Monday, September 29, 2008



Many years ago, when I was a kid, I remember someone demonstrating how you could catch a frog by peeling off the red cellophane strip from a pack of cigarettes, attaching it to a hook, and dangling it in front of the amphibian's nose. Unlike fish, who could often be fussy about what a lure looked like and whether it resembled what they're accustomed to eating, the frog didn't seem to care that the cellophane didn't look in the least like an insect or anything else that might be regarded as suitable prey; it responded only to motion, instinctively and without discrimination. It's worked for 200 million years, so why complicate things?

What the frog appeared to lack was an idea of its prey. Does, on the other hand, the motionless heron in the marsh, waiting for a fish — or our hapless frog — to swim within range of its beak, have such an idea, a mental image of what it has caught before and may expect to see again? I'm not up on the research on animal minds, but I'd be surprised if it didn't. And anyone who thinks that a dog, waiting in a silent house at the end of an afternoon, is less capable of not just expecting but imagining its owner's imminent arrival than the man now driving home is able to envision the dog waiting behind the door, can't have spent much time around dogs.

But it doesn't matter where we draw the line in our ancestral journey up from mindless invertebrate wriggling, whether at the birth of the first mammal or the first primate or at Lascaux. The inescapable fact is that at some point along the way we became capable of experiencing in our minds things that are not there. And the moment we can form an image of something, whether in pictures or sounds or ideas, we enter a world of ghosts, because an image, by definition, is separate from the thing it represents and takes on a life of its own.

Like most people, I regularly communicate with people whom I have never seen or even spoken to. Technology has made this faster and more pervasive, but in essence the phenomenon dates back to the birth of writing. A scribe picked up a stylus and incised a row of signs in a tablet of clay, and the signs escaped him and bore away their signals to be read by others in another city or another time, even long after the cities had fallen into ruins and the scribe's language had vanished from the tongues of men.

As Derrida famously showed, even spoken language itself is, in essence, another form of writing, of inscription, not the other way around. Like writing, our spoken words — even our imagined words — are no more than the trace of a presence whose own existence is hypothetical except as revealed in its trace. But I'm not really all that interested in the philosophical problems this raises, as provocative (and unresolvable) as they are.

What does interest me is the psychological landscape that such a discovery supposes. Because we are conscious and capable of imagining things that are not immediately present, we live among memories, fantasies, anticipations, fictions, conversations recollected and imagined. We draw distinctions, naturally, between what is real and what we only imagine, but the border turns out to be surprisingly permeable. We can, for instance, be moved to tears or laughter by a movie knowing full well that we are only witnessing flickering patterns of light, shadow, and sound, knowing that the actors are not who they pretend to be, that they may be dead or may even, in the case of animation and computer graphics, have never drawn a breath at all.

And what of those who are real (or were) but whom we imagine when they are not there, whom we perhaps imagine, at times, as they are not and have never been? What ghost world do they enter, the moment they step out of sight?


Today on my way back to work from picking up lunch I spotted a large praying mantis on the sidewalk. The mantis seemed sound in body but I wasn't sure how long she'd stay that way if she remained where she was, so I gently urged her from behind until she had climbed up onto a wall into at least temporary safety. I could have captured her and brought her home, but what do I know of where a mantis wants to be?

As far as the mantis was concerned, my prodding, a signal from an alien and inconceivable world, was nothing more than a stimulus producing an enforced response. The mantis climbed, and within whatever rudimentary form of consciousness it possesses no trace of me remained.

Mantises are not common — though probably not as uncommon as one would think, being well-camouflaged — and I doubt that I see even one a year. Though they probably play some small ecological role, eating and being eaten, I suspect it would be scarcely noticed if one day they simply vanished. How many other small things have gone, and no one the wiser? But against that gray, depleted eventuality the mantis climbed the wall, vigorous but unhurried, and one of us walked away altered by the encounter.

Something — anything — that is not only this moment.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

After lunch (Julio Cortázar)

(As far as I can tell, there has never been an official English-language version of this story, which originally appeared in Final del juego in 1956 as “Después del almuerzo.” I've always had a soft spot for the piece, and the absence of a translation is a little mystifying, given Cortázar's reputation, but such are the whims of the publishing business. My translation below has, as they say, “the merit of existing”; I will gladly remove it at the request of the copyright holder. I have chosen to refer to the narrator's unnamed companion as “him,” although it could just as readily have been “it.”)
After lunch I would have preferred to stay in my room reading, but almost immediately Papa and Mama came to tell me that I had to take him for a walk that afternoon.

At first I said no, let someone else take him, please let me study in my room. I would have said more, would have explained why I didn't like having to take him out, but Papa took a step forward and started looking at me in that way I just can't resist, fixing his eyes on me so that I can feel them penetrating deeper and deeper into my face, until I'm ready to scream and I have to turn around and say yes, of course, right away. At such times Mama doesn't say anything and doesn't even look at me. She just stands back a little bit with her hands clasped together, and when I see her gray hair falling over her forehead I have to turn around and say yes, of course, right away. So then they went away without another word and I started getting dressed, my only consolation being that I could break in a pair of yellow shoes that shined and shined.

When I left my room it was two o'clock, and Aunt Encarnación said that I should look for him in the back room, which is where he always likes to settle himself in the afternoon. Aunt Encarnación must have noticed how miserable I was about having to take him out, because she ran her hand over my hair and then leaned down and gave me a kiss on the forehead. I felt her slip something into my pocket.

“So you can buy something,” she said. “And don't forget to give him a little, it's better that way.”

I kissed her on the cheek, feeling a little better, and walked past the living room door where Papa and Mama were playing checkers. I think I said see you later, something like that, and then I reached into my pocket for the five peso note, smoothed it out, and tucked it into my wallet where I already had a one peso bill and some change.

I found him in a corner of the back room and grabbed hold of him the best I could. We went out through the patio to the gate into the front yard. Once or twice I was tempted to let go of him, to go back inside and tell Papa and Mama that he didn't want to come with me, but I was sure that in the end they would bring him along and make me go with him to the front door. They had never asked me to take him downtown — it wasn't fair to ask me to do that because they knew perfectly well that the only time they had made me take him for a walk on the sidewalk that horrible thing with the Alvarez's cat had happened. I could still see the face of the cop talking with Papa in the doorway, and then Papa serving two glasses of rum, and Mama crying in her room. It just wasn't fair for them to ask me.

It had rained that morning and the sidewalks of Buenos Aires were even more of a mess than usual; you could hardly walk without getting your feet soaked in a puddle. I did what I could to walk on the dry parts and not get my new shoes wet, but right away I saw that he actually liked going into the water, and I had to tug with all my strength to keep him at my side. In spite of this he managed to get to a spot where there was one stone that was sunk deeper than the rest, and by the time I caught on he was completely soaked and had dead leaves all over him. I had to stop and clean him off, all the time feeling the eyes of the neighbors watching me from their yards, not saying anything, just watching. I don't want to lie — really I didn't care that much that they were watching (watching him, and watching me take him for a walk). What bothered me was being forced to stand there, with my handkerchief getting all wet and muddy and full of bits of dead leaves, and having to grab on to him the whole time to keep him away from the puddle. Besides, I was used to walking down the street with my hands in my pockets, whistling or chewing gum, or reading comic books while keeping an eye on the stones of the sidewalks I know by heart all the way from my house to the streetcar stop, so that I know when I'm passing in front of Tita's house or when I get to the corner of Carabobo Street. But now I couldn't do any of that, and my handkerchief was starting to soak the lining of my pocket and I felt the dampness on my leg. It was really incredible having so much bad luck at the same time.

At that hour the streetcar is usually pretty much empty, and I prayed that we'd be able to sit together, keeping him on the window side so that he'd be less of a nuisance. It's not that he moves around much, but he annoys people all the same and I understand it. So I was aghast when we got on, because the streetcar was almost full and there were no double seats unoccupied. The trip was too long for us to ride on the platform; the conductor would have made me sit down and find him a seat somewhere else. So I hurried him in and found him a spot in the middle next to a woman who had the window seat. Ideally, I would have sat behind him to keep an eye on him, but the streetcar was full and I had to keep going forward and sit quite far away. The riders didn't seem to take much notice; at that hour people are still digesting their lunches and are lulled half asleep by the rocking of the streetcar. The problem was that the conductor stopped at the side of the seat where I had left him, tapping with a coin on the steel of the ticket machine, and I had to turn around and signal to him so that he'd come get the fare from me. I held up the money so he'd understand that I was buying tickets for two, but the guard was one of those gorillas who just stare stupidly and don't even try to understand, and he just kept tapping and tapping the machine with the coin. I had to get up (and now two or three riders were watching) and make my way to the other row. “Two tickets,” I said. He punched one, looked at me a minute, then handed me the ticket and lowered his head, just kind of peering at me sideways with one eye. “Two, please,” I repeated, certain that by now everybody in the car was watching. The gorilla punched the other ticket and handed it to me; he was about to say something but I gave him the exact change and beat it to my seat without looking back. The worst part of it was that I had to keep turning around to see if he was still sitting quietly on the seat behind me, and that was bound to draw the attention of the other riders. At first I promised myself that I'd only turn around each time we reached a street corner, but the blocks seemed terribly long and at every moment I expected to hear a shout or a scream, like that time with the Alvarez's cat. Then I started counting to ten, like in a boxing match, and that worked out to about half a block. Each time I reached ten I snuck a look back, by fixing the collar on my shirt for instance, or putting my hand in my pants pocket, anything that would look like a nervous tic or something like that.

I don't know why but after about eight blocks I got the impression that the woman sitting next to him by the window wanted to get off. That really was the worst thing that could happen, because she was sure to say something to him so that he would let her out, and when he didn't notice or didn't want to notice she might get mad and try to force her way through, but I knew what would happen in that case and so I was on tenterhooks, and I started looking back well before each corner. Finally it seemed to me that she really was about to try to get up, and I could have sworn that she said something because she glanced to her side and I thought I saw her lips move. Just at that moment an old fat lady stood up from one of the seats near me and started to make her way down the aisle, and I got up behind her wanting to shove her along, give her a kick in the legs so she'd hurry and let me reach the row where the woman was lifting up a basket or something she had at her feet and now was standing up to go. Finally I think I did shove the fat lady, I heard her object, and I don't know how I managed to reach the side of the seat and haul him up in time so that the woman could get off at the corner. Then I pushed him up against the window and sat down next to him, so relieved even if four or five idiots were watching me from their seats up front and from the platform where the gorilla must have said something to them.

Now we were passing through the El Once district. The sun was shining brightly and the streets were dry. At that time of day if I'd been traveling by myself I would have gotten off the streetcar to walk the rest of the way downtown on foot. For me it's nothing to walk from El Once to the Plaza de Mayo. Once I timed myself and it took me exactly thirty-two minutes, granted that I ran part of the way, especially at the end. But now, on the other hand, I had to keep an eye on the window, because one time somebody caught on to the fact that he was capable of opening the window and tossing himself out, just for kicks, like so many of his other whims that nobody can explain. Once or twice it seemed to me that he was about to lift the window, and I had to reach around behind him and grab it by the frame. Maybe it was just me; I can't really say for sure that he was about to lift it open and jump. For example, when the thing with the inspector happened I forgot about him entirely and he didn't throw himself out. The inspector was a tall, skinny guy who appeared on the front platform and started punching tickets in that chummy way that some of the inspectors have. When he came to my seat I handed him both tickets and he punched one; then he looked down, looked at the other ticket, started to punch it and froze for a minute with the ticket poised in the jaws of the punch, and the whole time I was praying for him to just get on with it and punch it and give it back to me, because it seemed like everyone on the bus was starting to stare at us. Finally he punched it, shrugged his shoulders, and handed both tickets back, and then I heard someone on the back platform let out a laugh, though naturally I didn't want to turn around. I put my arm around him again and grabbed hold of the window, pretending I didn't see the inspector or anybody else anymore at all. At Sarmiento and Libertad people started getting off, and by the time we got to Florida there was hardly anyone left. I waited until San Martín and then I made him get down by the front platform, because I didn't want to have to pass the gorilla, who might have said something to me.

I really like the Plaza de Mayo; when somebody says downtown I immediately think of the Plaza de Mayo. I like it because of the pigeons, because of the presidential palace, and because it carries so many memories from history, of the bombs that fell when there was a revolution, and of the caudillos that said they wanted to tie up their horses at the Obelisk. There are peanut vendors and hawkers that sell things, it's easy to find an empty bench and if you want you can keep going a bit and go down to the harbor and look at the ships and the derricks. Because of that I thought that the best thing would be to bring him to the Plaza de Mayo, away from the cars and buses, and just sit there for a while until it was time to go home. But no sooner did we get off the streetcar and start walking along San Martín than I started to feel queasy; all of a sudden I noticed how tired I felt, after spending nearly an hour on the streetcar having to keep looking back the whole time, pretending I didn't see that everyone was watching me, and then the guard with the tickets, and the woman who wanted to get off, and the inspector …

I really would have liked to go into a milk bar and get an ice cream or a glass of milk, but I was sure I wouldn't be able to, that I'd regret it if I went anywhere people were sitting down and would have time to look us over. In the street people just crossed and went their own way, especially in San Martín which is full of banks and offices and where everyone bustles about with portfolios tucked under their arms. So we just kept going until we got to the corner of Cangallo, and then as we were walking past the shop windows of Peuser's, which were full of inkwells and other elegant things. I could tell he didn't want to keep going, he kept getting heavier and heavier and as hard as I tugged (trying not to draw anyone's attention) I could hardly walk and finally I had to stop in front of the last window, pretending to look at the embroidered leather desk sets. Maybe he was a little tired, maybe it wasn't just a whim. Besides, it wasn't that bad to stay there like that, but all the same I didn't like it because people going by had more time to look us over, and two or three times I noticed somebody making some remark to someone else, or elbowing them in the ribs to get their attention.

Finally I couldn't take it any more and I grabbed hold of him again, tryiong to act like someone going for an ordinary walk, but each step was harder than in those dreams where you have shoes that weigh a ton and you can hardly lift them off the ground. Eventually I got him over the idea of standing there, and we continued along San Martín to the corner of the Plaza de Mayo. Now the problem was getting across the street, because he doesn't like to cross streets. He's perfectly capable of throwing himself out a streetcar window, but crossing streets he doesn't like. The worst part is that in order to get to the Plaza de Mayo you always have to cross a busy thoroughfare; at Cangallo and Bartolomé Mitre it wouldn't have been nearly as bad, but now I was on the verge of giving up, he dragged on my hand so much, and twice when the traffic stopped and the people who were lined up on our side started to make their way across, I realized that we would never make it to the other side because he was going to plant himself right in the middle, and so I decided to wait until he made up his mind. And of course now the guy from the newsstand on the corner was staring at us more and more every minute, and he said something to a kid my age who was making faces at me and said I don't know what in return, and cars kept going by and stopping and starting up again, and there we were stuck on the sidewalk. Sooner or later a cop was bound to come by; that would have been a disaster because the cops are good guys and so are bound to stick their noses in. They start asking questions, make sure you're not lost, and at any moment he could get one of his ideas into his head and who knows how it would all end up. The more I thought about it the more nervous it made me, and finally I felt really afraid, like I was going to throw up, I swear, and when the traffic stopped again I got a good grip on him and closed my eyes and pulled him ahead practically bending over double, and when we made it to the Plaza I let go of him, took a few more steps by myself, and then I walked back to him and I really just wished that he were dead, that I were dead, or that Mama and Papa were dead and me too while you're at it, that everybody was dead and buried except for Aunt Encarnación.

But such thoughts pass quickly; we saw that there was a very nice bench, completely empty, and I took hold of him without tugging and we went and sat on the bench to watch the pigeons, who fortunately don't let themselves get caught like cats do. I bought peanuts and caramels, I gave him a few, and we were all right there with the afternoon sun shining on the Plaza de Mayo and people going this way and that. I don't know exactly when it occurred to me to leave him there. All I can remember is that I was shelling a peanut for him and at the same time I was thinking that if I pretended to be throwing something to the pigeons who were just a little further off, it would be easy to go around the Obelisk and be out of his sight. At that point I'm not sure I was thinking about when I got home or about the look on the faces of Papa and Mama, because if I had I wouldn't have done such a stupid thing. It must be very hard to think of everything, like wise men and historians; all I was thinking was that I could just leave him there and go for a walk downtown with my hands in my pockets and buy myself a magazine or go in somewhere and have an ice cream before it was time to go home.

I kept on feeding him peanuts for a while but I had already made up my mind, and after a minute I pretended I was getting up to stretch my legs and I saw that it didn't matter to him if I stayed or if I wandered off to throw peanuts to the pigeons. I started tossing around the ones I had left, and the pigeons surrounded me until the peanuts were all gone and they lost interest. From the other end of the Plaza you could hardly see the bench; it was just a matter of crossing to the Casa Rosada, where there are always two grenadiers on guard, and walking alongside the building until I reached the Paseo Colón, that street that Mama says kids by themselves should stay away from. Out of habit I kept looking back, but there was no way he could follow me; the most he could do would be to wallow around next to the bench until some lady from the benevolent society or a cop came by.

I don't remember very well what happened as I made my way along the Paseo Colón, which is an avenue just like any other. Eventually I sat down on the bottom window ledge of an import-export company, and that's when my stomach started to hurt. Not like when you have to go to the bathroom; it was up further, where your stomach really is, and I wanted to breathe but it hurt; then I had to sit quietly and wait until the cramp went away, and in front of me I saw something like a green blob and little dancing stars, and Papa's face, in the end it was just Papa's face because I had closed my eyes, I think, and in the middle of the green blob was Papa's face. After a while I was able to breathe normally again, and some boys were there watching me and one of them said to the other that there must be something wrong with me, but I shook my head and said that it was nothing, that I got cramps all the time but that they always went away. One of them offered to get me a glass of water, and the other said I should wipe my forehead because I was sweating so much. I smiled and said I was fine, and I started walking again so they would go away and leave me alone. It's true that I was sweating because sweat was pouring down onto my eyebrows and a salty drop ran into my eye, and then I took out my handkerchief and ran it over my face. That's when I felt something scrape across my lip, and when I looked I found a dead leaf stuck in the handkerchief; it was the leaf that had scratched me.

I don't know how long it took me to get back to the Plaza de Mayo. Halfway there I fell down but I got up again right away before anyone noticed, and I dashed across the street between the cars driving in front of the Casa Rosada. From a distance I could see that he hadn't left the bench, but I kept on running and running until I reached him, and I threw myself down on the bench like I was dead while the startled pigeons flew away and people turned around to give me that look they give to kids when they see them running, like it's a sin or something. After a while I cleaned him up a little and told him that it was time to go home. I only said it so I could hear myself say it and feel better, because as far as he was concerned the only thing to do was to grab hold of him and bring him along, he didn't listen to words or just pretended not to listen. Luckily this time he didn't try to get up to any tricks crossing streets, and the streetcar was almost empty at the beginning of the trip, so I could shove him in the first row and sit next to him, and I didn't turn around once the whole trip back, not even when we got off. We walked the last block very slowly, him trying to get into the puddles and me struggling to keep him onto the dry stones. But it didn't matter, nothing mattered. I was thinking the whole time, “I abandoned him”; I looked at him and thought, “I abandoned him,” and though I hadn't forgotten what had happened on the Paseo Colón it made me feel so good, almost proud. Maybe another time… Who knew how Papa and Mama would look at me when they saw me leading him by the hand. Naturally they'd be happy that I'd brought him downtown — things like that always make parents happy — but I don't know why it occurred to me, just at that moment, that sometimes when Papa or Mama take out their handkerchiefs and dry their brows, every now and then they find a dead leaf inside that scratches them on the face.