Sunday, April 03, 2005

Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire? (1)

As far as I can recall, it's been at least twenty years — maybe more like twenty-five — since I last read Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch). Since I've long regarded it as one of the foundations of my outlook on life, I'm starting to re-read it again, which I plan on doing slowly, taking breaks now and then when something else of interest is at hand. I read Spanish, but not with the facility that I do my own language, so I'm keeping Gregory Rabassa's estimable translation handy for the times when I need it. In general, when I start reading a book in Spanish the first few chapters are slow going; then once I get accustomed (or re-accustomed) to the author's way of writing and particular vocabulary I can pick up the pace and dispense with the re-reading I often have to do at first. Rayuela is not an easy book (though not, to be sure, as tough going as Lezama Lima's Paradiso, which was tough sledding even in translation — Rabassa's as well — though well worth it).

Reading the first few chapters I'm surprised both at how much I remember in some ways (sentences nearly verbatim, details of description, etc.) and how much I had forgotten (whole characters, in at least one case thus far). And of course, as with any dense, rich book, I'm coming across things that had never struck me before (or maybe they did, but I've just forgotten).

In one of the “expendable chapters” (#84) I found this little bit (via Rabassa):
Imagination has been praised to excess. The poor thing cannot move an inch away from the limits of its pseudopods. In this direction, great variety and vivacity. But in the other space, where the cosmic wind that Rilke felt pass over his head blows, Dame Imagination does not go. Ho detto.
There are several things worth noting here, in one short paragraph. The ho detto (Italian for “I have spoken”) may or may not allude to the “previous” chapter (which is chapter 3 if you're following the longer of the book's two alternative courses and reading the book hopscotch-style), in which Cortazár describes how in his childhood he had first come up against the unappealable Hispano-Italo-Argentine ¡Se lo digo yo! [...] Glielo dico io! — "I say so!” — with which his elders could settle any argument. The pseudopods are explained earlier in chapter 84: people begin like amoebas, but as they grow up their pseudopods harden (“what we call maturity”). But what really interests me here is the reference to the imagination. A few years after the book was published, during the political tumult of 1968 Paris, the words L'imagination au pouvoir! were found scrawled on a wall; it would become, for Cortázar, a key text, a motto, and in some ways it can serve as an epigraph/epitaph for his entire life. But Rayuela is plumbing the depths well below such easy slogans. It may be that Cortázar, who became more politicized as the Sixties and Seventies wore on (in part, it is said, because of the events of 1968), stepped back from the existential abyss across which the “cosmic wind” was whistling, but I doubt he would ever have disowned the paragraph above. The truest test of intellectual honesty is not the ability to see to the bottom of others' convictions, but the willingness to confront the limitations — perhaps even the vacuity — of one's own deepest-held beliefs. I don't think I've yet come to the bottom of the darkness of this very dark book.

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