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Julio Cortázar on Time

by Katherine Silver
March 28th, 2017

 Cortázar at Berkeley Cortázar at Berkeley

In 1980, Julio Cortázar taught eight classes at Berkeley. The classes were reflections on his own career as much as they were about books and the current historical moment. The following is taken from the second class, on time in the fantastic short story. 

The time has come to talk about time, which is going to sort of be the subject of this part of our talk today. Time is a problem that goes way beyond literature and encompasses the very essence of man. Ever since the first babblings of philosophy, notions of time and space have constituted two of the most basic problems. A person who is not philosophical, not problematical, accepts time as a given. Ever since the pre-Socratics, since Heraclitus, for example — one of the first to weigh in on the problem — the nature of this that we cannot define as a substance or an element or a thing is an age-old metaphysical problem with different solutions. (Human vocabulary can’t grasp the essence of time, which passes through us and we pass through it.) For someone like Kant, time in itself doesn’t exist; it is a category of understanding. We are the ones who create time. For Kant, animals don’t live in time; we see them living in time, but they don’t because they have no temporal consciousness. For an animal there is no present or past or future, they exist totally outside of the temporal. Humans are endowed with a sense of time. For Kant, time is inside us; for other philosophers, it is an element, an essence that exists outside us and within which we are encompassed. This has led to an enormous amount of philosophical, and even scientific, literature, which maybe will never come to an end.

I don’t know if there’s anybody here who understands the theory of relativity — not I, needless to say — but I do know that the notion of time changed after Albert Einstein’s discoveries. There used to be a notion about the course, the duration, of time, which mathematicians now figure into their calculations in a different way. Then there are those phenomena that have been studied by parapsychologists — the real kind, the scientific ones — and there is a famous book by the Englishman, Dunne, An Experiment with Time, which Borges sometimes quotes because it fascinated him. Dunne analyzes the possibilities of a variety of times (not only this one that we acknowledge, the one measured by watches and calendars); they are simultaneous and parallel, based on the well-known phenomenon of premonition — when someone suddenly has a vision of something that happens five days later. Something that is the future for us, at the moment of the premonition, isn’t the future but rather some kind of misplaced, parallel, uncertain present. I don’t intend to talk about this now, but to get back to the literature of the fantastic, you can see that time is a porous, elastic element, which lends itself in a remarkable way to certain kinds of manifestations that have mostly been explored in literature through the imagination.

The three stories we are going to summarize here deal with this kind of incursion of the fantastic into the temporal mode. I have to summarize them very briefly, and of course, to retell a story written by Borges is always to tell it very poorly — it’s impossible to tell it with his style. Briefly, “The Secret Miracle” is the story of a Czech playwright — I think — who is taken prisoner by the Nazis when they occupy Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the Second World War. Because he is a Czech Jew and a playwright, he is immediately sentenced to death by firing squad, and the story takes place during the very moment this man is put up against the wall: the soldiers raise their weapons, and the prisoner sees the officer give the sign for them to take aim. The story says that at that moment he regrets dying, because he’s been working on his plays his whole life, and he was just starting to imagine one that would have been the culmination of his life’s work, his masterpiece. He doesn’t have time, because they are taking aim at him, he closes his eyes, and time passes, but he continues to think about his play. Little by little he begins to imagine the situations and the characters. He knew that this play would take a lot of time to write, a lot of reflection, at least a year. For a year he thinks, he presses ahead with his play, in his head, and at the last minute he adds the final period and feels profoundly happy because he has accomplished what he wanted. He has written his definitive work. He opens his eyes, and at that moment comes the order for them to shoot. What had been only two seconds for the soldiers — the time that Borges calls “the secret miracle” — has lasted a year for the playwright; he has had a year of mental time to finish his play.

The second story is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce. (Bierce himself, his own life and death, is full of the fantastic. You know he disappeared in Mexico under mysterious circumstances, and nobody has ever found out how or where he died: a fascinating character.) The story takes place during the Civil War, when a group of soldiers takes an enemy soldier prisoner — I don’t know if he is from the South or the North — and they decide to hang him from a bridge. It’s exactly the same situation as in the Borges story: they place the noose around his neck and force him to jump from the bridge. The man jumps, the rope breaks, and he falls into the water, and even though he’s completely disoriented, he manages to swim a great distance and then climb out of the water. The soldiers shoot at him but miss. He hides, and after resting a little he decides that he wants to go home to see his wife and children, whom he hasn’t seen in a long time. He starts on his journey and continues all night and the next day, hiding because he’s still in enemy territory, until he finally manages to reach his home (I don’t remember the exact details), and sees his wife through a window. Right then, in the midst of his happiness at having managed to get there, the images become a little blurry until they vanish altogether.

Bierce’s last sentence ends: “. . . his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.” The way the fantastic works is quite similar, because as he is dying, being hung, he experiences that supposed breaking of the rope, which allows him to look for his family and find his loved ones. Once again, there is the intrusion of a time that could be said to stretch out, lengthen, and instead of lasting the two seconds it would last in our time, on our side, it stretches out indefinitely: a year for the Czech playwright, and a day and a night for the North American soldier.

The third story, called “Island at Noon,” is the story of a young Italian, a flight attendant who flies between Tehran and Rome, who one day looks out the plane window and sees the outline of one of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. He looks at it a bit absentmindedly, but there is something so beautiful about what he is seeing that he keeps staring at it for a long time, then returns to his job of passing out trays of food and serving drinks.

On the next flight, when the time approaches to fly over that island, he arranges for a colleague to do his job, and he goes over to the window and looks down at the island. So it goes on, flight after flight, each time he stares down at that Greek island, which looks so beautiful to him. It’s completely golden, very small, and appears to be deserted. One day he sees a few houses along the coast of the small island, a human figure or two, and some fishing nets. He realizes that there are no tourists on the island, just a small group of fishermen who live there. That man is living an artificial and uninteresting life, doing his job, living in hotels — which is how flight attendants live — having casual affairs wherever he has layovers, a life he never worries much about . . . this man becomes increasingly obsessed with the island. He feels it as some kind of salvation, like something that is teasing him, calling to him, revealing something different to him.

One day (I’m abridging it a lot), he asks for a long leave of absence from work. A colleague covers his shifts, and he, who’s been documenting everything and now knows where the island is and how to get there, hires a fishing boat. One morning, two or three days later, he reaches the island and disembarks.

The fishing boat leaves, and he makes contact with the fishermen, two or three families who really do live there and who welcome him very graciously. Even though he is Italian and they speak Greek, they smile, understand each other, and somehow the fishermen accept him. They give him a cabin to stay in, and suddenly he feels that he won’t ever leave that island, that this is really paradise, that his entire superficial life no longer makes any sense. He’ll make friends with the fishermen, he’ll fish like them and live simply and humbly but happily in that small Eden, where there are no tourists. Filled with that excitement, he climbs to the top of a hill, takes off his wristwatch, and throws it away, a bit like a symbol of what he is leaving behind. He strips naked in the sun, lies down on the grass that smells so fragrant, and feels profoundly happy. Right at that moment, he hears the sound of an airplane engine and, based on the position of the sun, he realizes that it’s almost noon, that this must be his airplane, the airplane he was a flight attendant on, where there is now somebody replacing him. He looks at it and thinks that this will be the last time he will even look at that airplane, because he is going to live here, and all of that has nothing to do with him any longer. Then he hears a change in the sound of the engine, he looks up and sees it swerve, flip over twice, then plunge into the sea. He has a perfectly understandable, human, reaction: he starts to run as fast as he can, stark naked, to the beach. The only thing he can see where the airplane sank, about a hundred meters away from shore, are a few pieces of the wing. He dives into the water and starts to swim to see if there are any survivors.

At first it seems as if there’s nobody, but as he gets closer he sees a hand in the water. He grabs it and pulls out a man, who is struggling. He carries him, being careful not to drown him, and he realizes that the man is bleeding: he has a huge gash across his throat, and he is dying. He keeps carrying him to shore, and at that moment his thoughts are interrupted, his vision of what is happening ceases. The fishermen have heard the noise from the other side of the island, and they come running. They find the man’s body washed up on the beach with an enormous gash across his throat. That’s all there is, they are there alone, as usual, with that single dead body on the beach.

It also seems, in this story, that the fantastic arises out of time being stretched out. There are many critics who have written about it (one of them is in the room today), and among the many ideas they have proposed is that the character’s deep, vital longing for that island he caught a glimpse of has made it so that one day at noon, while he is staring at it so intensely, he gets so lost in a dream, in a fantasy, that it becomes reality. As if everything had really happened: arriving in Rome, leaving his job, renting a boat, arriving at the island, and witnessing everything that occurred. All of it happens at the very moment the airplane has an accident and falls, while he is lost in his dream. It’s the same mechanism as the two previous stories I told you about: what happens in five seconds, while the airplane is falling and plunges into the sea, this man has experienced as a long happy time during which his dream came true. It’s also a kind of secret miracle, as if he were granted the ultimate possibility of being happy for at least a day before he dies, to reach his island, to live there.

That reading seems to me to be perfectly legitimate, but it is also good to remember the author’s reading, which is not exactly the same. I wrote that story under the impression — I say “impression” because these things can never be explained — with the sensation, that at a certain moment time splits in two, which means the character splits in two — a doubling. Those of you who are familiar with some of my stories know that the theme of the double keeps returning, like a flashback I can’t ever escape. Ever since my first stories, there have been characters who split in two. Here, the character also splits: the old one, who can’t change, who is tied to our time, stays on the airplane. But that new man who wants to be done with everything that he thinks is trivial, stupid, artificial, who leaves everything behind — his job, any money he has, the people he knew — and goes to live under primitive conditions on that little island that has become the center of his life, that is also him, but it’s his double, which can only last as long as he has been granted to live that happiness. He can’t continue to be split for an entire lifetime. Why? I don’t know, but something in me makes me feel that it just can’t be. It’s a secret miracle, a possibility that is available to part of his personality, the best part, the most beautiful part, the part that moves forward, that looks for something pure . . . to find a genuine life as he conceives of it and that is granted to him to live fully for the length of a morning. Then the airplane falls, and that man he pulls out of the water is himself, who is dying; that’s why the fishermen find only one dead body on the shore.

It occurs to me that with these three stories and the possible forms of the fantastic they exemplify, we have entered a slightly more familiar terrain than before. Later, I can talk to you more extensively about different forms of the fantastic that show up in a few stories where other elements come into play, like space. But I don’t want to end today’s talk without telling you that I think that writing in a realist or scientific spirit is also perfectly respectable. And to those of you who think that my notion of time — the possibility of it splitting into two and altering, stretching out or running in parallel — is only a writer’s fantasy, I would like to assure you that it isn’t, and I would like to . . . I wouldn’t say “prove it,” because you have to either believe me or not, but I would like to communicate to you a personal experience that I then portrayed in this story and a few others. . . in this totally realist story called “The Pursuer,” about a jazz musician. In it there’s an episode that is perhaps a small story within the story and that approaches the problem of time from a different angle.

If you will allow me, I will read a couple of pages from “The Pursuer.” In it, Johnny Carter is talking to the narrator — whose name is Bruno and he’s a jazz critic and his friend — and says something about a certain notion of time that interests Bruno, who’s always alert to anything Johnny Carter says or does because he’s writing his biography. Maybe he’s interested in him even for commercial reasons. Johnny is in a state of physical decay, suffering everything the story’s real protagonist — that is, Charlie Parker — suffered, a man hard hit by alcohol and drug abuse, whose imagination ran off into territories some might consider borderline, but that others might see as important openings into other zones of reality. At this moment in the story, Johnny says:

“Bruno, if you could write it down one day. . . Not for me, understand, what the hell do I care. But it’s got to be beautiful, I feel like it’s got to be beautiful. I was telling you that when I was a kid and started to play I realized that time changed. I said this once to Jim and he told me that everybody feels that way, when you disconnect. . . That’s what he said, when you disconnect. But no, I don’t disconnect when I play. I just change places. It’s like in an elevator, you’re in an elevator talking to someone, and you don’t feel anything strange, and in the meantime it goes to the first floor, the tenth floor, the twenty-first, and the city stays there down below, and you’re finishing the sentence you started when you got in, and there are fifty-two floors between the first words and the last. I realized when I started to play that I was getting in an elevator, but it was an elevator of time, if I can put it like that. It’s not like I forgot about my mortgage, my mother or religion. It’s just that at those moments the mortgage and religion were like the suit I’m not wearing; I know that suit is hanging in the closet, but you can’t tell me that suit exists at this moment. That suit exists when I put it on, like the mortgage and religion existed when I stopped playing, and my old lady came in with her locks of hair hanging down, and she complained about me breaking her ear drums with that devil’s music.”

Dédée . . .

That’s Johnny’s friend . . .

. . . brings him another cup of instant coffee, but Johnny looks sadly at his empty cup.

“This time thing, it’s complicated, it gets hold of me from every which way. Little by little I’m starting to realize that time isn’t like a bag that gets filled up. What I mean is that even though what’s inside changes, the bag can only fit a certain amount and that’s that. You see my suitcase, Bruno? It can fit two suits and two pairs of shoes. Well, now imagine you empty it and then you put the two suits and the two pairs of shoes back in, and then you realize that it can fit only one suit and one pair of shoes. But that’s not the best part. The best part is when you realize you can fit a whole entire store in that suitcase, hundreds and hundreds of suits, like how I fit music into time when I’m playing, sometimes. Music and what I think about when I’m riding on the Metro.”

“When you’re riding on the Metro.”

“Uh-huh, yup, and that’s just the thing,” Johnny says slyly. “The Metro is a great invention, Bruno. Riding the Metro you realize everything that can fit in your suitcase. Maybe I didn’t lose my sax on the Metro, maybe . . .”

He starts laughing, coughs, and Dédée looks at him, worried. But he gesticulates, laughs, and coughs all at the same time, shaking under the blanket like a chimpanzee. Tears fall and he licks them up, laughing the whole time.

“It’s better not to get things mixed up,” he says after a few minutes. “I lost it and that’s that. But the Metro helped me figure out that trick with the suitcase. Look, this business about things being elastic is real strange, I feel it everywhere. Everything is elastic, son. Things that seem rigid have a certain elasticity . . .”

He’s thinking, concentrated.

“. . . a delayed elasticity,” he adds out of the blue. I nod with admiring assent. Bravo, Johnny. The man who says he isn’t capable of thinking. Way to go, Johnny. And now I’m really interested in what he’s going to say, and he realizes it and looks at me more slyly than ever.

I’m going to skip a bit, and here comes Johnny’s story:

“I was telling you about the Metro, I don’t know why we changed the subject. The Metro is a great invention, Bruno. One day I started to sense something on the Metro, then I forgot . . . Then it happened again, two or three days later. And finally I realized what it was. It’s easy to explain, you know, but it’s easy because it isn’t the real explanation. The real explanation can’t be explained, it’s as simple as that. You’ve got to ride the Metro and wait for it to happen, though it seems like it only happens to me. Look, it’s a little like this. The other day I realized what was going on. I was on the Metro and I started thinking, about my old lady, then about Lan and the boys, and of course, right then I felt like I was walking through my neighborhood, and I was seeing the boys’ faces, the boys back then. It wasn’t like thinking, I must’ve told you lots of times that I never think; it’s like I’m standing on a street corner and I watch what I’m thinking go past me, but I don’t think about what I’m watching. You get it? Jim says we’re all the same, that in general (that’s how he puts it) nobody thinks on their own. Let’s say that’s how it is, the point is I got on the Metro at the Saint-Michel Station and right away I started thinking about Lan and the boys and started seeing the neighborhood. The minute I sat down I started thinking about them. But at the same time I realized I was on the Metro, and a minute later, more or less, I saw that we were arriving at Odéon, and people were getting on and off. So I kept thinking about Lan, and I saw my old lady when she’d come back from shopping, and I started to see all of them, to be with them in such a beautiful way, a way I haven’t felt for so long. Memories are always disgusting, but this time I was enjoying thinking about the boys and seeing them. If I told you everything I saw, you wouldn’t believe me because it’d take so long. Even if I left out a whole lot of details. One example: I saw Lan wearing the green dress she used to wear when we’d go to Club 33, where I played with Hamp. I saw that dress with its ribbons, its bow, some kind of decoration on the side, and a collar. . . . Not at the same time, but in reality I was walking around Lan’s dress and examining it slowly. And then I looked at Lan’s face and the boys’ faces, and then I remembered Mike who used to live in the room next door, and how Mike had told me a story about wild horses in Colorado, and how he worked on a ranch, and how he boasted about taming those horses . . .”

“Johnny,” Dédée says from her corner. “You see, I’m telling you only a little bit of everything I was thinking and seeing. How long have I been telling you this little bit?”

“I don’t know, let’s say about two minutes,” I said.

“Let’s say about two minutes,” Johnny repeats. “Two minutes and I’ve told you only a little bit. If I told you everything I saw the boys doing, and Hamp playing ‘Save It, Pretty Mama,’ and me listening to every note, you understand, every single note, and Hamp isn’t one to slack off, and if I told you I also heard my old lady recite a real long prayer, where she talked about cabbage, I think, asked for forgiveness for my old man and for me, and said something about some cabbage . . . Anyway, if I told you in detail it would take more than two minutes, right, Bruno?”

“If you really heard and saw all that, it would take at least a quarter of an hour,” I said laughing. “It would take at least a quarter of an hour, right, Bruno? So you tell me, how could it be that suddenly I feel the Metro coming to a stop, and I leave my old lady and Lan and all of that, and I see we’re at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which is exactly one and a half minutes from Odéon.”

I never worry much about the things Johnny tells me, but now, with the way he’s looking at me, I feel chilled.

“Barely a minute and a half by your time, by that time,” Johnny says bitterly.

“And also by the Metro’s time and my watch’s time, goddamn them. So, how could I have been thinking for a quarter of an hour, hey, Bruno? How can you think for a quarter of an hour in a minute and a half? I swear, that day I hadn’t taken even a single toke, not a single leaf,” he adds like a little boy making excuses. “Then it happened to me again, now it happens to me everywhere. But,” he adds with cunning, “it’s only on the Metro that I realize what’s happening, because riding the Metro is like being inside a clock. The stations are the minutes, you understand, but it’s your time, this time; but I know there’s another one, and I’ve been thinking, thinking . . .”

He covers his face with his hands and trembles. I wish I’d already left, and I don’t know how to say goodbye without Johnny getting offended, because he’s terribly sensitive when it comes to his friends. If he keeps going like this it’ll do him harm; at least with Dédée he won’t talk about these things.

“Bruno, if only I could always live like I do at those moments, and like when I’m playing and time changes, too . . . You realize what could happen in a minute and a half . . . So a man, not just me, but that one and you and all the boys, they could live hundreds of years, if we could figure out how to live a thousand times more than what we’re living because of those watches, that obsession with minutes and the day before yesterday . . .”

I smile as best I can, vaguely realizing that he’s right, but what he reckons and my feelings about what he reckons are going to vanish like they always do the minute I get outside and return to my own life. At this moment I’m sure Johnny is saying something that doesn’t come only from his being half crazy, from reality slipping away from him and leaving him in some kind of parody that he transforms into hope. Everything Johnny tells me at moments like these aren’t things you can listen to and promise yourself you’ll come back to later. The minute you’re outside, the minute it’s a memory and not Johnny who’s repeating those words, everything becomes some marijuana-induced fantasy, a monotonous grasping, and after the awe comes the irritation, and at least for me what happens is I feel like Johnny’s been pulling my leg. But that always happens the following day, not when Johnny is telling it to me, because that’s when I feel like something somewhere is about to give, like a light is trying to go on, or more like something needs to be broken, busted open from top to bottom like with a log, when you stick in a wedge and pound it all the way in. And Johnny isn’t strong enough to pound anything, and I don’t even know what kind of hammer you’d need to pound in a wedge that I also can’t imagine.

This part, where Johnny tries to describe his experience, that’s my personal experience on the Paris Metro. Here’s where you people can believe me or not, but it’s what’s usually called getting distracted, daydreaming, and nobody really knows what it is because when we’re little, our mothers and teachers teach us not get distracted, and they even punish us, and maybe (without meaning to) they’ve been depriving us ever since our early childhoods of one among many possibilities of finding a certain kind of opening.

In my case, I get distracted, and out of that arises what later becomes those fantastic short stories, which are the reason we are here together right now. Something different enters through those distracted states: a different space and time. I’ll never forget it — and I tried to tell it the best I could in the words of Johnny Parker . . . Johnny Carter — those feelings I had of fear, panic, awe, all at the same time, that day when I saw the connection for the first time that in the amount of time it had taken to go through two Metro stops standing up with a lot of people (and I knew perfectly well, as I could have proven the next day if I’d wanted to, that those two stations had taken exactly two minutes) I had also gone over a long trip I had taken with a friend in the north of Argentina in 1942, everything that had happened throughout the course of weeks, months, I even paused at certain particulars, feeling that particular pleasure you get from a memory when you have the time and start to think and get lost in thought. Then suddenly the Metro stops, and I see that I have to get off and only two minutes have passed. My internal time — the time when all of that had been going on in my mind — couldn’t possibly have been two minutes. I couldn’t even begin to recount it, even if I raced through the story. It’s like what happens in some dreams that have elaborate plots but last only fractions of a second — according to people who understand those things. That means that there’s an alteration of time there, too. How is it possible that our memory of a dream when we wake up and when we tell it to someone can take ten minutes, and according to the experts, it happened in that fraction of a second after the alarm that set it off started to ring? It’s the same mechanism as in the stories.

I’ve talked about this personal experience of mine because, remember, at the beginning I said that I was a very realistic child for the simple reason that the fantastic never seemed like the fantastic but rather like one of many possibilities or existences that reality can present to us when, for some immediate or indirect reason, we manage to open ourselves up to the unexpected. That’s probably where fantastic literature comes from; in any case, that’s where my stories come from. It’s not escapism; it’s a contribution to living more deeply in this reality, the one in which we must now say goodbye, until the next class, or you can ask me some questions.

Student: Can you talk a little about “The Night Face Up”?

I had planned to in the next class, but we can change time, since that’s what we’re talking about, and that way we’ll transform the future into the present; it’s very easy to do with words.

“The Night Face Up” is based partially on a personal experience. I should have already said — I’ll take the opportunity now because it might be helpful to those of you who want to find the deepest possible readings of some of my stories, to not stop at first impressions — that in my case, fantastic stories have often come from dreams, especially nightmares. One of the stories that critics have given a lot of attention to — and they’ve found an infinite number of interpretations — is a little story called “House Taken Over,” the first story in my first book of stories, which resulted from a nightmare I had one summer morning.

I remember the circumstances exactly, and the nightmare ended exactly how the story ended, except in the nightmare I was alone and in the story I split myself up into two siblings who live in a house where a fantastic event takes place. I remember the nightmare perfectly, and it follows the story exactly; or rather, vice versa. I woke up with the anxious feeling one has at the end of a nightmare, and I remember jumping out of bed, still in my pajamas, and going to my typewriter, and that same morning I wrote the story, right then and there. The story contains the nightmare, all its elements; then there’s just the splitting of the characters and certain intellectual additions — references to culture, literature, the history of the era — and the description of the house. All of that got incorporated as I was writing, but the nightmare was still there. Dreams have always been one of the engines of my fantastic short stories, and they still are.

“The Night Face Up” is almost a dream, and perhaps it’s even more complex. I had a motorcycle accident in Paris in 1953, a really stupid accident that I’m pretty proud of, because in order not to kill an old lady . . . After the police investigation, it came out that she was really very old and had confused the green light for the red one. Anyway, she began to cross the street at the very moment the light changed and when I was going to cross with my motorcycle. I tried to brake, and I swerved and ended up with the motorcycle on top of me, then spent a month and a half in the hospital.

During that month and a half with my leg very badly broken (as you can see, there’s a lot of surface to break), an infection, an almost-fractured skull, and a horrible fever, I spent many days in a semi-delirious state in which everything around me took on nightmarish aspects. Some things were beautiful, such as the water in the bottle, which I saw like a luminous bubble; I loved my water bottle, which I could see by turning my head a little. Then I’d feel comfortable and peaceful and suddenly realize I was in bed. At that moment, the worst since the accident, it was all there; in one fell swoop I saw everything, the mechanism of a perfectly executed story, and all I had to do was write it down. You might think this is paradoxical, but I’m ashamed to sign my name to my stories because I have the feeling that they were dictated to me, that I’m not the real author. I’m not going to come here with a little three-legged table, but sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of a medium that conveys or receives something else.

Student: Who knows?

Who knows, indeed, it remains an open question. The thing is, all at once I saw the story, which I am going to have to retell in order to explain its mechanism a little. In it, the fantastic is absolute; the attempt is to completely invert reality. A man — in this case, me — has a motorcycle accident, they take him to the hospital, all of this you know. He falls asleep and discovers he is a Mexican Indian fleeing in the middle of the night because he is being chased. As happens in dreams, when we know everything without the need for an explanation, I, or rather the person dreaming, knows that he belongs to the Moteca tribe, a tribe I invented and that a critic thought was derived from the protagonist having a motorcycle, which shows the dangers of purely rational thought when looking for associations in certain ways. The Moteca knows he’s being chased by the Aztecs, it’s that stage of their civilization that we all know about, the War of the Flowers. In order to offer sacrifices to their gods, the Aztecs hunted their enemies, captured them alive, surrounded them with flowers, brought them to Tenochtitlan, and kept them in a dungeon. On their god’s feast day, they carried them to the top of their pyramid and cut out their hearts. We know about this through the codices and the chronicles. I’ve always been very intrigued by the War of the Flowers, because it seems like such a beautiful and peaceful thing, to capture your adversary alive, surround him with flowers, and take him to a party. What a party! Naturally, the Moteca knows perfectly well what awaits him, and he flees in despair; he runs and feels his pursuers getting closer and closer, then suddenly wakes up. Of course, he wakes up in the hospital; he’s the man who had the accident. He wakes up with his leg in a cast and his bottle of water, and he is relieved to realize that it was only a dream. He falls asleep again, and again the dream starts up, and he’s still being chased, and they are getting closer and closer. This time he still manages to wake up, but it has become more and more difficult, it takes a huge effort, he himself doesn’t know how to get out of that place where he’s being hunted so he can once again be in the hospital. Then he begins to fight sleep, but he has a fever and is very sick, very weak, and he falls asleep again. That’s the moment they throw the lasso over him and capture him, take him to a dungeon, and put him there to wait for his turn to be sacrificed.

One last time, I think, I don’t quite remember, he manages to wake up for a moment; yes, he wakes up. . . . You’re nodding your head. . . . He wakes up and he has this desperate desire to touch something, to cling to reality, because he feels he’s being sucked into that horrific nightmare. But everything gets blurry, and he can’t hold onto anything, and he sinks once again into the nightmare. Then the priests enter and they start to carry him up the steps of the pyramid. At the top he sees the sacrificer, who is waiting there with the jade or obsidian knife dripping in blood. With one last surge of willpower, he tries to wake up. At that moment he has a revelation, he realizes that he is not going to wake up, that this is reality, that he is a man who dreamed he lived in a very strange city with tall buildings and red and green lights, and that he was riding on some kind of metal insect. He has all these thoughts as they are carrying him up to be sacrificed.
That is the plot of the story that I think posits a total inversion of reality and the fantastic, and leaves room, of course, for different interpretations. Perhaps we should add something more but let’s leave that for next time. Okay?

Student: In Hopscotch, there’s a short section that takes place in the Club, when they are talking about the importance of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle for literature. I’d like to know how that is important, and if you have taken the notion of altering time from that principle.

Certainly. I’m an avid reader of Le Monde, which comes out in Paris, and every Thursday — I think — it publishes a science section for those of us who are not scientists. I always read those pages with a lot of interest, because that’s my way of understanding certain things that for me are part of the fantastic, such as the concept of antimatter. You all know that physicists deal with the notion of antimatter, which is just as real as matter. As far as they’re concerned, that material exists and, moreover, on the level of the atom (and here I can’t explain it any further) there are forces that are the opposite of matter but they are also valid and have a reality. I learn such things reading Le Monde, and that’s also how I once learned that Heisenberg postulated what is called — you said it — the uncertainty principle, which I think comes from the era of Oppenheimer and Einstein. When you reach the very peak of research in mathematics and physics, a territory of uncertainty opens up where things can be or not, where the mathematical laws don’t apply as they do on lower levels. Undoubtedly, this is only somewhat as I’ve described it, but it interested me a lot because it’s exactly the same process that occurs in certain literature and poetry: just when you reach the limits of expression — whether it’s the expression of the fantastic or of the lyrical in poetry — just beyond begins a territory where everything is possible and everything is uncertain. At the same time, there is that tremendous force some things have, and without revealing themselves they seem to be signaling to us, gesturing to us so that we go looking for them and meet them halfway. This is what fantastic literature, when it’s for real, is always proposing. So it seemed to me that this uncertainty principle is stimulating for literature — the fact that a physicist can assert that there are things that are not necessarily a certain way, that they can be otherwise, and that scientifically there is no way to calculate them or measure them and yet they are still perfectly valid, perfectly operative. People who are, as they say, “men of letters” (that expression is very funny: men made of letters, alphabet soup . . .) have for a long time had something of an inferiority complex next to scientists. Scientists live within a satisfying system of laws, where everything can be proven; they advance along a path and find new laws that explain the previous ones and vice versa. In literature, we are playing this marvelous game of many-colored blocks — the alphabet game — and everything comes from that, from the first spoken or written word to my published book and being here tonight in Berkeley. Everything comes from those twenty-eight signs — or however many, depending on the alphabet.

We’ve always felt inferior to scientists because we’ve thought of literature as a kind of hybrid art, which includes fantasy, imagination, truth, lies, any proposition, any theory, any possible combination. We often run the risk of taking a wrong path, going in false directions, and scientists seem so calm, so confident and trustworthy. Well, none of that has ever existed for me, but when I read about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, I said to myself, “Hey, they’re just like us! There comes a moment in their research, too, in their meditations — precisely the most elevated, the most arduous — when suddenly they start to lose their bearings and the ground starts to move under their feet, because there is no certainty, the only thing that’s valid is the principle of uncertainty!” So, that’s the explanation.


A new translation of Literature Class, which collects all of Cortázar’s Berkeley lectures, is out now from New Directions.

Julio Cortázar (1914–1984): An Argentine novelist, poet, essayist, and short-story writer, Cortázar was born in Brussels. After moving permanently to France in 1951, he gradually gained recognition as one of this century’s major experimental writers. His works reflect the influence of French surrealism, psychoanalysis, and his love of both photography and jazz, along with a strong commitment to revolutionary Latin American politics.

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