Julio Cortázar

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Cortázar, Julio 1914–

Cortázar is an Argentine novelist, short story writer, translator, and poet. Like his fellow Argentine and mentor, Borges, Cortázar creates a fictional work in which fantasy and reality are indistinguishable. In this bewildering dream world his characters are portrayed as victims both of their delusions and of the fantastic world around them. Cortázar's short story "Las babas del diablo" was made into the film Blow-up. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

David I. Grossvogel

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Like most of Cortázar's short stories, ["Las babas del diablo"] is primarily a tale about the impossiblity of telling and about the frustration of seeing—twin expressions of the ontological dilemma that defines man, for Cortázar, as an irreducible separateness that recognizes similarly hermetic presences, without ever being able to establish more than a surface contact with them, without being able to assimilate them through either perception (sight) or definition (telling). The dramatic tension of Cortázar's stories derives from the exacerbation of their people's attempts to cancel and transcend their ontological sentence. They fail, but their efforts are sometimes of such magnitude as to alter forever the order of the natural world in which they previously dwelled.

Michel is a translator: his job is to understand telling and to make it intelligible to others…. But as a consequence of his unearthly adventure Michel will sense that his plight resulted from a desperation to see beyond the surfaces that limit human sight, and that even beyond existence (for the people of Cortázar are afflicted with the same curse as Beckett's people: death does not still their metaphysical questioning) the problem remains one of telling.

Michel's dilemma is that however he focuses on the objects of his world, those objects remain separate from him and alien; his focusing instrument—the camera, the typewriter, the word—cannot bite on those objects, is irremediably inert…. (p. 50)

As the virulence of the ontological sickness intensifies, the victim's urge to escape into, and possess, his vision increases his need to voice the sense of his proximity to this vision and the sense of his frustration at not being able to cancel the forever remaining distance. He must tell his state of being…. Just as the still photograph subverts the life it intends to reproduce, the very act of telling subverts the substance of what is to be told…. But in Michel, as in so many of Cortázar's protagonists, the ontological exacerbation is sufficient to affect the fourth dimension of his universe; like that of a latter-day Pygmalion, Michel's relentless desire to possess the object of his sight informs the photographic blow-up with the life of that desire and that life is sufficiently powerful to draw him into its own truth. He crosses over to another ontological dimension (retracing, in a sense, the steps of the surrealists drawn into their metaphysical mirror) and, in so doing, forever affects the natural balance of his universe without allaying the need that precipitated the metaphysical calamity.

Whatever else the parable may convey about the human condition, Cortázar's fable comments upon the Mallarmean need and frustration of the writer whose work is tensed between his unbounded vision and his unequal capacity to express it. Cortázar makes a literary point from the very first…. Like Michel, the artist can neither tell as he knows he must, nor can he accept not to tell, or tell inadequately. He must possess through words (if he is a writer) the objects of his world (and his sense of those objects), but the words have an opacity equal to his own ontological encapsulation: he...

(This entire section contains 829 words.)

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cannotbe the other and therefore he cannot tell what that other is, and the failure of telling extends to his inability to tell in its fullest the failure of telling. His attempts end in fiction. The writer is doomed to live out the double anxiety of his failure to achieve or voice the intensity of his questioning, but through a process of world reversal, his anxiety becomes the parafictional substance of his character. Michel's hunger and his agony are those of Cortázar—the writer attempting to deliver himself of that "tickle" in his own stomach and of which Michel is only an irremediable fiction. Michel's hopeless journey is the desperate groping of his creator. (pp. 50-1)

In the Cortázar story, Michel so desires his inadequate artifact to be more than its inadequacy that the artifact is ultimately loosed from the bonds that normally keep it within the phenomenal world and becomes, ironically, the object that possesses him. (In a similar way, the hero of Cortázar's "Axolotl" is so fascinated by the salamanders in the aquarium that his exacerbated need to know them projects him within the object of his desire: it is as an axolotl that he can finally see the desireless part of him losing interest in, and leaving, the aquarium.) When this intensity to know turns the characters into the representation of the one who conceived them (and the reason for that conception), the characters can no longer tolerate the artifact that has come to stand as an opacity between them and their artistic sense of the world. But they must also be the evidence of the unbridgeable distance that persists between artistic desire and expression: they must enter, without ever penetrating it, the object of their creation…. (p. 52)

David I. Grossvogel, in Diacritics (copyright © Diacritics, Inc., 1972), Fall, 1972.

Lanin A. Gyurko

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Many of the short stories of Julio Cortázar present situations that appear to be absurd or fantastic…. These stories of the bestial and the demonic may be interpreted on two different levels. One is the purely fantastic or supernatural, in which time is cyclical and the self has avatar identities. Metempsychoses occur not only between two human souls but between human and animal spirits. Demonic forces are conjured up, sometimes by a weird pagan ritual and at others by a type of extrasensory process or mental telepathy. Yet another, equally convincing tack of interpretation, and one that attests to the complexity of the short fiction of Cortázar, is to view him as a realist author and to interpret the bizarre experiences that plague the lives of his characters as due to the operation of their own disturbed consciousnesses. Their minds are invaded by subconscious impulses which they initially can suppress but which finally increase in power and overwhelm them. Thus the world of the short stories of this modern Argentine author becomes one of delusions, hallucinations, and nightmares—powerful fantasies that at times have the strength to kill and that frequently destroy the minds of the afflicted characters. If seen as inhabiting a realm constantly invaded by the supernatural, Cortázar's characters are pawns of fate, suborned by demons that they struggle against but whom they are compelled to obey. But if viewed in realistic, psychological terms, in most instances Cortázar's characters destroy their own selves. Fate becomes an inner force, the relentless action of the obsessed and tormented consciousness.

Most all of Cortázar's characters are prone to absorption into fantasy worlds because they are narcissistic, socially alienated, and emotionally unstable. They have no strong or meaningful outer lives to counterbalance the awesome power of their delusions. These individuals are studies in deficiency. Many lack will, courage, professional role, social relationships, and, often, even a name. (p. 988)

Fantasy worlds are experienced with a conviction and an intensity that make them real for the characters. External reality, on the other hand, recedes to the level of the unreal. (pp. 988-89)

Cortázar's narrative art is one of paradox, ambiguity, and ironic reversal. Throughout his short fiction there is a subtle blending of reality and illusion, nightmare and waking consciousness, man and beast, self and other, present and past, terror and humor, myth and fact, art (visual, verbal, musical) and life. Neither time nor space, psychic identity nor social role remain certain. In many stories reality is a mere façade that masks the demonic….

The protean quality of Cortázar's world is particularly evident in the schizophrenic nature of many of his protagonists. (p. 989)

The unstable identities of the characters are often given a structural expression within the stories. Some are narrated in constantly shifting panels of present and remote past, reality and nightmare. The protagonist of "El otro cielo" rotates between experiences within the bourgeois world of Buenos Aires in the 1940's and adventures within his secret fantasy zone of Paris of 1870. His imaginative life is narrated with the same if not greater sense of authenticity as is his life in the real world. The story "La noche boca arriba" constantly oscillates between the twentieth century identity of the protagonist as a victim of a motorcycle accident and an oneiric self as an ancient Moteca Indian being pursued by Aztec warriors as a victim for blood sacrifice. The delirious mind of the guilt-stricken girl Wanda in "Siestas" confuses memory and nightmare, perception and hallucination. The molester with the hand of wax, initially a nightmare, finally materializes for the stricken girl, who has been driven insane. The hellworld created by the solipsistic consciousness is stylistically dramatized in many of Cortázar's narratives through a third-person indirect interior monologue or modified stream of consciousness technique. "Bestiario," "Las armas secretas," and "Siestas" combine this technique with sentence-pyramiding at the climactic moment of the narrative. The bewilderment and terror of the characters are strikingly conveyed through use of this onrush of thoughts that endows the narratives with high dramatic tension.

Many of the narratives use the labyrinth as the symbol par excellence of the mind in crisis. In Cortázar's first major work Los reyes (1949), a dramatic dialogue that is a variation on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, the labyrinth is not only a physical structure but also a symbol of the mind. (p. 990)

In addition to the labyrinth, another factor in many of the narratives that contributes to their air of unreality is that the protagonists are often artists—writers, photographers, musicians—or they are endowed with febrile imaginations easily influenced by artistic expression. Yet, ironically, the creative experience turns out to be a destructive one for most of the characters. (p. 991)

A third factor that undergirds the unreality of Cortázar's stories and which emphasizes the fatalism of his vision is his use of classical myths…. Cortázar also uses myths of destruction and of blood sacrifice in his novel 62: Modelo para armar (1968). The will of Juan is negated by his being situated within a mythic time of misfortune and terror. He is compared with Acteon, torn apart by the hounds of Diana for having dared to look upon the goddess while she was bathing. Diana is the frigid Hélène, adored by Juan but who herself is a victim. Hélène is also linked with Iphigenia, the daughter sacrificed by Agamemnon. (pp. 991-92)

The fantasies of Cortázar's characters can be categorized into two major kinds, both predominantly negative: destructive and ironically redemptive. The destructive fantasies of the characters have their basis in fear, guilt, jealousy, or a thanatos instinct. Most of them initially are subconscious and are manifested in dreams and nightmares, but they rapidly become conscious and pervade the waking hours of the characters. These obsessive fantasies undermine the will and the integrity of the protagonists and often lead to their insanity, death, or both. Ironically redemptive fantasy can itself be divided into three types: premonitory, deceptive, and positive but unrealizable. Premonitory fantasy always adumbrates disaster or death. It is ironically redemptive in that although the characters are warned, often repeatedly, of their fate, they prefer to dismiss or to suppress these adumbrations. Instead they nurture another form of fantasy—their own illusions of self-exaltation. While destructive fantasies are afflictive from the start, deceptive fantasies initially seem to hold the promise of self-transcendence for the characters….

Deceptive fantasies, initially reinforcing the characters, turn destructive. Positive fantasies, which do not change, are visions of paradisiacal worlds, most often on the conscious level of reveries or daydreams. Marini in "El otro cielo" nurtures his dream of an island paradise; the narrator of "Silvia" is entranced by the vision of the beautiful and enticing dream girl. These positive fantasies act as a compensation for the identity or fulfillment that the characters are unable to find in the real world. Detaching themselves from emotional involvement with others and shunning a professional reality that they see as tedious, constricting, and incapable of being changed, they become passive rebels, withdrawing into their own solipsistic paradises of the imagination. Yet they cannot achieve salvation through submersion in their fantasy realms. The delight, wonder, exhilaration and sense of freedom that they experience are all fleeting. At the end they are defeated from without by an adverse and dominating reality that often leads to their brutal disillusionment. (p. 992)

Destructive fantasies are most often the result of guilt feelings that work on the febrile imaginations of the characters. (p. 993)

Destructive fantasies are also a manifestation of the thanatos instinct that afflicts many of Cortázar's characters. The creative search that Johnny Carter in "El perseguidor" consciously undertakes for a higher plane of existence is a desperate reaction to a more powerful, subconscious urge to destroy himself….

In many of the stories of destructive fantasy, the nightmares and delusions of the characters are linked with a past that is primitive, savage, and demonic. The maniacal Somoza in "El ídolo de las Cícladas" deliberately conjures up the primitive spirit of blood sacrifice that is the goddess Haghesa. (p. 994)

Like destructive fantasies, premonitions serve to underscore the determinism present in Cortázar's fictional world. Premonitory fantasies in some instances have a diabolical power of their own—Hélène in 62: Modelo para armar, Alina in "Lejana" and the recluse in "Relato con un fondo de agua" experience visions that not only foreshadow their fate but that impel them toward actualization of it by their insistent and alluring quality. (p. 995)

It is ironic that many of Cortázar's protagonists who seek liberation through their fantasies are finally abased or enslaved by them…. The deluded Alina Reyes at the moment of unity with her double feels that she is liberating herself. But at the end of her experience she remains imprisoned within the identity she has loathed, dominated by her masochistic impulses and also succumbing to madness, a state that she has predicted for herself.

The attempts made by these characters to gain the salvation through fantasy that they cannot achieve in the real world always collapse…. Positive fantasies, like deceptive and destructive ones, are undergirded by irony and loss.

Fantasy in Cortázar is a complex, paradoxical phenomenon. Many times linked with the demonic, it also acts as a moral force, deflating vanity and destroying pretense. It often compels the characters to acknowledge or to confront a reality that they have refused to accept. (pp. 995-96)

Fantasy often represents truth. Although frequently seeming to be antithetical to the personality or life-style of the character, it often reflects his inner or subconscious life. In "La caricia más profunda," the delusion that the protagonist suffers of slowly sinking into the ground while neither family nor friends note any change, is but the grotesque exaggeration of his strong feelings of social alienation. The failure of these outsiders to see his abnormal physical state is symbolic of their unwillingness to comprehend him psychologically. At the end of the story his fantasy becomes their reality. Although his fiancée previously could not see any difference in him, now she cannot see him at all as she stands above her suitor who has sunk entirely into the ground….

Fantasy in Cortázar is both communal or contagious and intimate. Often the porous, unstable identities of the characters facilitate the transference of delusion. (p. 997)

Cortázar's art has a subtle ethical basis. The negative fate of almost all of his characters demonstrates the danger or the impossibility of giving oneself up to fantasy worlds which hold only the spectre of salvation. The fantasy consciousness many times is the result of characters who wish to gain fulfillment through exalting the self rather than through meaningful relationships with other human beings. But the fantasy paradise created by the narcissistic self either is unsustainable or it becomes converted into a hellworld….

At times characters withdraw into self instead of communicating guilt or anguish to others. The fear of humiliation keeps them from confiding in one another. But, ironically, their fantasies increase in strength precisely because they are repressed instead of exorcised. Self-isolation instead of diminishing the problem renders the solipsistic self more vulnerable to defeat. (p. 998)

Cortázar's characters cannot gain redemption either within reality or within fantasy. Self-centered characters who are frustrated in their relationships within the real world and who readily become drawn into a fantasy zone are those in 62: Modelo para armar. In reality, they cling to inauthentic or meaningless relationships—Juan with Tell, Nicole with Marrast….

Lured by the promise of freedom, happiness, and self-exaltation and fulfillment, the characters of Cortázar give themselves over to fantasy realms. Yet the inevitable result of this thrust within—into reverie, dream, and delusion—is disillusionment, insanity, and, sometimes even death. The most genuine relationship found in Cortázar, one grounded on a reality of sharing and of mutual concern, is that between Talita and Traveler in Rayuela. Both characters gain fulfillment, redeeming the self not through narcissistic expansion, as Alina Reyes, the protagonist of "Carta" and the narrator of "El otro cielo" attempt to do and fail, but through self-negation and selfless love. (p. 999)

Lanin A. Gyurko, "Destructive and Ironically Redemptive Fantasy in Cortázar," in Hispania (© 1973 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), December, 1973, pp. 988-99.

Roberto GonzáLez EchevarríA

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It would be a naïve and predictable undertaking to show that self-referentiality occurs in Cortázar, since Hopscotch has already become a classic of self-referential writing. But it is precisely in self-referentiality that the mythology which I intend to isolate manifests itself…. [Self-reflexiveness] is a regressive movement, a circular journey back to the source. In literature self-referentiality is a return to origins in order to take away from conception its claim of originality, of constituting a single, fresh moment of beginning, an ordering principle and principium. Rather than the joyful game that it is often taken to be, self-referentiality is a deadly game in Cortázar, a violent ritual where Cortázar is at stake. Los reyes, the first book that he signed with his own name (as is known, an earlier work had appeared under a pseudonym), presents, under the guise of the Theseus myth, this ritual. By the reenactment of this ritual, Cortázar's writing labors to define itself, to cope with the opposition of the individual/original versus the general/collective, in short, the issue of generation. Who writes?

The most superficial consideration of Los reyes immediately leads to the issue of individuality and origin. The very appeal to classical mythology, to the dawn of Western literary tradition, is suggestive of a concern about the beginning of writing. The recourse to classical mythology is in itself hardly original, but rather a characteristic of the modern tradition: Nietzsche, Freud, Joyce, Pound, Unamuno; all take recourse to classical figures. In Latin America there is a strain of classicism of this sort that runs from Lugones and Borges through Reyes, Carpentier and Paz. It is not a neoclassical spirit that leads these modern writers to the classical tradition, since they do not imitate classical models, but instead (particularly in Nietzsche and Freud) a philological quest for a mythology of origins…. There is throughout Cortázar's work a recurrence of classical motifs and figures that answers to this general philological trend.

All myths, as we know, appear in many versions; but if one reads the most complete account of the Theseus myth, that of Plutarch, one is struck by the confusing number of contradictory accounts extant of this particular story. The charm, in fact, of Plutarch's rendition is his juggling of so many different versions in one and the same text, versions that cancel each other and blur or abolish altogether the possibility of a master version. To read Plutarch is to realize that the myth, while organized around a certain implied narrative core, is not a fixed text but a set of superimposed narratives. Thus we already have in the myth chosen by Cortázar the outlines of the question of conception: while being set at the dawn of Western tradition that classical mythology represents, the myth cannot claim originality in the sense of constituting a single source. (pp. 549-50)

What we find in Los reyes is … necessarily not a version but a subversion of the myth of Theseus. To begin with, as Cortázar himself has emphasized on many occasions, his Ariadne gives Theseus the clew only in order to free the Minotaur, once the monster has killed the hero…. Los reyes contains a "double tragedy." Instead of a triumph, Cortázar's version offers a mutual defeat: Theseus's quest leads not to heroic distinction, but to indifferentiation. The Minotaur, who would represent such indifferentiation and thus be the victor, is dead. Theseus's pursuit of individuation is thwarted from the start: he constantly recognizes himself in others, not only in the Minotaur, but also in Minos. What is emphasized in Cortázar's version is the violence that Theseus commits against himself in defeating Minos and killing the Minotaur. Instead of the erection of individual presence, Theseus's regressive voyage creates a vacuum at the center; the Minotaur is dead, Theseus has fled. (p. 551)

Whereas previously the labyrinth was inhabited by the "lord of games" (the Minotaur), it now stands as an empty gallery of winding walls. Theseus's victory has led to that other labyrinth suggested by Borges: the labyrinth of total indifferentiation, the desert, the white page. The I, the you and the we float in a space without perspectives and dimensions, as interchangeable masks of primeval chaos and apocalypse.

This confrontation of the monster and the hero constitutes the primal scene in Cortázar's mythology of writing: a hegemonic struggle for the center that resolves itself in a mutual cancellation and in the superimposition of beginnings and ends. The very image of man unborn, the Minotaur is the possessor of the immediate but naïve knowledge of man before the Fall. His speech is the incoherent, symbolic language of a savage god. Theseus, on the other hand, is not only a dealer in death, but is the very image of death. His linear, cogent language is temporal, discursive—it is discourse. In his enclosure the Minotaur speaks a perishable language that is not temporal but that is reinvented every day. The words he utters are, even if momentarily, attached to the things they represent…. If in other versions of the myth the birth of reason, morals or politics is at stake, what we have in Los reyes is the violent birth of writing. The catalogue of herbs that the Minotaur "tastes" is a series of disconnected words, without syntactical and therefore temporal structure, linked to their individual origin through their "stems." By killing the Minotaur, Theseus attempts to replace the perishable sound of individual words with the linear, durable cogency of discourse, a cogency predicated not on the stems of words but on their declensions, on the particles that link them in a structure whose mode of representation would not be sonorous but spatial—writing. The irony, of course, is that once writing is instituted, Theseus does not gain control of the labyrinth but becomes superfluous and flees. Because writing cannot be dimmed like the stars with each dawn, because it is not a memory whose traces can be erased, Theseus is not needed to reinvent it, as the Minotaur reinvented his nomenclatures every day. Writing is the empty labyrinth from which both the Minotaur and Theseus have been banished.

This primal scene appears with remarkable consistency in Cortázar's writing. I do not mean simply that there are monsters, labyrinths and heroes, but rather that the scene in which a monster and a hero kill each other, cancel each other's claim for the center of the labyrinth, occurs with great frequency, particularly in texts where the nature of writing seems to be more obviously in question. (pp. 551-52)

The title of "All Fires the Fire" is drawn from Heraclitus and suggests the indifferentiation obtained when all things return to their primal state and ends and beginnings resolve into one. The story is in fact two stories that reflect each other, being told simultaneously. (p. 552)

As in Los reyes, there is no victory at the end of "All Fires the Fire," but rather a mutual annihilation. The fight between the Nubian retiarius and the gladiator is resolved when both fall dead upon each other in the sand. The mutual killing and the sand, which suggests the desert, prefigure the fire that kills everyone at the end, the fire that destroys the arena and which also levels the apartment building where, centuries later, Roland and Irene have fallen asleep on each other, like the dead gladiators, after making love. The stories merge at the end, not only on the level of the action but also at a conceptual level; love and war, presumably opposites, mingle to evoke the topic of the ars amandi, ars bellandi. Like the two gladiators and the lovers, the two stories have a common end that abolishes their difference and returns the text to the indifferentiation of origins—all texts the text. (p. 553)

Cortázar plays [his] philological game, more often than has been suspected, to undermine the notion of individuality. A clear instance of this … is Francine in Libro de Manuel, who so obviously stands for France and French values that she becomes an ironic abstraction. Not as obvious, though here the literary device is much more traditional, is Andrés, the protagonist of that same novel, whose name means, of course, everyman, or man in general. One might further note in this connection that the o plays a key role in the names of many of Cortázar's characters: Nora, Wong, Oliveira, Roland, Romero, Roberto. That o, or zero, is the grapheme that designates an absence, a dissolution of individuality, a sphere demarcating nothingness. (p. 555)

It is not by accident that Cortázar's mythology of writing, as I have represented it here, should bear a Nietzschean imprint, since it is a Nietzschean problematic that seems to generate it. "Who writes?" is an essentially Nietzschean question. The struggle between the Minotaur and Theseus is analogous to that between Dionysus and Apollo in The Birth of Tragedy. In "The Pursuer" this Nietzschean quality is particularly evident. Johnny, whose musical instrument is a direct descendant of the Dionysian aulos, exists as if in harmony with the vast forces of the universe—with truth and actuality—and suffers as well as experiences joy for it. Bruno, on the other hand, the Apollonian seeker of light, deals in illusions; his aim is to domesticate Johnny's savage wisdom. The birth of tragedy, according to Nietzsche, is generated by the confrontation of these two figures, a birth that signaled the victory of Dionysus over Apollo, for tragedy could only emerge when the god of reason spoke the language of the god of music. In Nietzsche there remains a vestigial theodicy that confers meaning to the death of the hero. It would be reassuring to be able to say the same about Cortázar. But the analogy between the birth of tragedy and Cortázar's version of the birth of writing can only be carried so far, and beyond that point is where Cortázar emerges. Nietzsche, still the philologist in this early work, traces a curve that represents the birth of tragedy and its gradual decline, a decline provoked by the counter-offensive of Apollonian powers. Not so in Cortázar, where, as we have seen, each confrontation leads to a mutual cancellation, each conception carries with it its concomitant death. Writing in Cortázar must be born anew in each text; the whole of writing must emerge with each word, only to disappear again—not an eternal return, but a convulsive repetition of construction and deconstruction. A formal reflection of this might be found not only in the heterogeneity of Cortázar's longer texts, but also in their reliance on dialogue.

Cortázar emerges, then, at the point of the cancellation, of the negation. He 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 Cortázar's production, given that each begins and ends in a question so fundamental as not to be transferable from one to the other, but must rather be repeated in each text and in each reading—a kind of spasmodic eschatology. Only the double thrust of the question can be retained. Holistic criticism is not a process of accumulation whereby details are gathered, stored, to construct with them the image of an author, but instead one where the impossibility of assembling the fragments in a coherent whole can provide a glimpse of totality.

There is an ultimate meaning to Cortázar's mythology of writing that belies its negativity, one that is performative rather than conceptual. What Theseus's self-reflexive quest shows is that literature, in the long run, cannot say anything about itself. The countermodernist position that decries literature's purity, its refusal to signify something other than itself, fails to recognize that, on the contrary, literature is always having to signify something else, and to implicate someone else. And indeed here we are reading, talking, writing about Cortázar, or better yet, reading, talking, writing Cortázar. Minotaur, Theseus, Johnny, Bruno—we as readers also drift into our own textual journeys, to turn reading once more into the ritual confrontation where you and I and we share for one moment, in each other, the illusion of meaning. (pp. 556-57)

Roberto González Echevarría, "'Los reyes': Cortázar's Mythology of Writing," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 548-57.

Martha Paley Francescato

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It is always Oliveira, Juan, Andrés that we hear about [in studies of Cortázar's works]. Why not La Maga, Hélène, Ludmilla? Or is the reader supposed to accept the term "man" as meaning "human being," which would also include woman? I don't think so. When Cortázar refers to the "new man" he means precisely that: man. And the term does not include the woman, although Cortázar himself has insisted he refers to both the man and the woman. On the other hand, why not only "new man"? A writer—a man—who writes in a world dominated by men, does not have to give woman equal importance. Or should he? In the course of the following discission, I propose that we forget Cortázar the man. All references will be to Cortázar the writer. And in Cortázar's fictional world, I want to try to understand, and to emphasize, the actions and relationships of the characters, men and women—and children. Yes, we must not forget the latter: there is also Manuel, whom everybody wants to help get into a different cycle, at the same time salvaging for him some remains of the total shipwreck. Manuel—the newest new man.

As for La Maga, it is not in her head that her center lies; she is always clumsy and absentminded: "Even Perico Romero had to admit that, for a female, La Maga really took the cake." For a female. On the one hand, the treatment given to her is condescending; on the other hand, Horacio frankly admires her. Horacio's search cannot exist without her, in the same way that he later needs Talita. Although the two women act as Horacio's Vergil, the protagonist, the axis and center of the action is still Dante, Horacio, the man. (p. 590)

Hélène [in 62: A Model Kit], on the surface, is … emancipated, sure of herself, admirable. When the Tell-Juan-Hélène triangle is completed, she too becomes an object, and incredibly, she is happy in that role…. An obedient object. Is it possible that, deep down, Hélène wishes a man to put her in her role as an object, which—who knows?—makes her feel more of a woman? And this woman is precisely the one who is apparently stronger, more independent, less insecure and more decided.

While Juan "objectifies" his two women, perhaps helping them, in his way, the other masculine characters of 62 give us other visions of women: "'Women are always blood-thirsty,' said Calac with a background of grunts of approval from Polanco and my paredros"; or "'There is nothing like women,' says Marrast, 'whether a heart is beating or not, the only thing they see is a gold lock.'" (pp. 590-91)

It's all right [that Marrast pronounces all women bitches]: Marrast is drunk; he is a Frenchman…. But why "bitch"? Why are all women bitches? Just because he is drunk, sad, in anguish? The fact of being, of being a man, implies that the woman is a bitch: "a man because of bitch only because of that."… (p. 591)

According to Marcos [in Libro de Manuel],

Women don't lack the ability to exert themselves, but they tend to apply it to the negative, that is to say that when they don't like something, or everything goes wrong in politics or in the kitchen, then they are capable of such rage, such indignation, such eloquence that you would laugh at Stokely Carmichael. They have their motor accelerated the wrong way, I mean that they are champions when it comes to putting on the brake, I don't know if you follow me….

Another reference that Andrés makes on this subject shows a paternalistic tone, the assuredness of a man who knows women well and can explain their behavior: "I, for instance, don't expect a woman to go crazy over a painting by Max Ernst or over a musical piece by Xenakis; they have their own metabolism, brother, and besides, how are we to tell whether at bottom they are not more enthusiastic than we are, only that you shouldn't confuse exercises with emotion."… That is, one shouldn't expect from women certain reactions that belong only to men. (p. 592)

Woman, in her established and accepted role, is more an observer than a participant; she is more passive than adventurous, and much more repressed than man in expressing herself…. Marcos observes that, with the exception of the Chilean pico, which is a rare example of masculinization, all the Latin American or Argentine terms for the male sexual organ are feminine in grammatical gender. This linguistic peculiarity could partially explain man's aggressive feelings. The fact that the part of him that makes him a man should be designated in feminine terms could explain an unexpressed resentment, a grudge that he holds against woman. All women, even a man's mother, are therefore guilty of feminizing his virility.

Women take a step forward and are placed in a more salient position in the two most recent works by Cortázar. In "Homage to a Young Witch" (1972) the writer discovers Rita Renoir through a road that leads him to the world of the comic strips. In that world he discovers Valentina, yes, "pretty Valentina, Valentina all thighs and breasts, of course I'm joking and I'm not placing you on the shelf of Emma Bovary and not even Scarlett O'Hara."… Valentina shares a special section along with other heroines such as Barbarella and Phoebe Zeit-Geist, but she is obviously above them, in the same way that Rita Renoir surpasses them all. Cortázar, without having even seen her personally, already admired her "for intellectual reasons," having seen some photographs in a magazine which led him to say to himself "but then this woman, this consumer's object from the Lido and the Crazy Horse."… Then he goes on to describe the experience of seeing Rita Renoir on a stage, a shuddering experience in front of an uncensored body, while she danced and made love to an invisible devil…. As he is witnessing the most daring of stripteases, the writer feels the birth of the new man through this experience: "The man, yes, old emblem of the phoenix rising from the ashes of an error of twenty centuries; yet no longer another phoenix but a different bird, another way of looking at oneself."… (pp. 593-94)

Rita Renoir surpasses shy Valentina: "Rita Renoir, sick and tired of the conventional striptease, goes beyond the apparent limits of the erotic toward the obscene, knowing that this road against all convention is equivalent for her and, hopefully, for others, to the abolition of the limits, to the denunciation of its deepest lie."… It is a question now of trying to understand what is happening on the stage if something of the old man has been destroyed, of learning to love the body in its entirety, of learning to look at it with the look of the new man. But which body is it we are looking at? It is the body of the woman, even though the writer mentions "our body and all bodies." It is the body of the woman on the stage which has motivated the writer to express what he has witnessed, to find the new man this time through an erotic experience. As a conclusion to the text, Cortázar says: "I don't like easy praise, I'm just saying that, since two nights ago, I have a respect for Rita Renoir that I don't always have for many women who are dressed from head to toe."… The writer feels the need to communicate his experience to the readers, to the male readers especially. It is not a question of women's being passive females or of their being shocked by the description or of their not understanding it. It is not that. I simply ask: Can a woman feel a rebirth as a "new woman" after such an experience as the one narrated, or is this rebirth reserved only for men?

We also find another woman in Cortázar's recent Fantomas contra los vampiros multinacionales. Because of the mysterious disappearance of books and the burning of the libraries all over the world, Fantomas gets in touch with the greatest contemporary writers. The narrator wonders who they are. The answer lies in an order Fantomas gives to his secretary Libra. (Once more, the roles fit in with tradition: the master is a man, the secretary a woman; the master commands, the secretary obeys.) The greatest contemporary writers are Julio Cortázar, Octavio Paz, Alberto Moravia and Susan Sontag. Although listed last of the four, at least a woman is included among the best writers. And when she happens to be the only one who has found out the true conspiracy, the men do not understand what she is talking about. They need to arrive at the discovery of truth through reasoning; Susan has arrived through her own means (intuition?) before anything else. The men, although they do not understand, accept what she proposes to them. "The matriarchate makes itself felt and I obey," Julio explains to Alberto. Woman does not need to explain her actions, and man does not require her explanations. It is the obedience to a group that every day is asking for more of what rightfully belongs to it; screaming more and more loudly, it makes itself heard, and it is the one entity that can find the truth.

At the end of this narration there is a small blond boy sitting on the curb. Like Manuel, he symbolizes the utopia that can be fulfilled in the future, the newest of new men, with the morning sun shining on his blond hair, a new man in the dawn of the new day. And the woman? (pp. 594-95)

Martha Paley Francescato, "The New Man (But Not the New Woman)," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 589-95.

Malva E. Filer

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

Hands are the members of the human body most actively involved in the individual's psychological and emotional life. They are a source and instrument of pleasure; they can give love and affection. They can also, however, hurt and kill. Within the individual, popular tradition has identified the right hand with the rational, the left with the irrational or instinctive aspects of the psyche. From there it is a short step to having a hand represent one of the conflicting forces that strive to achieve control of the self. The literary possibilities of this inner conflict, as a subject, are without boundaries, for this is the main preoccupation of any human being. And Cortázar has found many imaginative and daring ways of expressing this conflict in his fiction. (p. 595)

In Cortázar's fictional world [a] routine life is the great scandal against which every individual must rebel with all his strength. And if he is not able or willing to do so, extraordinary elements are usually summoned to force him out of this despicable and abject comfort. In this respect it would be enough to recall "Casa tomada" (The House Taken Over) or "Carta a una señorita en París" (Letter to a Young Lady in Paris) from Bestiario. On the other hand, "Tema para San Jorge" (Theme for Saint George) from La vuelta al día shows his contempt and hatred for routine. In Historias de cronopios y de famas Cortázar expresses his rebellion against the objects and persons that make up our everyday life and the mechanical ways by which we relate to them. At the same time, he cannot help admitting that it is very tempting to accept this world, already organized for us, and to respect the established function of each one of its objects. The five fingers that destroy the man with the blue pullover [in "No se culpe a nadie"] seem to perform a role equivalent to the materialized obsessions or doubles in his other stories. What is attacked is the imprisoned, mechanized or overly domesticated self. Only here the attacker is a part of the individual's own body, and the punishment is nothing less than total destruction.

Hands are very noticeable in Cortázar's novels, especially Rayuela and 62. The hand, for Oliveira, would intercede to provide an escape from the limits of reason and find access to the "center," the object of his desperate search…. Chapter 76 of Rayuela makes insistent reference to Pola's hands. Oliveira had not had a chance to find out her name, when Pola's hands were already the object of his obsessive attention. In fact, Oliveira meets Pola through her hands. And here again we find the idea of the hand as intercessor; "You moved that hand as if you were touching a limit, and after that a world against the grain began."

The introduction of Frau Marta in 62 is also made through references to her hands: "From an early stage our attention had been fixed on Frau Marta's hands…. Those hands had ended up by obsessing us." There is a similarity between the description of Frau Marta's hands "riffling through an ancient black purse" and Pola's opening her purse, which gives Oliveira "the feeling that the clasp is guarding against an entry into a sign of the zodiac." In both cases the hands symbolically open the way to some kind of mystical experience. (pp. 597-98)

The obsession with hands, clearly stated in 62, finds a new expression in "Cuello de gatito negro." The situation includes, however, some significant new elements. The inner conflict is seen from outside, through the main character, whose only role is that of a catalytic agent. This time it is a woman who presents us with a split self. Her hands move on their own, totally free of any control or inhibition, causing her extreme anguish and embarrassment. (p. 598)

If we try to summarize the different roles that hands play in Cortázar's fiction, we find that they seem to symbolize instinct, intuition, imagination and, in general, the irrational. Their presence is connected with different attempts at liberating the individual from the limitations of reason, moral convention and the mechanization by routine. However, the liberation of instincts which the author's characters have rationally advocated, particularly in Libro de Manuel, is nevertheless a source of anxiety at a deeper level. In fact, there seems to be sufficient reason to believe that Cortázar's characters are torn between the conscious desire to free their repressed instincts and the intensive fear and distrust of anything instinctive and irrational. They want to break the bars built by reason and morals but are at the same time extremely fearful of doing so. The struggle within the self often leads, as is shown above, to different degrees of aggression and self-destruction. If the interpretation proposed here were to be accepted as correct, it would help us to understand why the hand in Cortázar's fiction is an ambivalent if not altogether threatening presence. (p. 599)

Malva E. Filer, "The Ambivalence of the Hand in Cortázar's 'Fiction," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No, 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 595-99.

David William Foster

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

One of the outstanding characteristics of [Libro de Manuel] is the blending of fictional narration and journalistic clippings, based on the organizing motif of a sort of baby-book for a revolutionary child compiled as the legacy of his parents and mentors. The novel moves back and forth between being the process of compilation and being the baby-book itself. The result is a noteworthy blurring of the distinction between fiction and documentation, using the materials of popular culture, both highbrow and yellow journalism.

Cortázar's present effort [Fantomas contra los vampiros multinacionales] is an even more radical step and bespeaks eloquently the concern of the contemporary writer in Latin America to produce a literature that addresses itself to the masses rather than to the educated elite, without being simply a modish and chic exploitation of big-market mass culture. Fantomas is a historieta both in graphic format and in narrative texture. It incorporates cartoons that directly, cleverly and satirically imitate large-selling strips such as Superman or Batman (both examples of American cultural imperialism that have been widely denounced in Latin American). But the cartoon strips that appear in the text contribute to the second-order configuration of a comic book which uses such drawings along with other graphic material and narrative text to make up a unified if defiantly ageneric text. Moreover—and it is in this sense that the structural features of the nueva narrativa are present and attest to the serious preoccupations with literary composition—the text narrates a series of events that occur in the "inner" comic book text as well as in the "outer" reality of the text that describes the former….

[There is] clever satirizing of the Fantomas figure and, in what really amounts to the same context, of the Western writer who is too bound up with his elitist cultural models to be able to distinguish between writing about the problems of the people and writing for and at them. Cortázar's incomparable blend of demythifying humor and a slang that deflates the most serious of cultural pretensions is the major narrative vehicle.

Fantomas is basically documentary in nature and reminds one of the valuable role played by Supermachos and Los agachados in Mexico in the consciousness-raising of their mass audience. (p. 66)

David William Foster, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.


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Cortázar, Julio (Vol. 13)