Dec 21, 2012

Notes on "Axolotl" by Julio Cortázar

by Stacy Esch

What’s the difference between a modern short story and the “tale” or especially the mythic tales?
Both the tale and the short story are forms of narrative, but the modern short story features:

•    A fuller plot based on a causal sequence; human conflict acts as the catalyst, the cause of things happening
•    Intricately developed, psychologically complex characters and character motivation
•    An identifiable setting—a particular time and place that lends meaning to the characters and actions
•    The expectation of an open-ended theme inviting each reader’s vision and interpretation
How does the theme of transformation and change that we observed in the mythic tales, and in the Ovid tales, express itself in this short story?

•    The narrator maintains that he’s changed places with the axolotl; that he has become the axolotl by the end of the story—he has metamorphised into an axolotl in some way
Which of these terms would you say describes the boy in “Axolotl”—fascination, obsession, empathy, compassion, or sympathy?

Look up the precise meanings of those words before you make your decision.  Here are a few definitions to get you started.

Fascination (Dictionary)
The state of being intensely interested (as by awe or terror)
• archaic (esp. of a snake) deprive (a person or animal) of the ability to resist or escape by the power of a look or gaze : the serpent fascinates its prey.

Obsession (Dictionary)
an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind

1: an irrational motive for performing trivial or repetitive actions against your will [syn: compulsion] 2: an unhealthy and compulsive preoccupation with something or someone [syn: fixation]

Empathy (Dictionary)
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  (ORIGIN early 20th cent.: from Greek empatheia (from em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’ ) translating German Einfühlung.)

Compassion (Dictionary)
Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. (ORIGIN Middle English : via Old French from ecclesiastical Latin compassio(n-), from compati ‘suffer with.’)

1 feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune; formal expression of such feelings; condolences.  2 understanding between people; common feeling; support in the form of shared feelings or opinions; agreement with or approval of an opinion or aim; a favorable attitude; ( in sympathy) relating harmoniously to something else; in keeping; the state or fact of responding in a way similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere (ORIGIN late 16th cent. (sense 2) : via Latin from Greek sumpatheia, from sumpathēs, from sun- ‘with’ + pathos ‘feeling.’)

How does the boy become fascinated by the axolotl in the first place?
He's alone, on his bike, looking for something to do…friendless? It seems so, since we never see him with a friend
Out of boredom? Loneliness?
Our of dissatisfaction with his ordinary routine—he's usually attracted to the more popular animals, the lions and the panthers (see the Rilke poem, "The Panther") but this day they are disappointing. The lions are "sad and ugly" and the panther is "asleep." So he goes into the "dark, humid aquarium" and "unexpectedly" he "hits it off" with the axolotls.
What is the boy's initial reaction to the axolotls?

They seem to capture his imagination, fascinate him. He reads the card, and later he goes to the library to find out even more about them, but ultimately it's not information from a book that he's seeking. These factual details aren't exactly what interest him. If you look at those details, they're the normal kinds of things that you'd find in an encyclopedia or dictionary about a particular animal: They're a species of Mexican salamander (but he already knows this from looking at their "little pink Aztec faces"); they can live on land or water; they're edible; their oil was used like cod—liver oil. But the problem with these facts is that they really tell him next to nothing about what it's like to be an axolotl. They treat these animals, these living, breathing creatures that have captured the boy's imagination, like inanimate objects. Empathy tells him they are far from inanimate. When we turn a human being into an object to be exploited, we call that "dehumanization." What do we call it when we turn animals into objects? But we find it acceptable (for the most part) to turn animals into objects, unless they are our pets, forgetting that they are living, breathing creatures like us. This boy isn't looking for facts; he's looking for an experience. And he gets it.

What do these little details tell you about this particular boy?
He's sensitive; he's open to new experiences. He's imaginative. He's independent.
He may be lonely but even if he is, he makes very rich use of his solitude.
What's the nature of his fascination?

His fascination leads to a growing empathy, which leads to feelings of guilt (for the creature's imprisonment, it seems). At first, watching them sit there motionless, he thought he understood "their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility." But the boy later realizes that there is no romantic "secret will" and that their immobility has nothing to do with abolishing space and time; he realizes that captivity is a horrible burden, an oppressive nightmare; they want to be free like any creature, swimming freely, not sitting immobile in a cage.

Early on and throughout he associates the axolotl with Aztecs, the native Mexicans who were vanquished by the Europeans, the Spanish… the axolotls have "eyes of gold" (Aztec gold); they are "silent and immobile" like ancient statues that serve as reminders of the civilization and the people who were brutally conquered. These eyes, like the eyes of statues may "lack any life, but they are looking"—they see into us and we try to see into them. He directly likens the axolotl to a "statuette corroded by time" (425). He explains that it's the eyes which fascinate ("obsess") him the most. They represent "another way of seeing" that is now a mystery he wants to penetrate. "The golden eyes continued burning with their soft, terrible light; they continued looking at me from an unfathomable depth which made me dizzy" (426).

He begins to identify with the axolotls. He knows they look nothing like human beings, like monkeys do, but he sees the "humanity" in them nevertheless." When he claims the axolotl's were "not animals" (426) what do you think he's driving at?

Once he takes the step of recognizing their "humanity" (we don't have a word for what he wants to describe!) he begins to imagine them aware as a human being is aware. He imagines they are conscious of their condition, as we are. The plaintive cry he imagines is "Save us, save us." It doesn't get more empathetic than that. On another level, the axolotls may be "Aztecs" (who were also considered subhuman "savages") and who also might still be "saved." Once he hears this plea, he begins to feel ashamed, ignoble. Something is taking shape from the larval stage (axolotls never leave their larval stage) that he fears. Some retribution for the cruelty of this imprisonment maybe? He ends up imprisoned along with them in the end. His empathy is so complete that he can't entirely leave them even when he stops visiting.

His conscience goes on overdrive: they are "devouring me slowly with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold" (427). Just thinking of them places him beside the cage. The eyes never close; they are always with him. He can't escape his feelings of empathy.

Finally he acknowledges that the axolotls are suffering, that they are "lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of the axolotls" (427). They are lying in wait for their freedom, and meanwhile they are in "liquid hell." This realization is what allows him to penetrate finally into their world, because it is the "truth." (How do we know it's the truth? We can only empathize.)

From that point on, the identity of the boy is confused; is he now an axolotl or a boy? Does empathy always involve a kind of split, a kind of fracturing of identity? Double vision? He feels "trapped." In what way is empathy a kind of painful trap? Should we avoid it? (Not everyone has it or wants to have it.) Do you think the story warns against empathy or encourages it?
What does the story "mean"?

We can justify thematic statements like:

Empathy is painful.
It's possible for humans and animals to experience a "meeting of the minds."
Like the axolotl imprisoned in its cage, the soul is trapped inside the body.
But those kinds of summary meanings, while they may be justified, seem so inadequate.

Let's leave that question open and answer it with a quote from commentator Susan Nayel: "The nightmare of being trapped inside the body of a beast is the human's experience, and the panic of being abandoned by the man is the axolotl's final cry. The only hope, as noted by the axolotl, is the creation of art where the writer can become another and communicate on behalf of all creatures—expressing the feelings of all creatures so that none may fee the terror of isolation and imprisonment."

Compare this story to Rainer Marie Rilke's poem "The Panther." In "The Panther" by German poet Rainer Marie Rilke, you have a powerful example of extended personification, a very close observation which readers can interpret as the writer’s empathy with his subject.  Where does the subject end and the object begin?  As in “Axolotl,” they seem melted together.  Throughout the poem, the panther is invested with human feeling, just as in “Axolotl” the salamander is invested with human consciousness.  In both works, you could ask whether it is that the speaker, observing the caged animal, identifies with the pain of his imprisonment, or whether he is in fact projecting his own pain upon what he the object of his observation.  Whichever way that river flows, “The Panther” and “Axolotl” are both powerful testaments to the wonder and pain of empathy.

Reading this poem, we might ask: is it that the panther is able to communicate his pain, breaking across the boundaries that separate our species, and the speaker is sensitive to the panther’s pain? As the poem opens, the speaker tells us that the panther’s vision has “grown so weary” and that his eyes seem blank, they “can’t hold anything else.”  But does the speaker really know what the panther sees or if he’s weary?  He takes further liberties in the third line, announcing that “It seems to him there are a thousand bars;/ and behind the bars, no world.”  Does the speaker really know what the panther is thinking here?  Empathy seems to have given him the liberty to assume that this is what the panther is thinking.  The empathy he feels is projected upon the panther; he “identifies” with it.  Once we accept that projection, once we suspend our disbelief, a powerful story emerges.  From within that cruel cage—which might represent any sort of loss of freedom—the world disappears; any normal vision, normal behavior, is suspended and actions are mere motions, with no force of will behind them.  Life becomes “going through the motions.”  Free will (my favorite topic this semester) is paralyzed—there’s no action but empty ritual.  What happens next is almost too sad, too difficult to contemplate.  That unasked for but inevitable glimpse of freedom appears momentarily, that whisper of possibility as the “curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly—.”  It’s not a real possibility of freedom because the bars haven’t disappeared. The bars are still there.  But the “image enters in.”  It’s almost too painful to imagine!  That momentary glimpse of freedom tears through every muscle, plunging into the heart, knife-like, leaving the poor creature (the panther, the speaker, both?) to suffer.

Even if you read the poem literally and aren’t interested in pursuing other levels of meaning (what might the panther symbolize, and so on), it’s an incredibly sad portrait.  It’s precisely the reason why I can’t have a good time visiting zoos.  I know they do a lot of good work.  But the sight of all those caged creatures!!!  My reaction is always very much like the boy’s in “Axolotl.”  If I allow my fascination to draw me in I become guilt-ridden and horrified; it’s as if I’m trapped in there with them.  I’ll never forget a certain grizzly bear at the St. Louis Zoo in Forest Park (I used to live across the street from it, and went there often when my daughter was stroller-bound)…I still remember the disturbing way it used to pace endlessly in that “ritual dance around a center,” which Rilke describes so brilliantly, unable to go anywhere or do anything which would make it feel like a real bear with real purpose and a real will.  It was so obviously in misery, like this panther.  On the other hand, the polar bears a few hundred feet away were pretty cheerful, usually playing with their big red rubber ball, splashing in their pool, rolling around.  If you wanted to leave in anything like a good mood, you would check in on them and walk very quickly past the grizzly bear, trying not to look.