of Discipline..................................................................................... 282
77. The Autobiography of the Porous Self....................................................................... 288
78. Hagiography, the Porous Self, and Infection.............................................................. 290
79. Arthur Rimbaud and the Porosity of the Self............................................................. 296
80. Surrealism and the Abuse of Naming......................................................................... 299
81. Antonin Artaud and Infection.................................................................................... 300
82. Blur........................................................................................................................... 301
83. Infectious Criticism.................................................................................................... 302
84. Distraction and Attention in the Inventive Disposition............................................... 303
85. Infection in “Blow Up” and Other Tales.................................................................... 305
86. Inventive Infectiousness in “Letters from Mother”..................................................... 310
87. Inventing “The Health of the Sick”............................................................................ 312
88. Rumor, Reason, and Invention in “Circe”................................................................. 314
89. Making Up Stories..................................................................................................... 317
90. Reason and Ritual Invention in “The Idol of the Cylades”......................................... 321
91. Inventing an Arc of Becoming in “The Night Face Up”............................................. 325
92. Inventing Survival in “Bestiary”................................................................................. 327
93. The Deadly Disavowal of Invention in “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”.................. 329
94. Inventing With the Past (Or Not) in “The Island at Noon”......................................... 334
95. Invention and Kairos................................................................................................... 338
96. Glíglico....................................................................................................................... 342
97. Dirtpiles..................................................................................................................... 344
98. An End?.................................................................................................................... 345
99. Toys........................................................................................................................... 350
100. An Indexical Essay.................................................................................................. 353
Figure 1.............................................................................................................................. 49
Figure 2.............................................................................................................................. 84
Figure 3............................................................................................................................ 124
Figure 4............................................................................................................................ 163
Figure 5............................................................................................................................ 198
Figure 6............................................................................................................................ 231
Figure 7............................................................................................................................ 261
Figure 8............................................................................................................................ 298
Figure 9............................................................................................................................ 320
Figure 10.......................................................................................................................... 352
“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.”
-- Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers
“This intensive way of reading, in contact with what’s outside the book, as a flow meeting other flow, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything…is reading with love.”
-- Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to a Harsh Critic”
I want to tell you about what you might expect in the pages to follow. But just a little bit, because I believe that part of the enjoyment of those pages will depend on you not knowing what’s coming next; just as part of the enjoyment for me in writing the pages that follow depended on me not knowing what was coming next.
In a chapter of his famous book Voice of the Masters, the eminent critic of Latin American literature, Roberto González Echevarría, uses the occasion of some reflections on Julio Cortázar to ask whether a holistic criticism is possible. In other words, he asks, is it possible to “read Cortázar instead of engaging in a series of isolated exegeses of his works? And if it is worth attempting such a reading, how does one avoid turning it into a thematic gloss, a formalistic reduction or a biographical narrative?” I didn’t know (or had forgotten about) this essay when I started writing this book and, in fact, only came upon it in the process of revising the manuscript. Better late than never, perhaps. No doubt it came to my attention at the right time. In any event, one of the things I like about this question is the difference it establishes between two activities: one is “reading Cortázar” and the other “engaging in a series of isolated exegeses of his works”. I like this because it seems to open the possibility that professional criticism – what I do for a living – might open itself out to a way of talking about authors that’s closer to the way non-professional readers like my brother or mother talk about authors. Because they talk about reading this or that author and they rarely engage in a series of isolated exegeses of this or that author’s work. At the same time, González Echevarría points out the dangers – “thematic gloss,” “formalistic reduction,” “biographical narrative” -- of this non-professional way of reading. The first would be doing nothing more than talking about what the author talks about; the second would be doing nothing more than talking about how the author talks about it; and the third would be doing nothing more than talking about the author. So I take it that between – or beyond – these three things, on the one hand, and painstaking explanations of individual works extracted from their various contexts, on the other, this alternative way of reading – this way of reading characterized by a phrase, “reading Cortázar,” that any non-professional reader might use – would recognize and engage that which emerges when you don’t separate out from one another all these elements (theme, form, life, individual text and context); in other words, reading “the author” whole would be little more than a more fully attentive and intensive version of what my brother or mother do when they read.
I think that without having formulated it so eloquently and lucidly in my own mind, this question is exactly the question that immanently drove the production of these pages. And González Echevarría’s answer to his own question, at the very end of the essay, serves agreeably to encapsulate my own guiding thread as I wrote. He says that Cortázar “must therefore be read whole, establishing no generic distinctions nor privileging either the fictional or the expository texts. Each text must be read as if it were the totality of his production. . . . Holistic criticism is not a process of accumulation whereby details are gathered and stored to construct with them the image of an author, but instead one in which the impossibility of assembling the fragments in a coherent whole can provide a glimpse of totality.” Like González Echevarría I believe Cortázar must be read “whole” (indeed, I believe, he cannot not be read whole, no matter if one reads only a page) and like him, I also feel that the “whole” that one reads is distributed immanently in every “part.” That is to say that Julio’s work functions like a holographic image (rather than a photographic one). If you tear a photographic image in two, you have two halves of a single image. But if you divide a holographic image, you wind up with iterations of the same original image. Each fragment of a holographic image contains the same quantity of “information” as the original whole.
One of the implications of this for this book is that writing on Julio, writing with Julio, will be either very short or endless. And one of the implications of that, in turn, is that beginnings and ends will be abrupt and arbitrary. It really doesn’t matter where you start and it really doesn’t matter where you finish – at least not apart from whatever particular aims and interests you bring to the text (Julio’s or mine). That said, for readers who wish to know how I made the arbitrary decisions of where to start and where to finish, and of how to move from one thing to the next thing, I tell that story toward the end of Chapter 49, and there are a few more, explicitly methodological reflections, in Chapter 98, as well as scattered here and there throughout [Ű5, 14, 16, 29, 30, 61-63, 78].  Finally, for readers with an interest in particular threads (such as love, death, communication or any number of others) or given texts or intertexts, the indexical essay in Chapter 100 should provide guideposts for carving a path through the whole based on such interests.
Here, though, I mainly want to limit myself to saying that as I made my way the word “invention”, as it appears in Julio’s work (fictional and expository, poetic and political), became very important to me. So that what you’ll find in the 99 meditations that follow can be read as the tracings of the effects of that term in various contexts. I don’t think the term “invention” explains or exhausts his work. It is not, in my opinion, a master key to decode its meaning. If it is a key, then it is one of the many keys a person could use to start the peculiar machinery that is Julio’s work. It gets certain things going, it releases certain effects. These were the effects I was most interested in at the time of writing. You might think, alternatively, of “invention” as a gust of wind: it does all kinds of things – stings your face, cools you in the hot sun of the beach, blows leaves around, makes riding a bicycle difficult, or easy, depending on your relationship to it. All these effects are different, but the wind causes them all (and the wind of course has causes of its own; among which we sometimes its own previous effects). In these pages, I try to move along in the currents and eddies provoked by the wind of Julio’s invention. Thus bouyed, spurred, challenged by the flows of Julio’s work, I will write about death, fear, love, friendship, politics, communication, art, and, of course, reading and writing. These are large and old topics. I won’t be trying to say anything exhaustive about them, nor even original. I’ll just be saying what seems most pertinent to the occasion [Ű63]; to that occasion generated by the combination of Julio’s text, the world, and my being in it at a given present in time, informed by the past and opened toward a future.
Of course, I am no naēf and don’t wish to pass myself off as one. I am a trained professor of Latin American literature and the inclinations and tools implied by that are part of what I bring, mostly happily, to my reading and writing of Julio Cortázar. Living Invention, I want to say, blends my earlier, exclusively scholarly interests in and approaches to modern Latin American literature and culture with my recent desire more fully to engage for our time – but finally, honestly, for myself -- the ethical possibilities activated in the process of reading with care. It is a book about Cortázar, certainly, and specifically about the idea and practice of “invention” in his writing and life and so a book that I hope profits both trained Latin Americanists and scholars of contemporary world literature (since Cortázar, in translation, has long since been assimilated to the canon of contemporary world literature). But equally, and to my mind more significantly, it is a chronicle of the experience of attentively reading—and not only Cortázar, but also other writers to which my reading of his work led me: William James, John Dewey, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, Italo Calvino, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and Henry Miller, to name a few -- as a life sustaining activity with the potential to transform all our relations from the most intimate, private, and personal to the most broadly, public, and political. In this sense, my deepest wish for Living Invention would be that it provoke an honest, challenging, and liberating reconsideration of customary practices and habits among both academic and lay readers – though each in different ways perhaps – who are interested in the status of literary culture and of thought and of their relationship to politics and to ethics in our world today.
In Living Invention, in short, I describe and argue for, but try also to exemplify first, a way of reading viewed as a practice inseparable from the other practices making up my life, and second, a way of writing this experience that attempts to feed it into the lives of others, where they are professional readers or not.
Start wherever you like. Stop wherever, and whenever you like. And try to let enjoyment be your guide.
“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.”
– Werner Heisenberg
“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.” 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.” This little passage shoots my mind off in the direction of a half-dozen different solitary stars at one time: the interconnectedness of all beings in Buddhism and in deep ecology and in the rhizome of French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the relation between looking at stars and reading and between reading and writing [Ű33]. The word “invents”. I think I’ll go there.
“She invents the constellation.” Invent and its derivatives appear frequently in Julio’s works, at every stage of his career. That was an early example, from around 1950. Here he is again, over thirty years later, hoping of the chronicle of life on the road that he would write with his wife Carol Dunlop just before his death: “that our experience will have opened for you some doors too, and that in you germinates already the project of some parallel freeway of your own invention [Ű13, 16, 19, 66, 72].” 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 among them, that constitute a particular, received situation [Ű4].
Think of a word as a situation made up of elements called letters that are 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 late short story “Tara,” is that “you are left the way you started.” A palindrome, which offers you a mirror image of a word, “has no strength because it doesn’t teach you anything new.” But anagrams are a different story. The young girl from the story “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. 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.
Take one more example, just to get the basic idea. “pages 78, 457, 3, 271, 688, 75, and 456 of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy have all that is needed for the writing of a hendecasyllable by Garcílaso.” That is to say that the poem by Garcílaso lies immanently within the particular, received situation of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy, just as “es la reina y . . .” lies immanently in “Alina Reyes.” It takes an inventor, however, to discover (and etymologically “invention” refers to the process of discovery, of “coming upon”) the poem by rearranging the elements (in this case the pages of the dictionary, and the words on them) in a new way. From these examples, 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.
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 (c. 100 - c. 55 B.C.) saw letters as “atoms in continual motion, creating the most diverse words and sounds by means of their permutations” so that “in the combinatoria of the alphabet” Lucretius “saw a model of the impalpable atomic structure of matter.” Lucretius – already influential upon such prominent and otherwise dissimilar cultural figures as the literary critic Harold Bloom and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze – shines now all the more brightly in this constellation for he has of late become a kind of 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, wrote Lucretius, 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.” 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; all that would be reproduced would be the repetitive connection between equivalent causes and effects governed by the laws of fate (foedera fati).”
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.” Or making love. With atoms, like letters, like thinkers, everything depends on what you can make of them.
Invention is the name that Julio gives to the process of creating something new by a rearrangement of the relations comprising something old. Its versatile applicability to generative processes ranging from physics to biology to philosophy to literature partly explains the vital urgency with which Horacio Oliveira, at the beginning 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.]”
A little over one hundred years ago, before the invention of the automobile, or the airplane, the men who ran Argentina were completing the process of consolidating the nation: clearing the fertile grasslands of the last roaming Indians and gauchos, stabilizing its borders with its South American neighbors, centralizing political power in Buenos Aires. As they did so, they thought of development and their thoughts turned abroad. To Europe, especially, they turned. For Europe, the center of the universe for men of their sort, alone could provide the three things Argentina needed to join now the ranks of civilized nations: immigrants, capital, and markets. Diplomatic missions were dispatched. Charged with publicizing the interests and promise of the young nation to Europeans, they hoped to lure Europeans and their money to Argentina and to coax open European ports to Argentine goods. Though perhaps falling short of their dreams of rapidly creating a new United States, the results of this project were nonetheless impressive. By 1914, the Argentine economy was among the most dynamic in the world: about one-third of the population of nearly eight million was foreign-born and another quarter had descended from immigrants in the previous two generations; half of the country’s stock of capital consisted of foreign investments, especially in railways, urban utility companies, and meat-packing plants; and the nation ranked consistently near the top of the world’s exporters of cereals and meats.
Now among the nations in 1914 in which the men who governed Argentina considered it vital to maintain diplomatic, and especially commercial missions was Belgium. And it was in Belgium, in Brussels specifically, that one Julio Cortázar, and his very pregnant, twenty year-old bride María Herminia Descotte, was stationed as a commercial attaché to the Argentine legation in August of 1914.
Bad luck. For on the 4th of that month, a couple of hundred thousand German troops poured across the Belgian border. The King and the Parliament of Belgium, whose neutrality Germany, along with Britain, France, and Russia, had promised to safeguard, had the day before refused Germany’s demand of free passage for its armies attacking France. Germany wanted to attack France because Russia was angry with Austria-Hungary. Talk about a set of crazy relations, of elements of heterogeneous configurations, of unexpected collisions, of inventing constellations. The antagonism between Russia and Austria-Hungary had come to a head in July, 1914 over events precipitated by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28. Russia, which could not accept Austro-Hungarian dominance in the Balkans, mobilized fully two days later, hoping to intimidate Austria-Hungary. Germany mobilized two days after that, likewise hoping to call Russia’s bluff. But German mobilization followed a military plan calling first for a rapid offensive against France, Russia’s ally to the West of Germany, before turning troops back to the East to face Russia. Accordingly, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 and on France on August 3. The rapid offensive against France required passage through neutral Belgium and so, following the Belgian refusal of free passage, the Germans invaded on August 4.
By August 20 the German army had seized Brussels and for the next several days, hundreds of thousands of German troops marched through Brussels en route to France. The German occupation made life difficult for the residents of Brussels. For several weeks there was no public transportation, no telegraph, telephone, or postal service, no newspapers. Tales of unprovoked German atrocities filled the information vacuum. Particularly unsettling to Julio Cortázar, of the Argentine legation, must have been news of the murder of the Argentine vice-consul during the German massacre of hundreds of Belgian citizens at Dinant on August 21 and 23. But he might have felt equally alarmed by the city’s food supply, dwindling to almost nothing within a couple of weeks of the occupation. After all, he was the father of a new baby boy, born August 26, and named, like his father, Julio Cortázar.
“GERMANS RENEW ATTACK; ALLIES’ LINE HOLDS; FRENCH WITHDRAW FROM ALSACE TO FRONTIER; NEW BATTLE LINE IS TWO HUNDRED MILES LONG”: that was the headline in The New York Times on the day Cortázar was born; that was the birth of the Western Front. Along that Front, which would grow still longer in the next few months, millions of young men would die in the greatest slaughter history had ever known. A new kind of warfare was born in those days: trenches, artillery shells, machine guns, advances across blasted, corpse-strewn muddy terrain, only to face, and probably fall before, a wall of indiscriminate machine gun fire; and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bodies to start the process all over again. Zeppelin bombs fell in Antwerp the night before Julio’s birth. This was new too: air attacks on civilian populations; new also were tanks, wireless telegraph communications, railway timetables facilitating logistical support, and submarines. Henry Ford, shortly after an aborted peace mission to Europe, switched gears and retooled his brand new auto assembly lines in Highland Park to produce steel helmets, ammunition boxes, armor plating, airplane engines, tractors, gas masks, and submarine chasers. He made perhaps $30 million in profits from the war. The world had never had such enormous technological, economic, and demographic resources to place at the service of war. Nor had the stakes ever, at least in geopolitical and absolute economic terms, been so high, with the spoils for the European belligerents including raw materials, labor, and markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This war no doubt was born of the combination of uniquely nineteenth century European technological, economic, political and diplomatic energies, but equally certainly the war unleashed those energies against the society that had brought them forth. The nineteenth-century order of things would be among the ruins into which Cortázar was born in Brussels, during those oddly sunny last days of August, 1914.
Some fourteen months later, in October of 1915, the Cortázar family found itself, like many others seeking refuge from the carnage, in neutral Zurich, Switzerland. Over the next year or so, walking the streets of Zurich with their toddling son and newborn infant daughter, the Cortázars might have strolled down the Kreuzstrasse and seen a young Irish couple, James and Nora Joyce, moving their things into the third floor flat at Number 10. Young Joyce was a relatively obscure writer then working to complete the manuscript for a novel he would call Ulysses. Or, had they made it to the Spiegelstrasse, they might have passed a curious group of young artists and writers – who called themselves “Dada” – entertaining themselves and curious and sometimes outraged patrons in the newly founded Cabaret Voltaire. They might even have seen there at Cabaret Voltaire, or at his house across the street, or at the Café de la Terasse, a young anti-war Russian emigré named Vladimir Lenin, at that time very busy working on an essay tracing the European crisis to capitalist imperialism, jockeying for position among the leaders of an opposition political party called the Bolsheviks, and studying German philosophy. If Brussels in 1914 had been the epicenter of the bloody end of the 19th century and the birthplace of the darker sides of the 20th, then Zurich in 1915 and 1916 was a hothouse in which would flourish any number of experiments and alternative visions of what the 20th century might bring, now that the order of the 19th had revealed its savagery and moral bankruptcy.
The outbreak of World War One, the birth of Dada and the historical avant-garde in the arts, Joyce’s Ulysses and literary modernism, Lenin and the Russian Revolution: these are the stars making up the constellation under which Julio was born. Mass war, imperialism, artistic experimentation, the confrontation between capitalism and socialism: this is as good a set of terms as any to define the twentieth century within which, along which, against which, Julio Cortázar would grow up and live and write [Ű52, 60]. Nobody can say for sure what it meant to Cortázar to have circulated among these elements in his infancy. He certainly never mentioned them as such in any published interview.
Now I’m sitting in the café of the Hotel Jarry in Paris. Alfred Jarry, after whom the street after which the hotel is named, invented pataphysics, the study of exceptions to laws. I’m sitting a stone’s throw from where Julio lived out the last years of his life. I love this kind of moment. I loved the first time I stood in front of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” and felt the rush of standing in exactly the same relation to the canvas as Picasso himself had stood. There’s a magical opening of time for me in such physical spots where suddenly I can say, standing in front of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”: “his eyes once looked at this canvas from the same relative position as my eyes now are. This I share with Vincent Van Gogh.” “This I share with Da Vinci.” But also, “this I share with some anonymous Zapotec stone carver across thirteen centuries of time.” So now I wonder did Julio pass down the street with pleasure? Did he ever stop for a coffee in the lobby where I’m now sitting? De he stroll out onto to the Boulevard de Strasbourg from which, if he turned left, walked a block, and looked across the street he would see the Passage du Desir? Was it blocked and empty then, as now?
Julio loved Jarry. I’m staying in the 10th arrondissement because that’s the neighborhood where Julio lived out the end of his life. He died in a hospital a few blocks away. But I’m staying at this particular hotel, on this street, because he loved Jarry.  Julio loved, like Jarry, to imagine and to play with bits of reality as if he held the world like a kaleidoscope in his hands [Ű57]. Turn it one way, and the bits make a new pattern, some bits that were far apart slide together and fall into a new place – Germans invade Brussels, Argentine diplomat has son in Brussels, family flees to Zurich, where Lenin, Joyce, and Dada are already there scheming the 20th century. Off on the sidelines of the First World War, in the United States of John Dos Passos’ Nineteen-Nineteen, the bits were colliding and coalescing. Henry Ford was among the Americans who made millions in that war, once he stopped opposing it, and who emerged from it, like the country he symbolized, in the driver’s seat. War, mass production, revolution and repression, mass consumption, experimental art, inventions and invention: these are the forces mixed impersonally into this century and Cortázar is something like a ripple in the brew, brought to the surface by forces within it, but also altering those forces in turn.
“The poetic act par excellence” Julio (borrowing the words of Antonin Artaud, mad French poet and actor) called this unexpected combination of things; this way of seeing the secret, generative, subterranean connections. “Par excellence”, I think, because it is the zone where poetry – whose roots lie in making – lies mingled most intimately with the operations of life itself [Ű23, 81]. I can’t think of a better way to imagine the connection between his life and writing than to make Julio a prophet thrown up like a wave by the deep currents of a century he kept turning inside out like a sock [Ű26].
“The time in which we live is often called the Machine age, and you can easily understand why. Most of our work is now done with machines. We have machines in our homes and schools, on our farms, and in our forests, mines and factories. We use machines in communication, transportation, and construction. We even have machines to make more machines! So we cannot get along without a great many kinds of machines in modern life.”
– Science Problems 3: For Junior High School
Julio didn’t make up the word invention, but he did invent it [Ű2, 63].
I imagine that when most of us, in our daily lives, think of the word “invention,” we think of some machine designed to make something easier. Inventions, in this sense of the term, arrived on the scene at a dizzying pace in the half-century prior to Julio’s birth in 1914. Consider the following: the typewriter (1870), the telephone (1876), the phonograph (1877), the electric light bulb (ca. 1880), the steam turbine generator (1884), the motor car (1885), the safety bicycle (1885), the gramophone (1888), the diesel engine (1892), the radio (1894), the compact electric motor (1899), the meccano (1901), disk brakes (1902), the safety razor (1903), the electro-cardiograph (1903), the Wright flyer (1903), car seat belts (1903), the teddy bear (1903), the termionic valve (1906), the washing machine (1907), the nuclear model of the atom (1911), the domestic electric refrigerator (1913), stainless steel (1913), the assembly line (1913), electric traffic lights (1914), and the zipper (1914). For residents of the late 19th and early 20th century, these objects still carried an aura of the miraculous, and the men and women who invented them, the aura of deities. The process by which inventors conjured these miracles was mysterious and worth talking about.
We residents of the 20th century have had our share of inventions as well, our share of what seem to be miracles. What struck me, however, as I jotted down that list of inventions was how commonplace they seem today, how natural. It is almost as hard to imagine a world without a zipper or stainless steel as it is to imagine a world without rainfall. We are unique, I believe, in the degree to and pace with which we have experienced the naturalization of inventions. The computer provides the obvious example. As a child in the early 1970s, it was still wondrous to me to go to my father’s laboratory and see there the large mainframe cranking away with punch cards. My dad would make the machine do things like tell me what day of the week my birthday had fallen on in the year 1316. The power of the machine to do things so beyond me left me feeling awe. The machine was mystery and I felt before it as I feel before the ocean or the stars. Today, just 30 years later, I don’t even blink when I see an old PC, whose powers would make my dad’s mainframe look like a slide-rule, sitting on somebody’s curb with the rest of the trash. Mass production, mass marketing, and mass consumption together have conspired to make such experiences possible and, even, commonplace in the industrialized world.
As a sign of this unprecedented experience has come also a gradual shift in the dominant connotation of the word “invention”: from a process of creating something new to a thing designed to make our work easier. We’ve tilted the word “invention” from action to thing. I think of it this way. There are inventions and then there is invention. There are wheels and printing presses and computers, bicycles and automobiles, and airplanes. There are these things, everything from the propeller to the zipper; these things that make our lives more comfortable if we own them; these things for comfort, for commodity. And then there is that process whereby these things are given material form for the very first time (perhaps in a garage, or – like Henry Ford’s internal combustion engine – a kitchen, usually accompanied by a distinctly unmarketable racket and layer of grime, not to mention intensities of frustration, despair, and joy). That process, to be sure, leads to a thing. But that thing is still part of the process. It stands at the edge of process and there can be a moment when the thing can still be experienced, still unique and singular, as a momentary concentration of intellect, matter, and labor. This process of invention experiments with existing things and with the existing and, especially, possible relations between them. This process turns away from the comfort of familiar uses and recognizable patterns of relations in order to generate, indeed to proliferate the new. If inventions tend toward the commodity of the familiar, invention, the process, tends toward the discomfort of the never-before-seen. Something like what I’m saying was perhaps said, in different terms and with different emphases by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin back in the 1930s in an essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” We in the 20th century have witnessed – even carried out – a shift in attention from the process to the thing [Ű11, 62, 74, 95].
Now, one might well argue that something like a television set, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. That there are healthy as well as unhealthy uses of a television set. Fair enough. It’s just a box full of parts configured to receive radio signals and convert them as images and sounds. It is much harder to make that argument about an automatic machine gun or a bomber or nuclear missile, all of which have been configured to kill or, at the very least, to threaten with loss of life. Moreover, among the things that we have invented are machines and processes that consign unprecedented numbers of human beings – all just trying to make a living – to misery, drudgery, or even death.
Sure, we’ve also invented ways to entertain and heal them. But that sort of counter-argument reminds me of how much of our ingenuity gets applied to the task of undoing the effects of some poorly thought through – or unethically implemented -- prior invention. It’s like the Tule Tree near Oaxaca. Huge tree, 2000 years old. It’s dying now, slowly, because of the development, geared toward tourists’ convenience, in the area surrounding it. So the local authorities have devised ingenious means of getting water to the massive root system of this tree, the root system that is now buried under tons of poured concrete. It might have been easier not to pour the concrete in the first place. “I can have no confidence,” wrote Thomas Merton, “in places where the air is first fouled and then cleansed, where the water is first made deadly and then made safe with other poisons.” I don’t feel as fully the absence of confidence expressed by Merton. But I find his words a helpful reminder of how often less can be more, and of how much the material world I live in expresses just the opposite. As for the Tule tree, it reminds me that we’ve invented, with all our machines and processes, the possibility of our own annihilation, whether in a single nuclear stroke or by strangling off the capacity of our planet to support us. These, whatever we might think or wish, are the material significations of “invention” in the 20th century world.
This is “invention” as Julio might have experienced it in his daily life: in his kitchen, on the street, in airports, in the newspapers. It was what was, in a sense, “lying around” or “at hand.” Now, all of this might seem to render “invention” rather uninspiring for an artist whose affinities put him at odds with many of the consequences of the historical transformations registered by the shift from invention as process to invention as thing. Fortunately, there were, and are, other “inventions” lying around. I mean that there were other meanings of the term available to someone who didn’t, or who doesn’t want simply to abandon the field of invention to an accumulation of inert objects. Among those meanings that were lying around were two of particular relevance here: first, the classical Greek notion of heuresis (Latin: inventio), meaning “discovery” or “coming upon” as in, within the classical arts of rhetoric, finding something, among all that has already been said, to say to the present occasion [Ű63]; and second, the Romantic notion of invention as the genius of being able to forget the past and thrust something new up out of one’s self.
From the first sense of “invention” Julio took the acknowledgment that saying or writing something entails finding something to say among the things that have already been said. The emphasis points to the fact that there is no burden of originality in this sense of invention, no belief that one must be the origin of what one says or writes [Ű34, 84]. In addition to this meaning, Julio also adopted something of the stance of the classical rhetoricians and their kin, the sophists. Specifically, he adopted the stance that invention is as invention does. That is, that with invention, with the things you say or write, the effect on an audience matters much more than correspondence to some supposed, state of affairs, some conventionally agreed upon idea of reality. This belief got sophists in trouble in their own time with others, like Plato, who believed that language ought faithfully to reflect reality [Ű34, 67]. From the Romantic sense of invention, on the other hand and perhaps as a balancing corrective, Julio took a strong sense of the role of the individual -- not as origin of invention, but as a sensitive medium through which invention is transmitted. Julio adopted as well something of the stance of the Romantics in their own time. Specifically, in this case, he assumed the Romantic commitment to the value of non-conformity and experimentation for facilitating invention.
Now, I want to clarify two potential misunderstandings that could arise from this way of putting things. First, when I write that “Julio took” this or that or “Julio combined” this or that, I am not claiming that Julio Cortázar consciously sought raw materials for his understanding of the term “invention” among the ruins of earlier usage. It may be safe to assume that Julio – who wrote a six-hundred page book on the British Romantic poet John Keats; who was an avid reader; and who taught college literature classes for years – was familiar with these usages. But I don’t need to know or even to assume that Julio understood these usages as I do, or that he liked them if he did understand them as I do. It suffices that the term “invention,” in his writing, works as if imbued with both these meanings. Second, I want to emphasize that the sense of invention that Julio developed need not, in of itself, be set against what, for example, Henry Ford, or some scientist might think that he or she is doing in the workshop or the laboratory. Henry Ford, after all, did nothing more than put together in a new way some things that were already lying around when he invented the automobile. Invention in Julio’s sense can in no way be considered the exclusive or essential property of the artist or humanist. Far from it [Ű73].
Yet it is important to admit that in the 20th century marriage of capitalist enterprise and scientific knowledge something happened to the sense of invention. Capitalist investment may well have stimulated the process of invention. But ultimately it valued that process only to the degree that it reliably yielded products – whether toenail clippers or John Grisham novels or nuclear missiles – that could profitably be sold. This dynamic effectively stunted our capacity to think invention as a process of creation available to any of us, replacing it with invention as a thing – conceived and made by someone else – the pursuit of which leaves us another day older and deeper in debt. Perhaps most seriously, this dynamic permitted, if it did not directly lead to, the production of inventions whose only conceivable purpose was the more rapid and efficient destruction of human life.
It was to combat the dangers of this freezing of invention-process into invention-thing – a freezing that may occur in a corporate boardroom, an academic’s study, or an engineer’s workshop – that Julio cobbled together his own sense of invention. His sense emphasized immanence, selflessness, ceaseless experimentation and efficacy in creation and he insisted upon it throughout his life and writing. This is the sense in which Julio did not make up the word “invention”, but did invent it. For he did take the nine letters, the set of meanings, and the attitudes and activities to which they point and recombine them so as to make the word do something new [Ű26].
I am in a yellow desert or a dense green forest, a field of golden wheat or a blinding white glacier, or an vast soft ocean. A surface extends before me, no point or line on it appears more valuable than any other, at least not by any criteria other than my own desires. There are no paths or points. The points and paths are innumerable. I might as well just take the first step and begin to make a way [Ű1, 14].
I’ve got only one book with me in Paris, and I’m tempted to leap to a section of it I know well, on which I could write easily. But the familiar section is not in front of me. In front of me, in my hands, is the book itself. 
Here. Look at it. See that the book is cut horizontally in two; two books, each with exactly the same number of pages, under one cover. The smaller book, call it “planta baja” or “ground floor,” fills the lower third of the book in your hands. Just above it, filling the upper two thirds, sharing the same cover but otherwise disconnected from the “ground floor” is the “primer piso” or “first floor.” Notice that Ultimo round, the physical object, was produced with deliberation and care, and, apparently, without much thought for the profit to be gained by printing it thus. Siglo Veintiuno, the book’s original publishing hosue, still publishes Ultimo round. But for some time now, the book appears in two slim pocket volumes, volume one corresponding to the “primer piso” and volume two to the “planta baja”. Talk about the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction [Ű4, 11]!
You’re likely to pause for a moment before you turn the next page: “How should I read this book?” It’s not just that the book braids words and images. Lots of texts do that. It’s that you are literally holding two books within one binding. Do you read page 1 of the top book and then turn it to page 2? Or do you read page 1 of the top book and then go down to page 1 of the bottom? Do you flip through combinations at random? Or do you invent some elaborate system for determining your moves and then just set it in motion and follow what it dictates? Go ahead then and pause to consider the possible ways of combining these two paths that wind along next to each other, surprising each other along the way with their consonant or dissonant juxtapositions of texts and images.
Go ahead and pause – both at once … and get used to it, because this sort of moment is all over the place in Julio’s work [Ű36, 67]. It’s typical Cortázar: he’d rather cause us to experience choice than read about it. It is all his work contained in a single moment, not even a single moment of reading, but rather a moment of experience still outside of reading. We’re only in the doorway remember. Typical for that very reason too: because with Julio, the point of reading is always what happens to us when we aren’t reading, when we are on the threshold of book and life. But these effects can only be reaped when we pay deep attention – as these pauses force us to do – to the reading. Julio keeps the windows of literature open, makes it, if you will, a living system, a cell, “a stable structure with matter and energy continually flowing through it. [Ű9, 29, 35]”
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.”
I don’t know how to translate this poem for you 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. Julio 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, Julio 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. Notice that words have fur, and a color, and a smell like your cats. 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 [Ű9, 11, 20].
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. Julio 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.”
Julio 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, Julio 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 Julio’s life as a writer. People who study Julio, 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 Julio 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 Julio 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, Julio, 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.”
“Play is a thing by itself. The play-concept as such is of a higher order than seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness.”
Johan Huyzinga, Homo Ludens
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.” 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.”
This sort of childhood invention appears also in Julio’s story “Silvia,” and there it starts to look and work much like writing. 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,” “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.” 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 [Ű60].
Invention, beware, has the power to infect other areas of life [Ű34, 35, 67, 71, 78, 81, 87]. 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” (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.” 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.
“Words! Theywl move things you know theywl do things. Thewl fetch.”
Owen Goodparley, Riddley Walker
The businessman on the way to his country home has resumed reading a novel that had been interrupted by “some urgent business conferences.” He’s in control: “he permitted himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the characterizations.” He takes care of some final business when he arrives at the estate and then settles in a moment of tranquility into “his favorite armchair, its back toward the door,” so that the businessman faces a window, looking onto “the park with its oaks.” “Even the possibility of an intrusion would have irritated him had he thought of it.” I can understand that. He’s a businessman and he’s worked hard and now he wants to relax. “He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the things around him. . . . Word by word, licked up by the sordid dilemma of the hero and the heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin.”
From there, “The Continuity of Parks” – the shortest story Julio Cortázar ever wrote – dovetails with the “final encounter in the mountain cabin” in the novel the businessman is reading. The hero, a man, meets his lover in the cabin to go over the details of their plan to murder the woman’s husband and from there runs to the nearby home where husband unwittingly waits to be murdered, while the woman heads off to their predetermined rendezvous point. They have plotted ahead of time, and everything, the hero reflects as he steals into the couple’s home, follows their plot perfectly: all the way to the final lines in which he approaches, knife upraised, “the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.” Now the loop has closed back on itself, snake swallowing its own tail, Godel, Escher, Bach and Borges and John Malkovich being John Malkovich too. The man reading the novel at the beginning of Julio’s story appears now as the victim character in the novel he reads. Or the novel a man reads turns out to be the story of his own fate, consummated at the very moment that he reads of its consummation. What does this little story do?
Do you see the power of a certain kind of writing to pull us subtly into its universe or, equally, to project itself out and organize our universe according to its plot? To this extent, one way to describe what the “Continuity of Parks” does would be to say that it portrays and provokes a dynamic mixing of the boundaries between worlds. But what about the lethal sweetness of the experience for the businessman in the story? He pays with his life for his absorption. Why? Perhaps because for the businessman reading works like a secret room, “disengaged” from his life, like an affair, or a hidden gambling addiction but apparently more innocuous. It is leisure time, and in sharp contrast with the active, commanding stance he assumes in his work, his leisure time posture is passive and fiercely protected (the very thought of an intrusion would irritate him). The world of fiction, which he has kept pressed back firmly behind the sturdy door separating work from pleasure, now reasserts itself aggressively, literally bursting through that door to make its claim on his life [Ű6, 44, 46]. I sometimes read the way the businessman does. I sometimes read to shut myself off from the world. I sometimes read to gain what feels like refuge in another world, one whose influences on me I believe I can control more easily than those of the world I live in.
When we view art as an “escape” or a “release” from reality, John Dewey believed, we implicitly suppose that “freedom can be found only when personal activity is liberated from control by objective factors.” We implicitly take what Dewey called “experience” – the ceaseless exchange of matter and energy of a live creature growing in and with its surroundings – and split it into two opposed and mutually exclusive halves. On one side: the live creature, which we call a “subject” or “our self,” together with our desires; on the other side, the surroundings including other subjects, which we call “objects” or “others,” together with the limitations we perceive these surroundings impose on us. Therefore in viewing art as an escape from reality we implicitly pretend to isolate – perhaps we seek to protect – our “self” from everything that we perceive as “outside” it. “Play” then becomes the name for what we can do when we suppose ourselves to be free of objective limitations. “Work,” by contrast, becomes the name for what we do the rest of the time, when we numbly or sullenly submit to those limitations.
But for Dewey, “the very existence of a work of art is evidence that there is no such opposition between the spontaneity of the self and objective order and law.” True, Dewey admitted, “the contrast between free and externally enforced activity is an empirical fact.” However, he added, “it is largely produced by social conditions and it is something to be eliminated as far as possible.” It is a sad mistake to see this social and historical condition as natural and immutable. After all, as Dewey points out, “children are not conscious of any opposition between play and work.” Art, he thought with Julio, invites us to participate in and experience as integrated what have become for most of us two mutually exclusive ways of engaging the world around us [Ű7].
Dewey teaches me that the view separating art from reality is another version of the view separating work from play and that this is another version of the view separating our “self” from the world around us. He also spells out why all these putative separations are deadly. For Dewey grounds his theory of art in his understanding of the essential processes of life. Today, long after Dewey wrote, scientists have begun to describe “living systems” in terms very close to his. The living system, explains Fritjof Capra is “organizationally closed, even though it is open with regard to the flow of energy and matter. This organizational closure implies that a living system is self-organizing in the sense that its order and behavior are not imposed by the environment but are established by the system itself. In other words, living systems are autonomous. This does not mean that they are isolated from their environment. On the contrary, they interact with the environment through a continual exchange of energy and matter.” Or, in slightly different terms, “the living system is both open and closed – it is structurally open, but organizationally closed. Matter continually flows through it, but the system maintains a stable form, and it does so autonomously through self-organization.” Reading as the businessman wishes to do it works like a completely closed system. He shuts reading off from the environment of other living activities that ought to feed it and feed off it and in so doing sets reading against the basic forces of life. Is it an accident that this should have fatal consequences? “Continuity of parks”: this title could point also in the direction of the continuity of the life process. It could caution us against believing in the stability of the compartments we have set up.
As far as the work play separation goes, I am lucky. I am lucky that I get paid to read. I get paid to do what I’d like to be doing anyway. So, in fact, I’m not usually in the businessman’s stance when I read, at least not in thinking that my reading is a break from “work.” Usually, when I read, I forget whether I am reading something for work or for pleasure. In fact, most of the time it is not that I forget, it is that I don’t and can’t know. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile reminding myself to keep life and work, work and pleasure, undifferentiated. To work at such things and in such ways that work is as much a pleasure as the things I don’t get paid to do. To do the things I do for free with the same sense of responsibility and attention as I do my job; to make my job what I would do even if I didn’t make a living doing it. In this way, the exchange relationship is less dominant, money has less control. In this way, I have greater freedom because my activities manifest themselves as chosen. In this way, I can experience and appreciate each unfolding present moment of my life – just because it is life and regardless of whether or not I’m loving writing the tenure casebook -- and avoid saying things like, “I can’t wait until I’m done with the tenure casebook, the Spring semester, the revisions on the manuscript,” never realizing that if I string together enough of those statements I’m really saying “I can’t wait until I die.” The businessman learned otherwise long ago, perhaps when he came home from school, slung his books on the table and plopped down in front of the television, just as now, his work done, he plops down in front of a novel.
So maybe my reading blurs the line between work and play. But Dewey shows me that whenever I read to inhabit a world in which I can feel safe from the claims and altering influences of others and the world around me then also I assume the deadly stance of the businessman. These reminders in relation to work and play may begin to help me position myself healthily in relation to the larger issues of self and world to which work and play are connected. But it takes more than those reminders. I need also to make myself aware in body and mind of the various qualities of feeling accompanying reading when it is put to its various purposes. At those times when like the businessman, it feels as though “the very thought of an intrusion” would irritate me, then maybe it’s time to put the book down. If I’m short with my kids when they approach me reading, it’s definitely time to the put the book down. Whenever tension and anxiety arise in response to some perceived threat to my reading, I’m clinging to literature, clinging to play, clinging to so-called free time, clinging to my self. Even if I read fewer of the books on my endlessly growing list, I’d rather cultivate a suppleness of self necessary to maintain harmony with the ceaseless flows on which life depends. I’d rather enjoy that feeling of fullness and connection with the world. For, among other discoveries, I have at those times found that my reading experience, though less extensive, is more intensive. I feel that fullness and connection when I read too.
It’s important, too, for me not to give up trying to do this in little ways just because I suspect that I won’t ever achieve it fully, or because I don’t always do it well. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds me, “If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.” His reminder is important to because the giving-up of a perfectionist who knows he has failed really expresses only a kind of inverted pride. Conversely, to know that one will fail to some degree and to accept this failure and get on with the undertaking anyway: that could mark humility. Humility, in turn, matters because it is what allows me to let down my guard, to accept help, to acknowledge vulnerability, and so to let others – to let the world – in, to stay engaging and engaged.
The way of reading described in “The Continuity of Parks” will kill us. It kills the businessman, just as I believe it could slowly kill me, sucking away my life by severing the connections: the web of world and others to which I must remain vulnerable and open if I am to live, to thrive, to experience freedom, peace, and joy. It can suck away my life even as it numbs my ability to notice. Sometimes I become aware of this when I am traveling abroad and I see twenty-something backpackers and feel a kind of disdainful resentment towards them. Sometimes it takes only a fourteen year old skateboarder with baggy jeans and green hair in Ann Arbor, Michigan to give me this feeling. This feeling says nothing about them. After all, what do I know of them and their lives? I feel this because I see in them a person I might have been at a similar point in my life but was too afraid to become. That person would have been more open to the potentially self transforming effects of adventure and chance, or just of mere contact with the world outside his self. Afraid of such transformations, afraid perhaps also that they might bring me pain or solitude, I froze that person out at the time. I went to graduate school, got my Ph.D. in four years, and tenure four years after that. Since then life has thrown me a number of serious breaking pitches that have shattered much – though by no means all – of the false sense of security that I had gained from my aversion to risk. When I see the backpackers now I still feel some of that petty resentment. But the feeling usually becomes gratitude and wonder because I recall that life will never stop, for even a moment, presenting me with second chances, with new opportunities to throw myself on the sharp point that is my fear of openness, to feel the tightness flowing from what I thought would be a lethal wound but turned out to be an open door [Ű18, 49, 72, 79].
Julio’s work – I emphasize the word – arms me against the initially painful (but ultimately insidiously numbing) process whereby I can lose touch with the joy of living. Julio’s work keeps me immersed in this vital ebb and flow of stuff to, from, and through me. In this story, he arms me by inoculation: I can experience the businessman’s sad condition without getting really, terminally sick. In other places, he will turn his pen over to me, inviting a collaboration – harmonious or antagonistic, pleasurable or frustrating – that, at the very least, requires me to make my passivity the result of a conscious, informed choice. In the best of cases, this invited collaboration provokes me to mindfully purposive activity that culminates in some product. In those cases, though, I feel wiser if I can think of that product as a temporary crystallization, or as a node or a knot, or simply a pause, and not as the settling at some final destination. For both the activity and the temporary product at which it arrives in turn feed a continuation of this endless process at ever-richer levels. In this way, Julio gently opens my white knuckles to release the vanishing lump of tightly bounded self to which I fearfully cling. In this way, Julio shows me the pen I didn’t realize I had in my hand so that I can plot my own stories, compose my own piece of life.
Detail from Santiago Colás, “C”, 2003 (satin enamel, acrylic, spray, oil stick, and postcards on plywood; 132 x 48 cm.; dimensions of detail 30 x 48 cm.)
“Today with a myriad of instruments we can explore things we never imagined. But we no longer see directly what is right in front of us.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
I discover the “treasury of youth.” The “Treasury of Youth” [“El tesoro de la juventud”] seems to have been a kind of illustrated encyclopedia for children in Argentina during Cortázar’s youth. Here, in a tone that mimics the patronizing rhetoric of many such volumes, Cortázar enlightens his readers in the history of transportation technology. The point of departure for this lesson is the observation that children seem to take innovations for granted, seldom pausing, for example, to consider the human ingenuity concentrated in a jet plane passing overhead. “Velocity, silence in the cabin, stability”: the jet achieves all of these. But the incessant human desire for improvement, the narrator intones, soon left jets behind. For engineers discovered, one after another, the helicopter, the steam engine and the steam ship, the sailing ship, the rowboat and the bicycle. Each of these trumps its predecessor in terms of safety and of the relative emphasis each places on the journey over the destination. Finally, human beings come up with walking and swimming as the absolute apex of transportation technology. As evidence, the narrator offers the observation that beaches, where one can see many people walking and swimming, appear to be the preferred gathering places for human beings, especially, he notes, in the era of paid vacations.
I like the subtle complexity and the innocent incisiveness of the satire. I like what he says and how he says it. Julio doesn’t glumly criticize airplanes as symbols of human hubris and the destruction of past pleasures. No. It’s just that, quite honestly and fairly evaluated, the benefits of the jet and the disadvantages of other forms of transportation are outweighed by the combination of the airplane’s disadvantages and walking’s benefits. Notice the seemingly innocuous taking over of the tone and idiom of informational discourse – like a guerrilla fighter accidentally stumbling onto the controls of a major broadcast network. The children’s encyclopedia or filmstrip, the old newsreels in movie theaters: we’ve all heard this narrator announcing, with good natured enthusiasm that just barely crosses the line beyond even the pretense of journalistic or scientific objectivity, the first steps on the moon, or Lucky Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, or the lioness nursing her young. Julio dons this vocal disguise and begins to make it say something else. But this strategy also has its limitations because in order to exploit the benevolence of this conventional tone and idiom, he can’t cynically violate the content that conventionally goes with it. That’s why Progress, capital P, gets to keep moving forward, in its familiar wide-eyed march, each step in the ladder already a superb testament to human ingenuity.
Yet each step somehow surprises me. By the end, the treasury of youth reveals a secret. If I expected the individualized jet (“velocity, stability, silence, and total privacy” the narrator might gush) to appear over the horizon, I am surprised by the apparent lack of sophistication in what does come (a pedestrian, a swimmer). But I am also surprised by the simple fact that this form of transportation, now revealed as superior, is used by millions upon millions; maybe by a majority of the humans on the planet. This puts me in the bizarre position of having to try sell my car, and even my bike, to keep up with the Joneses, who blissfully walk or swim everywhere.
And I do want that too, what the Joneses therefore have, because it is nothing other than time: the time to walk somewhere instead of rushing onto the freeway, or the time to walk aimlessly. Too often, now, I have that time only through “the magic of paid vacations.” Thus, with the last words of this little piece, with what seems to be an irrelevant toss-off line about paid vacations, Julio flings open a door exposing the regime of work. Here he lays down some rails along which my imagination can shoot on a critical journey, making connections. I see the child with which he opens the essay blithely switching on the television. I see the child, at the same instant, with the very same gesture, unwittingly switching on a vast machine training him first in the segmentation of life into work time and leisure time and then in the occupation of his leisure time with passive consumption (a lesson well-learned, and with literally fatal consequences, by the businessman in “The Continuity of Parks” [Ű9]). I see the TV, in his hands and under the tutelage of this apparatus, become an invention that does not make, but rather kills time [Ű4, 11, 12, 26, 95]. Beyond this, I see a whole chain of inventions, all designed to save time for the fundamental purpose of increasing productivity, all insidiously sapping our desires for and abilities to create time. Not now to make time for more work, but to make time for play and for community.
So I see now that the making of time for play demands not passivity, but rather a prodigious physical, mental, and spiritual effort whence we can let go of convenience and achievement and thus disengage from the regime of forced labor and compulsory leisure. I see why, at the Zen Temple here in Ann Arbor, we are encouraged to drink our tea with both hands – because if we drink our tea with both hands, we can’t be drinking our tea and doing something else and if we can’t be drinking our tea and doing something else at the same time, we’ll have to do them one after another and while that means – upon first impression – less time, I see that it means actually less productivity measured quantitatively, less frenetic multitasking, more deliberate consideration of priorities and thus, ultimately, as previously “essential” activities wither away beneath the clear force of this attention, it means more time and more quality. I see “Tesoro de la juventud” become a fable, a narrative invention, a written machine designed to teach me how to make time, and to make me laugh, too. Finally, I see the “treasury of youth” turned into something like a “fountain of youth” whose elixir works not by annihilating or reversing time, but rather by entering fully into time, by helping you make yourself one with time. For perhaps if it is anything at all, “time,” as Henri Bergson thought, “is invention.” Is this why I write such good stuff in my head when I’ve made the time to shuffle along, exhilarated and peaceful, through pools of fiery autumn leaves on my way to the university? Is this why that same good stuff flies out of my head as if on a gust of autumn wind the second I sit down to work?
My former student Jeremy Kaplan took his degree in mechanical engineering, made a little money, and then went to art school. There he practiced making machines that didn’t make anything useful. He conceived and designed these machines. He milled their parts from scrap metal. He assembled these parts and connected the whole thing to motors and drives and power sources. He did everything – except mine the metals – from start to finish. Jeremy’s machines were astonishingly beautiful. They were exquisitely elaborate and satisfyingly solid objects, some filling whole rooms. But the most moving thing about them was that Jeremy designed these heavy pieces of metal, these gears and motors, to work in gorgeously perfect concert just to work in gorgeously perfect concert. Jeremy’s works may have been “products” and they may even had some purpose, however useless by ordinary standards. But his works blew me away because they were processes. Jeremy had invented the lightness of motion and freedom out of these big things, heavy and dense with their history of bare utility. I think of Jeremy now as the narrator introduces me to the family that lives in Cronopios and Famas, on Humboldt Street: “we like independent occupations [ocupaciones libres], jobs that exist just because, simulacra which are completely useless.”
Like all inventors, they lack originality: “Nearly everything we decide to do is inspired by – let’s speak frankly, is copied from – celebrated examples.” But that doesn’t mean they don’t make new things. It just means that they don’t suffer from the arrogance and sober egotism that would lead them to mistakenly believe that they are the origin of the new things that they make. “If we manage to contribute any innovation whatsoever, it always proves to have been inevitable: anachronisms, or surprises, or scandals.” In other words, when something new springs from the family on Humboldt Street, it is the result of a deviation, a swerve . . . a clinamen [Ű2]. Really, their only role, like any inventor, is to be sure they don’t get in the way; or, to put it in more positive terms, to be sure that they facilitate the strange flow. That’s why the useless gallows is such a perfect invention. With invention, in Julio’s world, it’s always about disarming the instruments that destroy life: whether it is a gallows, or a numb habit that says we ought to be seriously unplayful when we are working for money and playfully unserious when we aren’t [Ű4, 7, 9, 10, 26].
Of course, inventors always have to be careful of the neighbors. For, as Brewster Ghiselin once put it, “every new and good thing is liable to seem eccentric and perhaps dangerous at first glimpse, perhaps more than what is really eccentric, really irrelevant to life.” The family on Humboldt Street isn’t trying to goad the neighbors, but it always seems to happen anyway (after all, they aren’t trying not to goad the neighbors either). With the gallows, it starts off fairly innocently: anybody has the right to put an addition on their house. However, by the time the younger uncle is astride the crosspiece, driving in the hook for the noose, “the people in the street could not help realizing what it was we were building.” But what should the neighbors care? The family breaks no laws. During the day, they go to their regular, respectable jobs just like everyone else. And, in their construction of the gallows, they are scrupulously well-organized and methodical. This is not a rowdy party. Indeed, the neighbors are the unruly ones: “several disorderly types had made an effort to keep my second-oldest brother and my cousins from conveying into the house the magnificent poplar trunk [for the rack and wheel] which they’d fetched in the pickup truck.” Fortunately, the family maintains its composure and pulls together: “An attempt at harassment in the form of a tug of war was won easily by the family in full force tugging at the trunk in a disciplined way.”
I know, you’d think that it would be like the neighbors in the stereotypical contemporary subdivision: make sure you mow your lawn, keep the hedges trimmed, no strange pets, make sure Santa’s in the front yard at Christmas. But that turns out not to be it. The neighbors aren’t disturbed – at least not primarily – by the construction of a gallows in the neighborhood. They aren’t trying to impose a uniform, gated-community aesthetic on the family. What really seems to get under their skin is that nobody winds up swinging from that crosspiece. That’s right, they’re twentieth century people just like you and me. If someone is going to make an instrument of death, well, there had better be a death. But, if you are just going to sit up there on the platform under the moonlight, like the Humboldt’s, with the noose swaying empty and lightly in the breeze, drinking chianti, well, what’s the point? “We looked at it, so happy it was a pleasure, but the neighbors were murmuring at the railings as if they were disappointed or something.” Their disappointment expresses the deadly convergence of the dominant uglinesses of the 20th century: a blinding fetish for utility and a nearly total callousness in relation to death. That’s what the inventors that live on Humboldt Street quite innocently mock and so expose. To work so purposefully at the construction of a gallows whose only purpose will be to provide sensual stimulation during a meal is to violate the secret or not so secret laws according to which the governments of the twentieth century – with our more or less tacit consent – have organized our world.
I recently bought a copy of Julio’s collage book Around the Day in Eighty Worlds for a friend of mine who doesn’t have enough time. Among the beautiful effects of this book is the delightful inversion of Verne’s title. Around the World in Eighty Days, whatever its precise attitude or ideology, was only imaginable because of the dramatic advances in technology (transportation, communications, and chronology) in Verne’s time. Julio loves Jules, has loved him since childhood. Now, though, with this inventive twist, it is as if Julio now gently says: “Enough speeding around the globe marveling at our speed. Let us dwell in a single day, and travel, far beyond where any technological advance might take us, simply by dwelling, with wonder, deeply there [Ű10].”
Sometimes we journey to get somewhere else because we have business at the latter point and would gladly, were it possible, cut out the traveling. At other times we journey for the delight of moving about and seeing what we see.
– John Dewey, Art as Experience
Shortly before he died, when he was married to his second wife, the Québécois writer Carol Dunlop (and shortly before she died, just before him), Julio and Carol embarked upon an adventure. Their last adventure, perhaps, before the adventure – if it was that – of dying. They would drive along the main highway – the southern thruway – from Paris to Marseilles. The rules: 1) stop once and only once at each of the 66 rest stops en route, and 2) the second stop each day had to be a stop for the night. There are 471 miles from Paris to Marseilles. Dividing those by the 33 days that the trip, according to their rules, would take, Julio and Carol could count on moving at the blazing clip of 14.27 miles per day. “To enter the rhythm of camels [Ű9, 19, 49].” He might have said snails. That is: to slow down when life has become a race, to win by losing. Did they want to slow life down, slow time down because death had appeared concretely on their shared horizon, because the rapid gallop of time now led to a brick wall?
I am put here so often by reading Julio’s writing: in the here and in the now. I’m put here and now concretely, as in walking meditation, where I can amplify and deepen my experience not by seeking new experiences elsewhere or in another time of the mind, but by sinking my wiggling toes in the damp sand of right here, tickled by the lacy ebbing waves of right now [Ű6, 14]. Crawling like a bug over the surface of this wrinkly here and now, I can burrow into its depths. There are a million forms of life I never notice, most underground or underwater, where I rarely go just for the fun of it.
I also notice that Julio and Carol set up rules for the trip, and that they stuck to them. This trip was a kind of creative wandering through which they refreshed their capacity for perception and their sense of life. But it is essential to recognize that these effects grow out of – and not in spite of – the rules of the game. Rules, Johan Huyzinga found, are an essential element of all play. Ask my children, who used to spend half their playtime negotiating the rules that would govern the other half. Understood as the limits imposed on a process by the properties of materials and maker, rules are indispensable to art as well. Finally, understood as the limits imposed by surroundings as well as by the need for structure and order, rules are indispensable to the processes of life as well.
But none of this implies that blind obedience to the rules, in any of these situations, is essential. This yields merely uninspiring competence. The great ones are those who see the rules as a challenge to raise, first in imagination, their performance to a level in which it appears as though the rules do not apply to them. They know they need the rules for the game to exist at all, but the rules become an occasion to exercise their inventive abilities. Bill Russell, Mia Hamm, Wilt Chamberlain, Martina Navratilova, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods: none of them broke the rules, but it was easy to forget, as you watched them perform, that they were limited by any rules. Indeed, sometimes the rules are changed because of the dominance of these players within the framework of existing rules. Michael Jordan’s most awe-inspiring highlight reels came at moments when we’d see him come square up against a limit and watch him create a way around it. He’d approach the hoop on a drive, leave his feet for a shot or a dunk and then, suddenly, have to adjust everything in mid-air because a defender appeared out of nowhere to block him. If there were no defender, no limit, it would be a routine dunk like you can see in any high school gym today. It is the inventive interaction with the limit, with the rule, that makes the greatness. It is a Charlie Parker improvisation at blinding speeds. It is evolution. It is the history of the planet earth considered, as some do, as a living system: constantly taking in information concerning the status of internal and external limits, constantly adjusting its processes accordingly. Indeed, the very fact that creativity gives the appearance of having surpassed rules or limitations is what makes this little reminder about the indispensability of rules all the more necessary. After all, you can’t appear to have surpassed rules if there aren’t any.
The rules that Julio and Carol here imposed on themselves were necessary to alter the habitual rhythms of their lives. Because the tendency – in some ways the law – is to get on the highway and go fast, it can be helpful to set up a rule as a counter balance. “What,” Julio and Carol ask themselves, “do we hope to discover by entering the rhythm of camels, after so many voyages, in airplanes, subways, trains?” It’s seems like a useful question, but they don’t directly answer it. They put it off. Perhaps it is because to even explore such self-reflexive questions would be to take their hands, their eyes, their tongue and ears and mouths, to take their souls away from the dirt at their feet, stripping their awareness roughly away from the moment of pause and detention. How could that question be answered other than ahead of, or outside, the experience itself [Ű22, 36, 60, 63, 95]?
So when they put off answering their question they model for me the value of staying instead in the process just because it is the process. Not because staying in the process gets them anywhere, or facilitates the production of a given, hoped-for something. The process. To let go even of “the process for the sake of the process.” It resembles the way of Chuang Tzu, as Thomas Merton explains it. Merton tells us that the difference between the Tao of Confucianism and the Tao of Chuang Tzu is that the latter’s was a way without purpose or destination, where nothing remained to be done because there never was anything to be done. To be stripped bare of all fetish, all reflection, all judgment, all habit, all routine, all convention, everything that moves them away from here and now. To dwell lightly in process. Julio and Carol gently push me backwards into a crunchy dusty pile of autumn leaves, spinning with the earth, eyes open to the emptiness of the sky that – perceptions aside – I am actually spinning in; listening as the volume of life around me, under me, above me, inside me rises and grows full.
Julio writes, in a section of Autonautas called “Mutation” [mutación]: “As always, practice sends to hell every theory that is too sure of itself. It was presumable that an advance along a highway that practically everybody traverses at maximum velocity, barely pausing to urinate, take on fuel, or, at most to rest for a bit in a cosy rest stop. . . ” – Hold it. Pull over here for a second. I know I’ve interrupted the clause and that his passage isn’t done yet, but just notice the sad degradation of the body entailed in going maximum velocity. We pause long enough to let our bodies meet their need for filling and emptying, long enough to untire [the Spanish verb for “to rest” – descansar – literally means “to untire”] our bodies [Ű4, 6, 12]. Not even to affirm rest, but to negate tiredness; not to affirm eating, but to negate hunger; not to affirm evacuation, but to negate full bladder or bowels: “Man now stays in one place only long enough to void or feed.”
What does Julio see humans doing on this highway? The Spanish words are “recorrer a la máxima velocidad.” Normally, I’d render this as “to traverse at maximum velocity.” But now, slowing down long enough to copy this passage neatly by hand, I see that “recorrer” means also, in a more literal translation, to rerun, as though we were just tearing over the same stretch of road again and again, so accustomed to it that we’ve ceased to notice it any longer, ceased to be surprised by it any longer so that, along with our piss our shit our exhaustion, the road itself becomes little more than an inconvenient, unavoidable fact of our existence; one, like those others, that only maximum speed, dead ahead, can help us to smooth over, to get by. Julio had noticed us moving like this nearly two decades before, and the very same “Southern Thruway”: “. . . and you moved at fifty-five miles an hour toward the lights that kept growing, not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among unknown cars, where no one knew anything about the other, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead [Ű49].”
He published those lines in 1966, fifteen years before this other, as the sad end of a story in which pausing could only be something forced on his characters (a massive traffic jam); a pause not relished until one’s desire to overcome it has shattered it beyond recovery. But now, that is now on the road with Carol Dunlop, he can know better, he can know ahead of time the value of the freely chosen pause, and so he can choose to detain (from the Latin words de + tenere, meaning “to hold off, to keep back” so that we can see that in freely chosen detention there is a kind of modesty, restraint, or humility) himself and adopt the rhythm of the camels. Here Julio and Carol provide an illustration of the fact that to come upon the new, I must yield to the indeterminate in myself and that sometimes, to yield to the indeterminate in myself, I must set up a rule that inhibits the powerful impulses toward predetermination in me, that inhibits the assertion of my consciousness and the interests of my ego [Ű48].
Now let’s pull – slowly – back onto the road and look at the rest of that passage from “Mutation”. Julio and Carol felt they could predict what some of the effects released by this new, ancient rhythm might be, “but no theoretical advance,” he admitted, “could have given us an idea of their magnitude, their richness.” When they were small, my kids would stand in the shallow water of the Pacific. The next wave doesn’t look that big, they can barely distinguish it from the surface of the ocean. But when it begins to rise and curl, when it breaks into them and sends them sprawling and laughing in the surf, then they can feel and know that it was much bigger than they guessed. As for Julio and Carol, they discover “the gradual alteration of the usual notion of the highway, the substitution of its insipid and almost abstract functionality with a presence full of life and of richness.” And now they guide us to the heart of things. For the essential mutation is that life returns to the world. That strange by-product of modern life – the auto-human: the human being converted into standard equipment attached to any automobile at the steering wheel, the floor board and the seat – releases its component parts. When Julio and Carol slow down like this, ordinary human beings – which is to say extraordinary human beings – liberate themselves from the vehicles, and those vehicles themselves look less like vampiric fetishes and more like the inert instruments and commodities that they are.
There’s more to this than just stop and smell the roses. They are also making the point that the actual vital realization of the insight (that detaining myself allows life to return to the world) can explode my sensate and spiritual experience beyond any of the horizons described by such slogans, or foreseen by any theoretical prediction. Besides, sometimes “stop and smell the roses” sounds a lot like “stop and check the oil” or “stop to take a crap” – that is, in order to avert a catastrophe and keep the machine running as usual. But to really detain myself, to really stop, to really smell; to drink so fully at the well of stopping and smelling that it fills me completely, that I fall in over my ears so that it crowds out for the duration any recollection that this is a break from a routine, or even alternative to one; that it just is what it is, my deep dive into a labyrinthine zone of olfactory experience: this would change everything. This is the insight yielded Julio and Carol in these passages.
They have good company in this wisdom. Here I think they are with the farmer poet Wendell Berry in his essay The Unsettling of America where he describes the dire consequences – spiritual and material – of the American inability to stop and forget about destination, about what is over the next hill. But they are also with what might at first glance seem to be Berry’s nemesis: Jack Kerouac in On the Road or, especially, in his “rucksack revolution” in The Dharma Bums. Here the characters seem rootless, precisely America’s problem if you listen to Berry. But if you look more closely at the Beats you can see they are Berry’s allies, whether or not they could recognize each other. Their movement, self-sufficient, autonomous, independent of any prefixed destination, seems to me to complement Berry’s long stand on the sacred ground of his family farm in Henry County, Kentucky. For both refuse to move onward and upward, both refuse a mode of life governed by routine, by upward mobility, where things cease to be magical and wondrous in their process of constant, minute change. Both refuse to value quantity over quality, convenience over care.
Julio once joyfully described himself as a snail. “The snail’s form enchants me,” he said, “That way of being so ‘self-contained. . . . Then, also, the snail lives that way I like to live a little bit with all that belongs to it; it moves with all its life’s belongings. It carries its own house. I have no sense of private property. . . He takes his nest with him and walks through the world.” A snail is always ready to move at a moment’s notice because it is self-sufficient, but also, relative to its resources, a snail never, ever moves. This seems to me to capture both Berry’s and Kerouac’s stances on place and movement, and the wisdom of Julio and Carol on the road to Marseilles.
“When we do walking meditation outside, we walk a little slower than our normal pace, and we coordinate our breathing with our steps.”
“Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
“From time to time, when we see something beautiful, we may want to stop and look at it – a tree, a flower, some children playing. As we look, we continue to follow our breathing, lest we lose the beautiful flower and get caught up in our thoughts. When we want to resume walking, we just start again.”
“We can do it only if we do not think of the future or the past, if we know that life can only be found in the present moment.”
“Therefore we have to shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past, just enjoying the present moment.”
“Any child can do it. If we can take one step like this, we can take two, three, four, and five.”
“Walking meditation can be very enjoyable. We walk slowly, alone or with friends, if possible in some beautiful place. Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking – walking not in order to arrive, but just to walk.”
“If you feel happy, peaceful, and joyful while you are walking, you are practicing correctly.”
My Zen teacher, Haju, explains that we ought to walk without crushing the grass. Of course, it’s impossible to walk on grass without crushing it. But what happens to the grass, to our walking, and to our selves when we try?
What becomes possible when we try the impossible?
Could reading become a form of walking meditation, in which the grass is Julio’s writing?
Could the writing I do be just a chronicle of the walk [Ű5, 16, 49, 98]?
Two summers ago, my then-wife Monica and I went somberly to search for the grave of Julio Cortázar. Clutching a hand drawn map, with his name marked on it, we searched and searched. He was not where he was supposed to be. Frustrated, ready to give up, my eyes darting chaotically around the field of stones, as though searching for my car in a parking lot, seeing nothing, I hear Monica shout out, “Here it is!” I look in the direction of her voice and turn to make my way, relieved and excited. No sooner do I take a step, then setting my foot down I land in a squishy mound of French dog shit. That is my homage to the tomb of Julio Cortázar, moved and serious and also laughing and cursing because I reek of dog shit. There are two different photos of that visit. In one I am bending somberly toward the grave of this hero. In the other, I am laughing, trying to keep my balance while I scrape the shit off the bottom of my shoe.
“I simply enjoy walking through my memory, arm in arm with John Keats, favoring every type of encounter, presentation, and citation.” Julio was still a relatively young man when he wrote this, not even 40, and not yet a famous writer. He’d only publish his first collection of short stories later that year, 1951. And he’d move to Paris to begin the second half, the famous half, of his life. No Hopscotch yet, no “Blow Up”, no Cronopios y Famas, none of these have yet been written, maybe not even conceived. The manuscript from which this comes would run to some 600 pages and would sit in a desk drawer, unseen, until after his death.
Julio’s words, which some part of me had (conveniently?) forgotten when I conceived my own stroll through his works [Ű14, 49], capture pretty well my own “methodology” [“metodología”] (that’s the chapter heading under which they appear in his book on Keats). “What’s the hurry, in the end? You can’t walk first and later enjoy the landscapes, or the vererse.” I’m touched that he should produce this advice just when I’m feeling anxious, and hurried. “I seek things, I remember others, I return to the poems, and in addition I go and I come, I love, I play, I work, I wait, I hope, I despair, I consider. And it all forms part of Keats, because I am not going to write about him, but rather walk by his side and make of this, in the end, a diary.” There it is exactly.
This walking is therefore not extraneous to our subject matter (i.e. Keats for Julio, Julio for me); not a frame in the sense that we usually think of methodologies as frames. The idea of a walk together, of the diary of a meandering stroll linked with an other derives from one of the central things that attracts Julio to Keats and me to Julio: the sense or awareness of the porousness of the membranes separating me from the people and things around me, and those things and people from each other [Ű2, 23, 27, 28, 37, 38, 44, 59]. “Over the course of his correspondence, Keats lets drop time and again a certain notion that returns and is formulated in relation to concrete cases that worry him: the notion of being ‘invaded’ by the personality of those who surround him.” This idea is everywhere in this book: Keats as a kind of ecstatic chameleon, broken-up in his encounters with the world. The poems are just the diary of the trip.
In Paris, two different people who knew Julio quite well told me that he had a care-taking impulse, that he was drawn to the sick and damaged and would come always wanting to care for them, sometimes to the point of damaging their own self-sufficiency as well as risking his own health and well-being. Pop psychology calls it co-dependency: this way of getting yourself entangled with the self of an other. Perhaps there is something at least potentially unhealthy in it. But I find it more practical to view it as the expression of a shell imperfectly formed around one’s self. I become something like a cell in a vast universal body and I am drawn to my damaged or suffering fellow cells because I know – no, I feel at a level before at least rational knowing: once conscious knowing enters into it I’m usually too scared to do anything – that this vast universal body depends for its life on such acts. That this entanglement doesn’t always work, that it can sometimes backfire, well that’s just a risk. But probably not even a risk that I can calculate because I am talking about an action that comes from deep within, from the same place as my heartbeat, or at least my breathing. The beauty of this mixing with others lies in the profound humility and compassion that it partakes of, the ecstasy and eccentricity of feeling, thought and behavior that it provokes (in a world largely dominated and dependent for its order on the firm boundaries between I and You), and the wondrous healing and peace and joy in whose achievement, if they are to be durable, such a mixing participates. Of course Cortázar would want to walk arm in arm with a young man who had died of tuberculosis at the age of 21, never quite having felt at home in the order of his times.
This sense of permeability, this compassion, motivates also that attitude toward citation that Julio expresses here in the Keats book for the first time in writing: “if I quote because I feel like it” [ “Si cito porque me da la gana”] – and not to impress or dominate – “it’s because the feeling-like-it gives me the quotes” [“es que la gana me da las citas”]. “When the little-stick-that-speaks begins to do so for another, I respect that habitation of a spirit that uses me to repeat itself, to return from its tomb. Voracity of the poet that overflows his own books, invading alien ones.” Sometime later, he’ll say this again, in a long quotation from the beginning of Around the Day in Eighty Worlds:
You may have noticed the quotes raining down, and that’s nothing compared to what will follow (that is, almost everything). In the eighty worlds of my trip around the day there are harbors, hotels, and beds for Cronopios, and besides, in quoting others we cite ourselves, it’s been said and done more than a few times, only pedants quote to be correct, whereas Cronopios quote because they are terrible egotists and they want to gather their friends together . . . Robert Lebel, for example, who described this book perfectly when he said: ‘Everything you see in this room, or in fact in this building, was left here by the previous tenants. So you won’t find much that pertains to me, yet I prefer these random appurtenances. Their diversity keeps me from being limited to a single mode of reflection; and in this laboratory, whose resources I have systematically inventoried (with the opposite of the conventional valuation, of course), my imagination is less inclined to measure its steps.’ Which is something I know it would have taken me more words to say.
It turns out that Lebel, whom Julio here cites, is himself citing Marcel Duchamp, and the whole thread of borrowed words leads Julio to affirm the relation between such joyful, friendly citation and “that sense of substantiality, the being alive that lacks in so many of our books, that writing and breathing (in the Indian sense of breathing as the ebb and flow of the universal being) not be two different rhythms.” So this attitude toward citation echoes and points backward toward Julio’s method of chronicling his walk with Keats, that is to say his record of the moving relations that is their walk together. But it also points forward, opening a vista on the effects of such citation, which Cortázar names here as the interpenetration of the rhythms of writing and life.
Gilles Deleuze explained in an interview why he wrote about David Hume and the empiricist philosophers. They made, he said, “a vital discovery, the certainty of life which, if one really adheres to it, changes one’s way of life.” It is that “relations are external to their terms.” It’s the idea that relations between things are not subordinate to those things. Relations are just as much things as things. “‘Peter is smaller than Paul’, ‘The glass is on the table’: relation is neither internal to one of the terms which would consequently be subject, nor to two together.” They have a life of their own, relations do, and so do Julio and Keats, each made up of relations, and so does the relation that is recorded in that book. In this insight Deleuze finds “a vital protest against principles. Indeed, if one sees in it something which runs through life, but which is repugnant to thought, then thought must be forced to think it, one must make relations the hallucination point of thought, an experimentation which does violence to thought. Empiricists are not theoreticians, they are experimenters.” This is because the history of philosophy “is encumbered with the problem of being, IS.” But the empiricists think with “AND”. For Deleuze, to think with AND “makes relations shoot outside their terms and outside the set of their terms, and outside everything which could be determined as Being, One, or Whole.”
This all sounds too technical and serious perhaps. Consider Deleuze’s thoughts as a way of describing what happens when you step into the forest of Julio’s citational encounters. It’s really quite simple. Deleuze’s “AND” simply connects things, like us with the world around us. And John Dewey described this connecting as the essential condition of life – a view confirmed more than half a century later by the findings of contemporary biology. Dewey made connection the foundation of his theory of experience and of art, and cited John Keats’ attitude as a prime example. As Deleuze says, with a tremendous, earned simplicity: “Try it, it is a quite extraordinary thought, and yet it is life [Ű35].”
“Oliveira turned his nose into the cold wind and began to walk in no direction in particular [sin rumbo].” Just a simple functional line from a vast rhizome of a novel. Here, Julio’s just getting Horacio Oliveira from one place to another. And yet, he saturates even this functional instant completely. This sort of economy is what he always says he learned from Borges. Nothing should be wasted. At any rate, “Sin rumbo” means literally “without path.” No direction in particular, without aim or destination, pathless: it is an extraordinary instant for Horacio, who has seemed consumed by objectives, whose sign, as he has already admitted, is searching. He once searched so frantically for a dropped lump of sugar in a restaurant that when he finally found it, under the tables of disrupted fellow diners, the sweat on his grasping palms melted it. Horacio may indeed be searching, even now [Ű16, 27, 28].
But there’s a world
of difference between
with a wanted poster, the thing
described and defined in advance so
you degrade every step and instant
along the way to nothing
more than its relative degree of utility in your quest;
between that –
Horacio’s m.o. –
and this walking
that may be the beginning
of some other
Path, of Basho’s path,
there’s a world
A world of difference between the cop on the beat, let alone the cop in a high-speed chase bumping off innocent bystanders in his pursuit and this snail’s pace walk against the cold wind [Ű13] – another blessing: this chance reverberation with Horacio’s Parisian rain in the text of the cold Michigan autumn wind rattling outside my own window – in no direction in particular. Horacio may really get somewhere though at this point – because at this point – he’s no longer trying to.
A storyline that gets somewhere by not going anywhere in particular: how would I draw that? What kind of line would that be? Lucas goes out in his pajamas to buy matches at the local café, then decides to have a drink before returning home with the matches. However, before he can get the matches, a friend rushes in who needs medicine that a druggist won’t sell him (but might, the friend thinks, sell to Lucas). So Lucas goes to the pharmacy (forgetting the matches), where the druggist won’t sell him the medicine either, until, that is, Lucas does the pharmacist’s wife the favor of loading a camera needed to take pictures of her daughter’s birthday party, which she insists Lucas attend (his friend, meanwhile, rushes back home with the medicine). (Still no matches.) During the party, an elderly neighbor who has fallen and hurt himself is brought in and, when the ambulance arrives, Lucas winds up accidentally accompanying him to the hospital. Finally, when Lucas sets out to find his way home, an old woman asks him for a match.
You see the zig zags in that line, each angle determined by what appear to be a random conjunction of events and individuals colliding with Lucas and pulling him along another tangent. Maybe it would look like this:
or, simplified, like this:
There is a shape that physicists know as the Koch curve. Here is a description of it: “The geometric operation consists in dividing a line into three equal parts and replacing the center section by two sides of an equilateral triangle.
By repeating this operation again and again, on infinitely smaller scales, a jagged snowflake is created. Like a coastline, the Koch curve becomes infinitely long if the iteration is continued to infinity.” Lucas’ shopping trip reminds me of the Koch curve. He heads out on a simple line which then “gets bent”, then the bend gets bent and so on.
This Koch curve is an example of what physicists call fractals: shapes – like a coastline or a crumpled piece of paper – that inhabit a dimension described by a fractional number, such as 1.6 or 2.4. This concept of fractal dimensions forms a basic part of the constellation of recent ideas in physics that go under the rubric of non-linear dynamics or “chaos theory.” Among the advantages of chaos theory we find a more subtle understanding of the complex interrelationship between “chaotic” or “random” phenomena and “ordered” phenomena. This nuance, in turn, has helped biologists and other natural scientists achieve more complex representations of the patterns of interrelationships among elements essential to living systems. It is understood that such representations will forever remain simply better approximations of natural processes far more complex than what can be grasped and modeled by the human mind – even aided by powerful computers. Nonetheless, it is clear that such representational advances, admittedly limited, can also stimulate changes in perspective that lead to changes in behavior and, even, collective political activity aimed at improving the quality of life on the planet. Blah blah blah…I don’t mean any disrespect to the theories of complexity, but they really aren’t the point right now. I just got carried away.
But watch it...
Zig zags slip with a tickly prick under my skin and start a zipping fractal frolic. I’m watching Lucas and Lucas leads me to fractals and fractals lead me to living systems theory and living systems theory leads me to deep ecology and deep ecology leads me to Buddhism and Buddhism leads me to walking wandering and walking wandering leads me back to Lucas. But there’s no cul-de-sac ‘cause Lucas also leads to me to matches leads me to smoking leads me to the break-up of my first marriage leads me to a friend’s gift of the Tao te Ching leads me to Zen leads me to my second marriage leads me to the break-up of my second marriage leads me to a trip to Paris alone leads me to walking wandering leads me back to Lucas.
William Burroughs – playing Sharkey on Laurie Anderson’s recording “Mister Heartbreak” – commands or invites: “You connect the dots. You pick up the pieces.”
Lucas traces a fractal shape on his errand. We are back to the value of wandering, so often emphasized and represented in, not to mention performed by, Julio’s writing [Ű13]. As in chaos theory, we find in much of Julio’s writing non-linearity and the subtle play with the conventional opposition between randomness and order, chance and law. More to the point, perhaps, don’t the shapes traced by Julio’s errant characters much more closely approximate the shapes traced by the itineraries of your own life? Are you exactly were you planned to be when you set out this morning, or on January 1 of this year, or five years ago, or when you turned eighteen? I know I’m not. Julio’s apparent escape into apparent absurdity winds up being – as some of his characters actually theorize – a dive straight into the truest heart of life [Ű48].
Traveling on a US Interstate Highway, what matters is destination. Sometimes this is good. I know where I want to get, and the Interstate provides the best combination of high speed and directness. I may notice things along the way, hurtling toward my goal at seventy-five miles per hour, but nothing about that roadway encourages me to do more with what I notice than make a mental note of it, or perhaps a remark. It feels so slow, too slow, too wasteful to get off. When I am in that frame of mind, it is best to be on the Interstate, where the center stripe is always white, where I can always pass, where no Amish farmer atop his wagon bench will hold me back.
But when I travel on the old US highway system, or on state or county roads, a whole different attitude infuses the operation. Small town main streets force slow-downs, intersections distract me from my goal. I stop thinking in terms of hundreds of miles, I stop thinking in terms of hours to destination, and I begin to think smaller and more deeply; of the strange sign up on the right after the stoplight, 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. Destination, capital D, at the same time becomes less sacred, how important can getting there be if I can get there anywhere, at the dictate of any passing fancy?
The simple, straight line of the Interstate yields to a plane, across the surface of which thin lines scamper crazily in all directions, colliding like bumblebees in flight, folding their paths around these points of impact, around towns, river bends, factories, mountains, cemeteries, farms. It’s the difference between looking up a word and playing with the dictionary: following out the thread of cross-references, relishing the pure, playful joy of the crazy angles and improbable junctions I’ve formed along the 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, collapsed the stiff telescope separating here from there. My trip is over (since I’m always already there), and yet my trip is never-ending (since I’m always only here). So I never stop moving, infinite possibilities unceasingly opening before me with every passing block and intersection. And this is being free, the burden of a single, transcendent destination replaced by the immanent surface of choices, immediate and distant, from among alternatives whose names and values will shift ceaselessly, with every revolution of the engine: keep moving or stop, go faster or slow down, go straight or go right or go left or go back.
This is heaven, this is redemption. The sharp contrast between the sacred highway and the degraded world around it blunts and blurs. As though a new god had sprung into action, worlds and people and minute goods and bads sprout up around me: this piece of cherry pie, and this lunch-counter banter, and that shooting in a trailer park, and this “I was second cousin to your grandma.” How can this not be heaven, redemption, a second-coming, or at least a second-chance? All that I usually forget or ignore, this wealth of particulars rises out of the undifferentiated lump to claim attention, humanity, life. Life goes from thin abstraction to thick, varied, concrete reality. Vision becomes miraculous: at one and the same moment microscopic, telescopic, stereoscopic. No more punctuated celebrations, no more endless waiting and whining. Just a never ending undulating surface of affect: let’s stop, this place is great, I could spend my entire life here, let’s move on. This is the process, self-consciously or deliberately undertaken or not, that produces questions. “How did I get here?” or “What am I doing here?” Or, “I can’t believe I’m here, with you, right now” How did I come to be driving this young woman’s car among the buildings of an abandoned college, with a ninety-two year old woman painter that I just met next to me in the passenger’s seat? How did I come to be pulling a socket-wrench out of an olive-green toolbox on which is stenciled “Capt. J.E. Pascall, USAF”? To answer these questions I’d have to draw a fractal figure, like the one of Lucas’ shopping trip, but infinitely more complex. To even begin to pull on just one of the threads throws me deep into the zone of oceans, fires and stars.
John Dewey discovered the essential qualities of those experiences we call aesthetic in just this sort of departure from the Interstate, from “mechanical efficiency.” I think Dewey might have underestimated the degree to which the oppressive dominance of the Interstate provokes, at least in some people (many in Julio’s universe), a powerful impulse to veer sharply off the Interstate even if it means stalling your VW bus in Death Valley. But, despite this, Dewey was right to insist that the aesthetic experience didn’t arise from mindless wandering, or slackness of ends. He might have said, in fact, that it comes from mindful wandering: moving with an aim in mind, but not sacrificing everything else, not enslaving myself, to the pursuit of that aim. Moving with an aim in mind but knowing too that because I am moving the appearance of that aim is going to shift, both in relation to me and in relation to the things around it. Mindful wandering: moving and all the while knowing that though I’m moving I’m always right here and right now.
Detail from Santiago Colás, “C”, 2003 (satin enamel, acrylic, spray, oil stick, and postcards on plywood; 132 x 48 cm.; dimensions of detail 38 x 48 cm.)
In Spanish, the book is called Salvo el crepúsculo (in English it’s Save Twilight: Selected Poems, translated by Stephen Kessler, published by City Lights of San Francisco in the Pocket Poets series that includes the cronopios Ginsburg, O’Hara, Prevert, and Ferlinghetti, as though someone there too shared my sense that Julio might be at home also among the Beats). The title comes from a poem by the 17th century Zen poet Basho. The poem goes like this:
nobody’s traveling it
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, laying 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 and reason.” 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, which 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.” Perfect inutility [Ű7, 11, 31]. 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 [Ű9, 27, 31, 40, 78, 91].”
When I leave my striving self behind, the self that wants to solve and know, even the self that wants earnestly to contribute something useful, 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.”
Julio, for his part, begins with a question, a long poetic question, “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
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 wept away
must be invented all over again.
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 re-invention, which is, I guess, redundant, at least in Julio’s sense of the word invention. A continual invention: moment by moment, from each to the next, my shifting cloud self – what a poor word “self” has become for such a phenomenon – 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 to really touch and to really see what is in front of me [Ű26, 47]. 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” and the “irritable grasping after reason” and just let the world invade me, let my self go. How do you do this? I don’t know. You do. I’m more convinced everyday that for me the task entails first using my fear or even mere aversion or inertia as a pointer, as a sign that self is at stake and that, if I want to follow the advice of Julio, Keats, and Basho I must walk into that fear: move my self. Sometimes I can’t do it. And sometimes I can.
Uncertainty. Negative capability. The capacity to dwell and move and slide along the shifting, kaleidoscopic zone of relations between things, between states of being. There’s no question of my being in them, actually. My entire life – like yours – is lived in the shadow of the most colossally mysterious uncertainty: the caprice of life and death. But there are, as Keats knew, different ways of being there. And there may well be times when the “irritable reaching after fact and reason” is the response of the survivor. But these times may be fewer than my habits and fears lead me to believe. Reason, after all, as Horacio Oliveira points out during one of his fleeting moments of insight, “can only set our closet in order in moments of calm. . . . Reason is only good to mummify reality in moments of calm or analyze its future storms, never to resolve a crisis of the moment. But these crises are like metaphysical outbursts, like a state that perhaps, if we hadn’t chosen the path of reason, would be the natural and current state of Pithecanthropus erectus.”
Julio, I think, simply wants to whisper into my other ear, to transmit the eccentric lives and insights – Basho’s and Keats’ – that have passed through him. It’s not so terrible: what happens when I don’t scratch the itch of uncertainty with the fingernail of reason. Sometimes, to be sure, it is frightening. Sometimes, probably rarely, there is a real risk to my life. More often, though, it is just my self as I know and inhabit it comfortably that is threatened. It is to tear away the sad, fearful delusion that equates change with death that these chameleons whisper. It’s not just change, uncertainty and ambiguity for their own sake. It is the world of myriad relations, encounters, and shared riches that are gained when one passes the point of the unbearable itch. No life would be possible, literally, without such connections, which is to say, without such losses – small and large – of self.
Here I want to avoid the trap of dualism, of false choices. It’s not reason bad, intuition good. It’s simpler than that. They are just different means of connecting myself freely and joyfully with the world I live in, with the conditions of my existence. These different means of connecting split off into mutually exclusive, even antagonistic options only when I get attached to one or the other, convinced of its unique superiority, forgetful that they work best in tandem. Better not to think too much about it, not to calculate too much in this vein. Better to breathe deeply of the experience that life sinks into my body, to follow – with reflection, or walking, or contemplation, or banjo, or meditation, or raking leaves, or intuition, or laughter, or prayer, or golf, or whatever – the threads they shoot forward ahead of them out to the many points in the universe to which they connect me, and then to accept, embrace, and strengthen those relations which augment freedom and joy.
Basho’s greatest work chronicles his wandering journeys along back roads entitled, in Japanese, Oku-nu-husomichi. One English translation says “Back roads to faraway places” and the one in front of me says “Narrow Road to the Interior.” Either way, Basho comes again bearing another gift, a link in the genealogy of inventive wanderers who knew that every trip reveals itself to be a spiritual journey if I just open my eyes.
“Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything.”
– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Writing ought to be very simple. I don’t mean easy, just simple. I think that it should be as simple as breathing, or getting married. When I breathe in Zen meditation, I simply pay attention to my breathing. It’s not special breathing. It’s just ordinary breathing. But I focus on it. I don’t think about breathing. I just direct my awareness toward my body and the air, except that at that time it is hard to tell them apart: my diaphragm lifting as the air flows in – as it always does anyway – through my nose, behind my mouth, down my trachea, diffusing through my bronchial tubes, filling my lungs and then, diaphragm relaxing, the air moves back up and out through my nostrils. But still, these are words and when I am sitting and just breathing I’m somehow aware of the process outside of words. Of course, most of the time that I sit, I’m not aware of the process. I’m thinking about money or what I have to do, or my eyes wander, or I’m thinking that I ought to be focused on my breathing and that I’m bad because I’m not. But none of that is important. For sometimes, maybe for just a few moments of the time that I sit, I immerse myself so fully in that flow of air in and out of my body that I forget my self. I just breathe. Or more precisely: “just breathing.” If I could treat the process of writing like the process of breathing, writing could be that simple.
Getting married to my second-wife Monica, who also practiced Zen, was different from breathing partly because the processes to which we were giving our full attention were not autonomic but deliberately undertaken. In that sense, getting married was more like writing than breathing. It was more like writing also in that we had a communicative purpose in mind. Monica and I viewed our wedding – from conception through the last thank you note – as a process through which we would be sharing our relationship with our community. And we hoped, above all, that this expression would infect our community, would open our relationship out so that the feelings comprising it would rise up and curl our friends and families up in them, and then, like a wave, flow back out through them into the world [Ű8, 67, 71, 87]. We imagined our guests leaving the wedding with the deep feeling of affection and openness that certain kinds of music and books and movies leave you with.
But for the wedding to work in these ways we had to see also the ways in which getting married was also just like breathing. We had to see, as our Zen teacher Haju Sunim repeatedly reminded us, that the fundamental stance of awareness and full presence in each moment of the process, the stance cultivated in breathing, was the key to the success of the whole thing. I mean the whole thing: not just the invitations, or the vows, or the party. Not just the wedding ceremony, but the marriage itself. And not even just the marriage, but the whole world. The ceremony was just a concentrated expression, a kind of ritual dramatization of what we wished our marriage to be. And our marriage, in turn, was just a concentrated form of what we wished the world to be. At each level – ceremony, marriage, world – everything depends on the extreme simplicity of awareness. The same simplicity of awareness that we practice when we sit and just breathe.
Our marriage was nothing more than a series of moments in which we were, each of us individually and both of us together, more or less aware of what is right in front of us. Maybe we strayed from this path more often than not. I don’t know. Such assessments are themselves a kind of straying [Ű13]. It certainly is not easy. But I do believe very deeply in the transformative power of this awareness. When I was able to sink myself fully in the deep and diverse network of effects that Monica drew in, became, and produced, I lost myself and my fear. I felt pulled outward into very intimate – sometimes scary, sometimes joyful, always intensely rich – contact with all the life around me. I noticed cicada shells and I could laugh at or even love on our five cats without worrying over my allergies.
The marriage didn’t work out the way we hoped. Perhaps that seems to undermine all that I’ve said about writing, breathing, marriage, and the simplicity entailed in each. But I don’t think so. Because it is like that with invention: there can be no guarantees that it will work out the way you hope when you begin. Remember what Julio and Carol said: that no theoretical presupposition could have prepared them for the experience itself. On the contrary, it is more than likely that the process, if you truly give yourself to it, will spit you out somewhere very different than where you hoped, or even imagined, you’d wind up when you started. I’m not saying that the breakdown of that marriage was not a painful or confusing process for both of us. It certainly was both of those things. But I think we did a decent job of staying in the process even as it was pushing each of us, in different ways, away from the marriage and into places and along paths we never imagined. And in that sense, finally, to say that the marriage didn’t work out the way we hoped is not at all the same as saying that the marriage didn’t work out. Rather, saying that the marriage didn’t work out the way we hoped is a way of emphasizing the limited dimensions of our hope in relation to the enormous complexity and fluidity of the life processes – writing, breathing, marriage, among others – to which we as human beings, when we are at our bravest best, give ourselves. And, on the other hand, it is to recognize that in refraining from disavowals, in staying “with” the process, however confusing and painful, we wound up exactly where we each needed to be, and the marriage – however short it may have fallen of our initial hopes – was part of what put each of us there, here, where we each are today.
So when I say writing should be as simple as breathing or getting married, this is what I mean. I mean that when Monica and I prepared the altar the day before the ceremony, we cleaned the small Buddha with Q-tips. Not because the Buddha needed it, but because we did. I mean that I felt blessed and humbly full of power the day of the wedding. My self was dismantled completely and I was scared shitless. But I was magically suffused with the collective capacities of our generous community, the warm September sunshine glancing off corn tassels in the Temple garden, the unexpected full moon rising over the farm where we ate and danced, the cracked-open words of love from friends and family, the confident, quiet smile of my bride. I believe I received that blessing by a turn of the wheel, because of the care we’d already put into the world, into that moment. Maybe I need to feel scared shitless a bit more frequently. Not because being scared is something to shoot for, but because it appears, at least for me at least for now, to be an inevitable prelude to and therefore a pretty reliable predictor of the rich joy of letting my self go.
“Is there a special way to carry a Buddha figure?” I asked Haju the day before the wedding. “No.” she answered simply, then continued, “By giving it your full attention. This is how you show respect.” Which is also to say that there is nothing special about giving full attention and thereby showing respect. But then the humility I felt by respectfully, mindfully carrying the Buddha figure led me to see reflected in this wooden figure the Buddha, meaning the awakened one, in myself and in everything around me. Then I no longer felt myself to be an isolated “subject”, separated from, “carrying” an equally isolated “object,” the Buddha figure. For part of the experience of “waking up” involves seeing how much richer is the web of relationships between what I call “I” and what I call “you” than could ever be captured by the terms “subject” and “object” [Ű9, 20, 38, 40, 44, 91]. The reverent respect I initially showed by mindfully carrying the Buddha figure became expansive, joyful appreciation. I was full of wonder.
To write with such care, to write Zen: a Zen-becoming of writing. That’s where I’d need to be to follow Gilles Deleuze’s advice about writing about a writer: “My ideal, when I write about an author, would be write nothing that could cause him sadness, or if he is dead, that might make him weep in his grave. Think of the author you are writing about. Think of him so hard that he can no longer be an object, and equally so that you cannot identify with him. Avoid the double shame of the scholar and the familiar. Give back to an author a little of the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics that he knew how to give and invent.” That’s where this writing process seems to be taking me. It’s even where I hope that it takes me and you both. But who knows? Best to just stay with it.
“This all smacks of the tom-tom and mumbo jumbo, and also sounds a little technical, but not when you suspend routine and open yourself to that permeability in which Antonin Artaud saw the poetic act par excellence, ‘the recognition of the dynamic and internal destiny of thought [Ű3, 81].” I love the room for which this passage is the opening, it will be you’ll see an extraordinary description, that is also an example, of “the poetic act par excellence,” the process he would elsewhere call “invención.” When I read these introductory words, Julio springs to life and begins to give me advice, like a mentor or a friend.
He first suggests I create the conditions in my life and my self: “suspend routine and open yourself to permeability.” In another moment, Julio will combine these in the simple counsel, borrowed from Fred Astaire, to “let yourself go”. Suspend routine, break habits. Like Henry Miller staying up all night, forcing the body to lead the way into the crack – the always closing elevator door – through “the sticky brick” of habit (“sticky brick” is what Julio called it in the Preface to Cronopios and Famas; or “the Great Habit” in Chapter 73 of Hopscotch).
I look through dog-eared pages, souvenirs from an earlier transformative journey through Henry Miller’s Rosy Crucifixion, but the passage I’m looking for has slipped back, hiding in the shadows of the hundreds of thousands of other words. Instead another passage leaps out in front of me – and perhaps the two are in league with each other and this is a diversionary tactic, waving its arms, ears wiggling, laughing off the walls. The tactic works. I am distracted from my search for the first quote and instead I follow the second one. Speaking of the creative artist, Miller gives me another way to think of the conditions essential for the “poetic act par excellence”:
Acceptance is the solution: it is an art, not an egotistical performance on the part of the intellect. Through art, then, one finally establishes contact with reality: that is the great discovery. Here all is play and invention . . . the world has not to be put in order: the world is order incarnate. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order, to know what is the world order in contradistinction to the wishful thinking orders which we seek to impose on one another. The power which we long to possess, in order to establish the good, the true and the beautiful, would prove to be, if we could have it, but the means of destroying one another. It is fortunate that we are powerless. We have first to acquire vision, then discipline and forbearance. . . . the humility to acknowledge the existence of a vision beyond our own. . . . the great joy of the artist is to become aware of a higher order of things, to recognize by the compulsive and spontaneous manipulation of his own impulses the resemblance between human creation and what is called ‘divine’ creation’.
The humility of which Miller speaks, toward which he prods me is what Julio is after when he says “let yourself go”. It is detention, understood as a reflexive verb, as it is more commonly in Spanish, to hold my self back [Ű58]. I try saying it like this “let your self go.” Now I try it like this: “let your self go.” Let it float away, my self, the name given to the desire to order and impose cause and effect, to drive the highway. Maybe it works for certain purposes, but is an absolute handicap for the sort of voyages Julio and Henry are here evoking. In Cronopios and Famas, Julio gives “Instructions on How to Sing.” They begin like this: “Begin by breaking all the mirrors in the house, let your arms fall to your side, gaze vacantly at the wall, forget yourself.” Can I let my self wither, “like yellow leaves that any slight stirring of the air takes off a tree.” This humility can only be achieved, as anything else, through practice and repetition – and failure.
Now, with the essential conditions in place, I can relish the gorgeous vision that comprises “the poetic act par excellence.” This vision consists in a perceptual or physical – and very often non-linear – rearrangement of preexisting elements so as to release the secret connections they have with each other and with us. First Julio describes “the intuition of archaic, magical origin that there are phenomena, even physical objects, that are what they are and the way they are because, in some sense they also are or could be other phenomena and other things.” Julio might want to call this archaic, magical, or intuitive, but if it is, something very similar is today’s most advanced model of life itself. “All members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships, the web of life. They derive their essential properties and, in fact, their very existence from their relationships to other things.” Now, how can I call myself alive if – from fear or pride – I resist such relationships?
Perhaps such a vision seems fantastic. But Henry Miller explains why we might be tempted to give it that name. “In works of fantasy the existence of law manifesting itself through order is even more apparent than in other works of art.” And how beautiful. I’m brimming with joy. How extraordinary that Henry should have leaped to my ear to speak of fantasy when I am walking slowly through the works of Julio Cortázar, so often associated with the genre of fantasy. Perhaps the fact that Julio’s vision was completely in tune with what we now see as the nature of life itself – isn’t life fantastic? – explains why someone like Henry Miller could enjoy in such a vision the mysteriously healthful effects of an elixir. Miller again: “Such a creation, which is nothing less than pure invention, pervades all levels, creating, like water its level [Ű29, 42].”
Now another constellation explodes into view before my eyes. First, there’s that word: invention. But Henry also draws a line connecting that word with the action of water which, as the Tao te Ching observes, “touches the ten thousand things and does not strive.” Pure process. I think of my overwhelming inclination toward the water, especially the ocean. I think that I was born under a water sign. I think that somehow, though he’d never laid eyes on me, the Venerable Samu Sunim knew that water – with its myriad forms and possibilities, so many I’ve not even thought of or experienced yet – was the nature to which my practice should return me when he gave me the Korean Buddhist name “San’u” (“mountain rain”). “Something,” Henry now concludes, “is present in works of fantasy, which can only be likened to an elixir. This mysterious element, often referred to as ‘pure nonsense,’ brings with it the flavor of that longer and utterly impenetrable world in which we and all the heavenly bodies have their being.”
Henry has indeed shot me back among the stars, now the stars of other people who have written and thought about inventing secret connections. Myles Horton and Paolo Freire, two aging educators, one from rural Tennessee and one from urban Brazil, called the “talking book” in which they shared their experience of helping others make connections We Make the Road by Walking. We make the constellation by inventing [Ű2, 13, 19, 72]. They call us to activity, to agency, they provoke us. I’m inventing constellations, making a road by walking around among the “astros solitarios” of Julio’s words. And perhaps a reader will traverse some of these paths and see these patterns. But maybe also, without meaning to, I will expose a previously hidden cloud of stars and the reader will then have the joy of inventing her own turtle or bear . But I can’t know or guarantee that. I can only take the leap of faith up among these stars and hope that you will join me.
“Any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be. These are the principles of connection and heterogeneity.” That’s Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari offering the defining elements of a rhizome. Julio provides an illustration: “many times I have felt that a thunderous soccer combination play (especially one by River Plate, a team I followed faithfully in my Buenos Aires days) could provoke an association of ideas in a physicist in Rome, unless this very association is what has given him birth, or, even more staggering, that the physicist and the soccer were elements in another process that culminate in a cherry bough in Nicaragua, and from these three, in turn . . . .”
Then there is the principle of multiplicity: “it is only when the multiple is effectively treated as a substantive, ‘multiplicity,’ that it ceases to have any relation to the One as subject or object, natural or spiritual reality, image and word. . . a multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature.” This time Michel Serres can flesh this out: “A flight of screaming birds, a school of herring tearing through the water like a silken sheet, a cloud of chirping crickets, a booming whirlwind of mosquitos.” To perceive and to treat the multiplicity as such: that’s what Deleuze and Guattari and Serres aim to do. To avoid reining the multiplicity in under the tight harness of the one. Or rather to think multiplicity without regard for the categories of “many” and “one”.
A rhizome is what started me on this walk, the rhizome comprised of Julio’s writing. I don’t want to squeeze that rhizome into the framework of a single unifying thesis. I’d rather leap from star to star. It’s okay if I get upside-down or change falls out of my pockets. It’ll wind up somewhere and so will I.
The principle of “asignifying rupture: a rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will shoot up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines.” …
I’m amazed by these gifts. Bountiful, serendipitous discoveries. Like the gift of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome: that it can be broken or shattered and then regenerate along new or old lines. I was out of time yesterday, trying to finish up Section Twenty Three. I was rushed and anxious to get to two places at the same time when the very wind of my hurried motion blew the leaf of their reassurance across the path of the rhizome I was striving so desperately to straighten. Though I wasn’t “done,” I could stop in peace.
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.”
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, safe always because safety has ceased to be an obsession. Like a snail [Ű13]. “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’d she get that way?
Lao Tsu answers in advance: She is not a follower of life, or 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 to live (a verb in the infinitive, rushing beyond and overwhelming a slavish obedience to the abstract nouns “life”, or “death”, and beyond the routine of 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.
Nearly forty 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.”
He dwelled on death and then he paused and detailed the simple joys of a day among friends. To live better is to elude the shadows of death when they creep into life: to elude fear, selfishness, numb routine, and 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 [Ű75]. The unknown, the present moment: “the trick” says Zen master Pema Chodron, “is to keep exploring without bailing out. Then we discover that things are never what we thought they’d be.” This is another meaning of invention, a root sense, to discover, or to come upon [Ű2]. As in what happens when you set out on the back roads sin rumbo, without a destination, like Horacio in Chapter Twenty-Two of Hopscotch [Ű17, 28]. 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 [Ű3, 60]. Maybe I can draw it:
There was a time when I’d have tried to prove this, but I’m not sure I could prove it, even if I felt like trying. Certainly, it could be nuanced, but right now I’m just really liking the simplicity and the roundness of my little drawing. Maybe I’ll try to persuade you some other time. This drawing is like the sketch of a flash. It lights things up: 20th 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. No doubt this sketch obscures other things, but, at any rate, its not meant to be a realist painting and hopefully it’s true enough to keep things moving, to generate new questions.
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
– Margaret in Howard’s End
Horacio Oliveira 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?” Horacio is onto something here, though he doesn’t quite get it. He’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 he’s not yet inventing. He’s simply, at this point, proposing a reversal of the terms, dream and reality, in a way that leaves the boundary between them fully intact. If you 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 [Ű2]. Maybe he needs an anagram, something like what he comes up with a bit later: “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.” Now this would be something new [Ű8, 44, 92].
Horacio struggles with his dreams as 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 state he imagines as an other side. But his real problem 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 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 [Ű2].”
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 reproval. 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.
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 outside of, no “other side” – no “choice” – 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 freedom.
This is why Morelli, in the full passage from which I took a snip in Chapter 2, offers an alternative to what he sees as a 20th century obsession with millenary kingdoms, Edens, nostalgias, and other worlds. He proposes instead invention as the activity of 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 Garcílaso. 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?
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 an immanent freedom [Ű57, 60, 94]. 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 – or possibilities, or new things -- from the space in which you find yourself.
The divide that most persistently nags at Horacio is the one he believes separates him from his fellow human beings. What prevents him from coming together deeply and fully with those around him, though Horacio appears not to realize it, is a simple and understandable fear: a fear of losing his self. But where does this come from? Think of Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” – “I think therefore I am” – by which the French philosopher managed, after tumbling down a slippery slope of systematic doubt, to cling to the certainty that “I am”. That is, both that I am, and that I am not dead. Now, my friend Chema reminds me that I ought not lay this directly at Descartes’ feet. Chema reminds me that Descartes was an adventurer riding skepticism and curiosity in the rough seas of dogmatic faith. But we have taken from him only the certainty and made of him the heart of a rational tradition. From his adventure we have also secretly extracted a kernel of fear – that I am not myself (either from one moment to the next or in relation to my neighbor) and that I am dead or can die; a fear of losing our selves, whether to impermanence or mystery or faith or wonder or compassion – and structured our world around it. With this sharp fear, we cleave a divide between self and the world, including other selves. Then, to span this divide of our own making, we extend the two divergent bridges of rationality (philosophy or science) and anti-rationality (art, religion, mythology, madness).
Horacio approaches the edge of this 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 dismisses with disdain, but also from this hidden fear, 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. But inventing with the self may pose the biggest risk of all. 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.
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, I read an extended parable of the kinds of freedom that invention can yield. Among these, I discover the only kind of freedom from death that we humans can enjoy, namely: freedom from the fear of the loss of self that death imposes and threatens to inject into life. I see this freedom unfold when characters take the risk of viewing their selves – as well as words or ways of running – as situations in which to invent, in which to practice compassion. But Julio does more than unfold such a parable before my passive eyes. He also provokes me into an inventive reading. For Julio writing already involved an inventive reading of what had already been said [Ű4, 34, 63]. And this, in turn, implies an inventive writing that blurred the boundaries between writing and living. In Hopscotch, Julio tries explicitly to draw me into this process, knowing, like the narrator of “Silvia,” that invention, like a contagious illness, can be communicated.
I am invited to read 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 I 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, I risk losing the satisfaction of a linear narrative, or the security of conclusive meaning, or of resolved tensions, scratched itches. In return, I gain the effect of softening a bit the wall separating my self from Julio’s. 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...”. And invention is never pure. It always works with some given, with some restrictions, like the rules of a game [Ű13]. Effective Willie Stark explains this about “goodness” to the principled, ineffectual, and vexed 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.” In Hopscotch, I am invited, like Horacio – whom Morelli asks to arrange his loose-leaf papers for publication – to arrange the “simples” with which Cortázar provides me into my own novel. Horacio might be afraid of messing things up in the process, but I don’t need to be as Morelli reassuringly reminds me: “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.”
Horacio has just seen a traffic accident, an old man struck by a car. Satisfied that the old man isn’t seriously injured, Horacio’s thoughts turn, just as he begins to walk “in no direction in particular,” to the relatively distant treatment the old man received by the bystanders and medical personnel at his side. He is still walking in the cold wind, watching others in small, laughing groups duck into cafes and bars. “Contacts in action in tribes in work in bed on the ballfield were contacts between branches and leaves which reached out and caressed each other from tree to tree while the trunks stood there disdainfully and irreconcilably parallel.” The superficiality of most of my relationships: something I have felt, and wondered about, maybe even wished to change. It occurs to Horacio that to make contact deeply, to have our deep selves touch as our outer selves now touch would require a different way of living, namely: “living absurdly to be done with the absurd”. To live this way would mean to live without reason. In fact, I think that Horacio swings to the extreme here in turning absurdity into an instrument of ethical contact. Maybe. But he nonetheless has opened a door that I can walk through: the possibility that being open to the incalculable, unpredictable, unforeseen, unreasonable – that, in short, tolerance or better yet because more actively extensive: compassion – is the essential precondition for ethical contact [Ű16, 20, 44].
By “ethical contact”, I mean finding my greatest freedom through participation in a community – be it as small as a family or a couple – with others who are also finding their greatest freedom through participation in the community. If we all in such a community are finding our greatest freedom through the community, that is, through others, then evidently each of the rest of us together comprises the community of others through which someone else, some other “I” finds his or her greatest freedom. We find our greatest freedom, in effect, by putting our desire for the freedom of others before our desire for our own freedom. In relinquishing control we exercise our capacity to accept surprise and to welcome wonder. Conversely, the greater our capacity to accept surprise and welcome wonder, the greater the joy with which we will relinquish control to that community of others in which we participate. Julio once pointed to eroticism as an instance where this can be realized. Invention is born, he explained, where one feels that one’s own sexual pleasure is predicated on the sexual pleasure of one’s partner.
“True otherness” – Horacio’s words for what I mean by ethical contact – is “Made of delicious contacts, of marvelous adjustments with the world.” And this way of living, to be truly open to contacts and adjustments with the world, requires more than one “term, to the extended hand another hand ought to respond, from the outside, from the other.” It’s a joint enterprise, and one that can only happen in practice and experimentally, and hence not without risk. If we all wait to jump into the water until someone else has gone first we’ll never get wet, alone or together. As far as Horacio goes, he will try this in short order, wandering through the rain with a second-rate, slightly mad, middle-aged pianist he just met. But she doesn’t respond as he expects – to his outstretched hand, he literally gets a stinging slap in the face – so that, deeply hurt and disappointed, Horacio will creep back behind the protective wall of his cynical, cerebral detachment – with devastating consequences for some of the people around him. But he has glimpsed the requirements. And they aren’t so different from what it takes to get off the main highway – where the whole point is to control my journey, to not encounter the unforeseen intrusion – and onto the back roads, where anything can happen to me, where delicious contacts are possible, and are, in fact, the inseparable flip side of the marvelous adjustments I must be willing to make with the world [Ű19, 23]. There’s a letting go involved, detachment but without the connotations of cynical self-protection or aversion. And with this comes a certain risk and, so also, fear. What is at risk? Or more directly: what am I afraid of?
Am I not perhaps a bit afraid of the pain of having my self rearranged? But what does that mean? Maybe to be afraid of beginning a sentence with “I” and finishing it with words I never imagined could be part of a sentence that I began with “I.” I am divorced . . . twice. I love you. I don’t love you. I am lost. I quit. I am broke. I am afraid. I don’t know. I am dying. It’s not any one of these in particular, though it may be any one of them at a given moment. It is that they are strong arms pushing or pulling us into the unfamiliar [Ű37, 91].
What if, as Italo Calvino supposed, we are nothing but a “combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.” Much of the world already sees things this way. In a study of the Tibetan Buddhist ritual art form called the “mandala” – and “mandala” was Julio’s working title for the manuscript he wound up calling Hopscotch – Martin Brauen explains that: “What we in the West consider to be an individual, in the Buddhist view comprises five so-called aggregates or heaps (skandha). . . . The five skandhas are transitory and subject to constant change, thereby also implying the transitoriness of human beings.” For Buddhists, “the concept of ‘I’ and of ‘self’ leads to craving which continually gives rise to new dissatisfaction, anguish and sorrow.” Galileo, according to Calvino, saw in the combinatoria of the alphabet, “the ultimate instrument of communication. Communication with people distant in place and time . . . but we should also add the immediate connection that writing establishes between everything existent or possible.” Perhaps if I could see what I call my self as combinatoria, then I could begin to make of these an instrument of communication. Communication, I mean, in the direct sense that the term has when we speak of communicating an illness [Ű67, 68]. Only maybe I’d be capable of communicating health. John Dewey saw communication as perhaps the most significant contribution of art to our experience: “the only form of association that is truly human, and not a gregarious gathering for warmth and protection, or a mere device for efficiency in outer action, is the participation in meanings and goods that is effected by communication. The expressions that constitute art are communication in its pure and undefiled form. Art breaks through barriers that divide human beings, which are impermeable in ordinary association.” Perhaps, then, seeing my self as a communicative instrument just means seeing my life as a work of art.
All those “I” sentences I am so used to, that are so comfortable, like the pillow I always sleep with, like a baby’s pacifier: they help me feel that the chaos has backed away, has remained on the outside, a wind beating against the fragile window of my self. Because what would happen if that chaos leaked in and began to crackle like popcorn inside of me? What if I am chaos? What if I am nothing? Or I is another, as Rimbaud said [Ű79]? Isn’t it a bit like death, the sudden breaking of a continuous line, its sudden sharp left turn, the sudden petering out into wilderness. Even if I can’t ever witness my own physical death, or know it at any rate, it frightens me to experience these tiny shards of death while I am alive. Maybe they are even more terrible because unlike the big death, these I must endure. I am asked to abide, wailing and flailing, the slipping, rocking boat, the earthquake of radical uncertainty whose epicenter is the piece of ground I am most used to taking for granted, most used to relying upon: my self. “Since death alone is certain,” Stephen Batchelor encourages us to consider, “and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” The risks entailed in losing my self, in the crumbling of those cozy walls, or even just cracking a window, are many. Will I know what to do? (Almost certainly not.) Will I appear foolish? (Almost certainly, to someone.) Will I know how to protect my self against pain? (Sometimes. Sometimes not.) Is there anything else at the bottom of it: reaching timidly for pale pleasures that lie within my grasp, that don’t require me to lean too far from the ladder (isn’t it enough, by God, that I climbed it?), or to venture into too dark a place, to speak the foreign tongue, to leave my feet and dance? There’s nothing strange or wrong about avoiding pain. But, from the point of view of the joy of sharing the walk with others and the world, is it always the most practical thing to do?
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 up, 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. 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 felt 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.
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.” I remember Vincenzo telling me that this book was friendship. It is this sort of thing, the love of a farmer for the land, the love that expands beyond exclusivity and possession to open up and nourish innumerable connecting paths to the space where nothing is a center anymore because everything is: “You are the known way leading always to the unknown.”
Detail from Santiago Colás, “C”, 2003 (satin enamel, acrylic, spray, oil stick, and postcards on plywood; 132 x 48 cm.; dimensions of detail 36 x 28 cm.)
Vincenzo came into the café to meet me. He interrupted my writing. He’s probably my best friend, if I thought in terms of like that, which sometimes I do. So I was happy to see him. But still, he interrupted my writing. I told him what I was doing. He said this book is like a friendship. What a beautiful idea! “Friendship and intimate affection,” reflected John Dewey, “are not the result of information about another person even though knowledge may further their formation. But it does so only as it becomes an integral part of sympathy through the imagination. It is when the desires and aims, the interests and modes of experience of another become an expansion of our own being that we understand him. We learn to see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and their results give true instruction, for they are built into our own structure.”
A friendship doesn’t follow a straight line. Rather it is a wandering together over the surface of life. We meet and click enough to share a bit, enough to know we want more. Neither of us controls the path of the friendship. Departure and return, distance and intimacy. Maybe you open a door, you hand me a feeling, a memory, an idea. If I break it, you forgive me. But I try to hold it gently and attentively and then carry it somewhere in the forest of my own heart, mind, body. I transform it and send it back out different. And maybe you take it and turn it again, or maybe you just put it away and start up somewhere else. Pure process, a friendship, mutual aid, gifts and tears and your hand on my shoulder, my hand on your shoulder, surprises and occasional frustrations. Times when we speed along together on wings. The phone call I didn’t expect, the one you did that never came. Friendship is also this relationship [Ű16]: the zone we build up together, bit by bit, rarely stepping back to assess its overall shape or direction, but just adding bits here and there wherever something will stick, wherever it feels good. Sometimes, I admit, it scares me, and sometimes I don’t attend carefully to my friendships, but then in the best friendships, both of those dimensions find a home as well. And anyway right now I’m just loving the experience of friendship. The vast, open-ended adventure in intimacy, the boundless expansion almost beyond recognition of the space of my self when I stretch to embrace another. “Instruction in the arts of life,” Dewey concludes his comparison of art and friendship, “is something other than conveying information about them. It is a matter of communication and participation in values of life by means of the imagination, and works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living.” Then Vincenzo, with his huge and sudden smile, his whole body smiles somehow, says in his thick Italian accent: “You know, Yago, it’s no accident that Basho is in Julio’s book of poems.”
In reflections first inspired by Keats, Julio spoke of “participation.” “Participation” for Julio refers to a way of relating and relating with the things of the world. “‘To know,’ Julio quotes Levy-Bruhl,
‘in general, is to objectify, to objectify is to project outside of oneself, as if the thing were strange, what one would know. By contrast, what an intimate communion among beings that participate in each other is assured by the collective representations of the prelogical world! The essence of the participation lies, precisely, in erasing all duality; in spite of the principle of contradiction, the subject is at the same time him or herself and the being in which he or she participates.’
Participation, then, for Julio is more than just a way of relating, it is a way of relating that facilitates a way of knowing the world that takes as its point of departure the assumption that there is an essential inter-being of the things that make up that world.
It’s not so different from how a Zen Buddhist might understand knowing, though she’d be more likely to call it “understanding”. Remember Basho [Ű20, 21]? Now listen to Thich Nhat Hanh speaking of “right view”: “It is impossible to have a subject without an object. It is impossible to remove one and retain the other.” Or, now, he speaks of “right mindfulness”: “We observe nondualistically, fully in our body even as we observe it.” Right mindfulness, nondualistic observation, based on the Buddha’s Discourse on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, applies not only to our body, but also to our feelings, our mental formations, and phenomena.
Thomas Merton elaborates upon this fundamental stance quite beautifully from a Western standpoint: “Descartes finds his basic intuition in the reflexive self-awareness of the individual thinking subject, standing, as it were, outside of and apart from other objects of knowledge. From the starting point of reflexive thought the subject takes the abstract concepts of itself and of its own being as objects -- cogito ergo sum. For [Japanese philosopher Kitaro] Nishida what comes first is the unifying intuition of the basic unity of subject and object in being or a deep “grasp of life” in its existential concreteness “at the base of consciousness [Ű27, 37, 38].”
“To become,” Gilles Deleuze asserts,
is never to imitate, or to ‘do like’, nor to conform to a model, whether it’s of justice or of truth. There is no terminus from which you set out, none which you arrive at or which you ought to arrive at . . . The wasp and the orchid provide the example. The orchid seems to form a wasp image, but in fact there is a wasp-becoming of the orchid, and an orchid-becoming of the wasp, a double-capture since ‘what’ each becomes changes no less than ‘that which’ becomes. The wasp becomes part of the orchid’s reproductive apparatus at the same time as the orchid becomes the sexual organ of the wasp. One and the same becoming, a single bloc of becoming, or, . . . ‘an a-parallel evolution of two beings who have nothing whatsoever to do with one another’.
Becoming was a way for Deleuze to talk about knowing as participation without splitting things up into subjects and objects. This view of becoming, I’m sure, guided him when he wrote about other authors. So when he tells me to “Think of the author you are writing about. Think of him so hard that he can no longer be an object, and equally so that you cannot identify with him,” I take him to be encouraging me into a becoming with the author, an understanding without subjects and objects. Something like Julio’s walk with John Keats perhaps [Ű16, 22, 40, 91].
Now, Julio, who has just passed through a Zen-becoming and a Deleuze-becoming, seems to enter a pragmatist-becoming when we listen to John Dewey draw out the differences between the pragmatists way of knowing and the “spectator notion of knowledge” he thought dangerously prevalent in traditional philosophy:
If the knower, however defined, is set over against the world to be known, knowing consists in possessing a transcript, more or less accurate but otiose, of real things. Whether this transcript is presentative in character (as realists say) or whether it is by means of states of consciousness which represent things (as subjectivists say), is a matter of great importance in its own context. But, in another regard, this difference is negligible in comparison with the point in which both agree. Knowing is viewing from outside. But if it be true that the self or subject of experience is part and parcel of the course of events, it follows that the self becomes a knower. It becomes a mind in virtue of a distinctive way of partaking in the course of events. The significant distinction is no longer between the knower and the world; it is between different ways of being in and of the movement of things; between a brute physical way and a purposive, intelligent way.
Dewey may have recommended Julio’s “participation” as a way of knowing for philosophers, but he knew that art was where this sort of becoming really happened:
The professional thinker (and naturally he is the one who writes treatises on esthetic theory) is the one who is most perpetually haunted by the difference between self and the world. He approaches discussion of art with a reenforced bias, and one, which, most unfortunately, is just the one most fatal to esthetic understanding. For the uniquely distinguishing feature of esthetic experience is exactly the fact that no such distinction of self and object exists in it, since it is esthetic to the degree in which organism and environment cooperate to institute an experience in which the two are so fully integrated that each disappear.
That’s what Dewey called “the challenge to philosophy” in the same spirit that Deleuze felt that the “inter-being” expressed in the empiricists “AND” “is repugnant to thought”; in the same spirit that the Buddha emphasized repeatedly that the way did not consist of concepts or discourse about something but of direct experience
I think that this explains why I’ve begun to feel more strongly the need to complement analysis with wonder. Analysis depends on separating subject and object. “I” take apart “the object.” If, as Dewey says, art in general is where the distinction between subject and object dissolves, this seems only more true in Julio’s writing where that dissolution is often times thematized and, to boot, built into the language so that it can be directly experienced by the reader. So then it feels to me somehow against the spirit of his writing to pull back – as though ashamed after a one night stand – and analyze as though I hadn’t felt anything, as though he had not confused subject and object inside me, inside him, inside us ... forget it.
But two more things: first, please understand that I bring Zen, and Deleuze, and Dewey in as a chorus echoing Julio’s notion of participation so as to give a sense of the variety of viewpoints alongside which I enjoy at least this particular effect in Cortázar. So if I’m not in the mood for French thinkers, then I read Julio with Zen. If that Eastern stuff’s a bit too exotic: it’s okay I can read him with good ol’ American pragmatism. And with all these encounters, my aim is not so much to point out intellectual affinities, as to stress affinities in modes of living. Second, all of these descriptions of a participatory way of knowing are themselves claims to know how knowing happens. But none claim superiority for their notion on the basis of accuracy. For Dewey, to take just one example, the difference between the spectator and pragmatist notions of knowledge ought to be evaluated in terms of their respective consequences for life. Thus
the pragmatic theory of intelligence is to project new and more complex ends – to free experience from routine and caprice. Not the use of thought to accomplish purposes already given either in the mechanism of the body or in that of the existent state of society, but the use of intelligence to liberate and liberalize action, is the pragmatic lesson. Action restricted to given and fixed ends may attain great technical efficiency, but efficiency is the only quality to which it can lay claim.. . . But the doctrine that intelligence develops within the sphere of action for the sake of possibilities not yet given is the opposite of a doctrine of mechanical efficiency. . . . A pragmatic intelligence is a creative intelligence, not a routine mechanic.
Dewey outlines the consequences of the pragmatist theory of intelligence in terms of values that strikingly resemble the “discovery” that drove Julio’s own poetics. For Julio this consequence couldn’t be more important, living, as he did, as the twin of a century that raised mechanical efficiency, even for the purpose of destroying life, to a quasi-religious status [Ű4, 26, 78].
“He dissociates symptoms that were previously grouped together, and links up others that were dissociated.” This is Gilles Deleuze on symptomatology, the literary, artistic aspect of medicine.
Quietly today, with only the sound of the rainy wind blowing into trees outside my window, I’m still inventing constellations, but now of the drops racing each other down the window pane. Symptoms are stars, syndromes are the constellation, or invention. The process could also be called invention. “Authors,” Deleuze says, “if they are great, are more like doctors than patients.”
Here in Etla, outside of Oaxaca City, the stars really grab you [Ű2]. You’re up a mile high in the mountains, far from the city, and the air is clear. On a cloudless, moonless night, I see more stars than just about anywhere I’ve been. I read that with the naked eye you can usually see no more than about 2,500 stars. Seems like so many more. I’ve always loved the stars in the same way I love a fire or an ocean. I can watch them endlessly because watching them puts me in a zone that feels much like the zone of sitting in Zen. In that zone, I am hyper-aware but also, at the same time, detached from my consciousness. I’m drawn out of my self. This, I guess, is ecstasy, but it is peaceful and painless, without the connotations of frenzy. I once made an attempt to learn more about the stars, taking a college astronomy course. I thought we’d learn the names of constellations, but it was mostly the physics of astronomy that we learned, or rather, that was taught. So I slipped comfortably back into my customary relationship with the stars, a kind of distracted, blurred-eye contemplation and I’ve been there ever since.
“The first thing you will note when looking up at the night sky,” Patrick Moore tells me, “is that stars seem to form definite patterns. Early men were suitably impressed and divided the stars into groups, or constellations. Various systems were used; the Egyptians drew up one set of constellations and the Chinese another, but the system we used today comes from the Greeks. . . . there was a period when astronomers took a fiendish delight in tinkering with the already cumbersome and complicated constellations, adding such atrocities as Sceptrum Brandenburgicum (the Sceptre of Brandenburg), Officina Typographica (the Printing Press) and Globus Aerostaticus (the Balloon). Finally, in 1932, the controlling body of world astronomy, the International Astronomical Union, lost patience and reduced the accepted number of constellations to eighty eight.”
My friend Carlos comes from New York City. He says that when he first came down here to Oaxaca, it was as though he were seeing stars for the first time. An avid learner (teaching himself Chinese over the past twenty years), Carlos taught himself to read the night sky. Maybe to be precise, I should say that he taught himself how to identify the eighty eight constellations accepted by the International Astronomical Union, along with the planets and some other interesting objects. It’s a real treat to sit with Carlos under the stars and have him point out the names of these shapes and things. He opens my eyes to one set of ways of connecting the stars, of making something out of them. I never remember the names, in fact, I rarely remember the shapes, but I enjoy it anyway.
Recently a young friend of ours from Michigan was down here visiting with her family. Hearing of Carlos’ adventures in astronomy, Ory, once a teen-age runaway and now a mature twenty-two year-old, replied that she’d rather not know the names because she’d rather make them up herself. If she knew the names of the constellations, she reasoned, she’d never be able to see any other shape in the stars. Maybe that’s true. When I told fifty-something Carlos what Ory had said, he responded, “That takes a lot of self-confidence.” Of course, he recognized that hers was just another path toward the intimate relationship with the stars that he’d discovered when he left New York for Oaxaca.
I’ve had so many students like Carlos, or rather, whose approach to literature can be compared to Carlos’ approach to the night sky. I’ve had so many who have begged me, their literature professor, for the equivalent of a star map to the poem or story they are reading. It is, they might say, what they are paying for. But it is funny that I’ve had even more adults at cocktail parties ask for such star maps when I say that I teach Latin American literature. “Name this...” they are saying, “what is this figure of speech?” “What movement does this belong to?” “What do the yellow flowers that carpet Macondo after José Arcadio Buendía’s death symbolize?” (That might be the most common one). “What,” in short, they are asking me to tell them, “am I reading?” What am I looking at? Put this way, it strikes me as incredibly odd. It makes me want to answer: “you tell me what you are reading!” But of course, this way of putting it stresses only one side of the impulse, as though Carlos had been unable to have a thought or feeling of his own about the stars before he learned the official names. Obviously that’s not true. In fact, in Carlos’ case, the opposite is true.
I’ve had lots of students sort of like Ory, too. They are confident and independent almost to a fault, or at least to the point of vulnerability. They make up their own names for what they read with great earnestness and enthusiasm and, somewhat less often, skill and creativity. They don’t want to hear what others have thought, or if they hear it they don’t really listen to the point where it might unsettle their own conclusions. But again, it’s probably not too helpful to set these two ways of looking at the stars into hard, mutually exclusive types.
They are modes of relating to something outside us and each has its place, even, to be sure, its place within me at different times. I know I often find myself admiring, even unsuccessfully imitating, both modes when I encounter especially powerful variants of them: the “super-learned-scholar” or the “super-creative-free-spirit.” Other times though, as a teacher especially (which means also as a teacher of myself), I find myself gently resisting the desires these modes express in proportion to their intensity: gently pushing the free spirit (in me) to listen to what others have thought, gently pushing the sober scholar (in me) to venture an unstudied opinion.
I was once a graduate student in a seminar in which we were reading Ezra Pound’s Cantos as well as his literary and economic essays. Each of several pairs of my peers was asked to present to the class an influential critical book about Pound. As so often happens with graduate students, these presentations became exercises in what Henry Miller called “finding the worm”: laying low the other as a way of clearing ground for one’s own opinions. My friend Catherine Brown calls this “smart bombing” when she encounters it. I think she actually got this term from a graduate student who has since dropped out. I remember my professor back then putting an abrupt halt to the whole enterprise, reminding us in very firm, very human tones, of the force of intellect and, especially, devotion condensed in the book that was being trashed. He appealed for a more respectful, balanced approach in which our learning and the expression of our own knowledge wouldn’t require a belittling step up on the crushed back of another human being.
The process of learning requires a delicate balance: taking on the wisdom of others who have gone before without feeling burdened or cramped or paralyzed by it – without feeling overwhelmed by my own smallness and vulnerability [Ű73]. How do I look at those nine bright stars, remembering that for centuries they’ve been called “Leo” and still keep myself open to seeing the other shapes they make? Carlos, by the way, when he wants to show me Leo, always traces the shape of a question mark with his index finger. I suppose that I have to practice walking that line, sustaining that tension. I suppose practice is the only way to avoid the hollowed-out extremes of the pedant and the ignoramus. The hardest part of that practice entails letting go of the strong sense of my self as the production center for original knowledge. Better to see myself as one of the sets of senses of a very old, multifaceted beast. Better to enter my reports as part of a long conversation with many participants and to leave it at that, without succumbing to the anxious need to reach a definitive, so-called original conclusion to which I sign my name. This practice, if Julio were talking about it, would simply be called invention: taking what has been handed me with respect and equanimity, but without too much seriousness, neither fleeing it nor enslaving myself to it, and finding ways of making something new for myself and others out of it. Is learning this way, learning as invention, really significantly different from the process by which life takes the bits of living and dead stuff lying around and makes of them something new?
Cortázar once told an interviewer, explaining why he didn’t feel any acute anxiety of influence, that “in some sense, originality doesn’t exist; on an absolute level I believe that perhaps everything has been said. And yet, the wonder of literature lies in that in saying those things again, one says them in some way, not again, but newly. There is a kind of palingenesis in this fact, in the literary act.” Cortázar here addresses the sense among some late twentieth century novelists that after the explosion of narrative experiments in the early part of the century there remained nothing for novelists to do, no new way to tell a story. Cortázar accepts the proposition that everything has been said. But it is worth noting that this fact seems neither new nor alarming. For Cortázar, literature isn’t a thing you create ex nihilo, but rather a process of inventing, from within the existing landscape of literary elements, by taking what you need and rearranging the elements so that it comes out new [Ű94]. In that sense, he’d probably had been more alarmed if everything hadn’t been said already, because then there’d be nothing to invent with. Invention, at any rate, is Cortázar’s writing.
This sense of creation as invention appears also in John Dewey’s theory of art as experience: “Great original artists take a tradition into themselves. They have not shunned but digested it. Then the very conflict set up between it and what is new in themselves and in their environment creates the tension that demands a new mode of expression.” “It all goes,” echoes jazz pianist Walter Bishop Jr., “from imitation to assimilation to innovation.” Or, to return to the field of literature, consider Italo Calvino’s formulation: “Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level, something that on the second level is of great concern to the author or his society.”
Literature, viewed as invention, entails also a more specific inventing, a rearrangement, or recombination, of those two elements comprising any writer’s basic situation: writing and life. For the fear that one won’t be able to say something new depends, like the hope that one will, on a belief in some hidden realm of life experiences untouched yet by writing. That belief views the word “writing” as a noun that designates a verbal superimposition upon the real world of life. And then it hopes to come upon an uncharted island, or it fears that it can’t. But in either case, life and writing remain separated. Literature as invention, on the other hand, understands the word “writing” to be a gerund that designates a flow of activity, winding through and alongside innumerable other activities, into which the writer in the present steps [Ű23, 81]. In this sense, writing may well be about life, but if so, it is only because and to the degree that writing is part of life.
This view, which embeds writing in the processes of life, usefully relieves writing of the burden of accurately mapping, of faithfully representing some reality considered to be separable from it. In the West, this burden was first laid upon writing in Plato’s various attacks on poets and sophists. Plato, who believed that reality resided not in the physical things of the word but in the realm of pure ideas or forms, chastised the poets for offering only representations of the physical world. Because the physical world was itself only a representation of the ideal world, poets give us only copies of copies. They take us farther from reality than we already are. That they do so via enticing forms only raises the stakes, making their folly insidious. As for the sophists and rhetoricians, it was their emphasis on what was persuasive that made them dangerous in Plato’s view [Ű67]. In both cases, Plato assigns speech and writing the job of faithfully representing reality, of copying down exactly the ideas that, in Plato, constitute reality.
But if we see, as the sophists for example did, that what we call facts are things discovered with others in the course of an exploration, verbal or otherwise, then it makes no sense to ask language to copy reality. Language, rather, becomes an instrument for discovering reality (and remember: invention comes from the Latin inventio, which is the translation of the Greek heurisis, which means to come upon or discover). Julio often seemed to associate rhetoric with the stiffness of conventional formulas and thus rejected it. However, rhetoric also carries this preference for efficacity over fidelity and, from that vantage point, we could fairly see Julio’s own writing as invention in the rhetorical tradition. Viewed as invention, literature gets to pursue the sophist aim of producing effects in the world. That is to say, in other words, that literature as invention aims, like the processes of life itself, to bring new things and events into the world.
“Fiction and invention are the very fabric of life”
– Henry Miller, “Reflections on writing”
There is something that Juan, in the world of 62: A Model Kit, just calls “something”: “that isn’t us and it locates these cards in which we’re spade or hearts but not the hands that shuffle and deal them, a dizzy game about which we manage to know only the luck that’s woven and unwoven with every hand, the figure that comes before us or follows us, the sequence with which the hand proposes us to the adversary, the battle of excluding fortunes that decides when to bet and when to pass. . . .” The novel in which Juan is a fictional character grows from one proposed by Morelli, the fictional author inhabiting another of Julio’s novelistic universes: that of Hopscotch. In Chapter 62 of that novel – hence the title of the later work in which Juan lives: 62: A Model Kit – Morelli imagines a novel he’d like to write, inspired by the then most recent developments of neurobiology. We likely come to this in Hopscotch right after accompanying Horacio on an aimless walk in the rain, his first walk without aim, right after he glimpses an ethics of compassion [Ű17, 27, 28].
Here is the page of Morelli’s notebook:
Psychology, a word with the air of an old woman about it. A Swede is working on a chemical theory of thought. Chemistry, electromagnetism, the secret flow of living matter, everything returns strangely to evoke the idea of mana; in a like manner, on the edge of social behavior, one might suspect an interaction of a different nature, a billiard game that certain individuals play or are played at, a drama with no Oedipuses, no Rastignacs, no Phaedras, an impersonal drama. . . . as if certain individuals had cut into the deep chemistry of others without having meant to and vice-versa, so that the most curious and interesting chain reactions, fissions, and transmutations would result. . . . postulate a human group that thinks it is reacting psychologically in the classic sense of that tired old word, but which merely represents an instance in that flow of animated matter, in the infinite interactions of what we formerly called desires, sympathies, wills, convictions, and which appear here as something irreducible to all reason and all description: foreign occupying forces, advancing in the quest of their freedom of the city; a quest superior to ourselves as individuals and one which uses us for its own end . . . . those puppets would destroy each other, or love each other or recognize each other without suspecting too much that life is trying to change its key in and through and by them. . . .
Morelli seems to be looking for a way to present life without the usual elements used by novelists to do so, without identifying life with – and so reducing it to – the psychology of live human beings. Now, Gilles Deleuze names exactly this effort as the purpose of literature: “to carry life to the state of a non-personal power.” “You don’t write,” Deleuze asserts, “with your ego, your memory, and your illnesses. In the act of writing there’s an attempt to make life something more than personal, to free life from what imprisons it.” This seems difficult to grasp until you hear Deleuze state the obvious: “It’s organisms that die, not life.” It is in this sense of the word “life” that “Any work of art points a way through for life.” And it’s this sense of life that I think Morelli would like to unleash in his imaginary novel. And it is this sense of life that I think Juan calls “something.”
Paradoxically, the vitalism Deleuze finds in the work of art derives from the artist’s intimacy with death: “What little health they possess is often too fragile, not because of their illnesses or neurosis, but because they have seen something in life that is too much for anyone, too much for themselves, and that has put on them the quiet mark of death. But this something is also the source or breath that supports them.” Is it an accident that Morelli spends most of Hopscotch on his deathbed? That Julio was unhealthy and, according to most who knew him, had a strangely vital relationship to death? That his wide infant eyes witnessed the beginning of a century marked by incomprehensible levels of deaths? Julio himself understood the intimacy of life and death: “precisely because deep down I am a very optimistic and very vital person, that is someone who believes in life as profoundly as possible, and who lives as profoundly as possible, the notion of death is also very strong in me [Ű4, 26].” Deleuze’s assertion concerning the vital function of art might provide another way of understanding “teaching and learning to live better” (the only solution, you recall, that Julio could offer to the overwhelming mark of death in his century): to elude the bars of the self and the personal and the organism in order to unleash the flow of life.
This would entail invention, the invention of constellations. Daniel Smith explains this point in Deleuze very well: “The writer, like each of us, begins with the multiplicities that have invented him or her as a formal subject, in an actualized world, with an organic body, in a given political order, having learned a certain language.” The writer starts with a set of givens that help to make up what he or she, like the rest of us, are used to calling his or her self. “But,” Smith goes on, “at its highest point, writing, as an activity . . . extracts or produces differential elements from . . . lived experience and makes them function as variables. . . .The task of the writer is to establish nonpreexistent relations between these variables in order to make them function together in a singular and nonhomogeneous whole, and thus to participate in the construction of ‘new possibilities of life.’ (my emphasis)”
Morelli’s quotation and the gloss I’ve made on it using Deleuze and Smith together point to an explanation for Julio’s fascination with invention. Perhaps, also, it was thoughts like these that led him to affirm so confidently the ethical value of his, and other kinds of, experimental fiction. Why do Julio and his characters like to play at shuffling heterogeneous elements until they discover or invent a secret subterranean homogeneity that links them and lights them up into pleasing neon constellations? Maybe because, in their vision of life, we are ourselves nothing more than just such elements, shuffled into figures and arrays and patterns. Juan exclaims, “Oh, to give in to that moving framework of instantaneous nets, to accept one’s place in the deck, to consent to whatever shuffles and deals, what a temptation.” Invention now displays another one of its effects. Now you can see that invention lets us see, and even manipulate in miniature, the dynamic of those inexplicable, barely describable anti-laws that, our habitual attachment to the idea of a sovereign ego notwithstanding, might be governing our lives. Morelli says these anti-laws work beyond reason and description. But he does not mean that words cannot evoke these. Far from it. Indeed, if Morelli is right, then this also helps explain why Julio so often identifies invention with poetry (in its etymological sense of “making”). True, language cannot represent those magical forces – they move and shift much too quickly and chaotically for language. But language can generate – when its symbolic, rhetorical, and expressive dimensions are emphasized or deployed – verbal iterations or better yet transmissions of what that “something” does with the heterogeneous elements – including human beings – that make up the universe. Language can, in short, create real relations.
This potential of language may be why Deleuze exhorts us to “think with AND” by exclaiming that “it is extraordinary and yet is life.” This may be why Julio exuded such vitality to all who knew him and it may be how he shoots such vitality into his writing, why the whole of his work bristles with “something”, with experimentation and life. It is because throughout, from his early critical walk with the terminally tubercular John Keats to the final drive with Carol Dunlop shadowed as it also was by terminal illness, he holds firmly to – and rehearses endlessly – this vision of life as an impersonal force seizing and shifting the particular elements that partake of it. “Tiny little splinters of life/ They have fun in the sea” writes D. H. Lawrence in a tiny speeding poem about little fish. This is how art, as Julio always insisted, partakes of, becomes, and influences, in turn, life.
At the beginning, Juan sits at a table in a restaurant in 62: A Model Kit. He has just experienced what he calls a “unity” or “constellation” [Ű2, 23, 33]: an intuitive, and physical, apprehension of a secret trail of common links connecting disparate, and from the conventional point of view, unrelated phenomena (a fellow diner ordering his dinner, a book he has just bought, a long-dead countess who bled teenage girls to death, a hotel in Vienna, a woman in whom he is interested). It happens in a flash, a shooting star, this apprehension, and when I meet him he is already coming down, or moving on, from it. The flash interests me as an instance of passive invention: the perception that a set of heterogeneous elements has suddenly and unexpectedly revealed an aspect of homogeneity. This flash also entails the ability to comprehend the non-linear. Julio speaks of this as a by-product of “distraction”. In other words, it springs into view when the grip of our attention on a single object loosens, our eyes blur. This difference between distraction and focused attention resembles somewhat the difference between wandering (as in driving the back roads without particular destination) and going somewhere on the Interstate [Ű19]. Mindfulness might be a good word for it. You aren’t paying attention to nothing. And you aren’t paying attention to something, at least not if that means failing to notice the other things that are right around that “something.”
The counterpart of this passive invention is active invention, where this sort of perception occurs because we’ve cultivated the conditions favorable to it. Juan’s experience in the restaurant reproduces the state in which Julio tells us 62 was conceived, and offers another example of Julio’s emphasis and interest in the inventive process. But, and here is the other dimension that interests me, Juan also reflects on the flash, and considers, in particular, its relationship to thought, especially analytical reason. The flash itself, of course, owes nothing to this sort of thought and so Juan rightly thinks of the flash as some kind of “other side” to reason, like a dream. But he doesn’t for all that disparage thought – unlike, say, Horacio Oliveira who, much of the time, disparages reason while secretly embodying its most terrifying, coldly manipulative forms. Neither does Juan disparage the attempt to share or communicate the flash with others. Instead, thought and communication, even analysis, are seen as a valuable complement to the flash. Indeed, at this very moment, Juan sees thought – so long as it no more than momentarily dwells on the passed flash and its distance from thought – as a kind of alternative path to at least making possible another flash. So he is here moving into active invention.
All of this offers a compact drama of the experience of reading, thinking, and writing about Julio’s writing. I read and flashes of another reality that is also this one pop almost constantly before my eyes. Later, maybe with friends or with a notebook, I begin to reflect on that experience, on the coagulation precipitated by me and the books, and I struggle because thought and language seem unequal to the task of conveying such richness. I feel able only dumbly to point. But then, like Juan, I slowly realize that the trick lies not in vainly chasing after a perfect restoration of the original, nor in the meticulous construction of a copy in words, but rather in using the energy of the flash to fuel or drive another process (in thought and language) that will create a different flash out of different elements. This is the way Julio infects me with these flashes that then madly reproduce themselves (like the little goldfishes in the country of General Orangu) so that I crave them, to be sure, but even more, so that I want to spread them.
“There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them at the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility; their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.” In this story something passes across the glass wall separating two entities.
“I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss”: a man remembers what he saw as he looked through the glass wall of a terrarium at the zoo. Now read the next sentence in that description: “It’s that we don’t enjoy moving a lot.” Now an axolotl seems to be explaining their stillness.
There was a time when I thought a great deal about what I called the “switch” moment in Julio’s stories; the precise spot in a piece of his writing when the ordinary passes over into the extraordinary. I had felt the extraordinary effect and in looking to pin down the switch moment I think I was driven by the same kind of impulse that makes other people figure out how their car or radio work. Or that makes someone look up “axolotl” in an encyclopedia. We feel wonder at something and so, I think, as a way of getting closer to it we want to know how it works and to know how it works, we think, we need to take it apart. This is practical for certain purposes. It is certainly a venerable tradition in the West: to take something apart (to analyze, even, more recently, to deconstruct) as a way of gaining knowledge, and so proximity, to something. But I also think we should be careful with this impulse. After all, it’s hard to take something apart – at least a living thing, whose life depends on connections – without wrecking it.
Lately I’ve been feeling less strongly the desire to find the “switch” in Julio’s writing. Or rather, I like to find the switch but then I’m less inclined to take it apart as a means of understanding the production of a certain effect. Lately, I’ve been more interested in the effect itself and in transmitting it. I like to stand back in wonder now and perhaps also, via some indication or another, to pass that wonder on to another. I’d like to be able to combine both attitudes – wonder and understanding – smoothly in a single gesture, like this one: “Now I am an axolotl.”
“My face was pressed against the glass of the aquarium, my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil: I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.”
The strange beauty in Julio’s writing comes from how gracefully he leads me into the universe of such sentences as “Then my face drew back and I understood.” It is, on the face of it, an ordinary sentence. But ordinarily, the “my” would lead us to assume that the “face” belonged to the “I”; that the “I” somehow is speaking from inside or behind the “face”; that the “I” draws back and understands together with “my face.” But in Julio’s writing this sentence becomes weird because the “I” and “my face” have split off from each other, divided now by the pane of glass. Like Rimbaud’s “I is an other” these sentences of Julio’s, when I clumsily wrap my tongue – especially my mind – around them, move me, or me mudan, they mutate and move me. But it’s not merely that I clumsily wrap my tongue around them, as though I were made to feel foolish learning a new dance step in the presence of an arrogant instructor. It’s the opposite. Under the spell of Julio style I too become gracefully protean. I become what I am and always have been. My “self” becomes what it is: a more or less tenuous thing made of language and so also capable of being unmade, changed, split, multiplied in language also [Ű16, 31, 44, 78]. In this way, the story is like an exercise.
When I say exercise you maybe think of something contrived, abstracted from an organic, lived situation: grammar exercises, musical exercises, practicing a jump shot. Maybe they don’t exactly feel like the real thing. But they have the virtue of making a space for practice. I’ve come to feel that what I think of as the real thing consists entirely of practice. So that I must sink myself completely into the practice at hand for its own sake, while another part of me remains aware of the larger picture of which the exercise forms a part. It’s not a question of richness. Richness is equally present in life and in the exercise (so long as I attend mindfully to the latter). Through focus and repetition I cultivate a new and fragile skill. Then, when the complex, dizzying pressures of the game begin, the fundamental skill has become second nature and I can begin to riff off it as a particular, given situation may call for. In this particular story, as in other of his writings, Julio gives me a chance to practice speaking a language without subjects and objects. Or, better yet, he gives me a chance to speak a language built around subjects and objects, but to speak it now as though it didn’t have them.
It’s like the little narrator of “The Poisons” inventing a running that is like flying [Ű8]. Or it’s like the little game my son and I used to like to play. He’d say to me “Daddy, you are a poopy face” or something like that. And I’d say back, “Adam, I really don’t think you are a poopy face.” Then he’d begin to smile and say, “I’m not a poopy face, you are.” I’d get very serious: “I know I’m not a poopy face, but I don’t think you are either.” Adam: “No Dad, listen, I said ‘you are a poopy face’.” “I know,” I’d tell him, “I’m not deaf. I heard you perfectly well. I’m just saying that I don’t agree. You are not a poopy face.” Before long, the game slides into “say this Dad: ‘I am a poopy face’” and I’d reply “this Dad I am a poopy face” and “no, no, no, no!” and laughter. The glass that separates subject from object may be there, at least in language, but we can act as though it weren’t. And, as with all invention, this one produces real effects. I am here writing and you are here, too, reading these words. Now say that out loud. Who is talking? Who is I?
“Look, this bit of things being elastic is very weird, I feel it everyplace I go. It’s all elastic, baby. Things that look solid have an elasticity....”
Johnny Carter, “The Pursuer”
A man struggles with his sweater and falls twelve stories to his death.
Julio’s world is soft. Watch a hand turn into a rat: “even though it’s almost impossible to coordinate the movements of both hands, as if the left hand were a rat trapped in a cage and from outside another rat was trying to help it escape . . .” It’s just starting. It hasn’t happened yet. Here, the lines are still drawn: a hand is a hand and a rat is a rat and the most you can say is that the one is like the other; that it behaves and feels as though it were the other. But then see what happens, later in the same sentence (which continues for the last two pages of the story): “his hand which hurts, hurts him so much that he gives up trying to take off the sweater, he prefers to make one last effort to push his head out of the collar, and push the left rat out of its cage.” There. Right there. Now the hand has become a rat.
Language can rush like a river through the world. Julio steps into that river, pushed by and pushing it along at the same time, and this flow sweeps into the world, drenching it and carrying it, jumbling everything together into a bubbling tumbling mix in which things start to lose their sharp edges, melting down into blobs and then springing suddenly stiffly into the shape of something else, before that something else too gets pulled onward by the current along its unpredictable adventure of metamorphosis.
If the man’s left hand here became a rat, later it will become a hand again, and a friendly one. But only because his right hand has been reduced to “five black fingernails hovering over his eyes” so that “he has just enough time to lower his eyelids and throw himself back, covering himself with the left hand that is his hand. . .” This river’s a flood and, at least this time, the poor unsuspecting man, who just wanted to put on his sweater to go meet his wife, has gotten all spun around and disoriented by this suffocating skein of words (a river can easily become a skein, just watch water wrap itself around a rock) that now tosses him – now grateful and relieved – out the window to his death.
“Don’t Blame Anyone” [“No se culpe a nadie”] is the name of the story. Just a half-dozen pages in English. Notice the refusal of responsibility registered even grammatically in the passive construction in Spanish. When he begins to put his sweater on, his hands start to become the subjects of sentences, rather than the objects of sentences of which “he” is the subject. Before long, the poor man has a mouthful of blue wool and seems completely at the mercy of the sweater, whose openings keep changing places and closing just when he thinks he can escape, and of his limbs, which, like most subjects of sentences, do what they want to do. I too get caught in the swirl of active hands and scratchy blue fabric and passive confused man. When this happens I realize that this flood of language has just spilled right off the page to grab me with long foamy fingers and yank me with irresistible roughness into the man’s world. Unless it is that the world of the man was always my world and I had better pay attention since I live where I sometimes must wear sweaters [Ű9].
This is not a fantastic story. There isn’t the slightest sense that the hands have been possessed by some demonic power (though Julio has written stories like this) or that the physical laws of the universe are failing to operate (if only, I think wishfully, as I plummet with the man through the final lines of chilly air). No, there’s nothing more mundane and ordinary than putting on a sweater and finding that I have to do a clumsy little dance to avoid getting trapped in it [Ű42]. What makes the story extraordinary (but not fantastic) is that Julio has detained himself; he dwells with excruciating care over each second and detail of the process. This care then opens a door through which Julio can become the man, the sweater, the hands, all at once and all actually just in words – black ink marks on white pages – and these all, in turn, become me.
“Think,” Italo Calvino encourages us, “what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic. . . . Was this not perhaps what Ovid was aiming at, when he wrote about the continuity of forms? And what Lucretius was aiming at when he identified himself with that nature common to each and everything.” Julio gives us such a work, he gives it to us the way you give a friend a cold, or joy: so that they have it too.
It comes from his chameleonic quality, something he admired deeply in Keats for whom, as for Basho: “to know something is to participate in it in some way [Ű16].” The little boy in “The Poisons” knows this: “I liked to throw myself face down on the ground and to smell the earth, feeling it underneath me, warm with its smell of summer so different from other times. I thought of many things, but above all of the ants, now that I had seen what the anthills were I stayed thinking of the tunnels that criss-crossed all over the place and that nobody saw. Like the veins in my legs, that you could barely distinguish below my skin, but full of ants and mysteries that came and went [Ű8].” In “Don’t Blame Anyone,” Julio communicates this extraordinary mutation by inhabiting the river of language, letting it flow but exploiting its natural propensity to scramble universes so that even if I can close the book as if it were the basement door, I can never be sure that the basement hasn’t changed places with the kitchen so that I’ve actually locked ourselves in [Ű67].
“I have never admitted a clear distinction between living and writing [Ű9, 23, 81].” When I began my five-week Zen meditation course, my instructor asked us not to read anything about Zen while we were in the course. I began to shake and sweat. I was a junky. Haju, my teacher, knew that this particular kind of addict – a book junky – can sometimes pick up books as a defense against life. It’s a way of experiencing something half-way, in a controlled way. Many of my own students, those most enthusiastic defenders of Literature, capital “L”, like to slip into dream-like memories from childhood, when reading took them away to far off lands inside themselves or provided them with their only moments of quiet intimacy with a parent. These ways of connecting to a book, taken to vicious extremes, seem to prompt that sentiment I’ve heard so many times: “books take you away from life.” That piece of cloth can be cut into the shape of an admonition: “don’t bury your head in a book” or into a challenge: “that’s fine in books, but what about real life?” or into a critical epithet dismissing what you know as “book learning”. Of course, sometimes the people who say this to me are also the people who, like the businessman in “Continuity of Parks,” flee like escaped convicts into a novel once they’ve punched out of the “real world” of work [Ű9]. I won’t deny that books are sometimes narcotizing escapes for me too, imaginary islands of solitude when I want solitude. That’s no problem except that we might want to notice that usually when we think of an “escape” it is from something like a prison so that if we are habitually escaping life, well . . .
Anyway, reading seems so much more often to work the other way for me, where reading and living don’t feel distinct. Walking around, stepping into the sticky chewed gum of life, or strolling in its sometimes perfect weather, the words or ideas or feelings of books I’ve read zip like sparrows in and out and around me. I sometimes speak through them, or they speak through me. When I’m reading those books, I’m rarely the author, rarely outside the story enough to ponder this strategy of narration or that line of argument or character development. I’m shrunk (or expanded) to the dimensions of the book’s world and characters. I’m not the characters either, you understand, but I’m right there, a ghost they can’t see or hear that tags along behind them as they step into the sticky chewing gum of life or stroll in its sometimes perfect weather. I beg Clyde Griffiths, in Dreiser’s American Tragedy, to resist his crazy veering impulses: “Yes Clyde, of course your family is fucked and closed and denying you life and desire and you must, of course, explode through them in your growth, but that life pulsing in you that you can feel them choking off: it doesn’t lie in the fancy suit, or the prestige of the better social circles.” He can’t hear me.
It’s very simple, you see, there’s just this one multiverse and it’s not typical for me to distinguish between fictional and real individuals or events within it. This may have something to do with why I still cry, after about 75 times, when Simba tugs on his dead father’s ear in Disney’s “The Lion King,” and implores him, voice cracking, to “wake up, we gotta go home” or when Elliot and E. T. say goodbye, or even – or especially -- when good things happen in the movies I watch with my children, when someone is nice to someone else. It’s like John Dewey says, so nicely, “We are, as it were, introduced into a world beyond this world, which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experience. We are carried out beyond ourselves to find ourselves.” Maybe reading is so gratifying for me because of what Dewey says, because this feeling of being carried out beyond my self can be so difficult to allow in other areas of my life. But then maybe it’s not life I’m escaping when I read, but rather just my narrow ego and it would only be the perverse equation of that narrow ego with the whole vast fabric of life that would permit the belief in the value of reading/writing as escape from life. The feeling Dewey describes may also have something to do with my profound appreciation for Julio who writes, I think, for people like me or at least from a perceptual situation like this one I’m describing. Morelli wonders “whether some day I will ever succeed in making it felt that the true character and the only that interests me is the reader, to the degree in which something of what I write ought to contribute to his mutation, displacement, alienation, transportation.” Well Morelli or Julio or whoever you really are, you have succeeded. Elsewhere he’ll speak of making of his writing a bridge extended from him to a reader. An outstretched hand? Arm in arm? A walking together? A friendship? Julio and Keats? Me and Clyde? Julio and me? [Ű16, 27, 29]
For Julio it comes back to the sense of not being completely there. He imagines it in terms of a kind of persistence, a monstrous persistence, of childhood in the adult, but of a childhood already permeated in some ways by adulthood. The result: “The feeling of not being completely a part of those structures, those webs, that make up our lives, wherein we are at once both spider and fly.” Julio wants me to share this eccentricity or ecstasy. He wants to open my eyes to see the seams and cracks in the comfortable costume of everyday life. He wants to awaken me. But he also won’t allow me to fall into the trap of believing that my life is false and reality is somewhere else (“you can’t go beyond because there isn’t any” – writes Morelli) [Ű57]. You know those cracks? Well, an ant finds the crack in the sidewalk by being tiny and crawling along its surface. So it is not by looking away from what Julio calls “everyday reality” but rather by looking more closely – an ant-becoming – that life bursts through its veil of gray, splattering me inside and out with color and richness and life.
Detail from Santiago Colás, “C”, 2003 (satin enamel, acrylic, spray, oil stick, and postcards on plywood; 132 x 48 cm.; dimensions of detail 40 x 22 cm.)
Watch what Julio’s style does to the bit of language named Alina Reyes:
Without foreboding, liberating herself at last – she believed it in one terrible, jubilant cold leap – she was beside her and also stretched out her hands, refusing to think, and the woman on the bridge hugged her against her chest and the two, stiff and silent, embraced one another on the bridge with the crumbling river hammering against the abutments.
Alina ached: it was the clasp of the pocketbook, the strength of the embrace had run it in between her breasts with a sweet, bearable laceration. She surrounded the slender woman feeling her complete and absolute within her arms, with springing up of happiness equal to a hymn, to loosing a cloud of pigeons, to the river singing. She shut her eyes in the total fusion, declining the sensations from outside, the evening light; suddenly very tired but sure of her victory, without celebrating it so much as her own and at last.
It seemed to her that one of the two of them was weeping, softly. It should have been her because she felt her cheeks wet, and even the cheekbones aching as though she had been struck there. Also the throat, and then suddenly the shoulders, weighed down by innumerable hardships. Opening her eyes (perhaps now she screamed) she saw that they had separated. Now she did scream. From the cold, because the snow was coming in through her broken shoes, because making her way along the roadway to the plaza went Alina Reyes, very lovely in her gray suit, her hair a little loose against the wind, not turning her face. Going off.
The narrator, or rather the mind into which and through which the narrator experiences this encounter, switches bodies. Now I’ll read it again, more slowly, to find the switch. Okay, at the beginning there are two women coming together to embrace on a bridge in the cold. And at the beginning, the one with whom I am experiencing this embrace is called Alina. But then at the end, Alina’s body is going off and I am watching her in horror because I was Alina. This other woman has passed into Alina, put on Alina’s body like a coat against the cold, and walked off, leaving me, leaving Alina’s mind and soul shivering in broken shoes. I missed the moment. I mean I notice that there is a moment when Alina realizes the switch has happened (“Opening her eyes. . .”), but that’s not the same thing.
This effect amazes all the more so because it is so hard to point to the one sentence in which the transmigration occurs. The whole passage makes the women of the same stuff as the “crumbling river.” Everything crumbles here. They share already from the start, cheek to cheek they share tears, breast to breast they share pain. When we embrace, what presses against you presses against me, what hurts you hurts me. Maybe at that point, as I begin the passage for the first time, it’s just a manner of speaking. But by the end of the story, as so many times in Julio’s writing, the figurative has become indistinguishable from the literal. I will question, too, the second time through, the rotund conventional pronoun “she” that would seem grammatically to have to belong to Alina, to Alina in her own body, to Alina with her own mind. But the whole passage is an exercise in the communication of seamless flux.
The story also serves as a marvelous example of the way Julio pulls me in. Like a spider or a fly fisherman, he’s gently enticing at first, but by the end he has me by the collar slapping me down behind the eight ball. He makes me re-read, as though the sounds were sticky sticky and I could pull myself away only by leaving something behind as Alina’s body does, or taking something with me as the other woman’s mind does. Like the kid in grammar school who got his tongue stuck to the frozen fence around the playground. This provoked rereading in Cortázar echoes, yet again, the beautiful pauses, the delays, the making of time [Ű6, 12, 13, 62]. And then from the making of time it pushes me to the making of perceptions and possibilities because I’ve cleaved a space for mindfulness: sometimes, when I really have to move, I am a snail and all the furniture does fit into the backseat of the car. I read to get to the end but the end makes me want to go back to the beginning to read again just to read, like the path to work that I walk repeatedly, even on weekends, because, even though the first time it was just the shortest route to work, it yields new riches with every step.
Does this story scare me? Has something bad or good happened? And what are the whole ways of seeing and experiencing the world that make me feel one way or another about it, about something like trading bodies or souls with someone cold and suffering?
I was somehow not surprised by the unshaven man with the dead bird dangling by its claws from the collar of his leather jacket. But he seemed surprised, moments later talking with a group of birdless, homeless men, by the man with the live cat perched on his backpack. I was in Paris, and nothing had gone as expected – I had wonderful conversations in French with strangers and I failed to write a novel – so maybe that’s why the man with the dead bird dangling by its claws from the collar of his leather jacket seemed as natural to me as the paunchy waiter who brought me the hot chocolate I’d ordered. And maybe that’s why it was also not surprising – wonderful, yes, but not surprising – when the man with the live cat perched in his backpack and the man with the dead bird dangling by its claws from the collar of his leather jacket began to argue. After all, I read the newspapers: somewhere sometime someone and someone else are always arguing. It’s been that way for every instant of human history. So why shouldn’t at least one of the arguments for this instant be right before my unsurprised but wandering eyes, here and now between the man with the live cat perched on his backpack and the man with the dead bird dangling by its claws from the collar of his leather jacket. And when my son and daughter get frustrated sometimes they kick out a leg or fist, or throw out a word or a toy or whatever is at hand. And others shoot their classmates and my government bombs civilians in other countries because of their leaders. So why shouldn’t, then, next, the man with the live cat perched on his backpack and the man with dead bird dangling by its claws from the collar of his leather jacket begin to circle each other warily, like boxers without gloves, but each clutching his respective animal, live and dead, in front of him, alternatively menacing the other and defending himself, as the rules and strategies of the Sport of Kings would dictate. The only surprise was that it didn’t really come to anything. That they backed down amid gesticulations and magical muttered curses. From the ground now saturated with piss, from the bit of earth marked like any other territory with the stench of centuries of male urine, the man with the dead bird now dangling from his clenched fist, walked by the table next to mine, where two American girls enjoyed English and café au lait, and snatched up one of their croissants, fiercely tearing off a bite with a snarl before stuffing the dead bird – large and brown – into his coat and striding off back down the alley from which he’d first emerged.
“In Latin America contemporary literature, more than a stylistic reflection of life as in its traditional acceptation, is a form of life itself.” I leave aside the loose use of the term “traditional” and just notice the insistence that literature is a form of life. A reflection only shows me what I already have. Even at the carnival, I pretty much already know what I’m going to see when I look into a mirror. But a form of life is something new in the world. Perhaps no literature could ever be just a reflection, even if it wanted to. But it certainly seems true that some literature seems to want to, very badly.
Perhaps Julio’s commitment to this view of literature springs from his life long predilection for the fantastic and the absurd. Sometimes, this predilection seems difficult to reconcile with revolutionary politics. But when I recognize that a truly revolutionary politics finds always the new buried within the old, then the fantastic looks much more promising [Ű56]. For Julio, anyway, the fantastic swings open a door through which “the Other . . . the unexpected could always be introduced, just as with everything that comes to save us from that obedient Robot into which so many technocrats would like to see us converted.” It’s worth noticing that, for all the obvious similarities between Borges and Cortázar, here – where the fantastic seems to be showing its political face – is an area where Julio at least saw a sharp difference.
Julio believed that Borges’ stories work as if Borges had first the fantastic idea and then created his characters and situations in response to that idea. By contrast, Julio explains that in his own case, a completely ordinary situation “engenders” some kind of fantastic event. The fantastic, he once explained to an interviewer, “is something very simple, that can occur in full daily life, in broad daylight, right now between you and I, or in the Metro, while you were coming to this meeting. It is something absolutely exceptional, agreed, but there is no reason for it to be differentiated in its manifestations from this reality that envelops us. The fantastic can arise (puede darse, literally: “may give itself”) without there being a spectacular modification of things. Simply for me the fantastic is the sudden indication that, on the margins of Aristotelian laws and of our rational minds, there exist perfectly valid mechanisms, awake, that our logical brain does not capture but that at certain moments erupt and make themselves felt. A fantastic happening occurs [se da, literally: “gives itself”] one time and does not repeat itself; there will be another, but the same one doesn’t reproduce itself. On the other hand, within the habitual laws, a cause produces an effect and, given the same conditions, one can produce the same effect from the same cause.” This is why I think of it as a kind of grass-roots fantastic.
43. The Winners and Ethical Typology
Already in The Winners, an early work, an exercise, you can see the shapes, the configuration of elements, that will mark so much of Julio’s work. Julio assembles a random set of individuals (literally a random set in that they come together by virtue of having won a lottery prize: a cruise) from different ages, genders and social classes in Argentina and then he subjects them to certain pressures. These pressures intensify incrementally, so incrementally in fact that when they explode into what at the outset would have been vigorously refused or denied as inconceivable, they are accepted and engaged as fact. Already in The Winners, Julio registers differences among people by way of their differing responses to the eruption of the exception. I call these differences “ethical” because they have to do with the ability to engage what is different without violence; with the capacity for abiding and indeed affirming what is different. Julio’s heroes always accept the fantastic, they don’t always engage it successfully (he has some tragic heroes) but they always accept and engage it. Meanwhile, his villains and fools are those who actively or ignorantly reject the extraordinary.
The group comes together for an officially sanctioned special event, an event that, so sanctioned, is thus normal and normalizes their otherwise exceptional gathering together. Never mind the small eruptions of the extraordinary, small enough that they can be classified and dismissed through a variety of rational explanations. But as they accumulate, the extraordinary swells like a wave towering over and then crashing into characters who can no longer deny they are in a storm. Then, I can begin to tell characters apart in ethical terms by their response to this rising tide. It’s a bit like what Deleuze says of Nietzsche: that he transforms “the question ‘what is...?’ into ‘which one is...?’ For example, for any given proposition he asks ‘which one is capable of uttering it?” Likewise, in Cortázar for any given response to the exceptional, I can ask “which one is capable of this response?” But heed Deleuze further: “Here we must rid ourselves of all ‘personalist’ references. The one that... does not refer to an individual, to a person, but rather to an event that is, to the forces in their various relationships in a proposition or phenomenon, to the genetic relationship which determines these forces (power).” With that caution in mind, I can see that those characters who fail to rise to the challenge of the exceptional actually point to the larger social and cultural matrix of forces that have trained them to fear it and to enslave themselves to the conventional. With that in mind, I can see that it is not this or that character, per se, who refuses and represses the exceptional, but rather a dynamic web of forces that have gained possession of that character, with or without his complicity.
Petrone is a Buenos Aires businessman who comes to spend a week in Montevideo closing a deal. On a tip from a friend he takes a room in the “peaceful, almost deserted” Hotel Cervantes. Everything about his stay is routine: the room is clean and ordinary, his business progresses smoothly, and he even has leisure time for the newspaper and a cabaret, though neither is remarkable enough to arouse his interest. Everything is normal and satisfactory, except that he can’t sleep because of the soft cry of a baby in the room next to his.
Something has disturbed his sleep. Something has awakened him. This basic situation is repeated in countless variations throughout Cortázar’s work, but it is especially nicely distilled in this story – particularly from the point of view of Zen Buddhism – because the routine is figured as sleep and the exceptional as awakening. This happens four times in the story. The first time occurs “in those first minutes in which persist the remains of night and of dream” and “he thinks that at some moment he’d been disturbed by the cry of some creature [Ű27].” Petrone’s sleep is disturbed by the cry of a baby that (he later is told) doesn’t exist. But the cry exists because it keeps him up at night. So it is real, even if there’s no baby there because, just like the Silvia invented by Alvaro and the other children in “Silvia,” it produces undeniably real effects [Ű8]. Among the effects it produces is helping me sketch the profile of “the one who dismisses or flees from the imaginary baby’s cry.” Sometimes this is me.
Petrone’s responses to being awakened: to dismiss the cry as a dream; to dismiss as a deception the manager’s assurance that there is no baby; to dismiss the baby as a hallucination of the “hysterical” solitary woman who occupies the adjacent room – in short: to explain the phenomenon rationally and thus clear the way for going back to sleep. Finally, when each of these explanations melts away before the heat of the persisting phenomenon, he flees in terror. Here, he’s different than that woman – whom he has bullied into abandoning her room – because she accepts the baby’s cry (he can hear her trying to comfort the child, though it is not hers and does not exist anyway). For her, the extraordinary awakening of the suffering, non-existent baby provokes compassion.
The “condemned door” behind the wardrobe in his room, the ghostly door that carries the memory of the building that the hotel now occupies, the door: “at one time people had entered and exited through it, banging it shut, leaving it ajar, giving it a life that was still present in its wood that was so different from the walls.” Petrone hears the baby crying from behind the door, he’s awakened by the cry from the other side of the door, but he never tries to open it, to pass through it. Even though, or maybe because, he glimpses the presence of that past life embedded in the grain of the wood; even though, or because, that door demands he assume some kind of responsibility, Petrone still treats it like an ordinary non-functioning “condemned door.” This door isn’t so much a symbol of or a metaphor for something as it is a metonym, a piece, a tip of the iceberg of an entire way of perceiving and experiencing being in the world that Petrone – ordinary businessman who just wants to sleep – does not want to accept.
Gilles Deleuze observes that
the kind of physical movements you find in sports are changing. We got by for a long time with an energetic conception of motion, where there’s a point of contact, or we are the source of movement. Running, putting the shot, and so on: effort, resistance, with a starting point, a lever. But nowadays we see movement defined less and less in relation to a point of leverage. All the new sports – surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding – take the form of entering into an existing wave. There’s no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting-into-orbit. The key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to “get into something” instead of being the origin of an effort.
Maybe this helps explain the difference between Petrone, or someone like him, and La Maga (or the woman in “La puerta condenada”) and people like them. The apparently exceptional in Julio’s universe works like the wind or the motion of the waves, even like gravity. When people like Petrone become aware of that force or movement, their thoughts and deeds strive to apply energy and resistance, opposition, to subdue it. But the woman in the story, or La Maga, or the children in Silvia, they are different, they surf, or hang-glide, they seek to enter into that surprising order of things.
This brings to mind Henry Miller’s admonition against viewing the creative process as the egocentric imposition of order upon a chaotic world (this would be Petrone’s stance) and, conversely, Miller’s call for a humble art of self-effacement or dissolution in which we allow ourselves to sink or submerge or participate into the order of things (the stance of the woman in the story [Ű23]). Or, it calls to mind shi, the Chinese concept that refers to the tendencies inherent in a situation and also to the ability of that individual who naturally follows, and so may exploit, these tendencies [Ű76]. John Dewey described this ability as essential to the philosopher [Ű31]. Whereas in traditional philosophy, as Dewey saw it (I know you may have heard this once already but it bears repeating), “knowing is viewing from the outside,” for the pragmatist “the self or subject of experience is part and parcel of the course of events” so that “it follows that the self becomes a knower. It becomes a mind in virtue of a distinctive way of partaking in the course of events. The significant distinction is no longer between the knower and the world; it is between different ways of being in and of the movement of things.”
Here, when affinities appear yet again between pragmatism and the dynamics of Julio’s universe, I want to pause to acknowledge that in conversations at least Julio lent the weight of his opinion to the conventional view among scholars that his fanciful, inventive writing stood as an antidote to the dominance of what one critic called “razón pragmática” or “pragmatic reason.” Before countering this point of view, I want to recognize its value in underscoring those qualities of Julio’s writing that resist or elude being put to narrowly instrumental purposes. This point of view does draw our attention to the strong critique throughout Julio’s writing of the reduction of all phenomena to their utility in supporting the status quo. To be sure, given the demand for his services and the dominant forces of his day, which sought to reduce the qualitative variety of everything to the measurable values of efficiency and profit, it’s easy to imagine an elusive, leaping, resolutely useless Julio, dancing with Basho, the perfectly useless banana tree of Japanese poetry, and laughing like a sprite.
It’s also easy, however, to imagine a pragmatist like William James dancing and laughing along with him. The seemingly useless qualities of Julio’s prose that this critical perspective illuminates are not opposed to, but completely consonant with pragmatism, as William James and John Dewey defined it. Both resisted time and again the reduction of the pragmatist approach to what they dismissed as “the cash value” of thought. Julio also did not care very much about how many books he sold. He was not have been willing to purchase a mass readership at the expense of his relentless experimentation. His pragmatism does not lie, anymore than did Dewey’s, in its “cash value,” literal or metaphorical.
To find it, we might do better to remember instead that Julio insisted that his experimentation was aimed back out at the world, and in particular, at the reader in whom he hoped to provoke effects of all kinds. It’s not that Julio has to have said he wanted to walk with John Dewey the way he wanted to walk with John Keats (though I can’t help thinking that if I introduced them they would go strolling off together, even more so with William James). And I’m certainly not asking him to work for John Dewey. But the view that Julio was “anti-pragmatic” confuses more than it clarifies by failing to distinguish different notions of practicality. In so doing, it restricts the potential force of Julio’s writing. Why can’t Julio be perfectly useless in relation to certain aims, and profoundly concerned with practicality in relation to others? If we can’t see this then we can’t possibly understand the way in which Kenneth Burke perfectly captures Julio’s kind of literature with the phrase: “equipment for living.”
“It was already late and cognac when Dilia mentioned”. Julio has a way of conjuring a routine scenario by mentioning just a single element of it. He can do this and know that we will know exactly what he’s talking about because it is routine, deeply engraved in our minds. In fact in this particular instance the narrator makes the effect explicit: “they began by talking about the most painful thing, quickly exhausting the theme of Dilia’s mother, and then it was like softly drawing a curtain so as to return to the immediate present, our usual games, the key words and codes of humor that made it so agreeable to spend an evening with them. It was already late and cognac when Dilia mentioned. . .”. So such phrases are the mark of some alarming chasm in normality – “the most painful thing” – closing reassuringly back up again. It’s like shorthand: he doesn’t need to add that the dinner dishes have been piled into the sink, and desserts are waiting half-eaten to be cleared away after the guests leave; that cigarette smoke hangs thickly above the table, and everyone has pushed their chairs back slightly to be able to adjust their bodies to the rhythms of conversation; that all this has happened when the host serves them all cognac in snifters. He doesn’t have to say all that because we know it, we fill it in. And we can fill it in because we’ve done it ourselves so many times, not the cognac but the shorthand, so we know it when we see it and we know that it works to evoke experiences that are common, routine, and habitual. We could see this as a wonderful aspect of our communicative media, of language: the economy of being able to say “it was late and cognac” and know that a rich setting will appear in the listener’s mind.
But we might also feel it as a loss, or at least we might notice in it the absence of something unfamiliar, or extraordinary for which no shorthand, at least as yet, exists; the absence of the kind of experience that sends language leaping off its rails and rattling unsteadily along rougher terrain as it brings forth that experience for the first time. Such experiences as can be communicated by shorthand, on the other hand, almost by definition, are far from the exceptional, painful or joyful, part of life. So what is this doing in Julio’s writing? Julio who encourages me to take risks, to accept the uncommon? This technique reminds me that Julio isn’t calling for a life without shorthand, or without the repeated routines that make shorthand possible. Rather, I think that in using shorthand to evoke these routines, he’s pointing to it and them. He’s trying to make us aware of them, and thus to defuse their more insidious side-effects. The sadness is not in the repetition of certain gestures during an intimate dinner among friends, the sadness is not even in the sharing of secret codes, like shorthand. The sadness is in mindlessness. In forgetting to wonder at these habits, forgetting to attend to them with the same awe that might cause us to stammer excitedly to convey the brand spanking new experience of hang-gliding in Rio.
When I took my Zen meditation course the first thing I learned was how to take my shoes off. I sit on the bench outside the front door of the temple and I pay attention. Using two hands, I untie the laces of each shoe in turn and then remove each shoe. I pick up each of the shoes in turn, still using two hands, and place them carefully on the shoe shelf in front of me. The toes point out, the heels are lined up, the laces are tucked into the shoe. The point is that most of our life is made up of mundane activities like removing our shoes and the secret secret of Zen is to cultivate mindfulness during those activities. That’s why Thich Nhat Hanh includes chapters like “telephone meditation” and “washing dishes” in his book Peace is Every Step. That’s why Joseph Campbell could describe Zen as “the art of being ‘in form’ for everything, all the time.”
I know from experience that I am as able as anyone to be mindful, to fully engage myself, others, and my world in times of great crisis or joy. I’m good at waking up when the alarm rings. But the other 99 % of my life – the time spent removing shoes, emptying bowels, filling stomachs, walking to work – happens to me, with me numbly or blithely or just inattentively going through the motions. But I can’t live most of my day that way and then expect to turn awareness on like a faucet whenever I need it. Oh sure, it might turn itself on - or rather spring a leak – when the shit hits the fan, but I can’t turn it on if I haven’t cultivated its sources. In the end, I wind up creating crises just to get the full feeling of awareness. Likewise, two of Julio’s most memorable characters, Horacio Oliveira in Hopscotch and Johnny Carter in “The Pursuer” wonder how it is possible that the bread doesn’t cry when you sink the blade of a knife into it. They show a certain degree of awareness through this unusual wondering. But neither of them practice awareness very much. You might say that one of their tragically fundamental problems is that they need, like me at times, to make crises in order to feel aware [Ű68]. Maybe if we practiced taking off our shoes more frequently we’d start to hear the cry of the bread like Horacio, but also – unlike Horacio – we’d hear the cry of the person sitting next to us as well. Awareness takes practice.
Julio knew how to practice.
When the door opens and I lean over the stairwell, I’ll know that street begins down there; not the already accepted matrix, not the familiar houses across the street: the street, that busy wilderness which can tumble upon me like a magnolia any minute, where the trees will come to life when I look at them, when I go just a little bit further, when I smash minutely against the pie dough of the glass brick and stake my life while I press forward step by step to go pick up the newspaper at the corner.
This sort of awareness transforms even the most familiar scenario, imbuing it with wonder and strangeness. Maybe Italo Calvino had this possibility in mind when he wrote that “In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing and running the risks of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them.” Making communication new again, making it a miracle again. “It was late and cognac” can be the mindless, numb grunt of narcotized habit, or it can be the delightful warm squeeze of a wondrous, mindfully shared intimacy of routines and dirty dishes and secret shorthands.
The brother and sister live alone in an ancestral home that they like “because, apart from its being old and spacious (in a day when old houses go down for a profitable auction of their construction materials), it kept the memories of great-grandparents, our paternal grandfather, our parents and the whole of childhood.” The house, in which “eight people could have lived” and “not gotten in each others’ way” is packed full of the past, like the condemned door in Petrone’s hotel room. These siblings, brother and sister, are “easing into our forties with the unvoiced concept that the quiet, simple marriage of brother and sister was the indispensable end to a line established in this house by our grandparents.”
They’ve shut-in themselves in just about every sense imaginable. “Irene turned down two suitors for no particular reason, and María Esther went and died on me before we could manage to get engaged.” They refuse also to open their house to the social or economic forces that would take it apart – to convert it into an apartment house for example -- believing it better and more just to “topple it ourselves before it was too late.” They never alter their routines, rising at the same time every day, taking their meals punctually at the same hour, in the same place, in the same way, every day. She knits all day, he works on his stamp collection, or reads, and once a week goes out to buy yarn and browse the bookstores (which never have anything new). They are completely closed off: from others, from society, from the future in the shape of variation from routine. Are they alive or dead? In some sense they are dead. For by shutting off the flows into their home they have created a closed system and a closed system, for systems theorists, is a dead system [Ű2, 9]. But even if their bodies are still alive, they seem doomed by resignation to march steadily toward the horizon of death.
Then something happens. They hear an unmistakable and inexplicable noise from the larger, rear section of the house (the dining room, living room, library and three large, empty bedrooms). “I hurled myself against the door before it was too late and shut it, leaned on it with the weight of my body; luckily, the key was on our side; moreover, I ran the great bolt into place, just to be safe.” Just to be safe. He informs his sister, matter-of-factly, that “I had to shut the door to the passage. They’ve taken over the back part.” Equally matter-of-factly, Irene accepts the information and decides simply “we’ll have to live on this side.” After a few painful days of adjustment, they conform to the restricted quarters and resume a somewhat thinner version of the routines they always engaged in. Then, same thing: “except for the consequences, it’s nearly a matter of repeating the same scene over again.” They hear voices on their side of the house and, now with nowhere to hide within the house, they flee, locking the door behind them and flinging the key down a sewer grate because “It wouldn’t do to have some poor devil decide to go in and rob the house, at that hour and with the house taken over.”
On the one hand, in comparison with Petrone and the many other characters in Cortázar who treat the eruption of the inexplicable like a pesky fly to be shooed or swatted, this brother and sister have at least the virtue of accepting the intrusion of the extraordinary into their routine lives [Ű43, 44, 90]. There are no hysterics, no conventional rationalizations, no dismissive explanations, no pretending it didn’t happen. But, on the other hand, they aren’t heroes either, of any sort. They don’t enter into this movement of the extraordinary, but rather try to shut off the flow of its effects (by walling a door) and then, when this fails, flee its effects.
I won’t pretend to know what they should have done. But I can’t resist suggesting that there is something like a cause and effect relation, a kind of karma, between their numbed out, incestuously inward looking, routine lives and the invasion with a vengeance of the unforeseen and inexplicable into the very temple of their insularity. That their resigned response should be met with a further incursion comes as no surprise. I’m seeing the story like an inoculation – the way “Continuity of Parks” might immunize us against the dangers of passive, escapist reading taken to the level of vice [Ű32, 87]. Here is another sense in which Julio is writing, as Deleuze says of great authors in general, as a physician. In this case, I think the vice is attachment. They are attached to the past, attached to their routines, and, above all, attached to their house. Is it any wonder then that the wheel should turn and deprive them of all but each other.
This is not the moral of the story because I’m not speaking in moral terms; not speaking of the taking over of the house as retribution or punishment for the violation of some abstract moral code. Their life of attachment feels more like a mad attempt to violate a physical law like gravity. Falling from a building isn’t punishment for leaping from its top, nor is getting burned punishment for touching a hot stove top. They are just effects flowing from causes. So what secret web of laws of cause and effect would I have to comprehend to see that this couple loses everything precisely because of the intensity of their attachment to everything? Perhaps it would be a web in which, for example, my compulsory attachment to a lump of sugar and to the superstitious belief that if it is dropped something bad will happen so that it must be recovered will cause such an intense expenditure of energy in the quest to grasp the elusive sugar that I’ll be left clutching a sweet, sweaty mess “as if it were some sort of mean and sticky vengeance.” It would be the web of laws that governs Julio’s universe.
In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Julio climbs his self backwards.
“Somewhere,” he recalls, “among the works of someone I would rather forget it is said that there are stairs for climbing and others for going down. What is not mentioned is that there can also be stairs for going backwards.” The important thing, he stresses, is what this lets me see: “a new horizon, which emerges from the preceding one but at the same time corrects, criticizes, and expands it.” He counterposes this experience to the usual method in which “the world, behind you, was abolished by that same stairway, by its hypnotic succession of steps.” This is going forward, climbing to get somewhere else (to get to a different story?). Neither the stairs nor my body nor the world is important or remarkable. “Whereas you only have to climb backwards” – abiding the awkwardness and discomfort: it will pass – “for the horizon, at first blocked by the wall of your garden, to leap out to the PeĖalosa fields, then embrace the Turkish mill, burst through the cypresses of the cemetary, and with a little luck at last attain the true horizon, that of the school teacher’s definition. And the sky? And the clouds? Count them when you are at the top, drink the sky that falls upon your face through its immense funnel.” But then maybe I can take these eyes with me and see that everything in my house and life – “a mouth, a love, a novel, should all be climbed backwards ,” the way you can read Julio’s poetry backwards [Ű20].
Haju, my Zen meditation instructor, demonstrated the different postures for zazen, or seated meditation. We were not a special group: almost all Americans, with various ways of making livings, some tall, some fat, none of us particularly athletic. She explained that in Zen sitting the essential things are balance and stability and that the postures are ranged according to the degree to which they offer these. That is, the best posture gives your body the greatest stability and balance with the least effort on your part. In this way, the posture expresses the life of which it is a part, and for which it is a vehicle. She used to teach, when she taught Americans like us, the least stable postures first, because they would be the most familiar and comfortable to her students. Then her own teacher, a Korean, the Venerable Samu Sunim, observed her teaching. He corrected her: “You must teach the most stable posture, the Lotus, first.” Haju disagreed with him, gently and respectfully but with certainty: “No, Sunim, you don’t understand. All this is already strange for these people. If I teach them this uncomfortable position, they will become afraid, or discouraged, and they will run away.” Sunim insisted “In this culture, people are not enough able to abide discomfort. They always either numb themselves or run away or rush to remove what they think is the source of the discomfort. They must learn the Lotus position, learn that what they fear as pain is only a change in sensation that will, in turn, pass over into another sensation. They must learn that beyond this discomfort there is something they have never experienced before.” If we ran away, then we probably didn’t want yet to learn this. Maybe we would be back, maybe not. Haju cared about us, and she cared about and believed in her teaching. But perhaps she was attached to our presence and to her assumption that it depended upon our comfort. Sunim helped her to see this attachment and to let it go.
Haju confronted and abided the discomfort of teaching us the postures “backwards” and taught us the Lotus position first. She had already shown us how to be aware of our breathing and she advised us to deploy the skill, even as we were aware of the changing sensations – also known as “pain” -- in our bodies. Sit still, as still as you can, and just be aware. It was intensely uncomfortable. I worried seriously that my ankle was going to snap, or a ligament. I felt afraid of that pain. I anticipated anxiously the end of the long five minutes that we’d be sitting like this. Then this fear passed over into the confidence that even if I snapped a ligament, it would only be pain, I wouldn’t die. Then I remembered Haju’s advice. I remembered to breathe as she taught us, to pay attention to my breathing as she taught us. Inside my breathing, I didn’t notice the pain at all, slipping out of my breathing, the pain had dulled, and with it my fearful or expectant or relieved thoughts. The discomfort eventually passed over into something else that I’d never experienced. Or rather, into something that I’d only experienced under the influence of external stimuli like the ocean or a bonfire or playing basketball or the stars. But this experience – peace and joy, this freedom from my self – was something that seemed to push its way out from inside.
The Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls the most important teaching of Buddhism “nonattachment from views.” “The spirit of nonattachment from views and the spirit of direct experimentation lead to open-mindedness and compassion, both in the realm of the perception of reality and in the realm of human relationships” With that in mind, let me share for those unfamiliar with Julio’s work the beautiful twist in “Stairs again”: the “someone” Julio “would rather forget” from the first line of the piece is none other than Julio Cortázar himself, the author of “Instructions for Climbing a Staircase,” published several years before in the book Cronopios and Famas. So now he can view that piece and the person and writer he was at that time as a previous horizon. With neither attachment or aversion, he has taken a backwards step up and from the new platform he can survey an earlier self and an earlier (and very much celebrated) piece of writing with equanimity, appreciating the viewpoint it offered, but also “correcting, criticizing and expanding.”
When you first meet a certain Lucas you are told he is a hydra, struggling to cut off his heads and get back to Lucas. One of his heads collects records, another always lays his pipe down in the same place. When he removes these heads he’s confronted with a novelty that might be pleasant: disorder, a relaxation of the grip of obsession. Lucas, in trying to kill the hydra that he’s become, is trying to break habits and compulsive orders to regain freedom, choice. Maybe the freedom is the freedom of his original face, maybe it is just Lucas finding himself doing something that doesn’t appear to have been decided for him by the deep grooves of mania and routine; Lucas, that is, carving a fresh groove in fine and shifting sand that covers up the trail just as soon as it has been cut so that there is always a smooth flat surface, always innumerable directions to take, always the possibility that where he already is is his destination and that words like here and there, origin and destination, me and you, start to sound like the gobbling of that massive turkey in the backyard.
I read this first chapter of A Certain Lucas and then read the second chapter in which he goes out for matches and allows himself to be carried like a leaf on the winds of spontaneous human interaction [Ű18]. I read first of Lucas’ fruitless battle with the hydra-heads of controlling microfascism in himself and second of his unselfish, fractal errancy. Then I understand that in my reading I have mimicked the coexistence and interplay between the human desire for order, at once reassuring and restrictive, and the human vulnerability to chaos, at once threatening and liberating. Then I am shifting, like any living system, back and forth between stability and chaos. All of a life - all of Life – is contained in these two short chapters with which Julio opens the story of a certain Lucas.
When we begin Julio Cortázar’s short story “The Southern Thruway” the characters are stuck in traffic. The traffic jam seems an ordinary one, predictable even. And the characters we meet react predictably enough. They check their watches, move a few inches each time they get the chance, tell themselves contradictory stories about what has caused the jam, and wait expectantly for an authority to clear things up. And this might suffice if this were an ordinary traffic jam. But as we read, hours turn into days and then, somehow, seasons begin to change and the traffic has moved no more than a few hundred yards. The characters form groups, formulate plans. They turn their attention from how to get out of the traffic jam to how to cope with it. We know that the group has for all practical purposes accepted the new circumstances when they begin to make love and death. Those are the markers that they’ve settled in, that they believe the situation is here to stay. And that’s when the traffic starts moving again. There’s much excitement and hope and Julio does a beautiful job – “even though you couldn’t go to third yet, just moving like that, in second, but moving” – sweeping us and his characters up in a wave that cranks up the engines, pulls us forward along the road and makes us forget everything else. Forget, that is, for a moment. By the time the motorists get into third gear the lanes of traffic move at different speeds and the tight little group of eight cars has drifted apart forever. The engineer through whose eyes we get the story clings briefly to the absurd hope that the group would form again and then resigns himself to “give in to the pace, adapt mechanically to the speed of the cars around, and not think [Ű13].”
I was in an extraordinary jam once also. Back in the Fall of 1996, my troubled first marriage ended with much pain and humiliation and rage on my part. Around the same time, I joylessly set myself to return to work after a sabbatical during which time I had managed to produce only the thought that my vocation and my profession had parted ways somewhere along the thruway to tenure. I didn’t know how to do anything else and I was too scared to try. I had what I imagined I’d never have: a job I dreaded and resented because it took time away from the things I really loved to do. It was in that same Fall of 1996 that I reread “The Southern Thruway” in preparation for a class. I had read the story before many times. I knew that it was a good teaching story, but it had never really gotten under my skin. But that Fall, when I was in my own jam, the story spoke forcefully to me. I don’t think, looking back, that I knew exactly what it was saying. I’m certainly not sure that I know now. Although I do know that it keeps speaking to me every time I read it. And I know that when I read it then it moved me powerfully enough to want to read more.
Now I think that “The Southern Thruway” spoke so powerfully to me because it spoke of things breaking down, and of the adjustments one is capable of making. That basic situation is all over the place in Julio’s writing: his stories, his novels, his political writings. Like the characters in the story, I was in a situation whose enormity was unprecedented, a crisis whose severity seemed so complete as to veer, just at times, into the comic. I’d never imagined it possible. Like the characters in his story, like Petrone [Ű44], my first responses were treat the blockage like an ordinary jam: check the watches, wait for the cops so that I could get on with my life. In other words, I clung naively and then perhaps stubbornly and then certainly desperately to old habits, impulses, and resources ill-suited to my changed circumstances.
I can’t really say how it happened precisely. Maybe I just wore my head out on the brick wall I’d been banging it into. Whatever the cause, I began to let go, and to cope, like the characters in the story when they first elect a group leader to help coordinate the activities necessary for survival until the crisis clears.
Then I began to learn things. The more I let go, the more I forgave, the more I coped, the better and stronger and healthier I felt. In fact, I felt like some kind of god. I had, I was convinced, faced the ultimate test, experienced the realization of my worst fears, and I was coming through it. I grew new attitudes and habits that gradually wore away the old ones. My friends admired my heroism. Days somehow passed into seasons and I settled in. At work, I reshaped my persona from the professionalist rising star that had gotten me tenure, to the fly in the ointment of all that I thought was wrong with literary studies in higher education. I initially conceived this book as a way of passing on to others the lessons I’d learned about adapting to the extraordinary and about reading as a process of practicing such adaptations. I became comfortable in the new circumstances. I thought I was done. I didn’t see it at the time – in fact I didn’t see it until very, very recently – but I’d become attached to my new identity. I was proud.
Maybe it’s fitting that it turned out to be my ex-wife (the first one, I mean [Ű22]) who helped get traffic moving again. Reading a version of this book, she told me that it was “too didactic”; too much about what I thought other people needed to learn to do, too much about what I thought other people feared. Meanwhile, she thought, the “I” who was writing the book seemed safely tucked away at a distance from the difficult lessons to be learned. Just as in the story, only the movement of traffic again could reveal how attached I’d become to my sense of accomplishment. The simple mechanical revision of changing the “you’s” in the book to “I’s” had the startling effect of revealing that the window I thought I’d been looking through was in fact a mirror. I wasn’t done.
Physician: heal thyself. Yes, I had learned how to hit a breaking pitch, or rather, yes, I had managed to hit one breaking pitch. But I hadn’t seen how proud I’d grown of that ability. I hadn’t seen that fueling this pride was a fierce attachment to my self and that beneath this attachment was a deep fear of being vulnerable. If I’d adapted so smoothly to crisis perhaps it was because the feeling of being in crisis was so fundamentally intolerable to me. Now I could see lots of other areas of my life where a feeling of peace and being done protected me from staying open to life and others in a way that would require more adaptations. These might not be as dramatic as what I’d gone through in the Fall of 1996, but they would be far more thoroughgoing in that they would touch nearly every aspect of my life, nearly every day. Apparently, I’d spent years thinking about and writing a four hundred page book just as a rather indirect way of discovering that I’d just begun.
More revisions followed.
Now “The Southern Thruway” says more to me. Until now, every time the traffic in the story begins to move and the engineer jumps in his car and begins to drive, thinking of how he and the woman he’s fallen in love with during the traffic jam will soon be making love amid clean sheets in her Paris apartment; every time I read this I wanted to shout to him “Stop! Stop! Don’t you see that it was letting go of those desires and impulses that made this beautiful love available to you? Don’t you see that you are destroying it?” I felt so bad for the engineer who realizes only too late that he’s lost this beautiful thing. Now I feel that I was as naively clinging as the engineer. Obviously traffic was going to start moving and it’s a good thing too or the engineer and his love and all the other characters would die. Now I’m with the engineer, in the passenger’s seat. Our foolishness lies not in moving with the flow of traffic, but in identifying our joyful experience with the particular crisis of the traffic jam. Maybe he won’t ever meet the woman he loved again. That is sad. But the real sadness is that we seem to think that only a dramatic interruption of ordinary life can yield joy [Ű45]. The real sadness is that we don’t see that life constantly puts before us opportunities to renew our contact with others and the world; that our attachment to self causes us to construct a hard wall between dull ordinary life and spectacular, exhilarating crisis. The truth is that nothing prevents us from living our ordinary lives the way we lived it during the traffic jam. And this should be a welcome truth because life in a traffic jam is not sustainable. To make ordinary life produce the effects of a crisis we need only embrace our vulnerability, recognizing that it is precisely in those moments when our strong sense of self slips away that we most fully enter the stream of life.
Now that’s one way, among the many possible, to tell the story of the book you are reading. But it doesn’t explain why this book looks the way that it does. I always wanted this book to be different from the kind of thing I’d written before, the stuff that had followed more obediently the stylistic and intellectual conventions of my profession. It’s not that I thought those were bad in and of themselves. It’s just that I knew – though perhaps not precisely – that this was much more to me than an intellectual adventure. So I knew that I needed a different style, something less formal and detached. Or, maybe I didn’t know that I needed a different style so much as a different style is the only one that would come out. Moreover, as I began actually try to write, a different structure gradually imposed itself upon me.
Normally, I’m pretty good at making arguments in the traditional expository form. But somehow this material kept eluding my attempts to do so. I thought that it was Julio’s writing and I still think that is part of it. Julio’s writing is certainly very intellectual, and in that sense it lends itself to conventional scholarly treatment. But there’s something else at the heart of it that always gets away from such treatments, however rewarding they may be at an intellectual level. There are so many high quality intellectual studies of Julio’s work that I didn’t want to add my own to the list. Moreover, my connection to his writing was more to that practical heart of his work: that place in his life and writing that enables him to teach me to adjust, to keep adjusting, to never grow complacent and proud and attached to the sense that I am done (per-fect) and thus invulnerable [Ű1, 98].
So I gave up trying to get away from these feelings, gave up trying to achieve a distance from which I could calmly organize my thoughts about his writing into an arborescent argument with a main thesis, related sub-theses and supporting evidence. I gave in to the need to simply chronicle the experience of reading Julio as I lived my life. I was in Paris trying to soak up the material vestiges of his life when the solution hit me. I bought several notebooks. Each day, I would take a book of Julio’s off the shelf, more or less at random, and start to read in it, more or less at random. As I read, I would begin to record the thoughts and feelings that this reading provoked. If the reading sent me in the direction of another writer, or another story from my own life, I would follow it. When I got tired, I would draw three little stars in the notebook, put the book back on the shelf and get another and start again. That’s how the vast majority of this book was written. Of course, I typed these sections into the computer, revising as I went and, as you know, I revised further as others responded to the typescript. Later I included in footnotes – and sometimes here and there in the text itself -- for your information references to relevant interviews with and articles about Julio and his writing. But the core of this book is what I came to call these walking meditations through Julio’s writings [Ű14].
Now I can see that it wasn’t only Julio’s writing and my emotional connection to it that dictated this unusual form. I think now that some part of me knew – though obviously not consciously – that there would be something dishonest about standing back, invulnerable, holding up an irrefutable argument and the definitive account of Julio Cortázar. I certainly don’t view this as a definitive work on Julio Cortázar, partly because I don’t think any such work could ever exist and partly because this isn’t, finally, about Julio Cortázar or his writing. I would say, rather, that this book is the record of a reading experience in which one reader takes pleasure in discovering the ways in which reading works just like living.
Detail from Santiago Colás, “C”, 2003 (satin enamel, acrylic, spray, oil stick, and postcards on plywood; 132 x 48 cm.; dimensions of detail 25 x 48 cm.)
50. Hopscotch and the Politics of Naming
“And informational books need not be kept separate from fiction, biography, or poetry, as they are in libraries. The reading shelves where children browse is a place where any kind of discovery can be made, where books need not be replaced in their exact niche, and where ‘good’ readers and ‘poor’ readers may choose books from the same shelves and explore the same book together.”
– Time for Discovery
Ceferino Piriz has composed a work called The Light of World Peace. “In this book,” he begins, “presentation is made of what we might call the great formula on behalf of world peace.” The book begins with a division of the history of civilization into three periods. The first period ends in 1940, comprising everything “inclining toward the world war”; the second goes from 1940 to 1953: “everything that has inclined toward world peace or world reconstruction”; and the third and final period starts in 1953, goes to the year 2000 and “consists in that everything will march firmly toward the efficient management of things.” Piriz also sorts the human species: white, yellow, brown, black, red and pampa. The society of nations Ceferino proposes will occupy a building with seven chambers, six of which will each be occupied by delegates from nations of each race, with a president of the same color, and a seventh will be occupied by the General Staff of the Society of Nations.
What I can’t do here in this writing is important. For the extraordinary quality of Ceferino’s proposal for world peace is its absence of summary, economy, or abbreviation. Each element of the proposal is repeated even if identical to the preceding one except for one word. Thus: “a first chamber would be occupied by Delegates from countries of the white race, and its President would be of the same color; a second chamber would be occupied by Delegates from countries of the yellow race, and its President would be of the same color...” and so on. Except, it is I, not Ceferino that says “and so on.” He goes and repeats the formula, applying it to each race in succession. The only way I could reproduce the effect would be to reproduce the passage: How could I hope to reproduce the effect of an absence of summary with a summary?
Already in this first bit of Ceferino’s book (which I, reader of Hopscotch, am reading over the shoulder of Traveler, a character in that novel), I encounter the impulse to cover every existing particular thing with a name. Of course, these labels – brown race, pampa race – are, like any name, abstractions. But it is as though Ceferino’s writing expresses in addition an impulse to undo the violence of abstraction by taking abstraction to the level of absurdity. Mindful abstraction? If you consider that one of the costs of abstraction, of names and labels, is that they always leave behind a remainder of rich, elusive, mutable detail, then Ceferino seems to be seeking an antidote in the construction of a universe of abstractions that, through its very persistence, at least suggests or evokes that lost remainder.
William James once spoke of “vicious intellectualism” or “the abuse of naming” wherein we fall into the trap of believing that once we have called a man an equestrian we have made him forever unable to walk on two legs. The problem with names, for James, does not lie in names themselves. He knows as well as you or I that nothing human would be possible without names. The problem with names lies actually in the mindless, forgetful way we use them; lies in that we forget that the name is not the thing. And the problem with this could be phrased in several different ways. It could be an aesthetic problem wherein the name appears thin and flat compared with the vital, satisfying richness of the thing itself. Or it could appear as an ethical problem – as though some violence has been done to things by excising a name from its flesh. But for James, the most persuasive way of expressing the problem is in practical terms. The problem arises, from James’ point of view, when we treat a thing for some purpose or another as though it were itself limited to the dimensions and qualities of its name. Then that thing might well rear up and slap us with some limb that our naming had allowed us to forget it had. Naming is an instrument that can help us carve a path through an otherwise more or less impenetrable jungle chaos of things. But we must beware of the path we cut, of what we’ve cut, what lies to either side and trampled at our feet and above all, of the fact that the path is of our making and so is our responsibility. We must learn something like a deep ecology of naming, low-impact languaging, how to step lightly with our words. From this perspective, Ceferino’s mad attempt to account for everything in his system looks like a giant scar reminding us of the abuse of naming.
But there’s actually more. Ceferino will describe the forty-five so-called “National Corporations” which would make up the exemplary country, as well as their responsibilities. Now I can see that his manic naming, followed through with great persistence, begins to generate unexpected relations among things. For example: “(33) NATIONAL CORPORATION OF CHURCHGOING GUARDIANS OF COLLECTIONS AND THEIR HOUSES OF COLLECTION (all houses of collection, and idem. houses, deposits, ware houses, archives, museums, cemeteries, jails, asylums, houses for the blind, etc. and also all employees in general of said establishments). (Collections: example, an archive keeps files in a collection; a cemetery keeps corpses in a collection; a jail keeps prisoners in a collection, etc.”. Imagine all these particular “houses of collections” gleefully liberated from the burden of their usual labels: the museum (normally under a Ministry of Culture) happily runs off to dance with a jail (that has itself escaped from the Ministry of Justice). And these old labels in turn start to seem oddly narrow and arbitrary: Why shouldn’t a school, for example, or a teacher, be part of a Department of Corrections, along with a hospital, a mechanic, a tailor and the company that manufactures erasers? They are.
You see, it starts to work on me the way it works on Traveler: “What’s the reason,” he asks himself at one point, “for that ‘etc.’, for the fact that at a given moment Ceferino stops and chooses that etcetera that is so painful to him? It can’t just be the weariness of repetition, because it’s obvious that he loves it, or the feeling of monotony, because it’s obvious that he loves it (his style is rubbing off on you).” And it’s rubbing off on me too, and finally what could be a better mark of style? Listen to Nietzsche: “To communicate a state, an inner tension of pathos through signs – that is the meaning of every style.” Communication also means infection [Ű8, 35, 67, 68, 81]. Now read this description by Gilles Deleuze:
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are among those who bring to philosophy new means of expression [a new style he means] . . . in all their work movement is at issue. Their objection to Hegel is that he does not go beyond false movement – in other words, the abstract logical movement of ‘mediation’. They want to put metaphysics in motion, in action. They want to make it act, and make it carry out immediate acts. It is not enough, therefore, for them to propose a new representation of movement; representation is already mediation. Rather, it is a question of producing within the work a movement capable of affecting the mind outside of all representation; it is a question of making movement itself a work, without interposition; of substituting direct signs for mediate representations; of inventing vibrations, rotations, whirlings, gravitations, dances or leaps which directly touch the mind.
Infection. Like a fever or virus that like life contains the mechanisms to ensure its own mad reproduction and proliferation.
This infectious quality (which I find in Julio’s writing and way of seeing also) assumes particular importance when I recall the larger ambition of Ceferino’s tract. Ceferino’s own writing participates in the third stage of civilization: the efficient arrangement of things so as to ensure world peace. For him all civilization until 1940 tended toward world war, the most massive exhibition of violence, destruction, displacement, and death in all of human history. Perhaps Ceferino’s tract contains a secret elixir, one that is released subtly in its style and approach. So his real contribution to world peace lies not in his particular arrangement of things, but in his undaunted willingness to scrape off the crust of earlier names and to meticulously reconstruct the world in language. Maybe it’s the same old language, but it undeniably produces a new world insofar as it makes possible the production of new relations between things, relations that elude the ruts of centuries of convention.
Maybe it would be too much to say that the catastrophes of the 20th century trace back to the abuse of naming (though its not too much to assign this vicious intellectualism a role in concert with other vices). But either way, it’s certainly simple – if difficult -- to assert and act in accord with the truth that the elaboration of a sustainable, peaceful world would be facilitated through the practical exercise of the imagination so that old names and relations are shrugged off as impractical conventions and new ones attempted in their place. If we feel tempted to dismiss this as harebrained we can heed Traveler’s observation that “he was doing Ceferino an injustice, since his geopolitical system had not been tested out as so many others that were equally brainless.” Finally, among the old relations, names, and stances that Ceferino’s writing wipes away are those that cause me to freeze up and look away when an experiment is proposed. Maybe the National Corporation for INVENTION would house not only factories and laboratories, but also bedrooms and artists studios. Who is the jazz musician who appears on stage in a lab coat because, as he said, it’s all about research? I feel a shiver of exhilaration, a rush of gratitude every time I open one of Julio’s books and enter the National Corporation for INVENTION to shift the kaleidoscope and reconstruct my relationship with the world, to rearrange things, infected with the fever of invention.
On a bamboo bar pressed across the man’s shoulders dangle tiny replicas of the ball that will descend on Times Square in New York City, on the other side of the globe from where I sit, in 18 hours and 11 minutes. This will be the end of the 20th century, for whatever that marker is worth. I sit at a sidewalk table at Prakorp’s Guesthouse on Thanon Khao San in Bangkok. The 21st century will come sooner for me, in 6 hours and 9 minutes. The shabby four story buildings on the street stand still, decorated with neon signs tacked onto walls and awnings. Accents and languages from all over the world rise in the steaming air, tenuously leading bodies that pour thickly and slowly down the narrow street, pooling and eddying alongside stalls jammed with watches, sunglasses, tapes, buddhas, bags, shoes, dresses, shorts, pants, and t-shirts that say Che Guevara, Eat More Pussy, Adidas, I’m Shy But I’ve Got A Big Dick, Mao Zedong and Dolce and Gabbana. The peddlars stand watch, casually alert, with calculators, their children idling over a bowl of fried rice. The huge performance quality amps up and down the street pump out dance and pop music like mating calls, throbbing a relentless beat. German, British, Australian, Dutch, American, Hebrew, Italian, French. But English – especially American – is the name of the game. The little boys come skipping up the steps to the café. Thonged feet at the end of stick brown legs slide easily along the tile floor to the first table, looking around with curiosity or shame, anywhere but at you as they thrust a laminated, handwritten sign into the gaze of the tourists enjoying a coffee. “Hello, my name is. . .” I don’t know what else is written on the sign because I’ve never read the whole sign before shaking my head with an uneasy smile at the lad’s cuteness. I don’t need to read to know he wants a few baht, and I don’t want to read and feel the growing pull of the tiny human being holding up the sign asking for what I’ve forgotten I have lost between the seats of my car.
As I write, the baht is valued at about thirty-eight to the US dollar. I don’t know what the kid wants, probably ten baht, maybe twenty; a quarter, or fifty cents. Why don’t I give it? Or why don’t I give it every time? Why didn’t I drop something in the coca-cola cup of the toddler, dirty, no more than three years old sitting and playing with his change cup, all alone, on the pedestrian overpass near Siam Square? Not because I’m attached to the baht I could have thrown into his cup. Later I’m almost nauseous at the throng of frenzied consumption in the MBK Mall. Thousands and thousands shuffling impatiently through a maze of shops and stalls so big you can’t see the end of them, so thick you can hardly move. This so slippery flow of desire and money and shit and need unmoors me, rattles me. Skating around on the surface of this, I’m pained and overwhelmed and numbed and confused, reeling and paralyzed somehow all at once.
I recall some of the categories for thinking through this that were available in Julio’s time, the Marxist ones especially, that would drop heavily and quickly and cut this mess into neat, manageable, if demanding, pieces: “We know who’s getting rich here, or rather, precisely, elsewhere. Let me tell you who is suffering. Let me tell you how it works. Let me tell you what to do.” That knowledge, for whatever it is worth, isn’t much good for what I’m feeling. Now ordinarily an involuntary perception of the dense fullness of each individual human, of each encounter around me complicates those clean old pictures and at the same time clarifies my course of action. But here I feel overwhelmed by the battering intensity and complexity and opacity of what is in front of me. Monica is right as she tells me this is everywhere: sick, hungry, dirty, lame children begging crumbs from the wealthy parents of children safely laughing elsewhere; drunk old men drinking more, rotted-out teeth dropping like flies; women who endure and scheme to hold it all together. Monica’s view seems right. But here I still feel as though all of that has been crammed into the narrow space of this street, Thanon Khao San in Bangkok. The density crushes through my skin, like garlic through a press and blows me out from the inside. I can’t perceive. I am lost.
In the last twenty minutes, a boy and girl both approached me with their cards. The boy’s eyeballs stared wildly in opposite directions, seeing I don’t know what. One of his legs dragged a few steps behind him as he approached. His card told me his name was Daiya. I forced myself to read on, knowing what would come of it, knowing that just to take the step of reading his sign would involve me in a perception of him as simply a human being needing in front of me and of myself as simply a human being able to provide what he needs. He was disabled so he couldn’t work, he wanted to go to school, would I buy a package of Kleenex tissue from him. So I did. I gave him a 100 baht bill, and he held out the tiny package of Kleenex and 20 baht in change. I took the Kleenex and wished him luck and thanked him in Thai, about all I can say in his language. We made bow to each other. The girl, maybe fifteen years old, came just now. Pretty and clean, but very thin, looking up over the railing and her card, with large brown eyes set in brilliant whites against her brown skin. I shook my head without reading and said, I’m sorry. And in my head I’m saying “I’m sorry, I can see you as well as I can see the wild-eyed boy that just left, but I also see, trailing along behind you, hundreds upon hundreds of kids like you and I don’t know what to do.” But only “I’m sorry” comes out of my head. She walked jauntily away, seemingly untouched by the encounter.
Three billion people live on less than two dollars a day.
– La Jornada (Mexico City, February 17, 2000)
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.”
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. In that case, the dynamic and vital forces of freedom which Cortázar designated with the word “socialism” will seem dated only if we stop listening to him the moment we read that word.
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 be moved by his sometimes dated-seeming vocabulary, can teach us something about how to invent, as Cortázar might put it, the politics of our time.
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?
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.” 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 in the way he 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.
Julio 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.”
In December of 1969, Julio wrote an essay for the Uruguayan cultural periodical Marcha that put invention to work in thinking the relationship between writing and politics. 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.”
Julio 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’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. 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.” 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. For his part, Julio explains that “The good writer is that person who partially modifies a language. It is the case of Joyce modifying a certain way of writing in English.” 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).
Now, Julio once 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.” 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 a little book written 1959, the year of 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.” I know it means taking a brief detour from Julio, but look more closely at 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 or citizens), like the abstract representations “bourgeois” and “socialist” used by Cortázar (and like the abstractions against which William James cautioned [Ű50]), 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 work they thereby take. 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 [Ű60].
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 Julio preferring instead the narration of particulars, Cortázar’s usual realm. Julio 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, 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.”  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 Julio tried to express to Collazos (and elsewhere) about the politics of his writing, about what he tried to affirm in his writing. Julio’s time and place and his own experiences didn’t furnish him with a political vocabulary of sufficient subtlety. So often in this period, Julio 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 Julio 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 Julio’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.” 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 Julio’s work.
Lucas has an argument with his political comrades on the Left. They want him to write in a simpler style because, being a leftist intellectual, he has, they feel, the responsibility to write for the largest possible audience. To this attack, Lucas offers a fourfold defense.
First, he tells his friends that “language is a medium, as always, but this medium is more than medium, it’s three quarters at least.” His comrades’ attack views language as a transparent, clean piece of glass through which a crowd could peer upon the unobstructed vista of “meaning” or “content.” Lucas argues that, at most, you can pretend to ignore the glass, but it is there nonetheless, and furthermore that the most stimulating vista is the one in which the smudges and imperfections in the glass (let us call them complications) merge under the viewer’s gaze with the terrain of meaning, intention, theme, and content that, it turns out, only appeared to lie behind and separate from the glass but that are, in fact, part of it, on the same plane. (And perhaps you will have noticed that this writing here is subject to the same qualifications and tension. My metaphor of the pane of glass is itself a pane of glass, a piece of language that only indirectly points to what Lucas is getting at.)
Second, Lucas argues that to write (and to read) in a way that accepts the thickness of language means going beyond those habitual (I won’t say “everyday” because it doesn’t have so much to do with frequency as with attitude) uses (or abuses) of language and entering instead the zones of imagination beyond the limits of the word: “language and invention are fraternal enemies/and from that struggle literature is born,/the dialectical encounter of muse with scribe,/the word refusing to say it/until we wring its neck/and the scribe and the muse come together/at that rare instant that later on/we will call Vallejo or Mayakovsky.” [Ű43]
Third, Lucas suggests, turning now a bit aggressive, that there is a kind of resentful will to mediocrity at work in the demands his comrades have voiced. “Can’t there be a secret and sometimes sinister necessity to make the scale of values uniform so as to be able to stick your head above the wave?” Maybe, Lucas hints, his comrades falsely represent the minds and values and desires of the so-called mass reading public. Italo Calvino agrees with Lucas: “If we assume a reader less cultured than the writer and take a pedagogical, educational and reassuring attitude toward him, we are simply underlining the disparity. Any attempt to sweeten the situation with palliatives such as a literature of the people is a step backward, not a step ahead. Literature is not school. Literature must presuppose a public that is more cultured, and more cultured than the writer himself. Whether or not such a public exists is unimportant.” Maybe the public for writing is not sitting out there, ready-made with a uniform set of abilities and interests. Maybe it is created, in part, in the act of writing and therefore maybe the public will be as varied as the writing that is set before it. If so, maybe the claims of his comrades – the self-appointed spokesmen for this public – really express their own desire for a mediocre public against which they will stand out; a desire, baldly stated, to preserve their prestige and leadership positions, even at the expense of deprecating their constituents.
Fourth and finally, Lucas seems to let up, breaking the tension by proposing a pact in which “If we [experimental writers] renounce verbal creation at its dizziest and most rarefied level, you will renounce science and technology in their equally dizzying and rarefied forms.”
Is he joking?
56. Détournement, Radical Change, and Invention
Not long ago, the late English historian E. P. Thompson persuaded me that radical change, in any situation from the most intimately and narrowly personal to the most publicly and broadly social, can arise only from an affirmative desire burning with greater or lesser intensity within those individuals and groups living within that situation. Even then this affirmative desire must be coupled with the willingness to risk the present state of things for an alternative arrangement carried out first in the imagination. Radical change, in other words, entails a kaleidoscopic, imaginative and creative, rearrangement of the elements given in a situation. Radical change involves us imagining something different.
The values governing Thompson’s work and life could be given new lives by bringing them into contact with other lines of thought, in which those values, or versions of them, also play a central role. Possibly, some of these lines of thought – William James’ and John Dewey’s pragmatism, Gilles Deleuze’s empiricism and stylistics, Antonio Negri’s autonomist politics – would have been unacceptable or at least unfamiliar to him. However, you could see this mixing as a kind of creative recontextualization along the lines of what the French Situationist Guy Debord called “détournement.” In that procedure, an element – perhaps an image, word, event, or idea – strongly associated with a given context is isolated and relocated within a new context in which it can release fresh effects. For Debord, as for the tradition of left artists and intellectuals – from Duchamp to Brecht – who worked with some variation of this procedure, détournement is a way of exercising the imagination and refreshing the perception in the service of activating a critical awareness and creating possibilities for new actions.
Seen merely as the self-conscious m.o. of an intellectual or artist, I’m tempted to dismiss détournement as either esoteric or historically superceded, and in both cases as of limited political effect. But, on the other hand, I recognize détournement in the sometimes unselfconscious process operating daily wherever change is made, from the making of a new friend to the making of a revolution. In what C. L. R. James called “the struggle for happiness,” human beings work to break the grip of an unhappy present. They create for themselves, in effect, new contexts in which their full potential can be developed; in which, in other words, they can release a maximum of fresh effects. They “détourne” themselves. It is with such forces and processes, I believe, that politically progressive intellectual work must align itself, in substance and form. This alignment might be all that Julio’s practice of invention ever sought to accomplish.
Horacio Oliveira reads the page which 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.” 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, I’d want to remind Horacio that if there is a way to go beyond, to change things, to connect, then the lesson of the passage – and a law of the universe in which Horacio, like me, lives – is that such a possibility lies in an alternative arrangement of the given (a missing “any” for example) and not in the opening of a hole. 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. “If you want to view paradise,” Willy Wonka sings to his guests in the chocolate factory, “simply look around and view it.”
It’s true that Morelli has created a surface, but not every surface is a wall. It could be a wall. I don’t know for sure that it isn’t. But I want to 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. Nothing wrong with this except that not much, it turns out, fits through the holes that Horacio finds in the walls he sees. Not his lover, not his friends, not even all of him. Pretty lonely [Ű27, 28]. And that may be why Julio always preferred (and so thus constructed the laws of his universe) the more modest, sustainable process of continual changes figured by the kaleidoscope. Julio 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 Julio that any changes in society that were sustainable would have to be comprised of changes in individuals communicating with each other.
But Julio conceived this desirable change as possible only on two conditions. First, change should not come at the price of rejecting one’s past [Ű94]. 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.” For Julio 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. That’s one condition. Another is that Julio 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, for Julio, the supreme importance of invention, the art of discovering 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. Hence the kaleidoscope over the hole in the wall [Ű2, 3, 27, 94, 95].
“Let us invent, instead of accepting, the labels they stick on us.” Julio 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 Julio 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 Julio in any process of invention, is to let yourself go [Ű23]. 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 [Ű47].” 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.”
What, Julio 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” [Ű8]. 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 Julio 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 [Ű54, 60].
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.
So Julio 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, Julio 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. The inventive autonomy Julio here recommends works like the bucket of water with which Dorothy douses the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz,” leaving her to whine, as she melts into the ground, “Who would have thought that a good little girl like you could ruin my beautiful wickedness?!”
Julio also felt obliged to exclaim in 1981, “How little revolutionary the language of revolutionaries tends to be!”  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 wants strong allies. 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.
Julio 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.” Julio wasn’t looking to refine the picture for the sake of science 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.
Julio 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 Julio reminds his comrades, “revolutions have to be made in individuals so that, when the day arrives, the people can make them” 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 [Ű54-60].”
Detail from Santiago Colás, “C”, 2003 (satin enamel, acrylic, spray, oil stick, and postcards on plywood; 132 x 48 cm.; dimensions of detail 19 x 18 cm.)
I think of Julio’s playful poem, reanimating the fallen revolutionary Che Guevara [Ű7] and of the powerful optimism of so much of his political writing and speech. But all this notwithstanding, Che is, in fact, dead. The Latin American literary “Boom” that Julio 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 Julio 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 little “political detour” [Ű53-59] on my walk through his work 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 don’t think so, though, and for two principal reasons: first, because Julio 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.
This last point, at least, might be seen to describe the way that the Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt read the last thirty-five or so years of. 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 makes sense if one looks at 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. 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), a best-forgotten period of inspiring but now irredeemably outdated political and social visions and strategies (among some on the left), or as a blindingly unforgettable (and also impossible to remember productively) golden-age (by some others on the left).
The critical transformation, for those who feel that neoliberal globalization has rendered obsolete the political vocabularies and visions of Julio’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 terms and the left can only respond. By contrast, 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” and the focus of activists and militants is on the definition, affirmation, and achievement of goals defined concretely by self-organized collectives. 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 in Julio.
With these alternative assumptions in mind, we might construct a different version of the decades that have passed since the heyday of Julio’s interventions. For example, in Hardt and Negri’s version of events, to summarize briefly, capital – which they recast 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 claimed to place itself outside the terrain of capitalist operation. But in doing so, capital (and for that matter, most of the Left) missed the point 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 heterogenous elements together -- the classroom, the home, the factory, the bedroom, the rock concert, the film – and identified all of them – anytime and anywhere -- 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 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. 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.
This in turn gives me yet one more way to get a handle on Julio’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. 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 [Ű95]). In the later work Insurgencies Negri offers a history of the antagonism between these two forces, now renamed “constituted” and “constituent” power, but also with the ways in which they mutually implicate each other and slip continually one into the other. It would not be too much to say that Julio mobilized invention – both the word and the activity – always in the service of constituent power. This is why Julio 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 philosophy, 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 perhaps 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” 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.
What is to be done? (Instructions for academics like myself and other people working in institutions plagued by a lack of invention.)
1. Think and feel with beginner’s mind. See the monumental walls separating the university from the universe as bizarre, unnatural and unproductive [Ű34, 39, 81]. Then instead of waffling between passively accepting them or wasting your energies beating your brains out against them, just go ahead and do your work as though they didn’t exist. Think and feel with beginner’s mind. You live in the world. You think and feel in it all the time. You are curious and revolted in it. You feel excitement and peace, sadness and joy in it all the time. All this has everything to do with what you decide to read a bit more closely, with what you decide to think through a bit more intensely, with what you decide you want to communicate to others in your teaching and writing. So why leave it out of your work? How will your work ever find its way in that wide world if you excise from it the matrix of life experiences that gave it birth in the first place? The academy depends heavily on precedent and expertise. Think and feel with beginner’s mind. Remember the words of William James, non-Ph.D., receiving an honorary doctorate from Harvard, where he had taught for many years, “Our undisciplinables are our proudest product.”
2. As a teacher and as a participant in the institution, when you come across a policy, a rule, a practice that seems to limit the flow of life into, within, and out of the university, ask yourself, ask others: What is it doing here? What good do we get from this? We are paying an enormous cost, so is it really worth it? Consider making decisions according to the ethics of Spinoza as presented by Gilles Deleuze in his little guide Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. “Good” is whatever increases your power to act; “bad” whatever decreases our power to act. To evaluate whether a particular thing, or person, or action is good or bad will mean knowing as well as you possibly can (by experimenting if necessary) both what you want to do and what you can do and knowing very well what the things and people around you are made of and how they will mix with your inclinations and abilities. You can minimize unnecessary experiments and unpleasant results if you take care to know well the histories of the things, people, and actions you are preparing to engage. Many of these come to us, in this society, seemingly without such histories. But you must look and touch beyond this: Where did this come from? Who made it? How and why? What suffering and joy are deposited in this? What can it do? How will it interact with me? What can I do with it? Now, a person is good, Deleuze tells us, who “strives, insofar as he is capable, to organize his encounters, to join with whatever agrees with his nature, to combine his relation with relations that are compatible with his and thereby to increase his power.” A person, on the other hand, is bad “who lives haphazardly, who is content to undergo the effects of his encounters, but wails and accuses every time the effect undergone does not agree with him and reveals his own impotence.” Being good and being bad, and Deleuze knows that these are just ways that each of us are at different moments, ways each of us can be at every moment, are both infectious ways of being [Ű93]. In the moments when you are a good person, you strengthen the good in others and in those when you are a bad person, you intensify the bad in others.
3. Make peace [Ű31, 47]. Overwhelm the thoughts and words and deeds of reaction, negativity, and destruction with the force of your own affirmation. Don’t look to excise, ostracize, marginalize, abolish or banish. Don’t, as my friend Catherine Brown likes to say, piss in your own pen. Don’t turn it into a battlefield. Listen to the Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh in a talk for peaceworkers collected in the book Being Peace: “Suppose you are in the desert, and you only have one glass of muddy water. You have to transform the muddy water into clear water to drink, you cannot just throw it away. So you let it settle for a while, and clear water will appear.” Or, if you prefer, listen instead to Michel Serres who says to Bruno Latour something very similar: “What is an enemy, who is he to us, and how must we deal with him? Another way to put it, for example, is: What is cancer? – a growing collection of malignant cells that we must at all costs expel, excise, reject? Or something like a parasite, with which we must negotiate a contract of symbiosis? I lean toward the second solution, as life itself does.”
4. Following from this, but now thinking of yourself more specifically as a critic and writer, learn the lesson of Doctor Frankenstein and give life only to that with which you can live, only to that for which you are willing to care. For whatever you make carelessly and without thought and feeling, whatever you make such that you later disavow it, will haunt you and pursue you [Ű85, 86, 93, 94]. This is why, I think, Deleuze once explained: “My ideal, when I write about an author would be to write nothing that could cause him sadness, or if he is dead, that might make him weep in is grave.” Thus be guided by the wishes that Henry Miller, in Sexus, tells us he had as he contemplated the difference between writing and “becoming a Writer”: “I wanted to enchant but not to enslave; I wanted a greater, richer life, but not at the expense of others; I wanted to free the imagination of all men at once because without the support of the whole world, without a world imaginatively unified, the freedom of the imagination becomes a vice.” Miller wanted “to be absorbed in the common stream, to be a fish again and not a freak of nature.” “The only benefit,” he concluded, “which the act of writing could offer me was to remove the differences which separated me from my fellow man.” What would academic work look like if we thought of it in these ways [Ű1, 98].
My friend Jason architectures. No typo: that’s architecture as a verb. When he says he wants to architecture, he’s trying to think a discipline and a profession from the point of view of the effective movement of which it is capable. There’s no way to think this, he believes, without a twist of language, an invention in which a noun becomes a verb, shedding its identity and its thingness and leaving as traces only a wake of effects. Given the powerful institutional conventions – born and perpetuated of a desire to secure stability over time – constraining the realization of this vision, Jason has discovered that, in his teaching, research and design work, it is essential to delay the problem-solving impulse. Architecture-as-noun (profession, discipline, identity) has purchased its credibility in the world on the promise that its practitioners will solve problems from the smallest remodeling job to the largest urban complex. Of course, individual architects are favored to the degree that they can successfully express a unique style in the course of solving a problem, but solving a problem is the sine qua non of architecture-as-noun. Jason has found, particularly among younger architects (concerned ultimately with solving the problem of how to earn a living in architecture), that the anxious desire to formulate and solve problems has the unintended long-term side effect of atrophying their ability to see and think and write independently, creatively, and critically. At stake is an ethics of practice, a kind of rudder with which students might steer their way through the bewildering demands of discipline and profession, especially as these begin to drown out the meeker inner call of their own creative impulses. I’m thinking of Jason’s delay – asking students to draw a potato, to site a project on the bed of a tractor trailer, to design a tower (no glass allowed) for reading – because I find in it a strong echo of Julio’s own ethics of creativity. Julio asks himself what is the responsibility of a Latin American intellectual and he begins by refusing to give the categories any special determining significance. He doesn’t deny that he is Latin American or intellectual. He merely maintains that his responsibility, his ability to respond, doesn’t stem from those attributes in particular. He also doesn’t deny that there are problems to be solved [Ű53]. He only denies that a writer can somehow solve a social problem directly through her writing if she doesn’t first make the requisite detour, or delay, in which her attention is fully upon the problems inherent in writing itself [Ű13, 19, 55]. Only then might she somehow contribute to an ongoing, collective attempt to make things new; new and better.
I was searching for the house of invention one morning, or searching, 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, my then-wife painting and baking a key lime pie, 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 intently 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 (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.”
“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 [autonauta de la criticopista?]. This is a primary meaning of his disregard of method.” So the Left chastises Italian Autonomia for “desiring no results” [Ű60]. So Jason enforces delays in his architecturing [Ű62]. Julio and Carol play on the road to Marseilles [Ű13, 19].
Beware the impulses in yourself, Santiago, that would restrain your invention for “The philosopher,” Bruns explains:
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 undeceptious method. For the rhetorician, however, nothing textual is ever evidentiary, and nothing methodological is very eloquent. What is evidentiary and what is methodical are often alike in being censorious.
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 confined.
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 you just remember John Dewey’s definition of the philosopher, and “theory’s” etymological roots as a “way of seeing”, you can accept his caution without needing to defend the territory of the philosophy or theorist. The names aren’t the important thing anyway. The stance – and the effects – are what matters.
Finally, Professor Bruns (I use the title – for once without irony -- with the respect of a student for a teacher) 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 [like a rhizome, any place is a good one because the thing always grows back somewhere else], [Ű23] 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.”
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.”
Okay. That’s enough.
“Still hunting is when you take a stand in the brush or some place and then become motionless, and things begin to become alive, and pretty soon you begin to see the squirrels and sparrows and raccoons and rabbits that were there all the time but just, you know, duck out of the way when you look at them too closely. Meditation is like that. You sit down and shut up and don’t move, and then the things in your mind begin to come out of their holes and start doing their running around and singing and so forth, and if you just let that happen, you make contact with it.”
– Gary Snyder
There might be lots of circumstances and motivations that drive us to invent a self and a world. [Ű23, 89] But one of the simplest circumstances I can think of is to take a walk; a walk, I mean, of the sort that this writing aims to mimic. [Ű14, 16] Time rushes away, loosening its grip. Without an agenda I am free to look at things, to see them, to feel dropping away the veil separating me, a subject, from them, an object. Thus springs up already a new relation, and it’s like a new road, a crack in a dam because from that first rearrangement of relations comes a whole new set: leaves on grass the prickly stubble growing out of the broad face of the earth; the sidewalk a soft carpet unrolled before me like a chunk of new sod. I am quiet and peaceful, my eyes open and immobile. They aren’t hungry or grasping, I become a rock and when I withdraw my grasping “I” from the scene the rocks and stones begin to sing, like the toys in “Toy Story” that come to life only when the humans are absent. Only I do have to be there, but just still as though I weren’t there, so that outlets can become bellybuttons and I can feel the weight of human construction past and present immense on the broad back of the earth, but maybe bearable, even beautiful too, as the thick nests I find in the forks of trees and those forks of trees twigs that some giant child has stuck into his sandbox playing at making forests. Or when I walk through the sand dunes along the northeastern shores of Lake Michigan and each foot print copies the entire dune so that it is easy to say, with Julio, “sometimes I am larger than the horse I ride and sometimes I fall into one of my shoes, which is alarming, to say nothing of the difficulty of climbing out, the ladders constructed knot by knot from the laces, and the terrible discovery, there on the brink, that the shoe had been put up on the wardrobe.”
Monica drove us through clouds one day, through the most beautiful misty mountains I have seen, from Aldama to Puebla. She was entranced and could barely keep her eyes on the muddy, curving road. Eva lost her tooth “in the clouds,” as she wrote in her note to the tooth fairy that night. But most of the time I fought with those mountains and closed my eyes to them because, rising up between my destination and me, they slowed me down. [Ű19]
“To convey the meaning of something substantial you have to use not a shadow but a sign, not the imitation but the image. The image is a new and different reality.”
– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
Morelli quotes with apparent approval an art historian who says of Manet’s Olympia “he is working as if modern art were going back to the Middle Ages. The latter understood art as a series of images, replaced during the Renaissance and the modern period by the representation of reality.” This, Morelli muses, brings art closer to what he considers its proper function: the creation of images. Morelli suggests that to avoid confusion we replace “images” – which connote representations of reality – with “figures.” Because the view that art should represent reality predominates after the Middle Ages, Morelli finds most interesting those artists who are “on the margin of the superficial time of their period, and from that other time where everything conforms to the conditions of figure, where everything has value as a sign and not as a theme of description, they attempt a work which may seem alien or antagonistic to the time and history surrounding them, and which nonetheless includes it, explains it, and in the last analysis orients it toward a transcendence within whose limits man is waiting.” Maybe this helps clarify something about Julio’s writing. To make of writing a sign, a marker that orients us and points us in another direction. It doesn’t offer or pretend to offer a replica of the piece of reality we normally inhabit. Rather, it sends or moves us into a relationship with reality that we’ve not experienced before.
As for Manet, the defining quality of the artist who makes “signs” or “figures” (and not representations of reality) is the inability (or the refusal) to ignore the existence of his so-called “medium.” As Lucas says of language, “this medium is more like three quarters [Ű55].” It’s probably ultimately not useful to get too attached to the opposition between what Morelli calls representation and what he calls figure. I don’t think that the difference he’s getting at rests on the degree to which the artist tries to portray reality for an audience. I think it has more to do with a connection between the artist’s attitudes toward medium and audience.
The kind of artist that Morelli seems here to favor, the kind of artist that I think Julio embodied, is the one who is interested in the medium as a device for provoking certain kinds of actions in his audience. [Ű4, 34] In this sense, and speaking exclusively of artists working in the medium of language, this kind of artist might tend more toward the rhetorician seeking to move his audience to a certain action. There’s a limit, no doubt, to how far a rhetorician can stray from what his audience considers to be a faithful representation of reality if he is to provoke the desired action. But the important thing is that in any case the faithful representation of reality is for the rhetorician just a name for one of the ways of arranging the elements of his medium in the interests of provoking action. In some cases, that arrangement might not be the most persuasive. This seems to be the fundamental difference: whether the artist’s fundamental aim is the accurate depiction of reality or the provocation of an action in the audience. For Morelli “the true character and the only one that interests me is the reader, to the degree in which something of what I write ought to contribute to his mutation, displacement, alienation, transportation.” Here, to the degree that Morelli speaks for Julio, it makes sense to see Julio in the costume of the sophist and the prophet. It is said that when the great Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti read “The Pursuer” he went into the bathroom of his house and broke the mirror with a punch. “Nobody,” Julio said of this, “has had a reaction that could move me more.”
It is easier for me to communicate in language in the infectious, moving way that others communicate in music or kisses when I can give up my attachment to language as a device for representing some thing outside of it. I want to communicate that way because communicating that way is the best way to touch others and to be touched, to come together with others in language. Without that kind of communication, whether I am using language or music or kisses, I am alone (even if I don’t seem to be) with a whole “canefield of words” grown up between me and others. Horacio Oliveira and Bruno, the jazz critic in “The Pursuer”, never really took that lesson in under their skins. If they had, their stories might have turned out differently. They might not be stories of angels they had loved and lost, but never really touched because they spent their time chasing those angels, trying to capture them in butterfly nets of words.
Their loves, La Maga for Horacio and Johnny Carter for Bruno (never mind that Bruno and Johnny aren’t lovers in the same sense, there’s still love there), were special kinds of people. The kind that in my life have left me feeling that there’s another way I could be living my life. That way might not be so stable or comfortable or secure, but it would bring me instead greater measures of sensation, of emotion, of freedom, and of joy. I would bet that Bruno and Horacio feel this too. Perhaps they want to capture the angels because they need something in hand if they are going to give up their secure ways of being. La Maga and Johnny don’t have any trouble communicating their way of living. Johnny plays his sax and takes his clothes off and talks nonsense, and La Maga makes jokes and kisses and talks nonsense. In fact, if Bruno and Horacio want what these angels seem to have, its probably partly because Johnny and La Maga have succeeded in communicating something of the delightful, or troublesome, magic they live.
But they haven’t communicated in words, and Bruno and Horacio are, above all, word men. They are very attached to their books and words and so they need to see something represented in language to feel that it is really there and theirs [Ű34]. Not only are they word men, but the world they share with La Maga and Johnny is a word world. In that world, it is mostly white men who command words (and who set the criteria that define who commands words) and in that world to command words is already to begin, at least, to be able to command others who don’t. That might be why Bruno and Horacio can occasionally knock Johnny, a black man, and La Maga, a woman, off balance by goading them to try and represent their unique ways of living in words. That’s the only time La Maga and Johnny do have trouble communicating their way of living. Then there’s a missed encounter, no communication. In the end, Horacio drives La Maga away and is thus left with nothing but his verbal picture of her, and Bruno, if he doesn’t drive Johnny away, certainly lets him slip away, into the solitary, fatal spiral of drug abuse. Either way, Bruno too is left with nothing but a biography: a verbal picture of the only “angel” he will know intimately.
But Julio, describing a certain Lucas’ theory of communication, suggests that there is another way for Bruno and Horacio and myself to communicate with our angels without giving up our beloved words: “as rarefied as the air of his writing might be, as much as some thing can only come and go with great difficulty, Lucas never ceases to verify whether the coming is valid and whether the going takes place without major obstacles. Little he cares about the individual situation of the readers, because he believes in a mysteriously multiform measurement that in the majority of cases fits like a well-cut suit, and that’s why it isn’t necessary to give ground in either the coming or the going: between him and others there will be a bridge as long as what is written is born of a seed and not a graft. In his most delirious inventions there’s something that at the same time is so simple, so little bird, and so gin rummy. It’s not a matter of writing for others but for oneself, but oneself must also be the others. . .” If we could see words this way: not as snapshots of things but as things themselves, “coming and going”, that touch people, that produce effects, the way that kisses and music make you shiver or laugh or dance, then perhaps our words would carry the germ of life, infecting and enriching our angels [Ű8, 37, 55, 83, 90]. Perhaps then, instead of caging ourselves – our angels having flown – in verbal representation, we might build bridges connecting us with our angels. Perhaps, then, we could really come, change, and stay together.
“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 Huyzinga, Homo Ludens
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 mountain sides into flower petals blown across the bodies of giant sleeping dinosaurs. And I will never see them the same way again.
Detail from Santiago Colás, “C”, 2003 (satin enamel, acrylic, spray, oil stick, and postcards on plywood; 132 x 48 cm.; dimensions of detail 30 x 25 cm.)
Nicole feels the distance growing between her and her lover Marrast so that they become “skinny cats that cross the ceiling in embarrassment, rub against each other, and quickly separate, avoiding each other as much as possible until it’s time to go to bed and turn out the light.”
My father writes that my older brother, just forty-four years old, is having back trouble again. He’s worked at hard manual jobs from the time he was sixteen or seventeen. I think about my occasionally sore knee, damaged a bit probably from all the soccer and basketball I played while my brother was loading sacks of livestock feed supplement, or building houses.
As I write, here in the Oaxacan sunlight, next to the pool in the backyard of the house we’ve rented during this sabbatical in which I am paid just to think and write, Rosendo and Feliz, the older Mixtec couple that look after the garden and pool, pull weeds from the hedges around the pool, burn trash, and play tag with their little grandson Manuel under the magnificent laurel tree that fills the air above the property like a great green balloon. Rosendo grimaces, I notice looking up from a book, as he yanks on a stubborn weed [Ű52].
I don’t know what he feels. And I don’t even feel able to ask him so burdened do I feel by the gulf of social class separating us. As though I were shoving along before me a mound of five centuries of privilege accumulated at his expense. Does he resent me? Does he fear me? Does he even give me a second thought? I can only imagine. So I’m left with this sense, shared with Nicole, of he and I becoming those skinny awkward cats, thrown by different worlds up against each other in this one world, not minding it exactly, certainly not hostile to each other, but not used to it either and without a clue as to what to do or say.
I watch as a dull, painful fog rises to envelope and separate Nicole and Marrast. They speak to each other tenderly, but absently. Julio here, when they are not talking, shifts the narrative perspective so that both Nicole and Marrast get to think their own thoughts in the first person. It’s not unusual in his prose, and he certainly didn’t invent the technique. At first, the shifts give you a sense of the gap between what each is thinking in his or her head, privately, unspoken, and what they actually send out into the world with their little verbal sallies. You get a heightened sense of the lack of communication between them. That’s the matter he has represented here and it produces an effect of sadness for them, maybe frustration at their emotional paralysis, perhaps also desire for greater empathy and communication. That’s when the magic of what Julio achieves as a by-product of this manner of representation kicks in.
I remember him talking about the story “Nurse Cora” in which this technique of shifting perspectives attains virtuoso levels, switching even within a single sentence. He said that in that story he was just trying to see if he could pull it off. It was an experiment, an exercise. But here, in these sad scenes between Nicole and Marrast, the technique does for me what it so effectively shows them to be incapable of doing for each other: namely, to feel the compassion that arises when I can shed the protective skin of fear or guilt and the lenses of my own perspective and slip imaginatively (but not acquisitively) into that of an other [Ű9, 16, 22, 30, 44, 81].
“Love,” writes Thomas Merton, “demands a complete inner transformation. . . . We have to become, in some sense, the person we love. And this involves a kind of death of our being, our own self. No matter how hard we try, we resist this death: we fight back with anger, with recriminations, with demands, with ultimatums. We seek any convenient excuse to break off and give up the difficult task [Ű27].” No wonder. This experiment can be scary. I must accept what feels at least at first like total vulnerability (not that my sense of self could ever truly protect me). What if I am rejected? What if I am left alone here? What if through the other’s eyes I see that I must make changes? But the effect of accepting this vulnerability is the rushing feeling of tremendous growth, far beyond the dimensions permitted by a cramped and clinging sense of self. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, makes the same point in a chapter of his Teachings on Love called “True Love”: “To understand you have to become one with your beloved, and also one with your so-called enemy. You have to worry about what they worry about, suffer their suffering, appreciate what they appreciate. You and the object of your love cannot be two. They are as much you as you are yourself.” Elsewhere, he stresses that this is not a theoretical point to be grasped only intellectually. Instead, we must see that “Our own life is the instrument through which we experiment with truth.” Julio once tried to explain that sexuality becomes invention at the moment that one sees one’s own pleasure as inseparable and conditioned upon the pleasure of another. I don’t know if Julio himself lived this way, though everyone I’ve talked to who knew him well agrees that he did, even when they agree on little else. Certainly, much of his writing exercises this capacity, explores it, experiments with it, using and abusing rules of grammar and syntax as a means of overcoming the condition of the skinny, embarrassed cats.
It is among the qualities that drew him to Keats, the chameleonic, Keats sense of being invaded or permeated by other beings. [Ű16] I think about it this way. If I write, if I tell stories with language (and who doesn’t?), and if language is made of words that include subjects (nouns), objects (nouns) and actions (verbs), then “direct practice-realization” of the interconnectedness of beings should involve experimenting with ways of telling the same story through the senses and words of various participants. Such experiments would then constitute an exercise in the capacity to perceive and feel and think from the position of others, outside my own. This exercise helps me to approach the complex ways in which beings are connected to each other so that I might better measure my words and deeds in relation to their effects on the beings around me.
A first approach to the city in Julio’s universe. Striking and maddening to many readers of Julio’s novels are his narrators’ typical presumption of familiarity with the street names and landmarks of cities, especially Paris. Horacio or Juan or Bruno or whoever it might be tells the story of wandering through the city as though every reader knows the Canal St. Martin, or the Rue de Vaugirard. It feels at first like a kind of exclusive name dropping: are you in the club that knows these place names or not?
But I feel pretty sure that Julio didn’t really think of place names this way; that he knew that his readers didn’t all know the names and that he didn’t want communication to depend upon it. He probably didn’t care one way or the other whether they did or did not. If there is a feeling of being excluded when you read this I think it comes less from the evocation of a club of initiates and more from the absolute, intimate, singular privacy of the itineraries that those names stake out like push pins on a map. Horacio or Juan know these place names and don’t bother to explain them because they are so familiar with them and because, after all, their thoughts are their own. It works for his characters a bit the way certain clichés and commonplace phrases work in Julio’s writing to evoke for you a whole setting and situation. They work because sometimes the names do stand, richly, for something complex of which they are merely a piece. [Ű45, 50]
At any rate, these private itineraries, almost invariably unpremeditated, seem to be Julio’s preferred approach to the city and also suggest what so attracts him about cities. The city, repeatedly engaged by way of the private stroll, holds in beautiful tension difference and repetition, the new and the familiar, the surprising and the expected. Frequently enough the routes are repeated ones, but often also some detail has changed, disappears, or appears for the first time and, even if it doesn’t, the unfolding, immanent nature of the stroll always holds out the possibility at least of something new. Here Julio seems independently to have discovered the Situationist dérive, or drift, through the city, by which this group would plot “psychogeographies” or points of psychic, social, economic, and emotional attraction and repulsion over the conventional map of the city. Here also Julio invents the city by reconfiguring the relation between the walker and the city space: always the same elements, never the same results. Finally, Julio shows his obvious preference for the subjective and experiential. His characters don’t walk with maps in their hands, they don’t plot ahead of time the shortest route from A to B, often times because they aren’t trying to get anywhere and, even if they are, they seem to choose routes that offer the richest probability of delay and detour.
Despite this predilection for wandering, I can also see where a map and its view could hold some value for Julio’s vision of the city.
You enter the city through many doors, and if it is beautiful to let yourself be carried along by an invisible divining rod that gently leads us toward this or that corner, tilting us then in directions and zigzags and retreats and even into resolute boomerangs that bring us back to the starting point, there is also a more definite manner of advance, following in the footsteps of someone who has lived in that neighborhood and lets us see it through verses or crimes or hotel rooms; imagining that you’re following his steps, looking and seeing things through his eyes . . . suddenly there’s another way of seeing things, the choices become different, the reason of the route ceases to be the route of reason and becomes a pact, a date, a recurrence.
At least a map of sorts. Maybe the city exists only as itinerary for the character whose sense and mind we tend to see it through. But the implied or actual multiplication of such individuals and their memories suggest the viewpoint of a map on which would be superimposed innumerable transparencies marking individual itineraries. These, seen together in a single moment, would generate a web of seemingly infinite complexity. This would be a special figure to Julio because junctions – like relations in general – fascinated him, as did the attempt to discover or invent the secret laws governing these apparently chance encounters. [Ű19, 23] Maybe he didn’t need a map exactly. But I bet he enjoyed the counterpoint of the superimposed itineraries so as to situate and balance the nearly exclusively private, nearly solipsist, relation that some of his protagonists set up with the city.
There in the tension created by multiple colliding itineraries the city-as-site-for-invention shows itself most strongly. This is certainly the case with Horacio and La Maga’s chance wandering and encounters in Hopscotch. Or with the cast of 62: A Model Kit or A Manual for Manuel. But this dynamic might be most tightly dramatized in “Manuscript Found in a Pocket” from the generally dark 1974 collection of stories Octaedro. In this story the subway – not walking – offers the itinerary. The metro offers Julio a vastly concentrated and so intensified array of individual paths and possible encounters (even though the number of people might be the same and their motivations for going one way or another equally complexly determined, the possible number of paths is limited by the tracks of the subway lines, and so the individual traveler is more likely to share a portion of a path or a terminus with another). At any rate, the narrator sets up a game for himself, with rules: “if I liked a woman, if I liked a woman sitting opposite me, if I liked a woman sitting opposite me beside a window, if her reflection in the window crossed glances with my reflection in the window, if my smile in the reflection in the window disturbed or pleased or repelled the reflection of the woman in the window. . . . Those were the rules of the game, a smile in the window glass and the right to follow a woman and hope desperately that her connection would coincide with one decided on by me before each trip . . . the possibility that everything would coincide some day, woman and window glass, accepted or rejected smile, train connection, and then finally yes, then the right to go over and say the first word.”
Here the subway conspires with the rules of the game [Ű13] and the unknown motivations, desires and plans of another traveler to lay down a kind of matrix from which an encounter might be born. It serves, among other things, to emphasize the myriad tiny and large events, circumstances, desires and decisions required – always required, not just in this artificial setting – for a meeting between human beings to take place. The narrator in the story even stresses, as a kind of emotional and social backdrop, the inward, private, even aggressively private, nature of the usual itinerary. It is as though he is asking: given that we travel alone, given that we learn with greater or lesser ease to prefer it that way, to avoid the delays and entanglements of contact, how is it possible to make contact? He is like Horacio, or the engineer in “The Southern Thruway” [Ű27, 49] He even seems to glimpse, like the engineer, the ways in which the inventions of convenience and speed characteristic of modernity diminish the possibility of human contact.
You may well feel that meeting someone can and ought to be a much more direct and simple process than what this narrator seems to require. Maybe so, at least for the healthy and balanced soul, at least in unusually healthy circumstances. But if this narrator, like Horacio, is unhealthy or unbalanced, it is at least partly in that he acts as a hypersensitive barometer registering the ill-health of the world in which he lives, that world where contacts seem, in fact, to require massively complex arrangements or set-ups, or equally massive, and mystifying, forces of chance. Like many of Julio’s tragic heroes, or anti-heroes, he is damaged by solitude, cursed with a little knowledge of how his world exacerbates that solitude, and unable to see any means to combat the it other than through some kind of invention (in Julio’s sense of a rearrangement of the given) of those same baleful elements of the modern. Hence this narrator’s manipulation of the logic of the subway, or the engineer’s manipulation of the logic of the traffic jam, or Horacio’s of the streets of Paris. However you may feel about its narrator and his strange game, “Manuscript” offers a concentrated picture of the way in which movement through the city gives Julio a situation through which to explore the dynamics of solitude, alienation and encounter in the intensely modern world that has eroded community as the price paid to maximize individual mobility and productivity.
Chance, in part at least, so fascinates Julio, and plays such a large role in these scenarios in particular, because chance opens a kind of door to hope. Since an element of chance – or randomness or chaos or, as Wendell Berry puts it: “mystery” – has of late been identified as essential to the operation of living systems, there is a very real sense in which the attempt to squeeze it out of our lives and world is suicidal [Ű2]. That is, where it appears that the operation of reason and logic, precisely in the understandable effort to minimize the random catastrophe, have led to the modern state of affairs, it is chance – the name given to the apparent suspension of rationality – that seems to offer a tear in the fabric so that a meeting might take place. In Julio’s world, at any rate, it is vital that the chance that works here be no deus ex machina, but rather a chance that arises, exists, and operates from within the machinery of the rational and logical regime. Because it is clear that for Julio there is no getting outside of that machine (even – as is not at all evident – if it were desirable to do so). So chance must rise like a vaporous by-product from between the cracks of some tiny desajuste – a traffic jam, a pause in front of a shop window that allows the other to turn the corner – in the regular operation of the laws that govern our solitude.
It can seem a bit passive and thus, to a certain habit of mind, risky to stake community on such apertures and opportunities. But I see it as the kind of passivity taught in the East, wu wei, the doing in non-doing, that exploits shi, or the propensity of things and situations [Ű76]. After all, it’s hardly betting on a longshot to wait for a breakdown, albeit temporary, in the machine – they happen hundreds of times a day. An 82 year-old Detroit suburbanite, an alumna of the University of Michigan with whom I had just shared a rain-drenched, flat-tired excursion to a closed archaeological site in Belize succinctly summed up the lesson in a shy whisper when I had asked her how she felt about our day: “I have a saying for this kind of thing, Santiago. I call them A.F.G.O.: another fuckin’ growth opportunity.” I just have to understand these crises as opportunities to establish, however briefly, an autonomous zone in the gap, a zone where community becomes possible, and then to record and retain the memory and the lesson until the next inevitable moment of opportunity.
“The painter and the poet like the scientific inquirer know the delight of discovery.”
– John Dewey
Polanco repeatedly submerges an electric shaver (plugged-in and running) into a bowl of porridge. It’s the sort of experiment that my kids Eva and Adam, when they were 8 or 9 years old, used to have in mind when they’d ask “Can we make an experiment?” They’d proceed to mix dish soap, dirt, worcester sauce, sticks, rusted nails, baking soda, cumin, and in the springtime grass, into a large pot, watching and laughing and exchanging observations. Sometimes we would heat it up, and sometimes we’d put it out on the frozen, snowy back porch. These kinds of experiments, using various elements, occur frequently in Julio’s world – later in the novel, another experiment, for which the shaver and porridge is the model, will involve a canoe and a lawn mower engine. With great sobriety and sense of purpose, a character will imitate the scientific attitude. Childhood and beginner’s mind call precisely for an experimental attitude, an attitude of not knowing ahead of time what will happen, of setting familiar elements (“heterogeneous objects” as is said of the porridge and the shaver) into motion in unfamiliar relationships or mixtures and discovering what arises.
Julio was not against the scientific spirit [Ű4, 33]. The universe of Roberto Arlt, one of the Argentine authors whose forming influence he acknowledged, is populated with amateur scientists and inventors. Julio thought that invention and the scientific played such a central role in Arlt because he lived the beginning of Julio’s century; the beginning of the era in which science, via capital, would realize nightmares (Arlt would have been eighteen at the end of the First World War) and also provide the only escapes from them. But I should specify that what I think draws Julio to the scientific is the experimental spirit. It is not the potential mastery of nature for good or evil. It is not the exactitude of method. It is not the quest for truth or knowledge. It is the experimental attitude toward the world. This explains why there are no successful scientists in Julio’s universe. If his scientists pretend to master nature for their own ends, Julio gently mocks them with failure. If his scientists pretend to be rigorous and exacting in their experiments, Julio lets us know that this just goes with playing the role, like an accent or a costume. But he never mocks the experimental vision and energy with which his scientists dive into the swirling world of things. My friend Bill Paulson reminds me that something like Julio’s stance here is a good thing for us “culture” types to remember.
This experimental fever shows itself more in the shapes of Julio’s books than in the cast of characters. This may be because it is not the scientist as scientist that is interesting to Julio, but the fire of experimentation that burns within the scientist, as it does within any great artist. John Dewey: “. . . one of the essential traits of the artist is that he is born an experimenter. Without this trait he becomes a poor or a good academician. The artist is compelled to be an experimenter because he has to express an intensely individualized experience through means and materials that belong to the common and public world. This problem cannot be solved once for all. It is met in every new work undertaken. Otherwise an artist repeats himself and becomes aesthetically dead. Only because the artist operates experimentally does he open new fields of experience and disclose new aspects and qualities in familiar scenes and objects.” That Julio was “a born experimenter” you can see from the variety of genres in which he worked: short story, critical essay, novel, play, mixed media collage. But at least as significant is the experimental variety that he introduced into each of these genres. Thus, Hopscotch is already a different novel than The Winners, but it is also different than any other novel. Ultimo Round is a different collage book than Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, but it is also different than any other collage book.
From a certain point of view, experiments – especially of the sort favored by Julio, Eva, and Adam – are no doubt a pointless waste of energy, materials and time. They lead to no immediately or broadly useful knowledge or technical application. Plus, they are messy and amateur scientists have a way of not cleaning up after themselves [Ű11, 20]. So no, they are not practical in the utilitarian sense. But they are practical perhaps on a different, though no less vital dimension. For they exercise my capacity for perceiving the experimental possibilities in all situations, even the most well-grooved and familiar. To cultivate and strengthen this faculty leads me, in turn, to open my self up to the possibility of newness and of renewal and can likewise help to subdue my fear of change, and my attachment to the usual states of things. Far from an exclusively private and spiritual improvement (of which so many are offered these days in our world) this sort of exercise is an indispensable precondition to undertaking changes in the material circumstances of my life and society. To live peacefully with the changes inherent in being alive and to change my habits (the position of my bookcases, my partner, my job, or the relations of production) require me first, consciously or not, to grasp the possibility of change, of mixing things that ought not be mixed, of separating things that ought not be separated. Even more importantly, to gain practice in accepting, and even rejoicing in, that variety of change that we call “surprise,” especially when it is brought by others. Discover joy, then, in what happens when you start to put shavers into porridge, when someone eating a chocolate bar accidentally bumps into you as you stroll down the street with a jar of peanut butter: “Hey! You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” “Hey! You got peanut butter on my chocolate!”... And discover joy also when a stranger becomes a door through which the new and never imagined bursts into your life.
Error could be a verb – yes, I know, we already have “to err”, but that’s not exactly what I’m thinking of – for something we want to do instead of the noun-boundary delimiting a territory most of us dread to enter. The Oxford English Dictionary allows that, in fact, it was once this way, or at least that error was once one of those nouns that names an action, in this case the action of wandering. But this sense of error, the OED tells me, is now reserved for poets, and the spell checker on my word processor warns me with a wavy red underscore that “erroring” isn’t correct. But if we were all poets? What if we all are poets making our selves out of our words? What would I have to risk and let fall away to perform the grammatical alchemy of erroring off through a forest, or on a boat, or down an alleyway? To be on the side of erroring, of the knight errant, of Don Quixote, with Julio, is to be on the side of trying, essaying, experimenting and experiencing, and of encountering, discovering, inventing the unknown at home and abroad. To move like the knight on the chessboard. This sort of error, this roaming and wandering must seem to many, to the sober who can walk the straight line (I’m one of them too, so I know), to the scholar who can plot the outline, the near-dead riveted by the benevolent, blinding light at the end of the tunnel; to all of these, this must seem like a lack of rigor. A part of me worries about this appearance of absence of rigor and feels apologetic. Sometimes a part of me dons a habit and slaps me with the nun’s ruler for being slack.
And then a part of me asks: why so much stiffness? Isn’t there a dangerous connection between rigor and rigor mortis? Why do we call them “stiffs,” after all? Can’t the stiff, straight line bend? Or dissolve? Or better yet, can we play along it, on it, beside it? Like a cartoon character who begins by walking along a straight black line that might be the edge of a road, then stoops to pick it up and ties it effortlessly into a lasso, only to finally, clumsily wrap it around his own feet [Ű13, 19, 62]. Can’t we just play dead? Just that. I’m not wanting to be, or to make of Julio, an absolute errorist. He too, no doubt, had his systems. God knows I do. But then, “the good Romantic also had a method for doing his tie in the style of the day.” I just want more space to error, more room for error to stretch its odd limbs and unfurl its welcome dimensions, to invite me on a trip, to show me the side of being wrong that is neither embarrassing nor diminishing, but merely learning and so, miraculously, expanding (though never self-inflating). I’d like to slip and fall and laugh because of what I’ve discovered on the ground that I’ve not seen, would not have seen before and because ...because, well, it’s funny to slip and fall and be on the ground when I think of my self as a creature that stands and walks.
“It is just like diving into a pond – then you start frantically to swim. So far as I am concerned, it is like swimming in a baffling current and being rather frightened and very thrilled, gasping and striking out for all you are worth.”
– D. H. Lawrence
“Juan thought that the crack was saving him from total immersion in something [algo] that was now beginning to take the shape [tomar forma] of a cramp in his stomach.” Is that “something” inside or outside Juan? See the fluidity that Julio’s sentences lend our world of hard boundaries? See the softness and porousness, the smooth sliding movement? It doesn’t really matter for the moment what that something might be – maybe some kind of anxious tension or just plain fear. It’s also not important here that the narrator registers Juan’s emotional response to a situation – he’s sneaking into someone’s else hotel room in the middle of the night – as a physical sensation.
What matters is what happens to “something.” What strikes me about the passage, and about the many, many like it throughout Julio’s work (go to Hopscotch: read it looking especially for “black shout” or “tickle”), is the way he deploys the elements of language to construct a mobile fluid relationship between external stimulus, emotional response and internal physical sensation. That “something,” whatever it is, first figures as a fluid medium of some kind. Even as I learn that the crack in the door of the room he’s just slipped into saves him from “total immersion” I learn also that the “something” is the sort of stuff into which one can be immersed. There’s no simile here. Julio’s narrator just boldly drives forward and evokes the nature of that “something” by describing Juan’s possible relationship to it: total immersion.
But watch that “something” changing now, morphing, protean: the fluid medium that the crack in the door keeps Juan on the brink of transforms into an internal physical phenomenon of his own body: the cramp in his stomach. Of course, it’s important also that each of these processes (total immersion and cramp in stomach) are just tendential and never really completed in this passage. That’s typical Julio, too, stay in the middle of a process, where things are most dynamic and chaotic and ambiguous [Ű95].
Isn’t this a kind of magic: scary and exhilarating like all mysteries? When a pool of something outside me can slide, somehow, into my body and make of itself a stomach cramp. Transformation, movement, and transubstantiation: “something” could be a fluid medium outside of Juan and then two lines later “something” could be his stomach knotted in a cramp. This kind of thing, strictly speaking, can only happen in a universe brought forth with the kind of language, or with the kind of use of language, the style Julio here uses. But Julio is not the only one who can “language” in this style. For one thing, I do it when I read him, twisting my tongue and mind and feelings around these very words. Then, also, the practice I get while reading tends to leak into my language when I’m not reading so that such performances feel less like disagreeable yoga postures and more like what they are: my own way of bringing forth a world of possible relationships in language and of situating my self in it. And then I begin to model it for others, and to infect them.
How to respond to my student who doesn’t want to live in such a world? Who doesn’t want to with such deep intensity that he will – as I often do – simply deny that the world is, or could be, this way? There’s no use telling him that it is this way. Or describing it as such. The only method is to draw him into that universe by an act of language, to bring him first into the shallow lapping tickling waves, maybe give him a little splash so that he reaches down and cups the water and splashes back, escalating, until we are both up to our shoulders in a cloud of splashing spray that becomes him leaping up to dunk me and then darting away with a few powerful strokes where he waits, treading water, at home. He’s now been there, felt it moving around and through him and also felt the rush of strength and mastery that comes from first accepting and yielding to its strange properties and unfamiliar propensities. Take it from Michel Serres, who begins – as I discover by chance – his beautiful, poetic book on education with a very similar image: “No one really knows how to swim until he has crossed a large impetuous river or a rough strait, an arm of the sea, alone. . . Depart. Go out. Allow yourself to be seduced one day. Become many, brave the outside world, split off somewhere else. These are the first three foreign things, the three varieties of alterity, the three initial means of being exposed. For there is no learning without exposure, often dangerous, to the other.”
Maha prajna paramita. This is “the great wisdom perfection” of Zen Buddhism. But, in Sanskrit, Haju told me, it literally means the “the great wisdom crossing over to the other shore.”
“The body of the dragon concentrates energy in its sinuous curves, and coils and uncoils to move along more quickly. It is a symbol of all the potential with which form can be charged, a potential that never ceases to be actualized. . . . The dragon is a constantly evolving creature with no fixed form; it can never be immobilized or penned in, never grasped . . . . it is the very image of an energy that diffuses itself through space, intensifying its environment and enriching itself by that aura.”
What if this were a description of a university professor?
“Discipline, in its etymological sense,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells me, “as pertaining to the disciple or scholar, is antithetical to doctrine, the property of the doctor or teacher; hence, in the history of the words, doctrine is more concerned with abstract theory, and discipline with practice or exercise.” This etymology provides a loose pair of indicators that might help lead toward a becoming-dragon of the university professor. I want to call these “beginner’s mind” and “practice.” You hear the first when the OED puts discipline in the hands of the disciple or the scholar and doctrine in the hands of the doctor or teacher. You hear the second when it puts discipline at the service of practice or exercise, and doctrine in the service of supporting a rigid structure of abstract theory.
“In the beginner’s mind,” as you may already have heard Shunryu Suzuki observe, “there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” “Our original mind includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.” The university might then reassume the shape of the universe for which it was originally – however little it may now seem to contain of it – named [Ű61]. How far can I go towards my original mind? As far as Baruch Spinoza? Spinoza, whose first published words, the aptly named “Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect,” described the recovery of his beginner’s mind:
After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile, and I saw that all the things which were the cause or object of my fear had nothing of good or bad in themselves, except insofar as my mind was moved by them, I resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, capable of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all other being rejected -- whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy to eternity.
Intellectual practice as the communication of sustainable joy. Is that how most of us university professors these days can answer the question: “What are you working on?” Is that how I can answer it? When was the last time I heard, or delivered, a conference paper on the topic? Spinoza, I remember, turned down a university professorship to remain a lens grinder, partly supported by his friends.
With beginner’s mind, I see again, as when I was a child, the ways in which the universe itself naturally assumes the teaching and research functions of the university. Like with the Peruvian farmers Wendell Berry observed. Rather than gridding their entire fields from fence row to fence row, replanting year after year any few of the hundreds of varieties of potatoes they already know, rather than saturating the earth with their wisdom, these farmers have disciplined themselves, restrained themselves and so, in the wild margins between their fields, there among the weeds, every year, something new grows, something that withstands the pests or droughts which have destroyed the known and the given. “The hedgerows are marginal areas,” Berry writes, “little thoroughfares of wilderness closely crisscrossing the farmland, and in them agriculture is constantly renewing itself in direct response to what threatens it. This network of wilderness threading through the fields serves the Andean farmer as a college of agriculture and wilderness station. . . . Set thus in the light of a truly healthy agriculture, our land-grant college complex may be seen less as a symbol of our agricultural success than as a symptom of our failure.” Despite hundreds of years of accumulated experience, these farmers approach every season, every planting, every harvest, with beginner’s mind open to possibilities, open to the new [Ű13, 62]. Disciples, in this way, of nature itself, they make of the universe a university capable of truly touching the flow of life, of being jolted and moved by the new. And in so doing they sustain themselves and a world of increasing diversity that sustains them and their children in turn.
So that is beginner’s mind, the part of the etymology of discipline that emphasized the disciple. But you could probably already see the importance of practice –- the second element I said I found in this etymology -- to the discipline of the Peruvian farmers. “Labor,” Marx wrote, “is the living, form-giving fire. It is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time.” The world of things flows continuously. Labor names this property and so names an essential element of the universe. Intellectual labor must align itself with these flows, attuned to an ongoing process – to a practice – more than a specific product. Jullien again on shi: “Because it implies no dissociation between practice and theory, [shi] never becomes detached from its initial strategic meaning and always helps us to think about the processes to which it is applied from the perspective of how to use them. Since the principles of dynamism are fundamentally the same across reality, the word shi can serve equally well in the analysis of nature and in the analysis of history; in the field of political management and in that of artistic creation. Reality always presents itself as a particular situation that results from a particular disposition of circumstances that is, in turn, inclined to produce a particular effect: it is up to the general, and equally to the politician, the painter, and the writer, to avail himself of the shi . . . so as to exploit it to its maximum potentiality.” I learn to play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the banjo not by grasping the entire song at once, but by repeating hundreds of times each of the thirty-odd eight note rolls that comprise the song. Then my fingers know the song, even if I don’t and never do. Julio called it participation [Ű16, 46].
Go back to Peru. An element of the durability of their agriculture, Berry points out, is the indispensability of practice or exercise. Whatever they discover in their little wildernesses, Berry writes, “has already been tested in the circumstances of the farm itself, and its worth or worthlessness proven.” Or listen to Suzuki speaking of right Zen practice: “I do not feel like speaking after zazen. I feel the practice of zazen is enough. But if I must say something I think I would like to talk about how wonderful it is to practice zazen. Our purpose is just to keep this practice forever. This practice started from beginningless time, and it will continue into an endless future. Strictly speaking, for a human being there is no other practice than this practice. There is no other way of life than this way of life. . . . When you are continuing this practice, week after week, year after year, your experience will become deeper and deeper, and your experience will cover everything you do in your everyday life.” When Suzuki says that for a human being there is no other practice than this practice, I take him to be saying that to the degree that we practice mindfulness, to that degree we fulfill our humanity, whether or not we’ve ever sat on a meditation cushion, and whether or not we accept or propound an exclusively intellectual argument for mindfulness. Conversely, to the degree that we permit forces in and outside ourselves to disrupt our practice of mindfulness we are allowing ourselves to be cheated of our full humanity.
Genuine, enduring discipline inevitably entails practice, is rooted in conditions and oriented toward action. Henry Ford, in a little newspaper column called “What is education -- Cargo or Motive Power?” says “You may fill your head with all the ‘facts’ of all the ages, and your head may be just an overloaded fact-box when you get through. The point,” Ford concludes, “is this: Great piles of knowledge in the head are not the same as mental activity. A man may be very learned and very useless. Any college professor will tell you that.” Do your practice, your exercise. “So – stand up, run, jump, move, dance! Like the body, the mind needs movement, especially subtle and complex movement.” Intellectual labor in and for the universe, and not just for the university, is practice. Practice takes discipline. Discipline takes beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind prepares us for action. Beginner’s mind makes available to us again a world of things that can drive, shape, and improve our practice and our products, provided that practice is focused and restrained – or, in other words, disciplined. The Tao te Ching once again, “Better stop than fill to the brim./Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt./Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it./Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow./Retire when the work is done./ This is the way of heaven.”
Etymology, as I’ve been exploiting it here, is nothing more for me than one of the forms of activity that discipline takes in my field of passion: language and literature. Etymology isn’t for me a search for origins, at least not origins that become restrictive rules for usage, ways of judging rigor from error. Etymology entails a mindful perusal of the variety of things any given word has done and therefore could be made to do again. To be sure, it has for me a kind of ethical facet in that it involves a respectful study of a thing – a word – the better to become intimate with its history, as you might with a good friend. In this sense, etymology is a way of eluding a kind of authoritarian or dictatorial fetishism that is and demands a conformist acceptance of a thing as given today, ripped from the matrix of its process of becoming. With language, it seems especially inhuman to indulge in such fetishes. So I slow down and pause over a word, to play especially among its roots, looking under the rocks of “obsolete” and “poetic” or “technical” usages, where we’ve sometimes misplaced the most stimulating among the possible uses of a word. I wander then, perhaps I err, but I also discover and invent.
A thought that the stiff scholar I seem sometimes to channel wants to dismiss as unsupportable: Lucas is Julio, A Certain Lucas his autobiography. Be gone Professor Beelzebub! Struggling with the authoritarian in himself, struggling with the fascist that has taken the shape of hydra heads that compel him to have his scotch at a certain time, to keep the paper in the same place, to maintain the correspondence, everywhere poor Lucas turns within himself, and despite his beautiful best intentions, he humbly confronts the fascist within. “Seven heads, one for each decade” – Julio wrote this in the 1970s when he was entering his 60s, moving into his seventh decade. Is it this honest hypersensitivity to the fascist within him, to the lapses of the desire for freedom that made him so tireless a facilitator of freedom in his world, his life, and his writing?
Lucas thinks vaguely that there must be some similarity between him and a guy who wrote a story he read years ago about a fake band in a Buenos Aires movie theater. Julio wrote a story about a fake band in a Buenos Aires movie theater. Aha! Take that Professor Beelzebub! Another hint that maybe a certain Lucas is none other than Julio.
What else could Julio’s autobiography have been, after all? For the usual form of autobiography, there has to be a strong sense of an “I” that is the character (“-bio-“) and of an “I” that is the writer (“auto-“) and finally of an equal sign consisting of “graphy” that connects them together. Writing in that view would be treated as though it weren’t a medium that creates illusory beings we call “I”, but rather as if it were a pane of glass; a means of faithfully transcribing the pregiven bit of reality named “I”. But Julio, like Henry Miller who wrote almost nothing but fictional autobiography, knows better. So if Julio were to have written an autobiography, and I’m not saying he did, it might look like A Certain Lucas. Then to write his own life would be to write the life of an other and to simply evoke life by setting down the particular elements that only from a distance can we put together and identify as the constellation called “a certain Lucas” or “a certain Julio Cortázar”.
I’ve thought that “hagiography” might be the best name for this writing you have been reading; for writing a saint’s life [Ű1, 49, 98]. We scholars tend to be wary of hagiography. It’s a “risk,” a “temptation,” a “betrayal.” Hagiography tends to be the name we give to scholarly writing that has veered off the sober road to knowledge because its writer has gotten drunk on his subject, has taken it into his veins, or under his skin. I’m not going to rehearse this viewpoint, nor do I want to defend my own writing, this hagiography here, against its accusers. No. There’s nothing for me to do but confess: I’ve taken a whole lot of Cortázar and I’m beginning to feel the effects. And so I’ve begun to assemble this hagiography. Though I think it is also worth affirming that hagiography is more than just adulatory writing. It is that and so, unashamedly, is my writing in this book. But hagiography does more than adore its subject and therein we can begin to grasp its force. Hagiography seeks to produce effects, or more accurately to transmit effects on a different wavelength or bandwidth and it will subordinate the elements of which it is composed to this task.
Hagiography sets itself up as a vector for the transmission, the communication of holiness. This holiness is what is important, not the particular, historical individual – if he or she even existed – who is treated in the hagiography [Ű23, 27, 31, 37, 47, 79]. The saint is touched, an individual that has been broken up by God. So Athanasius writes of St. Antony: “Working with Antony was the Lord, who bore flesh for us, and gave to the body victory over the devil, so that each of those who truly struggle can say, It is not I, but the grace of God which is in me.” Thus he or she matters only as the crystallization of this transpersonal force that has washed through him or her. Saint might be seen as the name for an event springing up in the relation between the human and the divine. That’s how Peter Brown sees it: “The joining of Heaven and Earth was made plain even by the manner in which contemporaries designed and described the shrines of their saints.” The written life of a saint, viewed this way, is like a spark across the gap.
This way of seeing sainthood explains why hagiographers are notoriously unconcerned with historical or biographical accuracy. It also explains why hagiographies can never be definitive, why saints’ lives abound, proliferating like rabbits. The anonymous author of the earliest life of Gregory the Great: “We know too that all saints have everything in common through the love of Christ of whose body they are members. Hence if anything we have written did not concern this man. . . yet in his case we have little doubt on the whole that they were true of him, too.” The saint doesn’t have a life, from the point of view of the hagiographer. The saint, to the degree that he or she is a saint, gives up his or her particular life in order to accept and participate in a transpersonal movement that is, after all, the movement of a life that could be called eternal. Peter Brown again: “The men of the second and third centuries had an acute sense of the multiplicity of the self.” And Duncan Robertson, speaking of readers in the later middle ages, tells us that they “serenely subordinated the saint’s individuality to his trans-personal identity as a saint.” In that case, and given the relay function of hagiography, there ought to be as many versions upon a saint’s life as there are occasions, or contexts, into which holiness ought to be injected. In this way, hagiography exalts its subject, paradoxically, by dissolving it as self and then reassembling it as a particle in a divine dust storm.
It is this event called saintliness that we are to venerate, and it is the saint’s selfless availability to the sweep of holiness that we are to imitate. We readers are, after all, the other crucial term for the hagiographer. If hagiography sets the saint up as a relation or event joining heaven and earth, it sets itself up as another event relating the saint – and the force by which he or she has been touched – and ourselves as readers. The avowed aims of hagiography with respect to its audience – edification, veneration, imitation – all point to its unavoidably relational and occasional nature as a form of writing. Hagiography is only to the degree that it does. And it can do only to the degree that it orients itself, and subordinates its elements (like rhetoric), to the needs and desires of its audience. I wonder if Julio didn’t have this in mind when he titled his book on Keats Imagen de John Keats [Image of John Keats]. Morelli, who may also be Julio, expresses his preference for the indexical efficacy of the medieval “image.”
Many hagiographies include as a – or the – crucial moment in the saint’s life, an instance of active or participatory reading by the saint; a moment in which the saint is lifted, summoned, by and into a grand text. This moment then works for us too, and part of what we imitate is this active engagement with the saint’s life, the hagiography. “Sainthood,” as Robertson succinctly puts it, “is active reading.” And so Athanasius relates the following episode in the life of St. Antony: “He went into the church pondering these things, and just then it happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. It was as if by God’s design he held the saints in his recollection, and as if the passage were read on his account. Immediately, Antony went out from the Lord’s house and gave to the townspeople the possessions he had from his forebears.” These are the moments, when sainthood begins to happen, that we’re supposed to really want. This desire, provoked by the narrative structure and rhetorical devices of the hagiography, and its satisfaction not only sweetens the pill of doctrine the hagiography supplies, but also helps fuels our desire to imitate the saint in our own lives. We don’t just want this moment for the saint, we want it, or perhaps some more modest version of it, for ourselves. Hagiography, like rhetoric or sophism, subordinates the referential or mimetic facets of language to its pragmatic facets in order to do this. Hagiography, contrary to appearances, isn’t meant to represent anything. It’s meant to do something: to transmit effects [Ű8, 67].
All this has left hagiography open to accusations, especially in a Western world whose dominant voices tend toward the view that truth is measured by the fidelity of a copy to an original. Even within the Catholic church, which you’d suppose would be happy for the P.R., priests and theologians run the hagiographers out of the temple for their verbal luxuriance, popularizing approach to doctrine, and historiographical lack of rigor. From their point of view, hagiography erodes the values of austerity, orthodoxy, and truth upon which the faith must stand. Now today we may think we know better than to put our faith in austerity, orthodoxy, or truth (or at least in those as defined by the priests and theologians). And we may think that this is probably a good thing (though for my own part, I think maybe in the long run I’d rather have been on the side, at least, of austerity and truth). But maybe I can also put that “knowing better” in a slightly different light.
We usually call the moment when we learned to know better than to believe in religious orthodoxy “the Enlightenment” or “modernity.” It begins with us saying that reason, instead of faith, leads to the truth. Consequently, we ought to apply reason to our social and political institutions. It is in this sense, for modernity, that the truth sets us free. Before long, the Enlightenment, which had first emerged to destroy the myths of religion, created its own myths of the omnipotence of reason in the form of science and technology. More recently, some thinkers feel that many of us no longer believe in reason and its promise to lead us to truth and free us in our social worlds. This is called “the postmodern condition”: now, at last, we might say, we are free of all myths. We can see clearly now. We’ve disenchanted the world and disenchanted ourselves.
That very critical distance in whose name the heresy of hagiography is routed among literary experts today might, if unquestioned, then turn out to be an expression of this more general disenchantment, an expression of our cynicism or hyper-maturity. Like eight year-olds armed with the knowledge that there is no Santa Claus, we ruthlessly stomp out every miracle machine – every myth – we can find in our own and other cultures [Ű90]. And the current, usually offhand, disdain for hagiography may just be another minor raid in this lackluster war against myth. For hagiography is one of the greatest myth machines to have developed in the Western between the age of the Greeks and the age of television; great precisely on account of its unapologetic deployment of rhetorical tools in the service of a popular struggle for happiness, a struggle carried out in the face of the grimly punishing, disenchanting priests of austerity, orthodoxy, truth, and critical distance.
So hagiography is indeed more than adulatory writing. It is a way of adoring someone, not because of how special he or she was as a person, but because of the special way in which he or she was traversed by ten thousand intensities, from the massive to the microscopic. It’s a way of writing that understands itself not to be telling something primarily, or even showing something – in which case its standards would be those of accuracy, or truth – but to be doing something, so that its standards are those of efficacy. And, finally, it is a kind of writing that taps the powers of myth and the renegade desires of the unwashed, the saints, madmen, ghosts, demons, and children against which Western knowledge and politics have waged a tireless war since the time of Plato. It’s a window through which mystery and wonder sneaks back into the world. This is what makes hagiography such a suitable mode for me, today, transmitting Cortázar’s miraculous 20th century inventions into the 21st. For one way of grasping Julio’s invention is to see it as a crowbar for springing from captivity a world of miraculous powers, individuated in a teeming pack of saints, madmen, ghosts, demons, and children, swarming forth to reenchant their worlds and ours [Ű3, 7, 8, 86, 93].
It’s not surprising probably, but still it is exhilarating that one of Julio’s first published writings was a short essay on Arthur Rimbaud. It’s an essay in which he works through his split affinities: for Mallarmé and the pure, disembodied perfect Book, on the one hand, and for Rimbaud and the flawed, but moving insistence on the integration of life and writing, on the bringing of writing to bear on life, and especially on the breaking out of the strictures of the ego. As so often, Julio seems very open and accepting of the contradictory impulses within himself and thus again – though perhaps for the first time as a writer – demonstrates his fundamental integrity – which is to say his fundamental appreciation for his multiplicity, his many selves [Ű8]. And it is perhaps this very appreciation that leads him finally to state, “With all my devotion to the great poet [Mallarmé], I feel that my being, insofar as it is whole [en cuanto integral], goes toward Rimbaud with a tenderness that is brotherhood and nostalgia.” The elements constituting this affinity will sound familiar by now. There is, to begin with, Julio’s sense that Rimbaud was above all a human being and thus approached poetry as a “key to human realization.” There is also the belief, held by Julio and which he attributes to Rimbaud, that this human realization must necessarily occur via a departure from the self, a kind of breaking open of the self so as to allow (or to recognize) its mixing with otherness [Ű23, 28, 37, 40]. Hence Rimbaud’s famous slogan: “Je est un autre” [I is an other]. Indeed, Julio seizes on this phrase to point out that while the roots of surrealism’s search for otherness might well be traced to Rimbaud, the latter’s phrase ought to be grasped not in terms of a flight from the self, but as a liberation of the self.
It’s this sort of attempted aperture that Rimbaud’s poems chronicle, like the diaries of a voyage. All that is required to decipher this effort in the poems is “la inocencia necesaria.” By “necessary innocence” I take Julio to mean a kind of beginner’s mind that doesn’t see Rimbaud’s words as the words of a Poet, at least not at first, but simply as the report of a human being searching for another way of being, a way of being whose achievement and shape both require a twisting of usual language into what experts call poetry [Ű76].
Detail from Santiago Colás, “C”, 2003 (satin enamel, acrylic, spray, oil stick, and postcards on plywood; 132 x 48 cm.; dimensions of detail 21 x 21 cm.)
In “Cadaver viviente” [“Living Corpse”] Julio warns his reader against a variety of what William James called the abuse of naming [Ű50]. The warning concerns the term “surrealism.” If a reader were to consider “surrealism” a name for a literary style, movement or school and then, sadly or with relief, catalogue it among other defunct “-isms”, then that reader ought to beware. Be careful, Julio warns, for that way of seeing and those ways of being for which the name “surrealism” ought properly to be reserved are not filed away, not buried so easily. Beware, he advises those soberly inclined over the open grave of surrealism, for it stands behind you and “its joyful necessary shove may throw you in, to know for real this earth that you hate because of your refinement, because you are already dead in a world that no longer depends on you.” Strong words to be sure, youthful, perhaps excessive, less complicated by the acknowledgment of his own complacencies and conservatisms than an older Julio. But what really strikes me here are two things. First, the insistence, so typical of Cortázar, upon the potential of things to exceed their names. Second, the shift in register – just when he arrives at the crux of his argument – to the narrative mode. At that crucial moment, we get a little scene from a dark tale. It’s as though, to make that surrealist spirit really strike his reader (just as he predicts that it will), he needed to shift into the more infectious mode of narrative invention.
“Communicability has nothing to do with popularity. . . . no man is eloquent save when some one is moved as he listens.”
– John Dewey, Art as Experience
Antonin Artaud, Julio wrote, was a “broken word.” Julio deeply admired Artaud for refusing to separate his writing from his life, his imagination from his reality. He quotes Artaud at length in this obituary. He shows Artaud wanting, as a poet and an actor, to “live poetry,” to feel, on the stage, “the bodies of others moving” in unison with his own. He shows Artaud wanting the poems of Baudelaire and Poe “to become real”. He shows Artaud wanting words to jump off their pages, bearing life back into the world. Julio dramatizes these wants in the many stories he wrote in which lies, hallucinations, dreams, tales and other inventions snake a hand into the world and begin to move the characters who witness them [Ű8, 37, 38, 40, 44, 85-88, 90]. Julio realizes Artaud’s wants when his own inventions snake a hand into my world and begin to move me around. “Living,” Julio writes (and one could have found this passage in writing from any time in his life), “matters more than writing unless writing is – as so few times – a way of living [Ű23].”
When Monica used to sketch or paint, sometimes she’d squint her eyes. An ophthalmologist would say she has perfect vision with her eyes open. This is true. It is also true, as Monica would explain, that when she paints, she can see better with her eyes squinted. You might see the next few lines better if you squint your eyes, or blur your vision.
Psychology, Morelli says, is a tired old word.
William James wrote to his brother Henry complaining that the latter’s novels were too psychological.
I have a terrible time reading the novels of Henry James.
Gilles Deleuze wrote Anti-Oedipus.
Gilles Deleuze called his philosophy “pragmatics.”
William James was a founder of pragmatism.
What if the errant songs, the “Wandering Songs” [canciones errantes] of Lucas, aren’t songs about wandering, as it seems when you read carefully, but songs that wander, that error, as it seems when you glance quickly with your eyes squinted and your vision blurred? This criticism that employs the fleeting view, the first impression, reveals that a song is wandering smoke that floats across time and space, big water cresting here when Woody Guthrie records “Worried Man Blues”, subsiding back into flat stillness only to rise and peak and tumble over itself when I pick up my banjo and pluck the melody (“I’m a-worried now, but I won’t be worried long...”). This criticism makes a difference between a song about wandering (a song that represents wandering) and a song that wanders (a song that produces wandering [Ű50]). Julio’s writings can be seen this way too: as songs that wander. I play them again and again, when I read and reread, when I think and talk and write about them. When I set their frozen, suspended selves into motion, bending them with the light of my eyes and desires and moments, they begin to do things perhaps, that he only vaguely imagined. Sometimes Deleuze suggests I read books as I play an album, not necessarily start to finish, but by choosing cuts. At other times he compares writing to an electric current: it is always there, but I can – I must – plug into it to make it work. That’s a wandering song.
An interviewer once suggested to Julio, speaking of his earlier stories, “you seek [buscas] a provocative effect more than anything.” “Provocative effect” okay, Julio tells her, but he doesn’t care for the “the verb “to seek” [buscar]. “I would tell you, I would repeat Pablo Picasso’s famous phrase: ‘I don’t seek [busco], I find [encuentro].” Until I saw it through Julio’s eyes, I had always understood Picasso’s famous phrase as arrogance. Now I hear it as just the opposite. The seeker would take credit for the effects he makes. But the finder has the humility to know that it isn’t about him, it is about the overall disposition of things that allows him to trip across an effect [Ű78].
Julio refuses to characterize his work as the search for a predetermined object. Here he’s the opposite of Horacio Oliveira who tells us that “searching was my symbol.” Instead, Julio tells us that he “finds”; finds without searching. He just happens upon the effects he produces. To produce, as Julio sees it, is “to happen upon.” And with this, he defines his work as invention, in the oldest sense of the term. For invention comes to us from the Latin word inventio which was, in turn, the translation of the Greek word heuresis which meant, simply, “to come upon, or discover [Ű4, 63, 67].” What state of mind facilitates this? How can we do this at home?
The question matters because invention isn’t just something that Julio does, inviting me passively to witness the process. It’s something that he tries to infect us with. He wants to move us into that state of mind. To illustrate this state of mind, I’ve invoked the difference between driving full speed on an Interstate toward a predetermined and fixed destination and wandering without fixed destination along back roads [Ű19]. But this difference is only helpful if we relieve the latter of its connotations of laxity or slackness. The pertinent attitude can be difficult to grasp if we think too fixedly in terms of the opposition between attention and distraction, rigor and laxity, as we are taught in school.
I think that the word “awareness” or “mindfulness,” in the Buddhist sense that connotes an awakening of our faculties to what is all around us, best grasps it. For it is true that Julio’s invention (“I don’t search”) seems to reject “attention”, by which term we usually mean a concentration or focusing (both connoting a narrowing of scope) of our mental energy on one object. But he also seems to reject “distraction”, if by that word we mean something like a lapse in our perceptual and intellectual apparatus. For a Buddhist, “mindfulness” or “awareness” suggest a radically expansive, simultaneous operation of all our sense organs (and for a Buddhist, there are six, not five, of these; the sixth being mind). With such a mental state, concentration on a particular object, such as the rhythm of our breathing, does not preclude awareness of what else is around or inside us. Nor does the absence of concentration on a particular object preclude deep perception of particular objects. On the contrary, with mindfulness, perception is deepened in relation to each particular object, and its range is expanded in relation to the general field of possible objects. This is the state of mind in which we suspend searching so that discovery, or invention, can be fully awakened and Buddha means nothing else.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
– Karl Marx, “Theses Concerning Feuerbach”
What happens to Roberto Michel, the photographer who tells the story “Blow-Up”? He feels the need to relieve himself of a story, a need as natural as a bodily function because “something weird” has happened. He simultaneously feels the gap opened up, the parallel relationship established between the experience (the “something weird” of a boy apparently seduced by a woman on behalf of a man waiting nearby) and the representation (the telling of the experience). Like his photography, which serves as a lens focusing the issue of language and storytelling and which serves as an escape from “la nada” but also from the “flowing of time”, mimetic production is terrifying in the paralyzing passivity to which it consigns its producer. One falls out of touch, precisely, with the world. How can one tell actively? Michel asks himself this a propos of what he has witnessed of the story he wants to tell. How can you tell in a way that touches what you are telling, that moves it? How can you tell in a way that changes the world? It seems, ethically and practically, to be a matter of falling in with the moving course of experience, but also of recognizing and accepting the agency involved: so that the inventor of images or figures (photographic or verbal) needs to make something new of the given experience (to blow up the elements to the point of grainy unfamiliarity, to free the boy from the frozen tableau of seduction). There is responsibility in this active telling, and therefore also risk, and therefore also fear and anxiety. What if I fail? Or more frightening still, what if events sweep me up with such force that I change and become unknown to myself? Unrecognizable? Will I still able to find my self?
What happens to the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Blow-Up”? He is reckless with the power of his camera at the beginning of the film. He learns by the end to respect that power and in doing so may now actively exploit the creative power of his medium. In between, he photographs a couple in the park. The woman in the couple gets upset with him and asks for the film. Later she comes to see him to get it and is willing to do anything to get it. He sends her off with the wrong film, and she leaves him her wrong phone number. He develops the film of the couple in the park and blows up several images. He realizes that the couple that appeared to be hugging and so forth when he took the photographs now appear in his blow-ups to be different. She is looking off anxiously toward the bushes. In the bushes, in the grainy blow-up of the bushes, the photographer thinks he sees a face with a gun in its hand. Then, in the photo representing the moment after the woman has discovered him, the man from the couple seems indifferent about the photographer’s presence. So why does the woman care so much? Lastly, in the photo he took of her running away to where the couple was (but now the man has disappeared), the corpse itself seems to appear lying in the right hand side of another grainy blowup. Certain that he has inadvertently witnessed and photographed a murder, one in which the woman perhaps is implicated (was her lover in the bushes, killing her husband?) he returns to the scene and does indeed appear to find the corpse, or does he? When he tries to relieve himself of his story to his friends at a party, they stop him short or sidetrack him.
The next morning he returns to the park, but the corpse is gone. Instead, some mimes have set up a fake tennis game and their “ball” has “fallen” outside the fence surrounding the tennis court. They motion to the photographer to retrieve it. He accepts their invitation, gets the “ball” and throws it back inside the court. The soundtrack in the scene has been complete silence until this moment. But now, gradually increasing in volume, we hear the sounds of the mime’s “ball” and “racket”. As the camera pulls back for a long shot of the photographer, he disappears. The lesson of fashion photography, towards which he assumes such a disdainful and irresponsible attitude at the beginning of the film, is that one sees what one wants to see in images. By the end of the film, he has learned this lesson, activating the possibilities of his own images. The mimes hammer home the lesson: it doesn’t matter whether they are playing with a ball or not, the effect is the same, they draw another into their illusion, which therefore might as well be real. Antonioni confirms this through the magic of film, by conferring upon their game real sounds.
This happens so often in Julio’s stories. Take “At Your Service” for example. There a maid is asked to play the role of a grieving mother at the funeral of a young gay man who was recently very kind to her. At the funeral, amidst the awkward coldness of the deceased’s real friends, she begins to weep, just to play the role. But before long, the feigned tears awaken real feelings and these real feelings in turn make her performance perfect. And a truly perfect performance is no performance at all. She cries exactly as if she were the mother, and she might as well have been. The image becomes reality and I am grateful for Madame Francinet’s invention of a mother for Monsieur Bébé.
Now consider “A Change of Light.” Luciana and the narrator, a radio actor, first fall in love through correspondence. When they finally agree to meet, the narrator brings a powerfully detailed mental image of Luciana that, it turns out, bears no resemblance to her. It turns out that she, too, imagined him different: taller, with curly hair. At first he makes an effort to accept and adjust his visual image. But soon the visual images infect reality and he asks her to dye her hair. Then he adjusts the lamp in a room because she better conforms to his image in the half light of the afternoon sun coming through the window. In the course of this make-over, she grows distant, even as he comes to love more deeply his now materialized image of her. As the story ends, he catches a glimpse of her “holding tightly onto the arm of a man who was taller than I, a man who leaned over a little to kiss her on the ear to brush his curly hair against Luciana’s chestnut hair.”
Be careful what you invent, Julio tells us here, for inventions have a funny way of becoming real. He’s always said something very close to this. From the very beginning he’s always insisted on the efficacy of invention, on its power to transform the world in which we live [Ű8, 34, 67]. But I notice that in “A Change of Light” or “Trade Winds” or “Summer” or in other stories from the 1970s Julio more often stresses the dark side of the lesson. So many of the stories seem to show invention of one sort another like the deadly sweater in “Don’t Blame Anyone”: you just want to put the sweater on because you are cold, but you get all tangled up in it and it winds up killing you [Ű38]. In the earlier stories, the materialization of invention more often seemed innocuous or playful, it seemed more like something to be grateful for. I can only speculate as to the causes of this shift in emphasis. Julio never explained it in print. Perhaps it was the political situation, which had grown so grave throughout Latin America by the early 1970s. Perhaps it was something in Julio’s personal life. Perhaps it was age. Perhaps it was fame. Who can know for certain? Whatever the cause, I love, even as I am disturbed by, these late stories because in them Julio accepts fully the power of invention. It is one thing to accept the transformative power of invention when it seems only to do good things in your life. The real test comes when you begin to imagine it doing bad things: do you still accept, or do you now deny or try to limit, the power of invention? Julio accepted it and affirmed it. No matter what it brought, he never retreated into the businessman’s illusion that invention and reality inhabit separate dimensions [Ű9, 39].
Luis ran off with his dead brother’s fiancée, even before his brother was quite dead. So it’s understandable that he’d like some relief from the past. In fact, he’d like complete freedom from the past, a clean break, which is why he and Laura moved from Argentina to Paris after his brother Nico’s death. This desire for a clean break is also why the letters from his mother have the capacity to unsettle him [Ű94]. By their very existence these letters already reproached him, just for leaving at all, even if his mother had not begun to speak in them of Nico as though Nico were still alive.
It’s with the arrival of one of these letters that Luis’ story – which Julio called “Cartas de Mamá” – actually begins. But this letter is even more extraordinary than the usual because Mamá has written that Nico, whom Luís knows to be dead, is coming to Europe. Up to this point, Luís had always figured his mother’s references to Nico to be mistakes, wishful slips of the tongue. She’d written “Nico” when in fact it was Cousin Victor who had come by to visit her, asking after Luis. But now Luis can’t pretend – now he thinks he knows that his mother has lost it. He’s like Petrone, from “The Condemned Door” [Ű44], in his wishful belief that the eruption of the exceptional into daily life can be beaten back with rationalizations. He doesn’t see how it could be that Nico, who is dead, could come to Paris in the boat.
He might have seen that even if Nico is dead and his mother is nuts, everything will happen as if Nico was actually living right there with them. For the crucial fact of this story is that Mamá has invented Nico in language, just as Julio resuscitated the dead “Che” in his own writing [Ű7], and we know very well, even if Luis doesn’t, that invention produces real effects [Ű8]. The effect, in this case, is to introduce Nico and the past into the present, when the fragile life together of Luis and Laura has depended entirely on repressing that past. The shit has hit the fan and there’s nothing more to do but, as Luis and Laura do at the end of the story, resign themselves to living in the world of Mamá’s invention.
Their chance to confront the past in a wholesome, skillful way has passed. The first letters from Mamá were like a second chance, a wake-up call. Language, with the first slightly odd letters, was just pushing open at the door of the present. At that point they made the mistake of not opening it and greeting it. Instead they threw themselves heavily against the guest at the door with such misplaced dismissals as “error” or “craziness”. But language as invention, the way Mamá uses it, will not be denied. Nico is coming she says and sends by certified mail – so that her invention will be sure to find its mark – the details of his arrival. Now Luis and Laura both go, unbeknownst to the other, to the station, just to confirm for themselves that Mamá really is crazy. They see a man who could be Nico, but is not. Nico had not come. And yet, everything from now on will be as if he had. Mama’s infected them. That evening at home, apparently alone in an apartment that had been just right for a couple, the story winds down with the couple sharing the opinion that Nico (they just say “él”, but they both, and we, know who they are talking about) has lost a lot of weight. I should say so. He’s been dead for several years.
There shouldn’t be anything strange about Rosa breaking into tears as she opens a letter from her brother Alejandro. After all, their mother has just died and Rosa’s thinking of how she’ll break the news to her brother. But there is something strange because Alejandro himself has been dead for more than a year. Strange, but not fantastic. Alejandro died in an accident. However, his siblings, concerned about their mother’s already fragile health, conspire to conceal the death from her. They contrive an imaginary trip to Brazil for Alejandro, and from there an imaginary job opportunity. The whole time, they have a family friend write letters from Recife, Brazil, as if he were Alejandro. It is one of these letters that Rosa has opened when the story ends. The letter Rosa has opened is a lie. But it is a lie – an invention – which sets off the same effects as if it were the truth, as if Alejandro were alive and had written the letter. Moreover, like all invention in Julio’s universe, it is contagious [Ű8, 67]. Perhaps the invention was conceived to make Alejandro alive and real for their mother, but by the end of the story we see that to the siblings as well, for all practical purposes, the ruse has become reality.
We never know for sure whether Mamá really believes these lies or not. Many times she asks questions or makes requests that force the family to push the lie to ever more elaborate extremes, to provide ever greater detail and evidence that Alejandro is alive. But she never explicitly questions the story they are telling her. Rather it is as though, with her testing inquiries, she conspires secretly with her children to refine the invention, to make it more effective and infectious. Is this “The Health of the Sick” of the story’s title? Does the health of the sick lie in the capacity to reshape one’s reality through invention? The boy in “Los venenos” can run as if he were flying through his invention. Julio can write as if he weren’t exiled through his invention [Ű58]. If we think of sickness as any kind of deficiency in power relative to some limit (the mad, the young, the very old, the exile, the artist, the poor), then perhaps the health of the sick lies in refusing both the given limitations of their circumstances and paralyzing transcendental fantasies, and instead elaborating inventions that effectively dissolve those limitations. If we think of sickness this way, who among us is not at least a little sick, at least sometimes [Ű32]? Who among us does not sometimes need the elixir of invention?
Mario’s problem is that he’s hearing disturbing rumors about the girl he likes – rumors that she poisoned her last two boyfriends. There’s ambiguity surrounding the two deaths, just enough ambiguity to nourish gossip, but too much to allow facts to appear. So Mario’s disbelief of the rumors seems legitimate. We know that he aspires to distance himself from the life of his family, which he considers narrow and petty. But besides that, he’s right, people could just be jealous and spiteful because after all, Delia does seem different from others in the town. The fact is, nobody knows for sure how the two former boyfriends died and rumor grows in the absence of firm knowledge. The trick is that the narrator of this story doesn’t really know either. In fact, the narrator remembers neither Delia nor Mario very well, though that doesn’t stop him from going ahead with the story as though he or she knew. But maybe we don’t notice this at first. Maybe we read as though we were getting the real story, instead of the latest, crystallized version in a chain of rumors.
But the unreliability of this narrator, the elusiveness of the facts in this story, may not make much difference finally. Rumor may well tend to grow in the absence of what we think of as more reliable knowledge. But then it is also true that in the absence of contravening facts, rumor tends to function like knowledge. It tends to produce effects in the world. It tends to shape the world after its own image. Mario, for example, begins to suspect, somewhere inside, that the rumors about Delia are true. So when she offers him a homemade bon bon, this suspicion gets in the drivers seat and he breaks the bon bon apart in his fingers to reveal the pieces of a dead cockroach. So she was trying to poison him. So she did kill Raul and Hector. Now this could have been an innocent accident, but the rumor machine is whirring and among the effects of its operation is that Mario doesn’t even pause to consider any possibility that doesn’t conform to the knowledge that his suspicion has now become.
The fact, the only fact, is that everything in the story happens as though Delia was some kind of Circe. We witness, then, another instance of the infectious efficacy of invention. Here it takes on a dark hue, but that doesn’t matter. Inventions don’t only produce joyful effects. What matters more is that what seems to be an extraordinary tale of self-fulfilling prophecy may actually be a quite ordinary phenomenon. The people in the story know a little bit. They know that Delia is strange. They know that she had two boyfriends who died mysteriously. And in the space uncovered by what they know they begin to invent stories to account for what they don’t know; stories which wind up convincing. And if they are convincing, and as it turns out, effective, well that’s only because nothing in their world – at least nothing that they can or choose to see in it – contradicts them. There’s no reason – in every sense of the word – to keep firm that line between what they know and what they invent.
Don’t things work this way for us too? This story gives us a taste of what that feels like. We depend heavily, in the dominant arrangements of our lives and world, on the apparently firm reliability of the difference between rumor and fact. But from Julio’s point of view, not only is the knowledge we derive from what we call “facts” less reliable than we tend to assume, but we turn to it with less consistency than we like to pretend. We turn to our inventions as though they were producers of fact. Julio always seeks out the areas of our existence that knowledge seemed not to have organized yet, or at least not very well. He’s interested in those experiences – the ones we think of as exceptions to the rule – in which life and the world overwhelm the knowledge upon which we would depend in order to manage life and the world. We might call these moments “crises” or “mysteries”: they are the ones, often times, that decisively reorient our lives. Whatever story – and it’s telling that such stories are called “rationalizations” – we may later tell ourselves about what has happened in those moments, about what has gotten us through them, if we are deeply honest with ourselves we will see that our rational knowledge has been, at least temporarily, disabled [Ű20, 31, 90].
Reason, Julio would admit, gets us to a certain point. But we set ourselves up for ignorance at the very least, and sad tragedies, if we inflate its efficacy or, alternatively, confuse it with the rest of our equipment for living; if we identify ourselves exclusively with our rational selves. Here is yet another reason for the vital importance to Julio of invention in its various forms. It’s not just that invention steps in where our knowledge breaks down. It is that at least part of what we call knowledge – separating it smugly from invention – is invention and works by the same process. Finally if, as this story and so many others suggest, we shape the world in the image of our invention, it would behoove us to invent only such worlds as we would want to live in [Ű61].
Stories can spring up from almost anything, anywhere, at any time. Sometimes they spring up impossibly like those blades of grass rising out of the cracks in a sidewalk. The stand there, obviously lost, incredibly vulnerable, and yet appearing completely unconcerned and at home. Those blades of grass grow, I suppose, because the sidewalk is not a seamless, perfect totality.
Imagine that you are the manager of a subway line and that, knowing that knowledge is power, you decide to count your ridership. You count the number of people who descend into your subway and the number of people who exit. You figure that a week of this ought to give you a good idea of where you stand. But now imagine that one day the numbers don’t match: say, 113,987 enter and only 113,983 exit. Or rather, let’s be precise about it, let’s say that one day you counted 113,987 coming in and 113,983 leaving. What would you make of that?
Of course, it’s possible you’d make nothing at all of it, just ignore it without a second thought. But actually, that’s kind of unlikely. After all, you are counting for a purpose and the fulfillment of that purpose does depend on accuracy in your counting. So you’re more likely to interpret the discrepancy in some way. Here two paths open up. You can interpret the discrepancy as an error in your counting, figure that it falls well within a statistical margin of error and thus make nothing of it. Or you can confidently assume that you’ve counted accurately and that four people who entered didn’t leave the subway. That’s the crack in the sidewalk out of which a weed of a story can sprout and spread.
Who are the four? Are they four isolated individuals? Are they down there by accident or on purpose? Are they down there as a group? As part of a plot? But, you might say, what’s four people down there in the huge labyrinth of the subway? What difference could they make? Maybe you think that the story ends there. But reconsider. Can you ever ride the subway line again without looking around suspiciously, even for just a moment, at the guy with the baseball cap? Or the ordinary businesswoman? Are they among the four? You’ve begun to invent characters out of the regular flesh and blood human beings surrounding you.
Something like this happens in “Text in a Notebook.” Sure, the subway manager is probably paranoid. He takes the thread of an insignificant, chance occurrence and spins of it a whole fabric of possible narratives. But is the difference between he and I one of kind or of degree? What did I do after my marriage broke up? Did I resist the desire to make up a story that would explain it? What if I am interviewing an applicant for a job? I have the application in front of me that gives me the bare facts. I hear the applicant’s version of her own story. Later, at home, or with my colleagues, don’t I begin to invent a story that explains where this individual has come from, how she’s come to arrive at my doorstep and from there, how well she is likely to fit in at the office? The point is that invention isn’t just something that happens to psychotics, or children, or writers. Invention is all around us, proliferating like weeds in the cracks spreading across the routine surface of our lives. You invent. Others invent. I invent. You are part of someone else’s invention, right now, even as you read these words. And perhaps I have become part of yours.
But it’s not even just that we walk and talk and breathe invention like the air around us. It’s also, at least as importantly, that our inventions have consequences as surely as did the invention of one Victor Frankenstein. Can I own up to mine? Will I acknowledge it? Will I care for it? Or will I invent with such carelessness that when my invention springs to life before my eyes – some long forgotten article I’ve published – I flee from it, sending it irresponsibly out into a world where it will surely wreak havoc? Invention, in Julio’s universe, as in ours, cannot be avoided. Invention, in Julio’s universe, as in ours, produces real effects in the world, among them the spawning of further invention. The effects can be bad or good, destructive or healthful, sad or joyful. We can’t guarantee particular outcomes, but we can be sure that nothing good will come unless we mindfully attend to the process of constructing them. This means also that when we are in a position to facilitate the invention of others, we bear the responsibility of creating conditions in which they can invent mindfully.
Detail from Santiago Colás, “C”, 2003 (satin enamel, acrylic, spray, oil stick, and postcards on plywood; 132 x 48 cm.; dimensions of detail 23 x 48 cm.)
Somoza and Morand are old friends, archaeologists who together discovered an idol on a Greek island. That was a few years ago. Now, they still see each other but a distance has grown up between them. Somoza has kept the idol (by mutual agreement) and has, as he promised Morand from the moment they first dug it up, been engaged in an effort “to approach the statue by other ways than the hand and the eyes of science.” But what does Somoza mean by this? In the two or three years since they smuggled the idol out of Greece and returned to the suburbs of Paris, Somoza has kept it in his apartment. During that time, he has sculpted countless replicas of the statue, little by little letting the vestiges of his normal life slip away.
Now, in Morand’s view, the distance between them is partly attributable to the frustrated desire that he supposes Somoza to have felt for his wife, Teresa. But Morand also believes that Somoza has crossed a line in relation to the statue. He explains: “in some sense, every archaeologist identifies himself with the past he explores and brings to light. From that point to believing that intimacy with one of those vestiges could alienate, could alter time and space, open a fissure whereby one could comply with . . .”. But these are just Morand’s thoughts. As he admits, Somoza certainly wouldn’t use those words to describe his aim. Indeed, both agree that whatever Somoza is after, it doesn’t lend itself to verbal expression, “at least not in our words” as Somoza puts it. Hence the numerous moments in their conversation where language gives way to silence, the places where some impossible name has been elided. Hence also Morand’s feeling that Somoza is too much poet and too little archaeologist. After all, when Somoza did talk about his relationship to the statue he seemed to speak “a haphazard language full of allusions and exorcisms moving from obstinate and irreducible levels.” Somoza seems to feel that by repeating the gesture of the original sculptors of the idol he will come to reproduce the relationship with it they enjoyed. Somoza wants to know the function of the statue, not by constructing a representation in words of what it might have been, but by experiencing, with his own body, that function. In other terms, he wishes for a knowledge of the statue and its environment that would not depend upon the duality of knowing subject and known object. Participation.
Now I’ve read enough of Julio to expect that his sympathies probably lie with Somoza. I’ve seen him defend, in relation to Keats, or as part of a general poetics, or in homage to Artaud or surrealism, a mode of knowing that dispenses with the divide between subject and object [Ű31, 81]. I’ve heard Julio relate this form of poetic knowing to a kind of prelogical knowing. I know too from reading Morelli and others that this kind of knowing requires a twisting inside out of language that may get called poetry or literature. So if Somoza seems mad and out of control to Morand, he probably doesn’t to Julio. But it’s also not that Morand is terrible. Far from it. He’s simply a reasonable man. If he’s guilty of something it is a kind of parochialism that prevents him from slipping even a toe into Somoza’s shoes. He’s just a bit too complacent in his reasonableness, too smug in the confidence that he’s on one side of a line and Somoza is on the other. But that is more than enough to leave him vulnerable to the effects of Somoza’s poetry, all the more so as he tries to subsume it within the classificatory schemas of reason.
Somoza invites Morand over. He wants to communicate his achievement of a connection with the idol. The time is