The Uses of Disenchantment
"Cortazar's genius here lies in the knack for constructing striking, artistically 'right' subordinate circumstances out of which his fantastic and metaphysical whimsies appear normally to spring." So says critic Donald A. Yates on the back cover of the Cortazar collection Blow Up and other Stories. The idea of subordinate circumstances is partly what gives his metaphysical whimsies their uncanny gravity, as though Cortazar doesn't want to create a world but gently uncover the 'real' one all the better to reveal its potentiality. In a Paris Review interview, Cortazar believed that over the years his stories became less fantastic because he thought that more and more life mimicked fantasy, as if echoing a famous Philip Roth comment in the early sixties that fiction was being outstripped by the events in contemporary life. Yet Cortazar has little in common with Roth, saying in the Paris Review that he would never write an autobiography and that he has no interest in exploring his life, no matter if occasionally he drew on bits of his own experiences for writing his stories and novels.
However, rather than seeing this as an issue of autobiography or its avoidance, maybe it is more useful to think in terms of character or situation, and that while Roth is a writer of people, and focuses on assertively adult behaviour, Cortazar, as we'll see in a small number of the tales from the collection Blow Up and other Stories, is much more inclined to describe events with an uncanny precision, with a perspective closer to that of a child. When he says in the Paris Review that he can visualise every aspect of a scene before writing it and that he peoples the scene, this would seem to be spatially oriented narration, a narrative approach where the unusual doesn't come from idiosyncratic psychology, but much more from a behavioural playfulness towards storytelling meeting the prosaic nature of the real. At the beginning of 'Bestiary' the narrator says "between the last spoonful of rice pudding with milk (very little cinnamon, a shame) and the goodnight kisses before going to bed, there was a tinkling in the telephone room and Isabel hung around until Ines came from answering it and said something in their mother's ear." This is thoroughly prosiac. It is here also perhaps where Cortazar's uncanniness comes from: a vividly realised yet, as we will discover, not actually very realistic space. One uses the uncanny as Freud utilises it. This is not merely that something is frightening, but that within what scares us lies familiarity: "the uncanny", Freud says, "is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known and long familiar." Now what is not known can be shocking, but what is known and yet unfamiliar within its familiarity can pass for uncanny. Thus deja vu is uncanny because we sense that what we are experiencing has been experienced before; the waxworks at Madame Tussaud's can be uncanny in that we know that they are not real people, but the figures resemble the actual people they are based on closely enough for us to feel that at certain moments they might be those very people. In the former instance the past seems to enter the present, and in the latter, the unreal intermingles with the real. Temporal and perceptual familiarity leads to uncanny feelings.
Often Cortazar's stories search out the familiar detail within the unfamiliar story, so that though setting proves vital he is not at all interested in realism. The real will serve the uncanny sense that reality is temporally, spatially and, as a consequence, perspectivally out of joint.
If we return to 'Bestiary', one notices the irrelevant detail that seems to contain wider significance - the sort of detail in a realist work that would give authenticity to the tale. To note that the family at the beginning of the story ate pudding shortly before going to bed would be enough to locate us in the story, but Cortazar adds rice pudding with milk, and in parenthesis also says "very little cinnamon, a shame". Though Cortazar says in The Paris Review that "the great lesson Borges taught me was economy", Cortazar includes quite deliberately many details that might seem extraneous within the context of the tale, yet not at all within realist fiction, within the sort of naturalist prose Zola so exemplified and where spaces and places, people and events were of such significance to justify the plausibility of what is told. Cortazar offers the detail to counter the plausibility and to arrive at the uncanny.
For example in 'Bestiary', the story is essentially realist in its detail and fantastic in its telling, realist in its manner of description, fantastic in the behaviour of the characters in relation to a tiger that strolls around the house the central figure Isabel stays at during the summer. "The bathroom was two doors away (but in side doors through your rooms so that you could go without checking beforehand where the tiger was), full of spigots and metal things, though they did not fool Isabel easily, you could tell it was a country bathroom, things were not as perfect as in a city bath."
The bathroom is explored in detail but the tiger reduced to a parenthesis: a fictional sense of deliberate misplaced priorities that can lead once again to the uncanny. If we have noted the significance of temporal dislocation in deja vu, and the realistic nature of the unreal in waxworks, a further sense of uncanniness can be achieved by making primary narrative necessity secondary. Often such an approach can lead simply to the humorous: think of a visual gag in a film where a character is desperately trying to swat a fly in the foreground while we see in the background an encroaching lion. However Cortazar is looking neither for the humorous, nor even the surreal or the absurd, but quite specifically, it seems, the uncanny. Yet of course in all four instances - the uncanny, the humorous, the surreal and the absurd - the displacement of primary narrative elements subordinate to secondary elements is often present. If in surrealism vital to Andre Breton and others was the significance of the unconscious that did not respect the usual hierarchies pertinent to cause and effect, and that could lead to free associations that would undermine primary narrative, this was partly because primary narrative could not find a foothold within the surrealist domain. If for example one shows as Luis Bunuel does in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie a character waking up from a dream that we have taken to be real where he and his friends have all been shot dead, this is surreal but it is not uncanny. The absurd, likewise, often seems to possess a displacement of priorities and shows the irrelevance of cause and effect. In an essay on Kafka, Eugene Ionesco believed, "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose...cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots man is lost: all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless."
Yet we are saying that Cortazar in the short stories upon which we are concentrating is not especially humorous, surreal or absurd, but chiefly uncanny, no matter if in various interviews including one in Diacritics he happily acknowledges surrealist influence. Now Freud notes when writing on the uncanny that the German word "'unheimlich' is obviously the opposite of Heimlich ['homely']...the opposite of what is familiar, and we are tempted to conclude that what is 'uncanny' is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar. Naturally not everything that is new and unfamiliar is frightening; however, the relation is not capable of inversion...Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny." In relation to surrealism, meaningfulness comes from the free-associational nature of the unconscious, while in the Absurd, taking into account Ionesco's comment, it stems from the meaninglessness of everything and consequently the lack of hierarchy in anything. If Cortazar insists in the Paris Review that "my notion of the fantastic is closer to what we call reality [it is] because reality approaches the fantastic more and more," this not however due to lack of meaning or unconscious meaning, but the segueing of reality and fantasy that is consistent with the cognitive dissonance, the double take of consciousness, towards what is real and fantastic. As we read 'Bestiary', the uncanniness resides a great deal in how the family deal with the tiger in their midst as they react to it not with the desperate fear one might expect, but with fear nevertheless: "It was almost always the foreman who kept them advised of the tiger's movements; Luis [the uncle] had the greatest confidence in him, and since he passed almost the whole day working in his study, he neither emerged nor let those who came down from the next floor move about until don Roberto sent in his report." What makes it uncanny is that the family's response is simultaneously appropriate and inappropriate: they intelligently avoid a tiger in their midst, but the midst isn't the jungle but their own home. If they were in a natural habitat we might understand that people would not kill the animal but be careful to avoid it, but in the house in which one lives?
In 'At Your Service', the uncanniness becomes manifest when the narrator goes to someone's house and looks after their dogs. Later in the story a person she gets to know at the house dies, and Madame Francinet is asked to pose as the young man's mother. While those who are paying her to play the role expect her to do so with the suitable outpouring of emotion, Madame Francinet finds that the tears she offers are very real, as if coming from a place that the actual situation would demand. Certainly she was very fond of Bebe, but she also hardly knew him, and she seems to find her own emotional response not at all insincere but, again, uncanny. This is not a humorous moment of false tears, nor an absurd situation where she realises that whether it is someone she loves or barely knows the feelings are all the same; it is instead a role she plays as an actor who finds not only the depth of character in the performance but also the soul of themselves in playing the role. If in 'Bestiary' one feels the double-take of inappropriateness in the reaction to the tiger; in 'At Your Service' the inappropriateness resides in how we are to take this woman who so easily falls into the emotional role that she is paid to play.
In various interviews, Cortazar talks of the importance of childhood, and that one of the problems leaving this state is the fixity of adulthood, the fixity of possessing what seems like an assured identity, the very identity we believe to be present in Philip Roth's quite deliberately egocentric novels - from Portnoy's Complaint to Everyman, The Dying Animal to The Human Stain, no matter the absurdist dimension to The Breast, where the central character turns into the titular mammary, or the mental deterioration of the eponymous character in Sabbath's Theatre. Cortazar is suspicious of the fixed point of view: the categorical character in a categorical tense, and opens 'Blow Up' with this very doubt. "It'll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman with the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces." Here the narrator talks of trying to tell a story that is about capturing fluidity: "Strange how the scene (almost nothing: two figures here mismatched in their youth) was taking on a disquieting aura. I thought it was I imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity." As the narrator explains how he watched two people in a square on the Seine in Paris, so Cortazar gets so lost in the permutations and possibilities his very grammar almost fractures, the story's variables too great: " The boy had come onto the tip of the island, seen the woman and thought her marvellous. The woman was waiting for that because she was there waiting for that, or maybe the boy arrived before her and she saw him from one of the balconies or from the car and got out to meet him, starting the conversation with whatever, from the beginning she was sure that he was going to be afraid and want to run off, and that, naturally, he'd stay stiff and sullen, pretending experience and the pleasure of the adventure." Can the photo reconstitute things in their true stupidity? Can it not capture at least a singular grammar if not meaning by courtesy of being a very mode without grammar? 'Blow Up' is of course one of Cortazar's most famous stories not least because of the film Michelangelo Antonioni made from it in the mid-sixties, but it also astutely locates a writer fascinated with the problem of the fixity of meaning and preoccupied by space. If a writer cannot help but laboriously detail the space he wishes to describe, and must find the appropriate grammar in which to locate that place (is it past, present or future?), does the photographer not need only to take a photo to resolve both problems?
Let us try and make sense of two of the tenets we see in Cortazar's work (the interest in space and the fascination with childhood) and their link with the uncanny through comments from Bruno Bettelheim and Jean Piaget. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim says "like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children. At the age when these stories are most meaningful to the child, his major problem is to bring some order into the inner chaos of his mind so that he can understand himself better - a necessary preliminary for achieving some congruence between his perceptions and the external world." It is this very lack of congruence Piaget examines in The Child's Conception of the World, where he says "in an earlier study of child logic we also met at the outset the problem of the self and reached the conclusion that logic develops as thought becomes socialized." Central to the importance of fairy tales for Bettelheim is that they allow for this socialisation; yet we might want to propose a title here for Cortazar that reverses the Bettelheim/Piaget problem: the uses of disenchantment. However this interest in 'disenchanting' wouldn't be because the world doesn't make sense: the absurd problem Ionesco offers. It would be that the socialised sense being made undermines the possibility of the uncanny; it makes the world seem more secure and normal than it happens to be. When Cortazar says in Paris Review that he feels there is more fantasy in his work because there is more fantasy in reality does he offer it as praise or criticism of the world, and might he wonder whether only a radical art can attend to this presence of the fantastic? When he insists in both the Paris Review and Diacritics that he works without any plan, that he writes without knowing where the work is going, is it not the antithesis of an entertainment industry that knows exactly where it is going: that no matter the fantasy in fiction and films, it lacks the uncanny dimension of surprise? The enchantment becomes too commodified and gets absorbed into conventional rather than unconventional uses. Cortazar seems to be looking for the fantastic that does not socialise; a logic that does not assure us of our place in the world but calls that place into question.
To get a better sense of this 'disenchantment', let us look finally at two further stories in the collection, 'Axolotl' and The 'Pursuer'. In the former the narrator goes to Jardin du Plantes in Paris and watches the fish in the aquarium. There he notices the axolotl, and feels it somehow apt that he starts watching them intensely everyday. "There's nothing strange in this, because after the first minute I knew we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together." Later the narrator says, "Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility." He also then acknowledge that they weren't completely immobile: "the gill contraction, the tentative reckoning of the delicate feet on the stones, the abrupt swimming (some of them swim with a simple undulation of the body) proved to me that they were capable of escaping that mineral lethargy in which they spent whole hours." By the end of the story the narrator is an axolotl amongst axolotls; his insistent empathic stare results in a reversal where he is inside the aquarium looking at the man he was, staring at him from outside the glass, while inside he notices other axolotls clearly like him: capable of thought but trapped within fish form. The story is weaved together by words refusing the normal: strange, mysterious, remote, unfathomable, translucent, obscurely: as if saying do not settle into the story as fable; remain aware of the tale as realist allegory, as a story that says something of our condition, and its strangeness. It isn't the enchanting fable Cortazar offers, but the disenchanting allegorical realisation of our own often limited existence, of traps of our own making.
In 'The Pursuer', a story about a brilliant Jazz player Johnny, Cortazar's writer narrator talks at one moment of genius. "I've gone through life admiring geniuses, the Picassos, the Einsteins, the whole blessed list anyone could make up in a minute (and Gandhi and Chaplin, and Stravinsky), like everyone else, I tend to think that these exceptions walk the clouds somewhere, and there's no point in being surprised by what they do." However with Johnny he is surprised. "Johnny's no genius, he didn't discover anything, he plays jazz like several thousand other black and white men, though he's better than any of them..." The narrator later adds, "I really feel like saying straight off that Johnny is some kind of angel come among men, until some elementary honesty forces me to swallow the sentence, turn it around nicely and realize that maybe what is really happening is that Johnny is a man among angels, one reality among the unrealities that are the rest of us." In a reversal not unlike that in 'Axolotl', Cortazar wants to refuse, in this instance, the comfort zone of genius, for the strangeness of a gift without explanation. At one moment the narrator mentions Johnny's playing, "...there was what seemed to us a terrible beauty, the anxiety looking for an outlet in an improvisation full of flights in all directions." It might be a phrase that sums up Cortazar's own work, a means of expression which does not assume the work can be readily contained by the sort of socialisation and rationality evident in Bettelheim and Piaget's comments. "Cortazar is one of the few novelists", Martin Seymour Smith says in Who's Who in 20th Century Literature, "to have been fruitfully influenced by Kafka". They indeed share a certain reversal of enchantment; the need to explore the fable through denying Piaget and Bettelheim's epistemological and moral rite of passage, to stare instead into a hard to place abyss.
© Tony McKibbin