Axolotl

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Axolotl, a short story written by Julio Cortázar, first appeared in the Buenos Aires magazine Literaria in 1952.

Contents

Synopsis

The short story is told through two windows of time: the past and the present. The narrator begins with a succinct introduction of a period of his life in the recent past that has seemingly revolutionized his identity: “now [he is] an axolotl”. He then returns in time in a retelling of the circumstances under which he arrived at that state. Biking leisurely in the Paris spring to Jardin des Plantes, he introduces himself as a frequent visitor of the animals – as “friend of the lions and panthers”. But on this particular day, his usual proclivities are no longer satisfying and he surveys the aquarium without interest until he is drawn by the axolotl exhibit. From this juncture on, the narrator is captivated by these small aquatic animals. He starts going to the Jardin at least once per day to the nine specimens and comes to connect with them on personal and psychological levels. He depicts in extensive detail the features of one of the axolotl, not only attributing to them humanistic features, but also in one instance becoming one of them, as the point of view shifts perceptibly to first-person plural. Eventually, it was clear that the fascination has become an obsession. He simultaneously admires, pities, and fears them. The axolotl become his confidantes and they, his; he finds himself empathizing with and understanding them. By this point, the narrator has already descended too far down the path that eventually leads him to an inability to distinguish his own existence with that of the axolotl. He passes through the glass screen of the display and becomes physically merged with the creature. The story ends with the narrator speaking about himself in a third-person as an axolotl – “for good now” – speculating the thoughts and desires of an old human acquaintance, in whom the axolotl places hope that he will remember and write about them.

The Axolotl

The Axolotl is a very strange creature. In the story, it becomes the object of obsession. The narrator first becomes acquainted with them through an exhibit in an aquarium. After having seen them that day he rushes to the library of Saint-Geneviève and consults a dictionary. He learns that they exist in larval state and that they are a species of Mexican salamander of the genus Ambystoma. Beyond this, he states that he is not interested in knowing anything else technical or biological about them. However, it is strange that a man who penetrates glass and merges beings with the axolotl would not want to know more about them.

The axolotl, without the presence of a trapped human psyche, is a bizarre creature all on its own. Most creatures when they lose a limb, no longer recuperate it. Not so with the axolotl. Axolotls have the unique ability to regenerate or regrow whole limbs once they have been sloughed off, bitten or otherwise separated from the body.[1]

The axolotls are also unique in their life cycle. Most amphibians, like frogs, spend a certain period of their lives in water as larva, before developing lungs and legs and growing into their adult form. Axolotls, however, remain in their larval form all of their lives, they do not develop eyelids, protruding eyes or any other land characteristic aside from rudimentary lungs used in conjunction with their larval gills and skin pores.[2]

An interesting fact that relates to the story is that axolotls are described as neotenous.[3] Neoteny is often described as a "backward" step in evolution. This backward step refers to the fact that axolotls were initially terrestrial, but with time lost the ability to survive on land and reverted back into water, gills and all.

In the story, the narrator also displays a certain type of neoteny. He begins life as a man, a complete terrestrial being with full human capabilities. However, through his obsession, he looses his human capacities and reverts into a lower state. The man in the story, in a bizarre play on evolution, finds it advantageous to devolve back into an aquatic being.



Analysis

The Narrator’s Transformation from Human to Axolotl

In Axolotl, Cortázar illustrates the quietly astonishing process by which the main character is increasingly absorbed into the mind of the axolotl and eventually denounces his human life for that of an axolotl. As a retelling of what has already occurred, the narration is a juxtaposition of the narrator’s hindsight and his attempt to capture in detail the images and movements related to his interaction with the axolotls. He justifies the regularity of his visits to the tanks holding the axolotls by citing that he had known that “[they] were linked.” He emphasizes the strength of this connection by describing the passive and seemingly obligatory way by which he has been “detain[ed] [since] that first morning.” In contrast, his possessiveness over the axolotls signifies the willingness and easiness with which he sinks deeper into their world. At a point within the piece, seemingly when the narrator has become well-enough acquainted with the physical nature of the axolotls, the narrative perspective switches to that of an axolotl, but it is unclear whether the narrator is citing what he believes to be axolotl thoughts or his mind has actually merged with that of the axolotl. He comes to perceive that he is able to verbally communicate with them, as he responds with “words of advice” when he senses their distress. His empathy for the axolotls is apparent in the “muted pain” he feels for their “hopeless” predicament. The more time he spends examining the axolotls, the more he becomes like them: “watching, immobile next to the glass.” He exerts much effort to “understand” the axolotls, but recognizes that “no understanding was possible... outside the tank.” This is a pivotal point. Here he realizes that he is no longer a mere spectator of the axolotl world, that he is already a part of it; he has “metamorphosed into [an axolotl] with [his] human mind intact.” From thereon in, the narration is in the point of view of an axolotl representing the thoughts of the collective axolotl consciousness in first-person plural, whereas the human who visits the aquarium is a detached outsider, whose visits are less frequent and whose presence is now “alien.” The “bridges” that connected the human to the axolotl are “broken,” as he is an axolotl “for good now.”

Depiction of the Narrator: The Mental Health Perspective

According to the PubMed Health, schizophrenia is “a mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, to think logically, to have normal emotional responses, and to behave normally in social situations.”[4]
Much of the main character’s thoughts and behaviors as revealed through the narration-most of which is in first person—could be at least in part be explained by this psychological illness. From a pragmatic standpoint, the entire premise of the story—that a human eventually comes to believe himself to have metamorphosed into an amphibian—could be explained by his inability to differentiate between the real and the unreal events in life. It could be illness, made more severe by the passage of time that makes him so unbalanced. Even before the narrator’s encounter with the axolotl, his state of mind is questionable. For example, it could be discerned that he has the propensity to ascribe humanistic qualities to animals: the “sad” lions, or even the “banal” fish. He even calls himself a “friend” of the former. Furthermore, the narrator’s incapacity to have normal emotional responses and social interactions is portrayed by his lack of care for the aquarium guard’s perplexity and irritation. He sees nothing strange with his constant visits to the axolotls. A major symptom of schizophrenia, delusion, can be gleaned from the narration via the main character’s fantastical renderings and his ability to “communicate” with the axolotls in an aquarium tank. Another piece of substantiation to this theory is the main character’s frequent catatonia. The axolotl’s are described as unmoving creatures, tiny statuettes. The narrator himself becomes a statue, for hours engrossed in just the single action of watching them in their unmoving state. The socioeconomic status of the narrator, as assumed from his apparent lack of job, family, or friends, strengthens the interpretation that he is an untreated schizophrenia patient.

Other medical explanations for the narrator’s behaviours could be autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. There have been numerous instances in which an autistic individual is documented to be better able and more likely to make emotional and social connections with animals, and the narrator’s regular visits to the zoo could be a piece of evidence that supports this speculation. This could also be accounted for as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder: repeated behaviors – compulsions – that are carried out due to the need to manifest obsessive thoughts [5]It could be that the narrator’s obsession with the axolotls that drives him to stare at them several times a day.

Ambiguity: Reality and Fantasy

It is hard to be certain whether Cortázar meant for Axolotl to be interpreted as a realistic portrayal of a man who surrenders to his insanity or as a fantastic tale of a man who goes through a transformative experience and is reborn, perhaps both figuratively and literally, as an aquatic amphibian. Perhaps one could combine the two perspectives. Nevertheless, the ambiguity between the real and the unreal could be viewed as the literary basis of the short story.


Themes and Motifs

Immobility

One of the most prominent characteristics that the narrator assigns to the axolotls throughout the story is stillness.[6]In fact, he ascribes his initial attraction to the axolotl to their “quietness.” The only instances during which the axolotls are associated with movement are when the gills contract and when a foot stirs [7]. Moreover, the comparisons of the axolotls to inanimate objects, such as “statuette[s] corroded by time” and “Chinese figurines of milky glass,” reinforce the depiction of the axolotls as motionless, or even lifeless. The narrator’s actions – or lack thereof – mirror this phenomenon. The immobility of the axolotls could be a sign of their existence on the life/death interface, to which the narrator’s humanity gradually approaches.

Metamorphosis

The boundary between humans and axolotls is blurred to a great extent in Axolotl, both physically and metaphysically. For instance, the axolotl is compared to a Chinese figurine, which is made in human likeliness. It is also illustrated as having “handsome eyes so similar to [those of humans]” and “fingers with minutely human nails.” The narrator also attributes many human motivations and intentions to the axolotls, for example, they are said to be “secret[ive],” “indifferen[t],” and “judg[mental].” The axolotl is thus described as possessing “anthropomorphic features” and the narrator also asserts that “they [are] not animals.” However, he paradoxically also insists that “they [are] not human beings.” He concludes that the metamorphosis that has occurred is not one of the axolotls becoming more human, but one of the axolotls “not succeed[ing] in revoking humanity.” The narrator becomes “afraid of [the axolotls],” perhaps of his perceived attempt of them continuing to “devour” his humanity, “in a cannibalism of gold.” Eventually, “the horror beg[ins]” and the narrator’s metamorphosis from a human to an axolotl on the metaphysical level is complete.

Imprisonment

The narrator cites his major connection to the axolotls as that of empathy for the “hopeless” plight of the axolotls, who are resigned to inhabit a “narrow and wretched” tank in the aquarium “indefinitely.” The Jardin aquarium is subtly compared to a “guard[ed]”prison, and the narrator is akin to a visitor to the axolotls, who are behind an “iron bar.” He stresses the claustrophobic and “cramped” quality of their environment and emphasizes with their apparent desire “to abolish space and time.” These characteristics are compared and contrasted with the “unfathomable depth” of the axolotls’ eyes. The depiction of the axolotls’ situation as one of an “eternal sentence” relates to the narrator’s belief that the transformation of his mind to one of an axolotl is “like the horror of a man buried alive awaking to him fate,” implying the oppressive helplessness that the axolotl, and ultimately he as one of them, feel as a creature inside the tank.


Influences

Literary Influences

Cortázar subtly incorporates various literary elements into "Axolotl" which give insight to the possible sources of inspiration for this short story. For example, in addition to the “hell” reference, Axolotl’s can be seen borrowing or alluding to Dante’s Inferno: in both works cold-blooded creatures, reptiles in Dante's case amphibians in Cortázar’s, can be seen stealing human bodies in a strange transformative process.[8]Additionally, both authors accentuate the powerful nature of the creatures’ gazes.

At the end of the story, the narrator describes being trapped in the axolotl’s mind as akin to being “buried alive” – a motif that is reoccurring in the works of Edgar Allen Poe – it could be that Cortázar is paying a tribute to Poe, one of his most notable literary ancestors in the genre of the bizarre.

Mythological Influences

References to mythology are prevalent in Axolotl. They function to further highlight the vagueness of the boundaries between the real and the unreal qualities of the world portrayed by the narrator. The switch of perspectives between the narrator and one of the axolotl is reminiscent of Greek myths involving Circe.[9]Critics such as McNab also compared the character of the narrator as being similar to the heroes Orpheus and Odysseus, all of whom travel through hell in the hopes of rebirth[10]– the narrator “head[s] down the boulevard Port-Royal” to reach the Jardin and describes the axolotl’s existence as an “eternal sentence... of liquid hell.” [11]

Another critic, Reedy, contends that the structure of Axolotl contains parallels to that of the Aztec myth involving the twin brother of the god, Quetzalcoatl, Xolotl, who is the god of the underworld and experiences rebirth after having been in larval form. [12]

Moreover, the axolotl are described as having “Aztec faces, without expression but of an implacable cruelty,” an image evocative of statues of Aztec gods. The frequency with which the narrator mentions his fixation with the axolotl’s “golden eyes” establishes another correlation with Aztec culture, in which gold is an important historical and mythological symbol. Moreover, the motif of cannibalism, a proclivity that the narrator attributes to the axolotl, may be accounted for by the historical belief that it was an Aztec practice. The same principle may apply to the narrator’s remark about axolotls being “slaves of their bodies” – slavery was also a widespread custom in Aztec society.


Julio Cortázar: August 26, 1914 – February 12, 1984

Young Cortázar

Early Life and Teaching Career

Julio Cortázar was born of Argentinean parents in Brussels, Belgium in the year 1914, he was a peculiar mix of nationalities which Cortázar later attributed to “‘turismo y la diplomacia’” or tourism and diplomacy.

After the end of WWI, the Cortázar’s moved back to Bánfield, Argentina, a Buenos Aires suburb. During this time Cortázar’s father abandoned the family. Cortázar and his sister were both raised by their mother, aunt and grandmother. A sickly child, Cortázar, spent much time indoors and in this manner discovered literature and writing. He finished his first short story at age nine alongside many other poems. To his distress, his family believed them to be plagiarized. [13]

Cortázar later attended the Escuela Normal de Profesores Mariano Acosta, a teachers’ training school, an experience that inspired the dark short story “La escuela de la noche” or “The School of Night.” In 1935 he received his degree as a secondary level teacher and went on to study at the Buenos Aires University for two years before dropping out, for economic reasons, and finding a job in teaching. During this period of time he discovered Opium by Jean Cocteau, which completely revolutionized his way of writing and introduced him into French surrealism. [14]

Political Involvement and Activism

From 1944 through 1945 Cortázar was a professor of French literature at the University of Cuyo, Mendoza. Politically active, unlike many of his literary contemporaries, Cortázar joined anti-Peron protests which lead to his arrest. Briefly he worked as a director of a publishing company and worked as a translator in Argentina. However, in 1951, in opposition to Peron’s regime, Cortázar left Argentina for good and exiled himself to Paris. [15]

Once in Europe however, he did not completely disentangle himself from the political movements and unrest in Latin America. Cortázar took an active role in supporting political movements like the Sandinistas and was part of an international investigation of the crimes of the Chilean military Junta.

In 1966,Cortázar visited Cuba for the first time, a Cuba recently taken over by Fidel Castro. Cortázar like many artists of the time, fell in support of socialism and its ideals, including Castro.In the 1970's, Cortázar participated alongside others in barricades and anti-establishment propaganda.[16]

Later Years

Older Cortázar

In the late 1970's and 1980's, Cortázar joined the college lecturing circuit, doing lectures in the University of Oklahoma and the University of California Berkeley. These lectures, along with his earlier works, were collected into a single volume, The Final Island: The Fiction of Julio Cortázar (1978).

Cortázar received numerous awards, including Médicis Prize for Libro de Manuel in 1974 and was awarded French citizenship. In the later part of his career his authenticity as a truly Latin American author came into question, and he was attacked on all fronts by nationalist for "abandoning" his heritage.[17] His last collection of poems dealt with this dilemma of nationality. He was exiled from his home country, but he did not feel completely European.

By 1983, Cortázar became afflicted with a mysterious illness. On February 12, 1984 he officially died of leukemia in Paris. However, after his death it became widely debated whether or not it was leukemia that took his life or if he really died of AIDS, since it was known that after the end of his third marriage Cortázar engaged in various bisexual affairs[18]


Legacy

Translations and First Originals

Once in France, he worked in UNESCO as a translator, translating various works including those of Edgar Allan Poe into Spanish. [19] In these early years he translated works like Little Women, Robinson Crusoe and the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre [20]It was during this time that Cortázar became a more prolific writer.In 1949, Cortázar had published his fantasy work Los Reyes which had previously been published by Jorge Luis Borges in Los Canales de Buenos Aires. Cortázar's first published work was accepted by Jorge Luis Borges and printed along with other works, by now, Cortázar was ready to transcend beyond magazine publishings and publish his own collection of works.[21]

"Las babas del diablo" (1959) and Blow Up(1966)

Cortázar's earlier works set the precedent to his later stories-stories which originated in an aspect of reality, but progressed into the ultimately bizarre and fantastical. “Babas del Diablo,” one of his works, was adapted into film by director Michelangelo Antonioni in 1966’s Blow Up. The film launched Cortázar into the international scene. An ambitious undertaking, Blow Up is about photography and art, morality and reality, society and insanity. In other words, it is an experiment of different ideas which reflect Cortázar’s original story in which a young photographer captures a crime through his lenses and obsesses over the significance of his photographs. The story itself fluctuates between the first, second and third person, sometimes all in the same sentence and often it becomes unclear as to who is telling the story, the young artist or his camara lens. [22]

Rayuela (1963)

Rayuela, however (1966, Hopscotch), has been called Cortázar’s masterpiece. Rayula is an experiment of sorts, an “antinovel” which reads nonlinearly and invites readers to jump around, like in a game of rayula, or hopscotch towards a given end. Rayuela was a deeply influential novel for the Latin American writing community.



Works Selection

  • Short Stories
    • "Axolotl"[1]
    • "Casa Tomada"[2]
    • "Continuidad de los parques" [3]
  • Story Collections
    • La Otra orilla
    • Bestiario[4]
    • Final del juego
    • Las Armas Secretas
    • Queremos tanto a Glenda[5]
    • Cuentos Completos
  • Story Collections in English
    • End of the Game and Other Stories
    • All Fires an the Fire and Other Stories
    • A Change in Light and Other Stories
    • We Love Glenda So Much and Other Stories
  • Nolvels
    • Los Reyes
    • Los Premios/The Winners
    • Rayuela/Hopscotch
    • 62:Modelo para armar/62 A Model Kit
    • El Libro de Manuel/ A Manual for Manuel

Additional

The Axolotl Song

Trailer from 1966 movie Blow Up based on "Babas del diablo"

Introduction to "Babas"

Interview with the author

References

  1. Clare, John P. “Axolotls.” Axolotls. 2010. 27 February 2011. http://www.axolotl.org/
  2. Clare, John P. “Axolotls.” Axolotls. 2010. 27 February 2011. http://www.axolotl.org/
  3. Clare, John P. “Axolotls.” Axolotls. 2010. 27 February 2011. http://www.axolotl.org/
  4. “Schizophrenia.” PubMed. 7 February 2010. 26 February 2011. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001925/
  5. “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” PubMed. 11 February 2010. 26 February 2011. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001926
  6. McNab, Pamela. The International Fiction Review. Albion College, Michigan; 1997. Online Journal.http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/viewFile/14282/15359
  7. McNab, Pamela. The International Fiction Review. Albion College, Michigan; 1997. Online Journal.http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/viewFile/14282/15359
  8. McNab, Pamela. The International Fiction Review. Albion College, Michigan; 1997. Online Journal. http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/viewFile/14282/15359
  9. McNab, Pamela. The International Fiction Review. Albion College, Michigan; 1997. Online Journal.http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/viewFile/14282/15359
  10. McNab, Pamela. The International Fiction Review. Albion College, Michigan; 1997. Online Journal.http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/viewFile/14282/15359
  11. McNab, Pamela. The International Fiction Review. Albion College, Michigan; 1997. Online Journal.http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/viewFile/14282/15359
  12. McNab, Pamela. The International Fiction Review. Albion College, Michigan; 1997. Online Journal.http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/viewFile/14282/15359
  13. “La página de Julio Cortázar.” La página de Julio Cortázar. 2006. 22 February 2011. http://www.juliocortazar.com.ar/
  14. “La página de Julio Cortázar.” La página de Julio Cortázar. 2006. 22 February 2011. http://www.juliocortazar.com.ar/
  15. “La página de Julio Cortázar.” La página de Julio Cortázar. 2006. 22 February 2011. http://www.juliocortazar.com.ar/
  16. Stavans, Ilan. Julio Cortázar: a Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers;London: Prentice Hall International, 1996. Print. Pages 45-47.
  17. Stavans, Ilan. Julio Cortázar: a Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers;London: Prentice Hall International, 1996. Print. Pages 61.
  18. Stavans, Ilan. Julio Cortázar: a Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers; London: Prentice Hall International, 1996. Print. Page 62.
  19. “La página de Julio Cortázar.” La página de Julio Cortázar. 2006. 22 February 2011. http://www.juliocortazar.com.ar/
  20. Stavans, Ilan. Julio Cortázar: a Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers;London: Prentice Hall International, 1996. Print. Pages 152.
  21. Stavans, Ilan. Julio Cortázar: a Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers;London: Prentice Hall International, 1996. Print. Pages 4.
  22. Stavans, Ilan. Julio Cortázar: a Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers;London: Prentice Hall International, 1996. Print. Pages 40-41.
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