Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Diaphanous Ordinary: The Thin Places of This World


            “It would seem easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology.”(p. 6)

            In the world’s religions, mystical experiences are often described as an encounter with the thin places in the material world.  At these thin places of human reality, the mystic finds another world, a spiritual reality, near our own in the transparency of the moment.  These thin places can sometimes be found at actual shrines and cathedrals, or in peak human experiences.  In the short stories of Julio Cortazar, the word “diaphanous” comes up frequently to describe these uncanny events.  The references to religion are spare in his stories, but the diaphanous encounters are frequent.  In Cortazar’s short stories, these thin places are found in the seemingly ordinary events of human life, such as visiting an aquarium in “Axolotl” and reading a book in “Continuity of Parks.”  These are the moments when rational thinking and an understanding of human reality undergo a sea change from which the individual can never truly return to his former state of mind. 
There is an element of slowing down in the stories of Julio Cortazar; there is a sense of entering into a new reality.  The busy, modern world makes it easy to miss the miraculous in the ordinary all around us.  This deepened reality stirs the imagination, but the “diaphanous interior mystery”(p.5) of “Axototl” is presented with realistic detail and rational observation.  At these outer edges of the mind, the narrator acknowledges that he has become an axolotl himself; he is outside the tank of human experience.  There is reference to a wintry Lent in Paris for the Mexican narrator living abroad, but the meditative quality of this story has more in common with Eastern than Western religions.  The ordinary event of visiting an aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes is the subject and setting, and, over many visits to one tank in particular, the narrator experiences an extraordinary enlightenment that he shares with the reader.  Both the narrator and the salamander like creature with an Aztec name are indigenous to Mexico, but they stare at each other at an aquarium in France.  When human experience is described with precise, even scientific details, it doesn’t take much effort for that experience to become surreal.  The scientific, mythological, and the religious come together seamlessly, but the story never really tips towards any of these fields of inquiry.  It is a synthesis of all of them. 
“Axolotl” is a story that unites different fields of knowledge.  The strange creature, which remains in the larval stage for its entire life, immediately attracts the narrator.  The mysterious gold eye without a pupil entrances him, along with the human-like miniature hands.  The narrator imagines a new mode of seeing the world as he examines the strange creatures with wonder: “The eyes of the axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing.”(p. 6)  He discovers “a mysterious humanity”(6) in their features.  Monkeys are not eerie because of their proximity to human beings on the evolutionary ladder, but the axolotl disturbs the narrator in its human similarities because of the great evolutionary distance.  The narrator is using rational and scientific categories, but his conclusions are not scientific; they are rather mystical and meditative.  The narrator is at the outer limits of reason as he studies the axolotls with the intensity of a scientist and a Buddhist monk together in one mind of observation. 
The unblinking awareness of the axolotls, with their gold eyes and their eerie immobility, take the narrator to a deeper reality as a human being.  The spiritual focus of the narrator merges with the consciousness of the unmoving amphibians and their seemingly infinite capacity for stillness.  They can move very quickly, but they choose not to move at all.  The narrator is like an anthropologist who has entered a Buddhist monastery to find many human beings sitting perfectly still for no apparent reason.  While observing their immobility, the narrator becomes aware of their extraordinary capacity for suffering: “They were suffering, every fiber of my being reached towards that stifled pain, that stiff torment at the bottom of the tank.”(p. 8)  The narrator believes that the immobility is used as a spiritual technique to manage the pain of their existence.  The question of the narrator’s sanity is an open one, but at no point does he really sound like a crazy person.  The narrator enters the experience of the creatures empathically, and he shifts his narrative to give voice to their experience: “It’s not that we don’t enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped—we barely move in any direction and we’re hitting one of the others with our tail or our head—difficulties arise, fights, tiredness.  The time feels less if we stay quietly.”(p. 5)  As the narrator observes their physical and spiritual discipline, he has an enlightenment of his own as he enters the thinking capacity of an axolotl: “He was outside, his thinking was thinking outside the tank.”(p. 8)
The enlightenment in “Axolotl” brings the scientific and the transcendent together in an unusual way.  This is a new category of human experience, and the narrator never mentions God.  In the story, the Buddha has the face of a salamander with unblinking golden eyes.  While the story has an odd peacefulness in the aquarium, the narrative also conveys a terror in the awareness of the creatures’ suffering, which is seemingly infinite.  The narrator fears that the axolotls are judges of humanity, and he feels genuine fear while watching them in wonder.  The microcosm of the tank suggests that the human world is a confined habitat as well.  The human tank shapes our thinking, even though we assume we are free, unlike the axolotls.  According to the narrator, the axolotls are aware of their suffering—more aware than we are.  He identifies with their quiet meditation, their “thinking outside the tank.”  He has become one of them.  Whatever box the human condition is, the narrator imagines the ultimate reality outside of it.  Because he has become an axolotl, he can go there on his own.  He can now think outside the tank.
In “The Continuity of Parks,” an unnamed character slows down and escapes from his busy world, but the effect is quite different from the experience in the aquarium.  In this case, a man reads a book that he had been too busy to finish.  He has been dealing with the financial matters of his estate, including the power of attorney.  The strange short story is an example of how a book can come to life as a person escapes into another world: “He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the thing around him, and at the same time feeling his head rest comfortably on the green velvet of the chair with its high back, sensing the cigarettes rested within reach of his hand, that beyond the great windows the air of afternoon danced under the oak trees in the park.”(p. 64)  The details of both worlds are given as the man separates from the real world into the details of the made up story: “Word by word, licked up by the sordid dilemma of the hero and the heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the cabin.”(p.64)  The bare outline of an illicit love affair is sketched in the man’s reading.  The two lovers appear willing to commit murder to be together, and they move through the woods towards the house where the murder victim is reading alone.
The two stories merge together, even before the outside reader of “Continuity of Parks” is fully aware of what is going to happen to the inside man reading the book.  The first details of the man’s escape now come back to haunt him as the killer approaches him from the rear in actuality: “The door of the salon, and then, the knife in hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.”(p. 66)  In “Continuity of Parks,” the act of reading about a scene is transformed into the scene the man is reading.  The story within the story meets as the character with a knife approaches the seated man who is reading about a man with a dagger coming from behind with the same details at the same moment.  As surreal as the story within a story might seem, it is still possible that the unusual event could happen in reality.  The reader does not have to completely suspend his or her disbelief to enter into this strange presentation of reality.  “Continuity of Parks” is also a story itself, so the man is unaware that he is a character in a story as he reads a story whose circumstances are happening to him as he reads it.  It is a story within a story within a story.  The reader can even move to the limits of the rational with Cortazar; it is possible that the reader too is a character in a story.  He is just unaware of his fictional condition in the mind of another reader.  
The story “Continuity of Parks” doesn’t mention parks at all, though there are scenes in a woods near a house.  A park is a part of nature, but it is supposedly under human control.  But individual parks are all connected because they are part of nature as well as human society.  The overlap of art and life in the story shows continuity between the human imagination and human reality.  The world of the imagination is quite real.  Cortazar presents the strangeness and wonder of human existence in stories that are both unsettling and meditative.  Facing its limits, the rational mind must look to the imagination for guidance in their strange territory, not the other way around.  Cortazar’s art points out how little we truly know about everything that can be known in the universe.  There are mysteries within mysteries in the smallest details of our daily lives, and the greatest wonders in the stars above us.  The imagination is a portal to still another world that Cortazar claims as more than mere mythology: “Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know.”(p. 8)  Like the axolotl, the characters and reader are awakened in the thin places.  The enlightenment is not necessarily a gateway to happiness; there is both wonder and fear as the enlightened are“…condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures.”(p. 8)  While skeptics might find these diaphanous mysteries to be irrational or illogical, there is nothing in them that is truly impossible.  

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