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two worlds


Reflections in Cortázar

And on the car’s antenna the red-cross flag waved madly, and you moved at fifty-three miles an hour toward the lights that kept growing, not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among unknown cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead.

—“The Southern Thruway”

In this story, in the end, the common experience of our base existence is what we remember best. Eating, drinking, pissing, making love, surviving exciting and dangerous circumstances. Surviving. For Cortázar, a problem begins when we walk from a to b and don’t recognize the surrounding humanity. We’re losing all this rich experience.

People in traffic are human, of course, and also not at all. They are cars—either in the way or out of it, bad drivers or good, annoyingly variegated or soothingly consistent. No one is interested in the other, only in one’s own journey and the time it is taking to get there. Freeways are elevated above “surface streets” and up there you can lose yourself to the task, above it all, civilization and its problems, its narrow lanes and alleys, its contradictions and common frustrations.

There was nothing to do but give in to the pace, adapt mechanically to the speed of the cars around, and not think.

Only in the traffic ‘jam’ do you catch the sudden smell of people. There they are, on every side. We still try to refuse them, our windows rolled up, our music playing loudly. Eventually we chance furtive glances, eavesdrop, begin to communicate through common gestures (‘can you believe this? I mean, so typical, right?), a nod of the head, an exasperated shrug.

“The Southern Thruway,” both in theme and style reminds me of Calvino, something from Marcovaldo or Difficult Loves: a gradually-soaked, profound realization within the world of the quotidian and universal task. Cortázar writes it beautifully, in a slow spiraling, and with more of his trademark grit and juxtaposing observation than Calvino would ever allow.

Nearly all the stories is this collection, All Fires the Fire, are based upon this jarring world-duality. “The Southern Thruway” on the detachment of both freeways and the people on them; “The Health of the Sick” on the detachment of those dead from those living; “Nurse Cora” on the suspension of outside-world emotions while within the hospital; “The Island at Noon” is an idyllic world seen from a passing plane, an image epitomizing the idea of two separate worlds at one point, occupying one space; “Instructions for John Howell” on the dramatic separation of worlds and theatrical suspension of disbelief; “All Fires the Fire” is set both in present-day Paris and ancient provincial Rome.

In “The Other Heaven,” the other real gem of the book, Cortázar tells the story of a nostalgic stockbroker, a former Parisian lover confronting a basic faced-with-domesticity life crisis. Again, Cortázar is not only interested in different points-of-view but, more intensely, in different worlds. These worlds are both separate from one another (in the obvious sense) and sublimely interlinked. His task is to jar you with fiercely contrasting consciousnesses, which two (or, occasionally, more than two) are selfish, violent, exceedingly self-conscious, fearful, distrustful, haughty, confused, disillusioned, and in other ways typical of the intellectual post-modernist of the 1960s.

What makes Cortázar so unique (or, ‘surreal’) is the distance he goes into and dances among these separate worlds, often without any formal warning or stylistic break, no delineation from one to the other; and what makes it so good is his ability to continue to describe in minute and original detail the everyday mundane objects and ideas and thoughts and trials of each man in each world, thus bringing the worlds thematically together while keeping their settings apart.

Alienation, certainly, is his big topic. As is otherness, especially South American otherness and, in this particular story, heavenly/happiness’ otherness.

I was also reading this recently:

At the end of a long day of showing everybody our I.D.’s in public places all for the cause, we’d drive through the clouds of burning oil to our worthless houses and we peel off our socks and throw them onto the floors. Our houses couldn’t keep their value or our secrets, but at least they could keep our televisions out of the rain.

-Ron Carlson, “My America House Car Store”

The house-car-store/store-car-house version of everyday isolation, from Carlson’s Room Service collection.

Eventually, I wish to write a lengthy treatise on Automobile Traffic and the Driver’s Consciousness in America. Until then, let’s enjoy our commute.


From → Readings

One Comment
  1. Grant permalink

    Yes, you should write it. But perhaps not a “lengthy treatise,” which might be seen as a long drudge paralleling the lengthy commutes you’d be writing about (in part). Perhaps begin exploring the theme as a sequence of prose poems? Reduce. Dance on the rail between essay and poetry, and see how the air moves around you and through you.

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