Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Las fases de Severo

The following discussion of a Julio Cortázar short story was written in 1980 as part of a longer project. At some point in the future I may post other sections as well, but this one seemed, with a little re-working, to be self-contained enough to post on its own. Were I writing this now I might choose to explore additional avenues, including the symbolic employment of moths in Cortázar's work, and some affinities with some scenes in Harry Mathews' novel The Conversions. The translations were almost certainly my own, as they don't exactly match the official version by Gregory Rabassa which was published that same year in the collection A Change of Light.

“Las fases de Severo” (“Severo's Phases”) is a relatively brief and simple story that nevertheless manages to be irreducibly uncanny. Said to be inspired by the paintings of Remedios Varo (to whose memory it is dedicated), it takes place in a house in Argentina, where the friends and relatives of a man named Severo have gathered for what appears to be his wake, or more accurately, his death-watch:
Como a las once de la noche habíamos llegado con Ignacio, el Bebe Pessoa y mi hermano Carlos. Eramos un poco de la familia, sobre todo Ignacio que trabajaba en la misma oficina de Severo, y entramos sin que se fijaran demasiado en nosotros. El hijo mayor de Severo nos pidió que pasaramos al dormitorio, pero Ignacio dijo que nos quedaríamos un rato en el comedor; en la casa había gente por todas partes, amigos o parientes que tampoco querían molestar y se iban sentado en los rincones o se juntaban al lado de una mesa o de un aparador para hablar o mirarse.

Around eleven at night we had arrived with Ignacio, Bebe Pessoa, and my brother Carlos. We were practically part of the family, especially Ignacio who worked in the same office as Severo, and we came in without anyone taking particular notice of us. Severo's oldest son asked us to go into the bedroom, but Ignacio said we would stay a while in the dining room. In the house there were people everywhere, friends or relatives who didn't want to get in the way either and who were sitting down in corners or gathering by a table or a sideboard to talk and regard each other.
After a while Severo's brother appears and announces the beginning of la fase del sudor, the sweating phase. In the bedroom to which everyone now repairs, Severo is seen sitting up in bed, his hands on his knees. The congregants gather around the bed to witness the unfolding events:
A diferencia de otros que según Ignacio tendían a impacientarse, Severo se quedaba inmóvil, sin siquiera mirarnos, y casi en seguida el sudor le había cubierto la cara y las menos.

Unlike others who according to Ignacio tended to become impatient, Severo remained still, even without looking at us, and almost immediately sweat had recovered his face and hands.
This sweating phase is the first in a series whose order is not completely fixed but which is apparently familiar to the onlookers and not unique to Severo's case. When it is over the narrator and some of the others step out of the room while Severo is dried off and changed. Word then comes that the next phase is beginning, “the leaping phase”:
Ignacio se bebió el café de un trago … Fue de los que se ubicuaron cerca de la cama, con la mujer de Severo y el chico menor que se reía porque la mano derecha de Severo osciliaba como un metrónomo … Severo dio el primer salto y quedó sentado al borde de la cama … Los saltos se sucedían rítmicamente: sentado al borde de la cama, sentado contra la cabecera, sentado en el borde opuesto … Cuando la mujer de Severo anunció el fin de la fase, todos empezaron a hablar al mismo tiempo y a felicitar a Severo que estaba como ajeno …

Ignacio drank the coffee in one gulp … He was one of those who took a place by the bed, with Severo's wife and his youngest son who laughed because Severo's right hand was oscillating like a metronome … Severo made the first leap and remained seated on the edge of the bed … The leaps passed rhythmically; sitting on the edge of the bed, sitting against the headboard: sitting on the opposite edge … When Severo's wife announced the end of the phase we all began to talk at once and to congratulate Severo, who seemed as if he wasn't there …
When it's clear that the phase of the moths is about to begin the ceiling lamp is turned off and an acetylene lamp is brought in. Moths flock into the room and begin circling around the lamp. One large moth breaks away, flies to Severo's bed, and alights on his cheek, followed by the rest of the moths, who cover his hair and face; only one moth still circles the lamp. For the relatives and friends watching it is a moment of great tension:
Sentí que los dedos de Ignacio se me clavaban en el antebrazo, y sólo entonces me di cuenta de que también yo temblaba y tenía una mano hundida en el hombro del Bebe. Alguién gimió, una mujer, problamente Manuelita que no sabía dominarse como los demás …

I felt Ignacio's fingers digging into my forearm, and only then did I notice that I too was trembling and that I had a hand sunk into Bebe's shoulder. Someone screamed, a woman, probably Manuelita who didn't know how to control herself like the others …
When the final moth flies up to Severo's face a general shout rings out, someone turns on the ceiling light again, and the moths fly out of the room. Again there is a general exodus while Severo is washed and prepared for the next phase; the narrator and his friends drink grapa. There is a brief exchange between the narrator and Ignacio, who seems to be particularly knowledgeable about these matters:
— Si la última polilla hubiera elegido — … empecé. Ignacio hizo una lente señal negativa con la cabeza.

“If the last moth had chosen … ” I began. Ignacio shook his head slowly.
In the next phase, “the phase of numbers,” Severo, sitting up, his hands in the pockets of his pajamas, looks at each person in the room and addresses each in turn, pronouncing a single number:
Mirando a su hijo mayor dijo: “6,” mirando a su mujer dijo: “23,” con una voz tranquila y desde abajo, sin apurarse.

Looking at his oldest son he said: “6,” looking at his wife he said: “23,” with a tranquil voice, from below, without hurrying.
The narrator is assigned the number two. Eventually the number one falls to a quiet woman, probably a distant relative. A few more numbers are given out after this, but in contrast to the hushed anticipation with which the earlier ones had been received they are no longer given much attention. Another bit of conversation outside the room afterwards assures us of the importance of the numbers without telling us in so many words exactly just what they portend:
— Por supuesto es una cuestión de tiempo — me dijo Ignacio cuando salimos del dormitorio — Los números por sí mismos no quieren decir nada, che.

— ¿A vos te parece? — le pregunté —

— Pero claro, che — dijo Ignacio — Fíjate que del 1 al 2 pueden pasar años, pónele diez o veinte, en una de esas mas.

— Seguro — apoyó el Bebe — . Yo que vos no me afligía.

“Of course it's a question of when,” Ignacio said to me as we left the bedroom. “The numbers themselves don't mean anything, friend.”

“You think so?” I asked.

“But of course, friend,” Ignacio said. “Understand that from the 1 to the 2 years could pass, ten or twenty maybe, sometimes more.”

“Sure,” Bebe concurred. “If I were you I wouldn't get upset.”
The actual significance of the numbers depends, we are told, on the final phase, “the phase of the watches.” Again Severo speaks to each person in the room, informing each in turn that their timepieces are, in their respective cases, either fast or slow by a certain number of minutes. Severo's youngest son — the same one who had laughed earlier — does not understand when Severo speaks to him, and he laughs again. His mother removes his watch to change the time for him:
Sabíamos que era un gesto simbólico, bastaba simplemente adelantar o astrasar las agujas sin fijarse en el número de horas o minutos, puesto que al salir de la habitación volveríamos a poner los relojes en hora.

We knew that it was a symbolic gesture, it was enough to simply advance or turn back the hands without noting the number of hours or minutes, because once we were out of the room we would put the watches back on the correct time.
The narrator is told that his watch is slow. This constitutes “an advantage,” a potential extenuation of the inauspiciously low number he had received in the previous phase.

The phase completed, there is another exodus, more grapa, until word arrives that “sleep is about to come.” Severo lies in bed, looking up, “motionless and indifferent.” Eventually he closes his eyes and a daughter lays over his face a handkerchief into which she had previously sewn four coins. Severo's wife closes the vigil saying, “And now he will sleep … Now he's asleep, look.” The room empties except for a few close family members, and the participants in the vigil begin to leave. Severo's youngest son, the one who had laughed during the phase of the leaps, walks outside with the narrator and his friends:
— ¿No juegan mas? — me preguntó …

— No, ahora hay que ira a dormir — le dije — Tu mamá te va a acostar, ándate adentro que hace frio.

— ¿Era un juego, verdad, Julio?

— Sí, viejo, era un juego. Anda a dormir, ahora.

“Aren't they playing anymore?” he asked …

“No, now it's time to go to sleep,” I told him. “Your mama will put you to bed, go on inside, it's cold.”

“It was a game, wasn't it, Julio?”

“Yes, old man, it was a game. Go to bed now.”
The adults walk down the street together for a while, smoking, then separate to take their ways home.

It's perfectly clear, from the preparations, from the gathering of friends and relatives, from the end of the evening in Severo's “sleep,” that “Las fases de Severo” is about death, and yet at no time does anyone use the word. The narrative is oblique; the nature of the phrases, the significance of the numbers given out, are things that are assumed to be understood, not things that are to be revealed. We aren't told what happened to Severo, or why he is going through the process on this particular night.

The evening's events have the character of ritual, in the coins sewn into the handkerchief (for Charon), in the purely symbolic advancing or turning back of the watches, in the details of the phases themselves. Yet the phases contain both natural and conventional elements. (The distinction between the two must be something only those — like the reader — who do not participate in the ritual attempt to make.) The complicity of the moths, the apparent oracular possession of Severo, the voluntary changing of the sheets and switching on and off of lights by the attendants, all are elements of a whole. It is a scene from primitive religion, yet the setting is urban Latin America, presumably Buenos Aires, and the narrator seems like an ordinary middle-class city-dweller of the 20th century.

The questions posed by Severo's little son at the end of the story show that he hasn't yet been initiated into the mysteries of the ritual of the phases, that he doesn't understand its significance and accept it in the way the adults do. To him it's all a game. But whose view of the ceremony is correct: his, or that of his elders? On the one hand the boy clearly doesn't yet understand the gravity and horror of death, doesn't understand that his father has been taken from the family forever. And he hasn't been socialized into what the adults accept as a given, that the bizarre ritual of the phases is a natural ceremony, or at least (to take a phrase from another story about ritual, “Con legitimo orgullo”) a ceremony that it “has its reason for being.” Yet there is something unsettling, and demystifying, about the boy's questions, as if the ritual were in fact merely an elaborate make-believe in which everyone, Severo included, only pretends to have faith.

Like all mourning customs, the ceremony of the phases is an attempt to domesticate death within the bounds of an social framework, in this case one that includes the participation of natural (or supernatural) actors. The boy challenges that domestication, and in so doing he shakes the underpinnings of the adults' carefully constructed defenses against death. The ending of the story is decidedly uneasy, as the adults walk away smoking cigarettes, sin hablar mucho — without talking much — and when the narrator gets home he gives an excuse for not going to sleep that is distinctly unconvincing:
Yo subiría a mi pieza y pondría a calentar la pava del mate, total no valía la pena acostarse por tan poco tiempo, mejor ponerse las zapatillas y fumar y tomar mate, esas cosas que ayudan.

I would go up to my room and put the mate kettle on, in the end it wasn't worth the effort to go to bed for such a little time, it was better to put on my slippers and smoke and drink mate, these things that help.
His lingering unease is evidence of the frailty of the elaborate charade in which the narrator and his fellows have just participated. In the end death eludes every effort to tame it.

No comments: