The Other Origin: Cortázar and Identity Politics – Brett Levinson

(from the Latin American Literary Review, pgs. 5-20; 22:44)

The Other Side

"Axolotl" narrates the tale of a nameless man (and perhaps a homeless, family-less and jobless one, given that the story makes no mention of a home, a family or a job), living in Paris, who becomes obsessed with certain salamander larvae ("axolotls") that he observes daily in an aquarium. Eventually, he himself turns into an axolotl. The perspective of the narrative, therefore, appears to be double, as the story alternates between an axolotl’s and a man’s (as well as between a past and present) viewpoint: "Hubo un tiempo en que yo pensaba mucho en los axolotl... Ahora soy un axolotl" (421).

These bizarre axolotls are linked to the Aztecs in many ways. The narrator, in fact, refers twice to the Aztec features of the axolotl’s face. One must note as well that the word "axolotl" is of Nahuatl origin – atl (water) and xolotl (doll, toy, mythical personality) -, and that these salamander-larvae have inhabited the waters of Mexico for centuries. But perhaps the most important connection of the axolotls and the Aztecs concerns the signifier axolotl itself. As the narrator points out, the Spanish word for salamander is ajolote; the French signifier is axolotl. The tale, for reasons which are not at all clear, employs only the French spelling (the narrator tells us what the Spanish word is, but never actually uses it). This decision not to translate into Spanish grows even more curious when we consider the narrator’s use of the Spanish definite article los (as in los axolotl) when designating these larvae. In other words, to refer to the salamanders he combines a Spanish syntax with a French lexicon when he could have avoided the awkward structure by utilizing either los ajolotes or les axolotl(s). Further adding to this mystery, the narrator does not recur to the expected plural French form, axolotls, leaving the "s" out. Of course, "tl" is an extremely odd French combination, and the "tls" (the plural) is even odder. It would not be unusual, then. for a French speaker to retain the singular axolotl as a kind of proper name – a foreign one, of course – since, indeed, in the expression los axolotl a plural article appears with a singular noun; and virtually the only time such a structure is used in Spanish is with family or proper names: "los Smith."

Whether we can come to terms with the above philological oddities remains to be seen. What is sure is the following: the tale makes a deliberate effort to hold onto the signifier axolotl (ajolote will not do), this French word that comes from a distant time/place, and has not evolved, has not changed to conform to the language’s modern phonemic patterns. No doubt Cortázar, in choosing the French spelling, wants to retain the "tl" phoneme, which is extremely prevalant in Nahuatl. Yet in using axolotl rather than ajolote Cortázar also preserves the word’s "x." This "x" recalls a very unusual "x" within the language, the one in México, a word derived from Mexictli, an Aztec war God. "X" of course, while a relatively uncommon Spanish letter, does appear in a number of words; yet its pronunciation is usually "sh" (Mexictli), "s" (tlaxcalteco) or even "cs" (conexión). Rarely is it pronounced like a jota as it is in México or mexicano. In fact, words within Spanish that were once spelled with an "x" – if that letter was or has come to be pronounced as a jota – are most often, in modern times, written with the "j." Indeed, this explains the "j" of ajolote.

Certainly, then, there is something unconventional about the "x" of mexicano, and this unconventionality is signaled by the "x" of "axolotl." But by maintaining the "x" Cortázar not only emphasizes the link between the a-x-olotls in the aquarium and their me-x-icano "origin"; he also emphasizes the lingering presence of the Aztec-Mexica universe within Western modernity. Apparently, however, such a presence is difficult to read or translate. This tells us why it appears as an "x," an unknown. In fact, and as we shall see, "Axolotl" is very much about an "x" structure: not only about crossovers (cultural intersections) and crossing over but also about a pure signifier, an "x," which does not refer to a signified but which instead marks a spot – the spot, precisely, of the axolotls.

In any event, this invocation of the Aztec or Mexica world points up the story’s dialogue with the aforementioned "return to origins" theme. "Axolotl" concerns itself (at least at first glance) with the plight of the alienated (and nameless) man, possibly a Latin American, living in Europe, who comes into contact with a now imprisoned, but once non-colonized, autonomous, "Aztec" being, space and identity – with the roots of Latin America, with a kind of origin: "un remoto seńorío aniquilado, un tiempo de libertad en que el mundo había sido de los axolotl" (426).

Identity and identification are in fact the story’s main focus. Thus, the man-observer indicates that the first time he looked through the glass of the axolotls’ aquarium he immediately identified with the larvae: "comprendí que estábamos vinculados, que algo infinitamente perdido y distante seguía sin embargo uniéndonos" (422). Even though he recognized that axolotls were infinitely far away, the observer felt a secret connection. This impression is reiterated later in the text: "Y sin embargo estaban cerca.... La absoluta falta de semejanza de los axolotl con el ser humano me probó que mi reconocimiento era válido, que no me apoyaba en anologías fáciles" (424). Once more we see that not despite, but because of the absolute distance ("la absoluta falta de semejanza") between observer and "observee," human being and axolotl, modern man in Europe and "premodern Aztec" creature – such unlikenesses aside, the two are "vinculados," tied, extremely near, perhaps identical.

This last citation concerning "easy analogies" and the "absolute lack of similarity" is of particular importance to the story as a whole. An analogy – at least, traditionally – assumes that two distinct or separate beings possess some sort of familiar (even if repressed) resemblance; they are different, but never absolutely dissimilar. How then can there be an analogy of absolutely unlike entities, the man and the axolotl? At least two possible answers surface. The first is that the observer and the axolotl, modern man and Aztec, secretly belong to the same family, in which case the story is unambiguously about the link between identity and origins: about the repressed relationship of the modern (Latin American?) man and pre-Columbian worlds, one in which the pre-colonial subject represents the lost authentic self ("algo infinitamente perdido y distante") of the contemporary, colonized person. Within such a reading the "lack of similarity" is not "absolute" (since the man and axolotl, in fact, are not completely dissimilar) as the narrator himself claims; the narrator’s use of this adjective can be attributed to his initial misunderstanding of the man/axolotl relationship.

The second possibility is that the story develops an alternative notion of analogy, one which is not based upon similarity and difference but solely upon difference: upon the uncanny bond, the strange being-together of unrelated entities. I use the term "uncanny" here because this kind of bond recalls the thesis put forth by Freud in the well-known essay by that name. Indeed, for Freud uncanny moments occur precisely when a person finds him or herself in contact or at one with (at home with) the stranger, the un-familiar or the unrelated entity – a stranger, who is most often the person’s own double. The second feasible reading of the "analogy" of "unlike entities" can be stated as follows: in "Axolotl" the protagonist, eying the axolotl, witnesses the awful return of his own "lost" or repressed double, a double that is both analogous to him (since it is his double) and absolutely un-familiar (not of his family or kind, uncanny: one here thinks of a corpse, which is simultaneously absolutely unlike and perfectly like the living being). This interpretation can be supplemented by recalling the "los axolotl" phrase, where "axolotl" appears to function semantically as a proper name. Is it possible that when the nameless man observes the placard with the word "axolotl" written upon it, he unconsciously beholds his own true, but lost or missing family name (which provokes the ensuing obsession with axolotls), the name of the father, and hence the name of the origin? Is it not also possible that this "true name" is at the same time foreign to him, an unreadable sign (the "axolotl" or the "x" as the narrator’s uncanny name, as his representation or "double"), as if the man’s own roots and name were somehow improper, not his own but those of an Other?

Below, I shall broach these questions, as well as the two opposed readings of the above-mentioned "analogy," more carefully. Now, however, I shall abandon these conflicts and inquiries so as to examine another crucial element of "Axolotl": the manner in which the narrative toys with the discipline of anthropology. Indeed, it is with the precise mind-set of a zealous anthropologist that the man-protagonist directly observes, and desperately attempts to understand, the "indigenous" axolotls, these "cultural Others." At the end of the story (when he is an axolotl), in fact, he confesses that this was his true goal, to know the Other/axolotls more fully, "conocernos mejor" (427). Yet his obsessive observations do not yield the desired knowledge. The reason for this is rooted in the story’s theme of observation itself, of vision – the vision of the axolotls. "Sus ojos, sobre todo, me obsesionaban" (424), the protagonist says; and further down: "Los ojos de los axolotl me decían de la presencia de una vida diferente, de otra manera de mirar" (424). The axolotl, we note from this second quote, is Other, not because it necessarily possesses another way of living, but another way of looking. What distinguishes the axolotl, what makes it different, Other, is its "mirada": how it sees the man. And since it is this look that defines the Other as other, the observer, to familiarize himself with that Otherness, must witness himself from the axolotl viewpoint. He does not need to see the Other nor to see the Other seeing him, but to see like the Other, to occupy the eye-site of the object that he is studying. In short, to truly "see" the Other the man must be the other eye. He must surrender his position as subject-observer of the Other, and become the Other itself.

And this is exactly what the protagonist does. Responding to the cal of the axolotls – in his disturbed state he hears them screaming "Sálvanos, sálvanos" (425) – he forgets his "human side," and moves into the Other’s place: "Sin transición, sin sorpresa, vi mi cara contra el vidrio, la vi fuera del acuario, la vi del otro lado del vidrio. Entonces mi cara se apartó y comprendí" (426). [...] He then later adds that: "Ahora soy definitivamente un axolotl, y si pienso como un hombre es sólo porque todo axolotl piensa como un hombre..." (427).

What horrible message is Cortázar attempting to convey with these last passages? The answer hinges on the questions of knowledge and comprehension, implied by the presence, in these citations, of a plethora of signifiers that are related to knowing, learning, thinking and understanding. The man as observer, it was noted, wants to comprehend the axolotls. Yet he fails to obtain this understanding since he can only observe the creatures from an insufficient, outside perspective. It is suggested that the home of the axolotls, the inside of the aquarium, is the site where the true understanding of this Other is located. The man supposes that while he cannot comprehend the Other due to his removed standpoint, the Other understands itself (or at least this Other understands itself better than the man does). Therefore, if he can become other Other, directly experience the Other’s existence rather than merely observing it, he too will begin to obtain that knowledge or understanding. Moreover, he will come to understand not only this Other, but also himself since he identifies his true self in that Other-axolotl.

We would do well to put the above ideas in other terms: in the eyes of the narrator of "Axolotl" the truth of both the Other and the self is a question of being. Let us recall that the man, as he narrates the story, is an axolotl ("Ahora soy un axolotl"): "Axolotl-ness" is his being. In classical metaphysics. of course, being and truth are intimately connected. Being (in Latin, esse) is the essence that transcends all earthly, and therefore false existence (ente); it is verity and authenticity itself. Being is true being. This explains why, for the alienated man-observer, truth about the Otehr is so associated with being the Other, and why being the self (being who one authentically is) is so tied to true knowledge of the body that occupies the place of this self, namely, the axolotl. The man-observer believes (consciously or otherwise) that he will obtain true self-understanding by understanding the Other; and he will obtain such understanding only by being (ente) this Other that he is (esse).

But Cortázar places his story within this metaphysical framework with clear subversive intentions. In the first place, and as we have already seen, the man’s eventual conversion into an Other-being yields almost no understanding at all; his being an axolotl does not allow him to comprehend the axolotls: "Yo era un axolotl y sabía instantáneamente que ninguna comprensión era posible." Indeed, as the man passes to the other side, he continues "pensando como antes, saber." In other words, what this man comes "to know" through his actual experience as an axolotl is that all thinking, all understanding, all expression ("son incapaces de expresión [427], the man-turned-axolotl says of axolotls) – all knowledge except knowledge of the fact that the axolotls cannot be known – pertain to this side, the side of the man-observer, of the Same, of non-experience. Previously I suggested that "Axolotl" is narrated from two perspectives, that of the axolotl and that of the man. Now, however, we see that the tale can only include one eye-view, one vision: the man’s. For even as the man-observer passes over to the Other’s place of being/seeing, his descriptions and discourse necessarily remain those of the Same: "si pienso como un hombre es sólo porque todo axolotl piensa como un hombre." He can only "comprehend" or "see" his new being (even his new way of seeing) via the "outside," discursive structures of the old one, structures that cannot reach the axolotls. In "Axolotl," in short, there are Others (axolotls), but no Other perspectives, no alternative discourses. The axolotl can speak (he or it appears to be narrating the story, after all), but not as an axolotl. Or to put this in different terms, in the story the locus of enunciation and the enunciation itself, being and expression, ser y pensar (the only activity that the axolotls perform, in fact, is to think: "lo único que hago es pensar" [427]) are radically unhinged.

Cortázar presents us, therefore, with an is, a presence ("Now I am an axolotl") that is Other than every possible form of re-presence or perception. For I cannot overemphasize the fact that, even though the axolotls as such cannot be represented or "known" via any discourse (neither by the man’s nor by those of the axolotls themselves), they are not absences; nor are they exclusions or silences in any strict sense. On the contrary, as signaled by the man’s repeated references to both the piercing, inescapable stare of the axolotls (axolotls cannot close their eyes for they have no eyelids), and to the pain that this stare inflicts upon him, the axolotls are affective, irreducible presences. They also possess a kind of "voice" since their uncanny being places a powerful demand ("Sálvanos, sálvanos") upon the observer; and a demand, a call, is a form of "speech." But the main proplem of the tale concerns neither speech nor presence but, as mentioned, represence, repetition or, to put this another way, semiotics. Why semiotics? Because in semiotic theory since Saussure, a signifier or a sign attaches itself to a signified through repetition. C-A-T refers to a certain furry, domestic animal not for any essential or phenomenological reason (hence Saussure’s notion of the arbitrariness of the sign"), but because people of a given culture once repeatedly affiliated this signifier (or one like it) with said furry creature, and because a cultural convention formed through these iterations. Yet the "axolotl" cannot be re-presented or repeated by such a semiotic system; in the story, as we have seen, all semiotic constructs pertain to the man’s side, which is unrelated to, and hence cannot relay the axolotl side. Thus the axolotl resists integration not only into every semiotics, but into every tradition. (We recall that the word "axolotl" belongs to French, this linguistic tradition, but has not been "translated" into "traditional" French patterns; we recall also that the narrator chooses not to translate "axolotl" into Spanish, as if the word – as such, with the "x" -, could not be integrated into that idiom.) Indeed, a being that cannot be repeated, that is singular, "untranslatable," cannot be properly assimilated into a community since communities are groups that share certain conventions (a sharing which makes communication, community, possible); and conventions, like semiotic systems, come about through repetition, representation. A pure sign, the axolotls, therefore, are as they are: axolotls, an unassimilated signifier. All of which means that in "Axolotl," the a-X-olotl itself, the X literally marks the spot, the sheer, non-conceptual presence of the Other.

But "Axolotl" is not about the plight of axolotls. It is about Latin America, whether or not the man himself is a Latin American. In Cortázar’s writings, of course, the Latin American experience is portrayed as one of radical alienation (see, for instance, Rayuela). Cortázar’s Latin American, in other words, is an axolotl: a being forced to dwell as a prisoner inside alienating Western structures and discourses (even if that person happens to live in Latin America itself) – structures and discourses that this person must nonetheless use if he or she is to live or speak at all. In fact, Cortázar’s Latin American is so profoundly assimilated into Western constructs that this point is easily repressed: the person, having lost touch with his/her otherness, forgets it, and begins to feel at home while inside foreign constructs.

These Western constructs, while no doubt hegemonic, are not homogenous since they harbor a myriad of disconnected, "foreign" fragments of lost histories and times (which explains why so many of Cortázar’s texts are about the traumatic return of these Other times). Thus Cortázar’s interest in axolotls (and in the "x" in México), in these traces of a destroyed Nahuatl/Aztec culture that survive within the modern epoch, while at the same time resisting modern structures. In other words, within Cortázar’s vision of Western modernity, there co-exist various histories: the history of Western modernity plus the ruins of detached Other histories that modernity has managed to crush and/or "house" (assimilate), but not completely eliminate.

Paradoxically, however, Cortázar texts such as "Axolotl" critique (both implicitly and explicitly) all notions of hybridity, synchronism and pluralism. Cortázar, that is, does not believe that the resistant remnants of the past are signs of other cultures still alive within Western or Latin American culture. Indeed, he holds that the odd fragments that occupy modernity are not "cultural" or "historical" at all; yet nor are they transcendental, ahistorical or transhistorical. Instead, they are untimely: historical bits and pieces that are disconnected from all former and current civilizations and histories, all previous, existing and potential re-reprentations (hence the axolotls themselves, which contain vestiges, the "x," of the Mexicas but which, as salamander-larvae, were obviously never actual members of the Mexica civilization).

Only now are we truly prepared to understand "Axolotl." In "Axolotl" an alienated man gets hooked on an untimely fragment, an Other (an axolotl) that he believes is a sign of his lost self, one that he has forgotten or repressed. Through his obsession he is traumatically yanked out of the Same and towards the world of this "Other," a world that now occupies his entire existence. Yet the man’s transformation alters his pre-understanding of this Other: experience with "origins" demythifies the myth of origins. For when the man-observer turns into an axolotl he does not recuperate his former "I," his lost essence. In fact, his understanding of the axolotls as a true self that was lost and might (or might not) be retrieved, turns out to be a fantasy generated by the distance between Self and Other. It was only because he was not an axolotl that he was able to imagine the axolotls as a (lost) property of himself. But by living the fantasy the protagonist voids the fantasy, cuts the tie. As a actual axolotl, he learns that the axolotls are only axolotls, the Other: "Pero los puentes están cortados entre él y yo, porque lo que era su obsesión es ahora un axolotl, ajeno de su vida de hombre" (427).

An equally important aspect of the protagonist’s metamorphosis is one related to an idea that was suggested above: the protagonist is not only like the axolotls, he is an axolotl. The reason that he can draw an analogy between himself and the absolutely distant Other is because he is that Other. If the narrator is a Latin American (but the "if," in fact, is here unimportant: the situation of both the axolotls and the man is analogous to the Latin American situation, whatever the man’s "origins"), he is not only Other than the conquerors (the West); he is also, like the axolotls themselves, Other than the indigenous worlds that the Conquerors conquered. For Cortázar, the transition from the history of indigenous civilizations to the history of Latin America is one of rupture, not of progression ("los puentes están cortados entre él y yo"). Cortázar’s alienated man-axolotl is not Other than he originally was, Other than his former essence, but simply and irreducibly Other: Other, and not otherwise.

- Brett Levinson

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