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cortázar:

house of the bicameral mind

Lawrence Russell | culturecourt.com

Axototl | End of the Game | The Idol of the Cyclades |The Night Face Up | The Continuity of Parks | All Fires the Fire } The Island At Noon | Blow Up (Las Babas del Diablo) (The Drool of the Devil) (1959) | The Southern Thruway (sic) | Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires | Press Clippings | Apocalypse at Solentiname |House Taken Over

§ Cortazar. Big man, tall, six four, lanky in his prime, smoked Gauloise and wore a trenchcoat just like Camus or some film noir agent provocateur, very Left Bank, played a little trumpet along with his favorite jazz records, was proscribed by the Peronistas, so he couldn't go back home to Buenos Aires, admired Castro and Che Guevara, so he took on that look, the black beard and black sunglasses, the South American revolutionary, assigned the royalties from a couple of his late period books to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, had three women, all translators, and the first one was the last one, was with him when he died in 1984, and he did ok for all this, the politics, the exile, the fantasy, the Edgar Allen Poe, the baroque, Fantomas and Borges and all the intellectual baggage that comes with being a fiction writer emerging from modernism, writing in Spanish, all this, and he got famous, babe, he got his poster up on the wall, that movie Blow Up made him hip, even if no one understood it, but it helped, got him translated, made his novel Hopscotch a cult, made him, babe, Julio with the gaucho eyes, a cult.

Julio Cortazar


'But my stories, it’s as if they were dictated to me by something that is in me, but it’s not me who’s responsible.' (Cortazar, Paris Review interview)

So, this Argentinian, what's he all about?

Transformation -- both physical and metaphysical -- is at the root of Julio Cortazar's stories. In Axolotl he describes how a man visits the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, becomes enraptured by the salamanders located 'in the dark, humid building that was the aquarium'.

'I would lean up against the iron bar in front of the tanks and set to watching them. There's nothing strange in this, because after the first minute I knew that we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together.'

In what appears to be a surrealist event, the unnamed man becomes the salamander. In A Leg of the Journey, a story included in his posthumus collection, Unreasonable Hours (Deshoras) (1995), a woman enters an art gallery and becomes part of a painting she's looking at. So despite a late period tilt into naturalism and politics, the formula of occultic transformation figures obsessively in Cortazar's fiction as a narrative device throughout his writing career.

The inevitable transformation of the man into the salamander is both biomorphic and mystical. Like a child who dreams of being someone or something else -- a favorite pet, perhaps, or an adult -- Cortazar's imagination engages the infantile, unshackled by conventional logic or institutional taboo. Most readers will see the influence of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis wherein the hero awakes to find himself transformed into a bug, and a metaphoric event is treated as an actuality. The technical similarity is undeniable, yet the process is different. Kafka's characters are the victims of dreams, whereas Cortazar's characters -- regardless of the dream -- are engaged in an Aristotelian act, where the 'imitation of an action' becomes possession.


End of the Game

This ancient Dionysian idea of acting as a means of transformation and possession is seen clearly in one of his Buenos Aires stories, End of the Game. Although born in Belgium (his father was a diplomat), Cortazar grew up in Argentina, spent his formative years and early adulthood there, so a number of his reminiscence stories are set in the Buenos Aires suburb where his mother had an old house. End of the Game has an autobiographical social realist style that disguises the mystical action that is more obvious in his surrealist stories. Again, the narrator is unnamed, and again is probably an avatar for the author (even if I is female) (which is left ambiguous), at least in terms of sensibility.

'Letitia, Holanda and I used to play by the Argentine Central tracks during the hot weather, hoping that Mama and Aunt Ruth would go up to their siesta so that we could get out past the white gate... our kingdom was this: a long curve of the tracks ended its bend just opposite the back section of the house.'

It's here that the kids dress up, play their game of Statues and Attitudes for the passengers in the train from Tigre that passes routinely at 2:08, and it's here that one of the passengers becomes infatuated with Letitia.

Letitia is the family invalid, suffers from a partial paralysis of the back, which actually helps her strike the poses necessary to play the game. '...she invented a sort Chinese Princess, with a shy air, looking at the ground, and the hands pressed together as Chinese princesses are wont to do. When the train passed, Holanda was lying on her back under the willows, but I watched and saw that Ariel had eyes only for Letitia. He kept looking at her until the train disappeared around the curve, and Letitia stood there motionless and didn't know he had just looked at her that way.'

Ariel -- the man on the train -- has been dropping notes from the carriage window to express his appreciation for the 'theatre' of 'statues'. Naturally, he wants to meet the players, but on the agreed day, Letitia stays home. She sends a note but what she says, we don't know. Perhaps she reveals she's an invalid, a girl who dresses up in her mother's jewelry, is all about camouflage and illusion.

'He was taller than we had thought and dressed all in gray.' The man in gray is a common character in Cortazar's stories, usually a more anonymous figure, perhaps sinister and impressionist, as in Blow Up, the story made famous by Antonioni's film. In End of the Game, the naturalism forces the man in gray to be real, although his name suggests symbolist intent.

'Ariel drew geometric figures in the dust with a stick and occasionally looked at the white gate and we knew what he was thinking, and because of that Holanda was right to pull out the lilac envelope and hand it to him... he blushed while we explained that Letitia had sent it to him, and he put the letter in an inside jacket pocket, not wanting to read it in front of us.'

The next day Letitia decides to resume the game, dresses up in her finery. '...when the train appeared on the curve she placed herself at the foot of the incline with all the jewels sparking in the sun. She lifted her arms as if she were going to do an Attitude instead of a Statue, her hands pointed at the sky with her head thrown back (the only direction she could, poor thing) and bent her body backwards so far it scared us. To us it seemed terrific, the most regal statue she'd ever done; then we saw Ariel looking at her, turning his head and looking at her without seeing us, until the train carried him out of sight all at once.'

Splendid though she is, this time the game is over, as if the pagan revelation is too much for the love-struck voyeur. The next day, 'When the train came by, it was no surprise to see the third window empty....'

This brilliant story, with its primitive theatre and pagan symbolism, demonstrates Cortazar's obsession with ritual acts and their transmorgrifying power. The nature of reality is challenged, because when a cripple can become transcendentally beautiful by striking a pose that is not only an expression of her art but also a consequence of her condition, what then is real? The girl who suffers from paralysis, or the statue in the sun? Both, perhaps, are illusory.

Cortazar: End of the Game


The Idol of the Cyclades

This Dionysian quest for divine possession is brutally dramatized in the surrealist tale The Idol of the Cyclades. Two Parisians -- Morand and Teresa -- and their Argentinian friend Somoza find a small statue of a woman while on an archaeological dig in the 'Skyros valley', located on an unnamed Greek island. Like a Hollywood B-movie, there is considerable sexual tension between the men and the woman... and, as it turns out, also with the statue. While Teresa is married to Morand, Somoza seems fated to come between them. It's Somoza who discovers the statuette:

'(Morand) remembered how Teresa, a few yards off stretched out on a boulder from which she was trying to make out the coastline of Paros, had whirled around hearing Somoza's cry, and after a second''s hesitation had run towards them, forgetting that she had the upper half of her red bikini in her hand. She had leaned over the excavation out of which Somoza's hand sprang with the statuette almost unrecognizable under its moldiness and chalk deposits, until Morand, angry and laughing at the same moment, yelled at her to cover herself....'

So immediately there's a symbiosis established between the modern woman and the ancient female statuette, as if one is a totem for the other in a former life. The imagery and thematic possibility echo the style of Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer Cortazar was certainly familiar with. Yet the mystical transformation -- when it comes -- is classic Cortazarian brutalism. The trio return to Paris, and for a while Somoza drops out of circulation, unable to deal with his feelings for both Teresa and the 'idol'. But they do reconnect. Somoza has kept the statuette, which is not only a proxy for Teresa, but also a means of connecting with the distant, mythological past, that era before the written word that Julian Jaynes calls the era of the 'bicameral Man'.

'...some of these small (idols), we may be confident, were capable of assisting with the production of bicameral voices' (Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind)

'Close to the idol, (Somoza) raised one hand and laid it gently over the breasts and the belly. The other caressed the neck, went up to the statue's absent mouth, and Morand heard Somoza speaking in a stifled and opaque voice....'

Staring at and touching the shape of mystery and beauty stimulates possession and it's through possession that time and space collapse in an occult act where identities merge and swap. Somoza tries to sculpt a perfect replica of the idol and while he comes close, his madness requires a ritual sacrifice. He stripes naked, comes after his rival Morand with a stone hatchet, but it's Morand who survives the combat.

'Crouching down, (Morand) soaked his hands in the blood running from the face and scalp of the dead man, checking his wrist watch at the same time, twenty of eight. Teresa would not be long now.' Indeed. Now Morand stripes off his clothes while 'licking the cutting edge of the hatchet lightly and thinking that Teresa was punctuality itself.' Thus, neither man is immune to the fatal blood spell of the Skyros valley idol. Sex, murder, communion. Like the priest who must appease the sun god, Morand must now sacrifice the thing he loves... or, perhaps, offer himself for sacrifice.

Morand's transformation is perhaps a bit sketchy, as he seems rational compared to Somoza. Yet somehow he is also infected by the mysterious spell of the idol, perhaps as a consequence of his fight to the death, and now infected by the ancient blood lust of the pagan zeitgeist. Despite the brutality, Cortazar leaves the elliptic ending on a note of macabre humor.


This blood ritual as the endgame of fantasy is repeated in the very short story Continuity of Parks. A man sits reading a novel wherein a man and a woman rendezvous in a mountain cabin. The writing is clear and ironic, laced with the familiar cool Cortazarian intellectual humor, the text a post-modern in-joke for the sophisticated reader.

'The woman arrived first, apprehensive; now the lover came in, his face cut by the backlash of a branch. Admirably, she staunched the blood with her kisses, but he rebuffed her caresses, he had not come to perform again the ceremonies of a secret passion, protected by a world of dry leaves and furtive paths through the forest. The dagger warmed itself against his chest, and underneath liberty pounded, hidden close. A lustful panting dialogue raced down the pages like a rivulet of snakes....'

Here again the narrative is a transformation loop, rather like a Mobius infinity figure 8. The reader is reading the story of his own finality, i.e. the man in the objective becomes the man in the subjective. While this sort of narrative can be viewed as a satire of the mystery story, it has to be admitted that it also reveals -- all poetry aside -- the bankruptcy of the puzzle narrative in the post-modern culture.

Does it matter that Cortazar just took this narrative from the dust jacket of Fantomas: Le Mort Qui Tue (Death that Kills) (aka The Corpse That Kills) Or is he to be congratulated for duping the international literati?

Fantomas: The Corpse that Kills


The Night Face Up

An anonymous man leaves a hotel, climbs on a motorcycle, goes for a ride to enjoy the sunshine. When he comes to a long tree-lined street with little traffic, he accelerates, and, 'a bit inattentive perhaps', collides with a woman on a crosswalk, crashes, blacks out. He comes to, is transported to hospital, undergoes tests, is then taken into an operating theatre. The next time he comes to, he's in a dream or thinks he is. 'It was unusual as a dream because it was full of smells, and he never dreamt smells. First a marshy smell, there to the left of the trail (where) the swamps began already, the quaking bogs from which no one ever returned.'

He's now a hunted man -- not by the Parisian police, say, but rather by the Aztecs who want him -- a Moteca, one of their natural enemies -- as a hostage for their priests to sacrifice to the sun god. He drifts in and out of his dream, sometimes in his hospital bed, sometimes in the forest swampland. He goes back to the moment of the crash, falls asleep, awakens to find himself bound and staked to a 'dank, icy stone slab' in the complete darkness of a stone temple prison. The Aztecs have him, and it's not long before they're dragging him up the terraced steps towards the altar.

He struggles to escape, and 'in a single jump' comes out 'into the hospital night' but his escape is only temporary, as he swoons and sees 'the blood-soaked figure of the executioner-priest coming toward him with the stone-knife in his hand'.

Cortazar's narrative continues: 'He managed to close his eyelids again, although he knew now he was not going to wake up, that he was awake, that the marvellous dream had been the other, absurd as all dreams are -- a dream in which he was going through the strange avenues of an astonishing city, with green and red lights that burned without fire or smoke, on an enormous metal insect that whirred away between his legs.'

The transformation here is obvious and its purpose is obvious. Time and space, life and death, are subject to parallel worlds in which events happen in a reincarnating series. Like the protagonist of Borges' famous story, The Circular Ruins, the motorcyclist is merely moving through a series of dreams, sometimes pleasant, sometimes horrific, and always with the possibility that he is subject to someone else's dream, i.e. in this instance, the Aztec executioner-priest's.

The Night Face Up is a grim story. It's both classical and modern, determinist and quantum. Man is trapped in a loop of recurring consciousness of both good and evil, order and chaos, present and past, always trapped in the future of his own futility. The phallic symbolism of the 'metal insect' between his legs evokes a science fiction image of malevolent intent.

'...sometimes he assumes the forms of two human beings at one and the same time' (Fantomas, Book 1, by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, 1911, an early influence on Cortazar)


The Island At Noon

'the island had an unmistakable shape, like a turtle whose paws were barely out of the water'

Is this the most brilliant of Cortazar's bicameral transformation stories? It's certainly one of the most tricky, with its slick blending of the realist and surrealist narrative styles. You have to be alert to catch the transformation moment and admit that grammar can be manipulated for a higher purpose. The exactitude of the imagery and the poetry in the prose dazzle, and the metaphysics embrace the mysticism of geometry.

Marini, an airline steward, first notices the island when crossing the Aegean en route between Rome and Tehran. It seems attractive, a place he might want to take a holiday. Over the next weeks as he continues to fly this route, his obsession with the island develops.

'None of it made any sense -- flying three times a week at noon over Xiros was as unreal as dreaming three times a week that he was flying over Xiros. Everything was falsified in the futile and recurrent vision, except, perhaps, the desire to repeat it....'

Unspoiled by tourists, inhabited by a few fishermen and their families, with pristine beaches, white surf -- Marini's fantasy of Xiros divides his mind like day and night or a circle cut in two. He is in both places at once, here, there, a sentence with two different subjects. Carla, his girlfriend, speaks to him but his mind has him on Xiros. He photographs the island from the aircraft window but the picture is blurred. His obsession mildly impairs his steward duties and the pilots come to refer to him as 'the madman of the island'. He persists, his mind becoming increasingly bicameral as he plots his visit to the island. The fantasy assumes reality as effortlessly as if he has passed through a space-time portal. He meets a fisherman, makes friends with his sons, settles in on the island. He swims, cavorts, realizes he will never return to his former life. His pregnant girlfriend has decided not to abort and will marry a dentist and he is free to stay on Xiros forever.

He lies down on some warm rocks, hears a passing aircraft, looks up, realizes it's his familiar flight passing at noon. The engines cut, and the plane drops vertically into the sea. He dives into the water, swims to the area of the crash, sees only a floating cardboard box... and then, briefly, a hand breaking the surface. Marini goes under, grabs the man by the hair, tows him to the beach. '(He) took the body dressed in white in his arms, and laying him on the sand he looked at the face full of foam where death had already settled, bleeding through an enormous gash in his throat.' While the victim remains unidentified, and the description is ambiguous, the metaphysics suggest that he is a steward and that this steward is Marini.

"We are immortal," says the narrator of another story, A Yellow Flower, then goes on to profile the only exception to the rule. Cortazar likes to tantalize the reader with the possibility. Call it zen, call it quantum, call it science fiction... or perhaps the religious instinct dressed up for the secular Age.


All Fires the Fire

If it wasn't for Cortazar's fluent writing voice, this story might be dismissed as adolescent, a simple juxtaposition of now and then worthy of a comic strip, not serious literature. Yet the surrealist method embraces the primitive and the infantile as a means of channelling through the glossy murk of civilization. Here you might think of Giorgio de Chirico's painting 'Room With A View of the Colosseum', itself a carefully crafted artifact of surrealist crudity. The use of analogue to juxtapose ancient and modern mores as a means of showing that they share a common human sociopathic selfishness and predilection to sadism is like Theatre of the Absurd. The veneer of modern manners is stripped by dramatizing the brutality of sexual politics in a world far removed from tranquilizers and game theory psychology.

Two Roman nobles and their wives watch a gladiatorial combat in some provincial arena. The proconsul and his wife are on uneasy terms because she has desired Marcus, their champion, and the proconsul knows this and has set up his defeat and death at the hands of a giant Nubian retiarius, armed with a trident and a net. Both manage to kill one another, but before the crowd and nobles can exit the arena, they are trapped by a ferocious fire that springs from the oil vats in the lower gallery.

Cortazar uses jump cuts like a movie editor in order to move back and forth between the past (Roman) and the present (Parisian). In the present, a man -- Roland Renoir -- talks to his wife Jeanne on the phone. 'On the line there's a crackling of mixed communications, someone dictating figures, suddenly a silence still darker than the darkness the telephone pours into the darkness of his ear.' This imagery, this symbolism, sets in motion the endgame of the love triangle, like a radio transmission from a distant galaxy that clocks not only time but fate. Sonia, the mistress, has just told Jeanne about the affair. Sonia goes to Roland's apartment, they make love, smoke, and, alas, the unfinished cigarettes start a fire in the apartment as they sleep. A good old-fashioned moralistic tale told by comparison and contrast? The death wish of sexual passion and jealousy lead to an explosive conclusion, a transformation from being to nothingness. While the emotion is timeless, you're not sure about these fires, whether they are ironic accidents or deliberate acts, murder-suicides in the first degree.

(And you might wonder, too, if there is some destinal connection between Marcus the gladiator-lover and Roland, the modern lover. Or between the proconsul, who choreographs Marcus' defeat, and Roland. The montage allows such possibilities without confirming either. Even Irene, the proconsul's fatalistic wife, seems guilty of more than just a secret lust for Marcus. While she will burn to death with her patrician husband and their two friends -- and probably most of the spectators -- she, like Jeanne, might be a suicide, one the incarnation of the other.)

The idea of parallel time-continuums was a favorite subject for other Argentine writers in the post-war period. Not only the high culture Borges was drawn to the notion but also the journalist and graphic novelist Hector German Oesterheld. Oesterheld's now famous adult sci-fi comic strip allegory The Eternaut (El Eternauta) started in 1958 has a time traveller (the Eternaut) who has already been incarnated in many different lives visit the author (Oesterheld) in his office and relate to him a fantastic tale about what is going to happen in Buenos Aires. You might think of H.G. Wells or Coleridge or even Dafoe in this context, authors whose classic works were/are known to writers everywhere. Cortazar was certainly familiar with Daniel Dafoe, as he translated 'Robinson Crusoe' in his early days when working for a Buenos Aires publisher. Oesterheld's Eternaut hunts the time-continuums searching for his lost wife and daughter, space refugees from the alien invasion and nuclear war that will, in the near future, devastate Buenos Aires. Cortazar was later to use embedded comic strip graphics as part of the narrative in his political meta-essay, Fantomas Versus the Mulitnational Vampires (1975).

Both Cortázar and Oesterheld were fans of the Argentinian revolutionary Ché Guevara. Cortázar wrote Meeting, a metafiction about Ché's landing in Cuba to initiate the overthrow of the dictatorial Batista government. A year after Che's capture and execution in Boliva, Oesterheld wrote a graphic biography called 'Ché' (La Vida del Che, 1968) for a Chilean publisher. 'Ché' was immediately banned in Argentina by the junta, and is believed to be one reason why Oesterheld was detained and later made to "disappear" in 1977.


Cortazar: All Fires the Fire


Blow-Up (originally The Devil's Drool): film vs. story

The movie version of Blow-Up marks the beginning of Antonioni's decline as a filmmaker. The messy narrative with its impotent. symbolisms and pop culture asides do no favors for either himself or Cortazar, although sometimes they almost succeed. Only the central metaphor of the photographer trying to unravel a mystery via a series of blow ups of a man in gray remains, and for Antonioni this man is a body, possibly the victim of a murder, not a mysterious man in a car who sits watching a woman and a youth on the tip of an island in the Seine, as in Cortazar's story. While he seems to have understood the mystical possibilities inherent in the story, Antonioni was under the influence of the absurdist style of 50's/60's theatre, in particular Samuel Beckett and his acolyte Harold Pinter. While Tonino Guerro, a seasoned Italian screenwriter is listed as the main writer along with Antonioni, the absurdist stage trickery and Platonic logic is all too evident in the perceptual conundrum presented by the tennis game with no ball. You could argue that it repeats the lesson of the "photo blow-up" or dismiss it as redundant and distracting. While enigma is central to the surrealist way of doing business, as a closing scene it does nothing to advance our understanding of what went down in the park.

The original title of the Cortazar story was The Devil's Drool (Las Babas del Diablo) and draws us closer to the suspicion that 'the man in gray' (gray hat) is a pedophile who is using the woman as a procuress to snare the youth for a threesome or for his enjoyment alone. Yet you just don't know. He might be the woman's husband, tolerating her desire to seduce a toyboy... or, for that matter, the whole situation could be sexually innocent. The youth might be the woman's son... or their son, perhaps estranged, and the event is an attempted reconciliation. The amateur photographer's perception is merely a process of understanding... or misunderstanding. The suspicion is that a crime is being committed, and, like a detective, the photographer is driven by a need to understand it, the why and the wherefore, and to do this, he needs to get closer to the mise en scene. Thus he enlarges the photograph to the point of abstraction and finds himself further away from the truth, but closer to belief. There's an element of madness in Michel's narrative, as if he is replaying an event from a former life, and his blow-up is a Rorschach blot excavating his despair, his guilt, his impotency.

'The photo had been taken, the time had run out, gone; we were so far from one another, the abusive act had certainly taken place, the tears already shed, and the rest conjecture and sorrow. All at once the order was inverted, they were alive, moving, they were deciding and had decided, they were going to their future; and I on this side, prisoner of another time, in a room on the fifth floor, to not know who they were, that woman, that man, and that boy, to be only the lens of my camera, something fixed, rigid, incapable of intervention.'

This is quite different from Antonioni's version of the same scene, the same metaphor. For Antonioni's photog there is no triangle of sinister intent going on in the park, although something sinister emerges later. His photographer, Thomas, is a professional (modelled on the well-known London fashion photographer David Bailey) and he's wandering in the park with his camera, happens to photograph a woman and her male lover frolicing. The woman confronts the photog, demands the film, but to no avail. The discovery of the body in the border bushes is an accident of the blow-ups, a surprise, not something he does to confirm a suspicion -- as in Cortazar's story -- and in fact might be a hallucination created by the developing process. First the blow-ups reveal a man with a gun in the bushes, then another, the body, presumably the lover. The photographer returns to the park at dusk but finds no body. So there is no solution to the mystery, only a confirmation of unreality. It should be noted that this arthouse film was very popular at the time (1967) as its mix of pop culture characters and arcane imagery appealed to the psychedelic preferences of a generation quite willing to believe that "nothing is real'.

Anyone reading Cortázar's story after seeing Antonioni's film would be confused, and see little resemblance, except perhaps in the metaphysical outreach. David Hemmings, who played Thomas the photographer, says the first script he was given was 16 pages entitled 'A Girl, a Photographer, and a Beautiful April Morning which raises the possibility that Cortázar's story was perhaps a later addition to the project. By the time he made Blow-Up, Antonioni had become committed to the auteur idea of improvising films on the fly. Godard was doing it, so why not him? Often the literary property was just an excuse to find financial backing, although in Antonioni's case he did have some use for Cortázar's plot, if not the full cast.

Both artists share a sympathy for an occult solution to the mystery of life. Both use the geometry of art to explore their themes. Both use the surrealist possibility of conscious and unconscious action. But Antonioni's culture is the art gallery, whereas Cortázar's is the library. The difference? Exterior versus interior perceptual processing. With Antonioni, there's always a melancholy sense of something lost -- and you see this in many of his films -- which is why he probably identified with Cortázar, who shares the same sensibility. In both artists, the autobiographical element is always close to the surface, regardless of the disguise.

'Roberto Michel, French-Chilean, translator and in his spare time an amateur photographer...' Obviously Antonioni could identify with being a photographer. As for Cortazar... he was Belgian-Argentinian and a translator.

'I don’t like autobiography. I will never write my memoirs. Autobiographies of others interest me, of course, but not my own.' (Paris Review)

You can laugh this off, of course, because what is his famous novel Hopscotch (1963/66) but a writer's journal jazzed up as fiction: '...here I am a Frenchified Argentinian (horror of horrors), already beyond the adolescent vogue, the cool, with an Etes-vous fous? of Rene Crevel anachronistically in my hands, with the whole body of surrealism in my memory, with the mark of Antonin Artaud in my pelvis, the Ionisations of Edgar Varese in my ears, with Picasso in my eyes (but I seem to be a Mondrian, at least that's what I've been told).' [Julio Cortázar, 21, Hopscotch]


Cortazar: Blow Up (Drool of the Devil)


The Southern Thruway vs. Weekend

They say that Jean-Luc Godard had no knowledge of Cortázar's story The Southern Thruway (La autopista del sur), was given the idea for Weekend (1967) -- traffic gridlock that leads to chaos -- by someone who was aware of a British film production company's interest. Whatever the truth, there is some resemblance between the two expressions, the story and the film, although not in terms of plot or characterization. Godard's film is a political burlesque wherein the action becomes a dystopian expression of what might've happened if, say, Cortzar's short story had become a novel. He goes further than Cortázar in expressing his disenchantment at the level of self-interest and greed in our modern technological societies. Cortázar's story -- while bizarre -- has some humanity whereas Godard's film has none, is an absurdist hymn to barbarity and nihilism.

"You can screw her before eating her if you like"

A trendy Parisian couple, Roland and Corinne, decide to escape Paris for the weekend, stay with Roland's parents in the country. Their Facel Vega sports car is soon caught up in a traffic jam caused by an accident somewhere far ahead. While this is just a nuisance for Roland, it's also an opportunity for him to express himself, so he bullies his way forward driving against the traffic, selfishly smashing into cars, trucks, people, with little regard for property or life. The chaos and tragedy deepen the further he and Corinne penetrate, passing wrecked and burning vehicles, injured people staggering around as zombies, bodies in the ditch, on the road, the whole mess reminiscent of a refugee column that's been attacked while escaping a war zone. Eventually the couple reach 'Oinville' only to discover that Roland's father is dead and his mother wants nothing to do with him. They press on, encounter a group of rock band guerillas who prey on the chaos, robbing and eating victims. Godard's signature black humour is at full-throttle in these scenes, i.e. and "Why disembowel him?" "The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more horror." Et cetera.

No inheritance, no cash, no more sugar-death consumerism, no more brand name handbags, spiffy clothes and snazzy cars. Society has collapsed, the criminal instinct has triumphed, the dialectic clock has chimed.


For Cortázar, his 'hero', his people, his characters are trying to get into the city, not escape it. The narrative is in the 3rd, the POV that of an unnamed engineer driving a Peugeot 404, a large (for France) sedan. They are all strangers before they slow, then creep to a standstill on the highway, enter gridlock, and although some of them bond for survival purposes during the ordeal that lasts days and nights (they lose track of time), they become strangers again when the traffic unexpectedly starts moving in the night. Thus the action is circular, even though the movement is linear.

So, trapped somewhere between Fontainebleau and Paris, the experience changes the engineer. Not only does he fall in love with the girl in the Dauphine, his car becomes the ambulance or hospital for the group of drivers in his immediate vicinity. He has aquired a new purpose and new identity during the ordeal, only to lose it when the traffic starts to move again, separating him from friends and love.

'And on the car's antenna the red-cross flag waved madly, 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 others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead.'

Again, the familiar Cortázarian loneliness, perhaps Oedipal, a maternal separation, a sense of exile, personal, yet universal, an expression of modern alienation. The plethora of cars and their brand names -- Peugeot, Renault, Porsche, Lancia, Skoda, Volkswagon, Caravelle, Volvo, Simca, Anglia, DeSoto, Fiat, Citroen, Mercedes -- seem to be the real characters, the drivers merely cargo being driven to an unknown destination by an army of machines no longer under anyone's control. This story, first published in the mid 1960s, was prophetic, anticipated the traffic jams and commuter congestion that have become a regular feature of all the large cities of the world, be it Sao Paulo or Bejing... or Los Angeles or London... Bombay or Rome, any of them, the nightmare of civilization, the smog, the road rage, freedom won, freedom lost, hysteria, injury and violent death.


'He translated Robinson Crusoe'

As has been noted by just about everyone who has studied Cortázar's fiction, he uses islands as locations, even when it doesn't seem to be so. Blow-Up appears to be in a small park in Paris, not necessarily on an island in the Seine River. It doesn't seem like an island in the Robinson Crusoe sense, alone and separate in a vast ocean, or even an island such as Xiros in The Island At Noon. Yet the location of the story -- understated as it is, and discarded by Antonioni for his film version -- is an essential part of the psychology and mystery of this story. The park is at the tip of the island, where the two arms of the river close, as if marking a point of destiny. This is certainly the case in The Island At Noon and in The Idol of the Cyclades... and, in a more oblique way, in Meeting, Cortázar's metafiction of Ché Guevara's guerilla landing on Cuba late in 1956.

Julio Cortazar

In terms of transformation, Meeting might be the penultimate story in the Cortázar oeuvre, as here Cortázar becomes Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. If you think this is assuming too much, just look at photographs of Julio Cortázar from the sixties. As well, Cortázar was a well-known supporter of the left-wing revolution in Latin America, including not only Castro in Cuba but also Ortega and the Sandanistas in Nicaragua. Also, the Peron dictatorship in his home country of Argentina was a motivating circumstance in his relocation to Paris in 1951. In Meeting, Cortázar's fantasy starts on the implication that he, the narrator, is part of the guerilla landing, then concludes with the revelation that 'I' is in fact 'Che'.



the Black List: Cortazar and surrealism

The Paris surrealists had a 'black list' of books and authors that met their iconclastic criteria... people like de Sade, Lautremont, Roussel, Jarry... and the pulp team of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, creators of the arch-villain Fantomas, a serial killer before the term was used, the category mapped.

Cortázar's narrative debt to the Surrealists is evident when considered against this piece about Fantomas written by Rene Magritte, published in the journal 'Distances', March, 1928:

'He undoes his overcoat in order to wrap it around his left arm, and gets his revolver ready. As soon as he has cleared the door, (Inspector) Juve realizes that his precautions were unnecessary: Fantomas is close by, sleeping deeply. In a matter of seconds, Juve has tied up the sleeper. Fantomas continues to dream -- of his disguises, perhaps, as usual.

'Juve, in the highest of spirits, pronounces some regrettable words. They cause the prisoner to start.He wakes up, and once awake, Fantomas is no longer Juve's captive. Juve has failed again this time. One means remains for him to achieve his end: Juve will have to get into one of Fantomas' dreams -- he will try to take part as one of its characters.'

Dream inflltration is the modus operandi of a number of sinister characters in Cortazar's stories, playing a murderous role similar to the shape-shifting Fantomas: The Continuity of Parks, The Night Face Up, All Fires the Fire, et al.

Magritte: Fantomas Assassin


Fantomas: S'Amuse

Cortazar: Fantomas vs. the Multinational Vampires


Yet it must be said that the Fantomas novels are rough business with their burlesque plots and implausible actions when compared to the Swiss-watch paradigms and rhetorical reach of Cortázar's stories. The Fantomas of 1911-14 is a homicidal maniac, is more of a cultural symptom, an early warning alert for the blood lust unleashed by World War 1, a black humor item for a cynical public who admired the identity-shifting of an arch-villain who could be anyone and no one, and enjoyed the murders of his entitled victims, his grotesque modus operandi and absurd escapes. But then Fantomas became moral, became someone else in the religious universe. He was hijacked by the movies, the comics, and the fantasies of other pulp authors, evolved into a gentleman crook with supernatural powers, a mix of Robin Hood and the Count of Monte Cristo. By the time Cortázar used Fantomas for his mixed media inter-textural collage novella Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires (An Attainable Utopia) (1975), Fantomas could fly like Superman.

From motiveless crime to crime as a fine art. The fiction writer's obsession with crime as a subject becomes a significant part of the translation of evil into art. So why not use Fantomas as a means of explicating the work of the Russell Tribunal investigation into human rights abuses by the dictatorships in Latin America? Use pop culture as a detonator to ignite a subject that many people would just prefer to ignore.

The narrator (Cortázar) has left the Russell Tribunal in Brussels, is at the train station, about to depart for Paris, his home, when he decides he needs something to read on the train. He says, '...there's something about comic books, one scoffs at them but one starts to leaf through them all the same, until one of them, a fotonovela or Charlie Brown or Mafalda, pulls you in... and in this case, FANTOMAS, the Elegant Menace. [An extraordinary episode... the world's culture is burning... See FANTOMAS in a tight spot, interviewing the world's greatest contemporary writers!']

Cortázar actually read this comic on a plane flight to Mexico City, discovered that he was a character in it, along with other illuminati such as Otavio Paz, Alberto Moravia, Susan Sontag... even Norman Mailer has a few lines. The plot is simple: a gang of book-phobes is burning down libraries all over the world -- Moscow, Buenos Aires, Calcutta, Tokyo, Rome... everywhere -- led by "one of the richest men in France" and Fantomas tries to deal with it. Cortazar uses a number of frames from this comic by Alberto Martre (story) and Victor Cruz Mota (drawings) as part of his narrative montage (along with news clippings, movie stills, old illustrations, diagrams... and, of course, transcripts from the second Russell Tribunal). The politics are blunt -- it's mostly America's fault, as it has enabled these Latin American dictators through its explotive multinational corporations and the CIA -- yet you might enjoy this self-referential narrative for its stitching of autobiography, appropriated media, pop culture art and the serious business of murder and torture in Central and South America.

'It's the characters who direct me' (Cortázar, Paris Review)

The self-referential novel Hopscotch (Rayuela) also gives us a strong clue as to the Cortázar narrative method. In scene 115 (Morelliana), he writes: 'Wong, a master of dialectical collages, summed up this passage here: "The novel that interests us is not one that places characters in a situation, but rather one that puts the situation in the characters. By means of this, the latter cease to be characters and become people. There is a kind of extrapolation through which they jump out at us, or we at them.'' While Wong's notion might appear obtuse, it actually describes Cortázar's method exactly, especially for his short stories, where the protagonists invariably carry 'the situation' within like a dream gene for a previous existence.

Hopscotch, which can be considered as a collection of stories on a common theme, allows the reader to follow a suggested sequence or just read randomly, playing a game of chance or what the surrealists called 'cadavre exquis' (exquisite corpse). By engaging the pattern, the reader becomes a character, assigns fate, plays with destiny...and the usual determinist narrative is subverted. Endings are, after all, subject to personal desire.

The later, politicized Cortázar (post Cuban revolution) became more sombre, more existential. In Press Clippings (1979/83) he uses his familiar story-within-a-story narrative although the separation between the two is more spatial than a matter of Time reawakened. It's a story about torture and murder back in Argentina under the military dictatorship, not in the ancient past but recently.

The story-within is a series of press clippings about these atrocities and the story that frames this about the despair of the expatriate sculptor who finds himself making totems of the victims. He unburdens himself to Noemi, a female journalist who he hopes will write on his new works. She's ambivalent but after leaving the studio stumbles (conveniently) into a scene of torture herself after helping a distressed child in a slum alley. While not on the horrific level of the press clipping about the severed hands of a torture victim preserved in a medical jar or bodies being transported en masse for burial using a giant machine shovel, the scene is bad enough -- a bestial Parisian husband has tied his wife to the bed and is methodically scarring her body with his cigarette. The political expedient perhaps justifies this crude use of coincidence for a moral analogue; the incident converts the journalist and provides the material for her press release about the sculptures.

There's no magic in this story, no sense of transcendence or ironic distance. This is the older Cortázar, the politicized Cortázar, where the games of children have been replaced by the games of adults, sleep by insomnia, dreams by reality. The elegant paranoia of The Idol of the Cyclades has now become the horror of Auschwitz, Buenos Aires.


'I will repeat now perhaps more clearly, is that at this time, above all, and very especially in Latin America considering the current circumstances, I never accept the kind of fantasy, the kind of fiction or imagination, that spins around itself and only itself, where you feel that the writer is creating a work of only fantasy and imagination, one that deliberately escapes from the reality that surrounds and confronts him and asks him to engage with it, have a dialogue with it in his books. Fantasy -- the fantastic, the imagination that I love so dearly and that I’ve used to try to construct my own work -- is everything that helps to expose more clearly and more powerfully the reality that surrounds us. I said so at the beginning and I repeat it now as we leave the realm of the fantastic and enter realism, or what is called realism.' (Cortázar, Literature Class, 1980)

So, 'the jackal howls but the bus still runs'. (Cortázar, Apocalypse at Solentiname)

And, on the subject of violence begetting violence:

'I am fully aware that in my country, in our country, the forces that rose up against the army and the Argentine oligarchy committed many acts that we can qualify as excessive. They have behaved in ways that I cannot personally condone, or accept, not at all, but still, within that moral condemnation, I am aware that they would never have reached that point — because they wouldn’t have needed to — if beforehand, with the previous dictatorships (I’m talking concretely about Generals Onganía, Levingston, and Lanusse), there hadn’t been a monstrous escalation of torture, violence, and oppression, which finally led to the first uprisings against them.' (Literature Class, 1980)


house of the bicameral mind

Julio Cortázar's first published story House Taken Over is a classic of bicameral compartmentalization. A couple acquire an old house -- how is never made clear, so they might be squatters, despite being middle class, fond of knitting (her) and French literature (him) -- and while it's big enough "for eight people" they enjoy the atmosphere as it reminds them of their grandparents. One evening 'I', the narrator, hears a sound in that part of the house they seldom enter, except to dust and clean. Without investigating, the narrator closes and bolts the massive oak door in the corridor between the two parts of the house, proclaims to his wife that 'they've taken over the back part.' Who or what are 'they'? The wife doesn't ask, simply resigns herself to living in this half of the house. Both suffer from insomnia. The narrator has uneasy dreams, kicking dreams. Some time later, the narrator hears sounds and voices in their bathroom, decides the unknown tenants have taken over their part of the house as well. It's eleven pm, one hour before midnight. Without hesitation, the couple flee the house, pausing only to 'lock the front door up tight and (toss) the key down the sewer'.

Paranoia in the Edgar Allen Poe part of town? Besides the faint political undertone (this is Peron's Argentina, after all), the narrator's condition can be described as symptomatic of the bicameral mind:

'I never could get used to this voice from a statue or a parrot, a voice that came out of the dreams, not the throat.'

The house is a psychological construction, not an address. While the narrator doesn't elaborate on 'the voice', what it says, and how -- or even if -- it is connected to the sounds and occasional voices that emanate like ghosts, the true tenants of the house. You can suppose the narrator is mad, although fear alone does not make him mad. But something has told him to leave, and the symbolism of the 'two-chambered' house and the reference to 'the voice' suggests a reawakening of the bicameral mind, i.e. cognitive functions divided between one part of the brain which appears to be "speaking", and a second part which listens and obeys.

It is tempting to view a number of Cortázar's stories thusly... and even Cortázar himself as a cipher of the voice. He has said that House Taken Over was a 'nightmare' that he wrote down, and, further:

'... it’s as if (my stories) were dictated to me by something that is in me, but it’s not me who’s responsible.'

('And then there are the dreams. During this gestation period my dreams are full of references and allusions to what is going to be in the story. Sometimes the whole story is in a dream. One of my first and most popular stories, “House Taken Over,” is a nightmare I had. I got up immediately and wrote it. But in general, what comes out of the dreams are fragments of references. That is, my subconscious is in the process of working through a story—when I am dreaming, it’s being written inside there.')

© LR April 2019

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Books referenced, sources consulted:

Hopscotch (Rayuela) 1966, w. Julio Cortazar, trans. Gregory Rabassa
Blow-Up & Other Stories 1963/1967, w. Julio Cortazar, trans. Paul Blackburn
We Love Glenda So Much & Other Tales 1985, w. Julio Cortazar, trans. Gregory Rabassa
All Fires the Fire & Other Stories 1966/1973, w. Julio Cortazar, trans, Suzanne Jill Levine
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires 1975, w. Julio Cortazar, trans. David Kurnick

Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 83. Interview with Cortazar by Jason Weiss
Seven Madmen, w. Roberto Arlt, introduction by Julio Cortazar
Afternoon of the Dinosaur, w. Cristina Perri Rossi, introduction by Julio Cortazar
Literature Class, Berkeley 1980, w. Julio Cortazar, trans. Katherine Silver
Fantomas 1911--14, 32 book cycle, w. Pierre Souvestre & Marcel Allain

Blow-Up, 1967, dir. Antonioni, screenplay Antonioni, Tonino Guerro, Edward Bond, based on the story The Devil's Drool by Julio Cortazar
Weekend, 1967, dir. Jean Luc Godard, screenplay Godard, based on the story (uncredited) La Autopista del Sur by Julio Cortazar
The Eternaut 1957/2015, writ. Hector German Oesterheld, graphics Francisco Solano Lopez

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind writ. Julian Jaynes, 1976

Culture Court | © Lawrence Russell | 1998-2019