Monday, April 11, 2005

Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire? (2)

For the uninitiated, the above is the opening phrase of Chapter 73 of Gregory Rabassa's translation of Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch), which I am slowly re-reading. Chapter 73 being the first chapter, or rather a first chapter, not counting epigraphs and the “Table of Instructions” in which it is explained that there are at least two ways to read the book: in the usual order from Chapter 1 to Chapter 56, or following the table, beginning with Chapter 73 then proceeding to Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 116, Chapter 3, etc., and concluding (or rather not concluding, as the final chapters cycle endlessly) with Chapter 131. The word Rabassa translates as “dull” is sordo, which is the same word that is used for our English “deaf,” but which can also mean silent, muffled, mute, etc. “Dull” seems a dull choice of word, but honestly I can't think of a better one. The Spanish is Sí, pero quién nos curará del fuego sordo... As to what the “dull fire” is all about, the only real insight one could gain would come through reading the book, which I urge you to do, if you are so inclined. Otherwise, no matter.

Cortázar loved jazz, dabbled in playing it (on the trumpet, and apparently not very well), and wrote some of his most interesting essays or quasi-essays about it (the best being “Louis enormísimo cronopio,” about Louis Armstrong). In Rayuela there is one long set-piece, broken up over several chapters, in which the various members of the Club of the Serpent, a diverse group of exiles and bohemians resident in Paris, spend an evening getting drunk on bad vodka and listening to old jazz 78s (and blues 78s as well, though Cortázar generally and with some justice lumps them together as “jazz”). In Chapter 17 this culminates in a bravura sentence, running more than two pages, in which the narrator poses what could be called a metaphysical defense of jazz, winding up with these words:
... an archetypal form, something from before, from below, that brings Mexicans together with Norwegians and Russians and Spaniards, that reincorporates them into the dark and forgotten central flame, clumsily and badly and precariously it returns them to a betrayed origin, it shows them that perhaps there have been other paths and that the one they took was maybe not the only one or the best one, or that perhaps there have been other paths and that the one they took was the best, but that perhaps there were other paths that would have been sweet to walk down and that they didn't take, or that they took only in a halfhearted sort of way, and that a man is always more than a man and always less than a man, more than a man because he has in himself all that jazz suggests and lies in wait for and even anticipates, and less than a man because out of this liberty he has made a moral or esthetic game, a chessboard where one must be either bishop or knight, a definition of liberty which is taught in school, in the very schools where the kids are never taught ragtime rhythm or the first notes of the blues, and so forth and so on.

(Rabassa's translation, somewhat modified)
The above could well be seen as a manifesto for the novel in which it occurs, perhaps even a manifesto for Cortázar's work and life as a whole.

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