The great novelist, short story writer and leftist political militant Julio Cortázar died in Paris thirty years ago today. Or as the French would say, he “disappeared.” To an English speaker the euphemism may seem bizarre, even more so to a Latin American, though only because of an error common to foreigners: viewed from outside, other people’s figures of speech can look odd, dressy or artificial, while we take our own tropes for granted. Is it any more plausible, after all, to say we “pass on” rather than to say we vanish? And how can it be possible to lose your life, as the expression goes? Isn’t it rather everyone else who loses ours?
To consider the strange artifice of such expressions and the hopeless urgency of what they try to convey is to enter the zone of mystery characteristic of Cortázar. Maybe this means that as readers of Cortázar’s work we have to become like foreigners, estranged from language and pulled into weird enchantments, as often happens when, seduced by his deft and delicate prose, we suddenly cross over into another realm. A man reading a tale of murder is killed by one of that story’s characters (“Continuity of Parks”); someone behind a camera is absorbed into his own photo (“Blow-Up”); a man survives a motorcycle accident only to die in an Aztec sacrifice (“The Night Face Up”). None of Cortázar’s stories conveys this mysterious passage into another reality as succinctly as the marvelous opening paragraph of “Axolotl.”
There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.
Cortázar read Edgar Allan Poe as a child and credited him as a major influence on his work. The debt is noticeable in the Argentine’s first published work, “House Taken Over,” with its themes of home, haunting and sibling incest. More generally one sees a shared fascination with death, though Cortázar renders the theme differently than Poe’s more gothic style; death for Cortázar is the cipher for puzzles that fantastic tales alone can approach: the mystery of transformation and metempsychosis, of the unsayable and unknowable; of sheer otherness.
One of Poe’s stories, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” relates in a deceptively straightforward manner an experiment conducted on a dying man. The narrator intends to find out whether the physical process of dying can be suspended when a subject is put to sleep under the influence of mesmeric suggestion. The tale has a horrifying and gruesome conclusion, but the most chilling moment happens earlier, when the narrator asks Valdemar whether he is still sleeping. After a long pause that suggests the man is actually passing away, his mesmerized body speaks the words, “Yes;—no;—I have been sleeping—and now—now—I am dead.”
The shocking effect of Valdemar’s pronouncement is due in part to Poe’s canny use of the present perfect continuous verb tense (“I have been sleeping”) which links the past to the immediate present (unlike the distancing effect of the past continuous I was sleeping). “I have been sleeping” means that Valdemar has been doing so up to now, and his “now” therefore carries the full force of the moment of death itself. Consequently, by immediately following the “now” of Valdemar’s passing, the words “I am dead” are as close as possible to the passage itself, but just over the line, on the far side. As readers we feel this almost viscerally as a brush with death.
Such moments of passage are the crux of Cortázar’s work. However, Poe vexes the issue of this precise moment of death by repeating the “now,” which therefore serves not merely to accentuate the moment but to duplicate it. Here Poe creates another surprising verbal effect, for without this duplication the story’s “now” would remain in the past. Paradoxically, the repetition of the singular “now” emphasizes the presence of the moment of death by marking its rhythm on the page we read, carrying the “now” forward to us, so that we sense the movement in the moment, hearing time as a ticking present in the mortal here and now.
“almost just now…” (“Blow-Up”)
* * *
Roland Barthes (d. 1980) was drawn to Poe’s story and was fascinated by Valdemar’s last words, “I am dead.” The critic calls these the only words a person cannot truly speak.
Jacques Lacan (d. 1981) famously spoke the final words “Je disparais” on his death bed, as if meaning to say the impossible.
Georges Perec (d. 1982) authored a novel titled La disparition, an extended “lipogram” in which there is no letter e. Translated as A Void, it could also be called Death.
Paul de Man (d. 1983 — two months before Cortázar) asks, “Why is it that the furthest reaching truths about ourselves and the world have to be stated in such a lopsided, referentially indirect mode?”
Cortázar (d. 1984) seems to have transposed Poe’s more “direct” line so as to give it the “lopsided, referentially indirect” quality of De Man’s elusive truths. The clue lies in the abruptness of Cortázar’s “now” in the passage from “Axolotl” cited above.
Valdemar: “Now—I am dead.”
Cortázar: “Now I am an axolotl.”